By Celia Strong
Imagine being a wine, unique and different from most other wines, and almost no one thinks of you or talks about you or drinks you. All great shame, and yet easily remedied.
And what wine are you? Beaujolais. And not Nouveau Beaujolais, the fresh, young wine that is released on the third Thursday of November every year. Beaujolais AC wines take us way beyond that.
Beaujolais is a sub-region of Burgundy at the southern tip of that region. The name Beaujolais comes from the name of a town in the area, Beaujeu. While a small amount of white wine, made from Chardonnay, is produced here, 95 percent of Beaujolais wine is red, made from the Gamay grape. (Current research shows this grape is a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais, an ancient white variety that made its way into Burgundy with the Romans.) The Beaujolais vineyards were first cultivated by the Romans. Then, from the 7th century through the Middle Ages, Benedictine monks did most of the vineyard and cellar work. After the Romans, wines from Beaujolais were sold mostly up and down the Saône and Rhône rivers. In the 19th century, the French national railroad system became the main transport for these wines, and they found a very lucrative market and popularity in Paris.
French wine laws categorize Beaujolais wines in several tiers. First, and lowest, is Beaujolais, followed by Beaujolais Villages, where the grapes come from specified, more controlled areas. Within these areas, 10 are allowed to name their wines for their communes, and these are the cru Beaujolais.
The Nouveau Beaujolais craze peaked in the 1980s. Unfortunately, some producers tried to capture their share of those massive sales and more and more grapes were used to make just Nouveau and not regular Beaujolais. Plus, some producers got caught mixing lesser grapes into Beaujolais or adding extra sugar to the wines — huge scandals at the time. As the quality of Beaujolais wines dropped, including Beaujolais Villages and cru Beaujolais, so did their reputations and sales, which is where we are now.
Our wine this week comes from Domaines Chermette, a family run company in southern Beaujolais. Like most family wineries, they are smaller and committed to quality, authenticity and the history of their area. Their vineyards that are spread through several of the cru communes are based on granite soils, unlike most Beaujolais vineyards that are limestone and clay. Since 1986, the Chermettes have worked to bring back the quality and reputation of superb Beaujolais wines. Their Beaujolais Origine Vieilles Vignes lets us rediscover what we’ve been missing.
The grapes for Origine come from about 10 acres in St Vérand, with dark granite soil. Old vines, 35 to 85 years old, grow facing southwest. They are hand harvested when fully ripe and about half go through carbonic maceration, in concrete tanks, that last six days. (Carbonic maceration is a winemaking process used mostly in Beaujolais. It allows the grapes to ferment in a carbon dioxide rich environment before they are crushed. Most of this fermentation takes place inside the grape skins and results in very fruity and very low tannin wines.) Origine is a ruby red color, with slight hints of purple. Its aromas include flowers (peonies, carnations) with bright red fruits (strawberries, cherries, raspberries). Its flavors echo these aromas in a mouthful that juicy and fleshy, with fresh acidity and refined tannins, which is why Beaujolais wines are best served slightly chilled (15 minutes). The old vines (Vieilles Vignes) give this wine depth and complexities, way beyond and totally unlike most Beaujolais — and nothing like a Nouveau. It is excellent with seafood, roasted poultry, Asian food, Caribbean food, curries, and more. A wine to be totally appreciated and not forgotten. For $17.99. Enjoy.
Celia Strong works at Billís Liquor & Fine Wines on Ladyís Island.