Il fait Beaujolais

Some little-known facts about a wine born of subversive grapes.

What do you know about Beaujolais? If you’re like most people you know it has to do with wine, something about France (sounds French anyway) and it’s a grape. Right? Oh, and every November there’s something called Beaujolais Nouveau that comes out around the US Thanksgiving, France’s way of thanking the Americans for kicking the derrière of the British way back when. Close. But here are the facts you’re really looking for.

Beaujolais is a region in France, not a grape. In fact, Beaujolais is the world’s third most-recognizable wine region behind Champagne and Bordeaux. Ninety-nine percent of all wines produced in Beaujolais are red. The primary grape in Beaujolais is Gamay, which produces a red wine that was one of the mainstays of the Burgundy region until 1395, when Duke Philippe the Bold banned its cultivation, effectively kicking it out, and called it "disloyal." I’m not sure how a grape can be considered traitorous, but then again it was the 14th century.

Once Gamay was kicked out of Burgundy, production moved southward to the granite soils of Beaujolais, where the grape thrived. Today the region of Beaujolais consists of 10 crus (wine areas), each showing distinct characteristics. It also produces the more general Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages.

Beau Nouveau (which sounds like someone your daughter might bring home) has been around since the early 19th century. It is traditionally the first wine of the harvest, having basically been picked, fermented quickly and sent to market. It is the bellwether of each year’s vintage and over the years festivals and parties have sprung up around its release. Beau Nouveau has truly been a marketing boon for the region, but it has also been its Achilles heel. Getting past its reputation as a simple, easy-drinking, candied-style of wine has been difficult.

Look for wines from Louis Jadot, Villa Ponciago, Collin-Bourisset and Laurent Gauthier. But don’t look only for French Gamays; check out offerings from Ontario wineries that are doing the grape justice, such as 13th Street, Malivoire and Fielding, just to name a few.