Beaujolais – beau et joli

Take a gentle walk around the diminutive Beaujolais region in eastern France and you can’t fail to be struck by just how pretty it is. Neat villages are scattered over this jumble of green hills like freckles on youthful cheeks. The wine trail is 20 miles from top to tail, but it’s the northern half, sitting just underneath the southernmost part of Burgundy, that is most rewarding.

It’s an easy region to understand, and this simplicity is an asset. Ninety-nine percent of production is red wine from the Gamay grape. Gamay tends to make undistinguished wines elsewhere, but on this stretch of granite it can really shine. It typically makes light, fresh wines with black and red berry flavours, sometimes with a perfumed or spicy aroma. The remaining 1% is the increasingly fashionable Beaujolais Blanc made from Chardonnay grapes, which – in the right hands – can be floral, minerally and refreshing.

Beaujolais is often described as the lightest of French reds, and when it comes to the simpler wines and the lightest styles this is true. These are best drunk young and lightly chilled to accentuate their purity and freshness. But most of the wines from named villages (known as ‘crus’) are actually more medium-bodied, and stand up well to white meats and game birds. Another misconception is that they don’t age well, but the more robust styles can last for a decade or more in a good vintage, becoming more akin to a fine Pinot Noir as they mature.

Beaujolais Nouveau, when the wine is ready in a matter of weeks after the harvest, has proved a mixed blessing. Although it reliably draws attention to Beaujolais once a year, the spotlight is pointed at its worst wines. Due to the rapid way in which these Nouveau wines are produced, they often smell more of bananas than berries. Celebrate with one of the village wines instead.

Look for the name of the village on the label: Chiroubles, St Amour, Régnié, Fleurie, Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Juliénas, Chénas, Morgon or Moulin-à-Vent. Each village has its own personality, but they are broadly ordered above from lighter expressions to fuller styles.

In recent years there has been a growing movement in France towards producing ‘natural wines’ – organic wines made with minimum intervention in the vineyard and the cellar. It is a style that suits Beaujolais particularly well, leaving off any superfluous make-up from its naturally pretty profile.

Some reliable natural-style producers:

Jean-Paul Brun

Brun’s wines are authentic expressions of the region and often good value. Even his most basic wines are good quality and worth seeking out.

Georges Descombes

As natural, satisfying and delicious as eating wild berries in the countryside, Georges Descombes’ wines are a joy to drink.

Jean Foillard

Without question, Jean Foillard is one of the greatest – a legend in Beaujolais. Somehow his wines are both highly drinkable and profound at the same time.


First published in Living France magazine.