Crus Control: The Best of Beaujolais 10/27/11
Do any of you remember that time I railed against the unjust liquor policies plaguing Pennsylvania, which had resulted in my being unable to receive press samples at my own home? Well, not even a week later, four bottles arrived at my doorstep, along with a proverbial slap in the face. Yes folks, it looks as though I’m already going to have to eat my delicious, delicious words.
While I may not have any idea where PA’s wine laws stand right now, I do know a thing or two about Beaujolais, which I’ve previously written about both here and as a feature for my blogging colleague, The Reverse Wine Snob. Beaujolais, a region in France that may or may not be part of Burgundy, is noted for its refreshing red wines produced almost exclusively from the Gamay grape. Approachable and inexpensive, they’re usually meant to be consumed within a year or two of bottling; Beaujolais Nouveau, a sweeter style of the wine, is more popular than ever lately, though also more ephemeral.
But I’m about to let you in on one of France’s most puzzling secrets: lurking in the dusky corners of obscurity – and, if you’re lucky, a wine store near you – are the Crus, ten mighty champions of Beaujolais capable of going tete-a-tete with wines three times their price. Still rarely exceeding $20 a bottle, these are elegant and often age-worthy expressions of Gamay, demonstrating the grape’s true potential when paired with a worthy terroir.
On Tuesday I participated in my very first official Twitter tasting, sponsored by Discover Beaujolais, an organization on a mission to spread the word about, well, Beaujolais. Their campaign has evidently been financed by the European Union (which I suppose makes me a traitor of sorts); but strangely enough, this particular tasting was meant to highlight Beaujolais that would complement a Thanksgiving dinner. And we all know that the French don’t celebrate that holiday, because that wouldn’t make any sense.
Of course, it fell to us, the Tweeters, to taste the truth – or at least, half the truth, since few (if any) of us actually had Thanksgiving food ready…but certainly, with our years of experience, we could at least decide whether we’d be bringing Beaujolais to our own Thanksgiving tables.
The first wine, I’ll admit to drinking a couple days early. Honestly, I just couldn’t resist the allure of Cru Beaujolais (which I’ve had in the past, albeit choosing from a very limited selection), especially from a new Cru. The Domaine des Billards Saint-Amour 2009, $19 a bottle, poured a deep, translucent maroon, with aromas of strawberry, indetermine flowers, and raspberry after breathing.
The palate was full of cherry and fennel, with a bit of pepper as well. Medium-bodied, the wine had slighty stronger tannins than one might expect from a Beaujolais, but such is the power of the Crus. This wine came off as more spicy than mineral, in contrast to previous Cru Beaujolais I’ve tried. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I award the Saint-Amour thumbs up.
The second was, perhaps, the one I was most excited about, and so naturally it was the one damaged by cork taint. The Christopher Pacalet Chenas 2010 caught my attention because Chenas is the smallest of Beaujolais’ Crus, and therefore the rarest. But upon opening the bottle, I smelled a surprisingly weak, musty aroma.
Given that Chenas is generally said to smell of wild roses, and despite my co-drinkers’ comments about “funk” – the kind caused by brettanomyces, a bacteria which is considered a flaw by some, but not others – I felt I wasn’t getting a real Chenas experience. The nose was redolent of wet cardboard, while the palate gave me practically nothing at all – telltale signs that a cork has failed (which, I should add, is a statistical inevitability in wines sealed with natural cork, and is not the fault of the winemaker).
I won’t score this one, as per my policy. I will attempt to get my hands on another bottle as soon as possible (at $17, it’s the least costly of the four), to give it a fair evaluation.
The third bottle was from Julienas, yet another new Cru for yours truly, bringing my personal total to seven out of Beaujolais’ ten. The Pascal Granger Julienas 2009, retailing for $18, instantly alleviated any fears I may have had about another corked bottle, with a powerfully sweet fragrance of raspberries, butterscotch (thanks to @VinoNotes for narrowing down the butteriness) and flowers.
Do you know what peonies smell like? Neither did I, until I met Julienas and realized that her floral aromas were quite distinctive from the ones I’d encountered in red wines before (roses and violets, mostly…I think). I asked my friend Google for help, whereupon I learned that the Julienas Cru is known for notes of peony.
The wine was well-balanced with more red berries and florality (probably peony) on the palate. A spicy, black pepper finish rounded out the experience – more focused than the Saint-Amour, and a bit more enticing on the whole.
I award the Julienas thumbs up, for showing me that flowers are completely obsolete as long as you have the right wine handy.
Finally, we came to the main a-vent – by which I mean, the Chateau du Bois de la Salle Le Vieux Bourg Moulin-a-Vent 2009, tied at $19 with the Saint-Amour as the most expensive wine of the night. Immediately I detected notes reminding me of provolone cheese, which has occasionally happened with sparkling wine but never with a red.
Nobody agreed with my assessment, but dammit, I was certain. I even went to the fridge and took out some provolone cheese (the wine had been in a different fridge – wines only – prior to opening, so don’t even bother pointing that out) just so I could smell them side-by-side, and I remain convinced of my correctness, phenomenologically speaking. There were other notes too, of course: mostly boysenberry, though a hint of something vaguely tropical too (passionfruit, perhaps? Maybe more flowers.)
This was the heftiest of the wines, with the strongest tannins, and I’d definitely expect it to last the longest in a cellar. Dry and spicy on the palate with a touch of fruit and a gravelly finish, this was also the strongest in terms of minerality: like drinking really refined rocks.
But right now, it’s a little young. And so the Moulin-a-Vent earns thumbs up today – less than it probably would a few years from now.
So, would I serve Cru Beaujolais at Thanksgiving? Absolutely. My inclination would already be to go for a light-bodied red; for most people this probably means Pinot Noir, but are you really that trite? I’m not.
The St. Amour would be lovely with cranberry sauce (whether oozing deliciously forth from a can or, for whatever reason, “made fresh”), while the Julienas would be a perfect pairing for desserts, as well as yams because of its butterscotch component – marshmallow only sweetens the deal. The Moulin-a-Vent, of course, would be the power hitter of the meal, taming the turkey, potatoes, green beans and whatever other curveballs you might think to throw its way. There’s complexity for you!
Also, it pairs quite well with provolone cheese.
The above wines were received courtesy of Inter Beaujolais and Sopexa for review (and Twitter) purposes.