Motley Cru: Beaujolais Winemakers Are Crazy

10/28/2009 4:00 AM |

Wine tastings never fail to attract an unusual crowd; and although wine connoisseurs are always good for a few eccentricities, the atmosphere relies heavily on the producers themselves. Get a few small-scale vintners together from a tiny wine region in France, where a centuries-old tradition has been upstaged for the past 30 years by a corporate marketing ploy, and you are guaranteed an interesting night. At least, that’s how it is in Beaujolais, where 14 families with centuries-old ties to the region’s terroir have joined forces to battle the evil-doer known as Beaujolais Nouveau.

Nouveau wines have been celebrated in France since the 1800s, but every November, Americans clamor for the recently bottled Grape Drank, whose popularity skyrocketed with the 1985 ad slogan, “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!” The phrase seemed to say, “It’s here, but NOT FOR LONG, so buy a shitload while you still can!” And even though the young wine is considered flat and lifeless compared to its robust older siblings, we’ve guzzled it unconditionally, creating yet another tradition based on our devotion to all things purchasable.

It’s safe to say that while Americans go crazy for Beaujolais Nouveau, many are unaware of the existence of older vintages. Or maybe they’ve tried cru Beaujolais, but it’s just harder to commit to the complicated, yet ultimately more thoughtful, wine, so they settle for the sexy, easy one with shiny hair. Well, that’s how it usually goes in life: Beaujolais Nouveau is the perky cheerleader of the wine world, and Cru Beaujolais is her frumpy older sister.

During a summer tasting at City Winery, a group of old-school vintners called Expressions d’Origine brought a different kind of Beaujolais all the way from the foothills of France. The Beaujolais region is divided into ten crus (which basically means growing areas) that produce the wine’s distinct flavors, and the members of Expressions d’Origine have complicated relationships with each year’s vintage. At the tasting, the winemakers fretted over every wine as they would their children during parent-teacher conferences.

“Oh, the 2007 Morgon Javerniere is very acidic,” one vintner said. “But it will be better in three years! Don’t worry, the 2004 and 2005 vintages are perfect right now.”