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Beaujolais - The Chameleon of the Wine World

This week’s Greatest Hits cover is The Wine Society’s Exhibition Fleurie and comes in honour of the hugely popular Exhibition Moulin a Vent that topped the all-time wine club rankings after it’s debut in January 2021. Its popularity down to three factors – 1. It was really yummy. 2. It came two days after another COVID lockdown was announced and 3. It followed a fairly unpopular wildcard choice the previous week (a room splitting Pedro Ximenez sherry). I was reminded of the all important point 3 whilst reading the following from the original preview article...

‘Last week’s wildcard was always a bold choice that was unlikely to land for everyone but sometimes these risks need to be taken to reach the ultimate heights in any quest for glory. When Ronaldo Nazario was first switched from keeper to striker as a teenager his teammates all thought the coach was mad. When Bezos started selling shit out of his garage people laughed at him (probably). When Thin Lizzy started using two lead guitarists people thought it was unnecessary madness. However, look at the unquestionable success of these wildcard decisions. Unfortunately, the Pedro Ximenez was more like the risk of Graham Taylor to pick Carlton Palmer for England or for a well to do bloke to accept a party invite from Jeffrey Epstein.’

Back to this week. Fleurie is sub region of Beaujolais and is made from the Gamay grape which has a very vigorous vine and tends not to root very deeply on alkaline soils. This results in pronounced hydrological stress on the vines over the growing season with a correspondingly high level of acidity in the grapes. The acidity is usually softened through carbonic maceration, a process that also allows the vibrant youthful fruit expressions reminiscent of bright crushed strawberries and raspberries, as well as deep floral notes of lilac and violets. Beaujolais is light to medium bodied and often noted for its zingy freshness and is often described as being ‘sappy’. It is quite an idiosyncratic red and noticeable different to the bulk of red wines and this is what makes it a wonderful choice.

In some circles it’s a wine trapped too often by clichés, confined by expectations and held back by a checkered past that leaves many hesitant to embrace all that the best bottles have to offer. Few wines require such a re-examination more than Beaujolais.

NOTE: This is unless you have never examined it before and have no thoughts or feelings about it all. In which case your instincts of ‘That sounds really French, I bet it will be nice’ are actually perfectly correct!

Beaujolais was once a beautifully simple wine: light, joyous, thirst-quenching and inexpensive. It was the perfect accompaniment to the rich, fatty cuisine of Lyon, where so much Beaujolais was gulped in convivial bouchons, served in the traditional clear, thick bottles called “pots.” However, In the last quarter of the 20th century, Beaujolais took the worldwide marketing success of Beaujolais Nouveau, based on a quaint local custom of celebrating the harvest with a newly made wine, and ran with it into the abyss. Mass production and global distribution transformed the region and its image. Traditional practices of harvesting low yields of carefully cultivated, properly ripened grapes were abandoned. Instead, yields were vastly increased, and chemically farmed grapes were harvested early to avoid the risk of bad weather. The diluted juice was altered, strengthened and stabilized in the winery to withstand shipping. The wine tasted candied and artificial. And so, Beaujolais Nouveau became a cheap and maligned yet almost revered monstrosity that people glugged and then slagged off. A vinous equivalent of drunkenly dancing and singing along to ‘Ice Ice Baby’ and ‘Macarena’. Just to clarify – Nouveau is ‘vin de primeur’ meaning it can be bottled and sold in the year that it is picked in. It is fermented for just a few weeks before being released for sale on the third Thursday of November and was made famous for races by distributors to get the first bottles to different markets around the globe.

When the market for Beaujolais Nouveau fell, the region went into crisis. Such a high percentage of Beaujolais had given itself over to the production of Nouveau that it was unable to adapt. The identity of the region was blurred, and its reputation clouded.

Fortunately, over the years, a small group of producers had instead focused on making the best possible wines from grapes grown naturally and farmed meticulously. Though the greater market for Beaujolais foundered, these producers had gained a small but devoted following. By making a smaller volume of far superior wines, and charging more for them, they demonstrated a path toward a successful future for the region.

Great Beaujolais today transcends the simple wines of old and the cheap, mass-market wines of the past. It can be complex and it is age-worthy, but remains a joyous and upbeat wine. This is what we will find with our Fleurie – it will offer complexity and be distinguished whilst also carefree and unpretentious, like an aristocratic lady arriving to a garden party in a chauffeured Rolls before stepping out in neon leg warmers, body paint glowing and later leading everyone a lary but well natured rendition of Chumbawumba. It manages to be both intense and deeply coloured but vibrant, crunchy and fresh. It has fat ripe-cherry fruit and a food friendly finish that make it excellent value and something that it is a challenge to dislike.

Beaujolais is often loved by Somms due its value and how it is unfairly looked down upon. It is actually a region with great quality and consistency, and an idiosyncratic taste. Light-medium bodied with a sappy and sassy sense of humour. There are definite similarities to its regional cousin – Burgundian Pinot Noir – but it is more carefree, accessible and able to laugh at itself. It is not haughty or pompous and it does not pretend to be what it is not. Essentially it the Fresh Prince to Burgundy’s Carlton. It can thrive in any company: drunk on its own or with food, something special or a Tuesday night ‘I just need a drink’, served chilled or room temperature, dressed to the nines or in a faded, torn old hoodie. A real chameleon and a wine for all seasons.

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