Beaujolais has had a chequered history. Go back last century and Beaujolais was a well-respected, albeit casual wine, in spite of the fact that examples from the best sites and villages could age beautifully. Back in the day, I have drunk 40-year-old examples from the great vintage of 1947 that were indistinguishable from a graceful Burgundy. But Beaujolais became a victim of its own success, with the once curiosity Beaujolais Nouveau becoming an international craze in the 1970s. This light, acidic, two-month-old wine was shipped through France and internationally in a competitive race to meet a 17th November deadline for release. It was not long before over-production and, it must be said, deceit ended the craze.

Within a decade or two Beaujolais Nouveau had destroyed Beaujolais’ reputation. It was as if the edict of Philippe The Bold in 1435 banning gamay from Burgundy as "a very bad and disloyal plant" had been re-issued. That original ban had eventually worked in Beaujolais’ favour, as it was more suited to the region’s granite soils than Burgundy’s limestone. 

The question of whether Beaujolais is part of Burgundy or not is difficult to answer, as the vines of Beaujolais and the Mâconnais virtually run into each other. Officially it lies partly in the Burgundy Département of Saone-et-Loire and is administered there, but it’s largely in the Rhône Département to the south. I sense a drift, however, for the wine world to think of it as more related to the Rhône.

Lemon, stone fruits and classic structure were the hallmarks of the most highly rated rieslings.

It’s worth remembering that gamay is also an important grape in the Loire Valley and neighbouring areas of the Rhône near Beaujolais itself. 

The Beaujolais region is divided broadly into three areas – a group of ten communes or crus in the north, the larger area Beaujolais-Villages which all but surrounds them and the biggest part, simply Beaujolais largely to the south. The reputations follow this order, although some producers’ Beaujolais-Villages wines are better than some from the crus.

The compulsory winemaking method in Beaujolais is broadly referred to as carbonic maceration, the fermentation of whole bunches, but I was told off by a producer, who said, “Non Monsieur! C’est maceration Beaujolais.” His distinction was that carbonic maceration is too general and allows filling the fermenter with CO2 gas, which is illegal in Beaujolais. Instead, the gas is provided by fermentation of the bunches at the bottom of the fermenter, crushed under the weight from above. 

The compulsory winemaking method in Beaujolais is broadly referred to as carbonic maceration, the fermentation of whole bunches, but I was told off by a producer, who said, “Non Monsieur! C’est maceration Beaujolais.” His distinction was that carbonic maceration is too general and allows filling the fermenter with CO2 gas, which is illegal in Beaujolais. Instead, the gas is provided by fermentation of the bunches at the bottom of the fermenter, crushed under the weight from above. 

And so, time for a comparison. Our tasters on this occasion were writer and educator Peter Bourne, writer and presenter Mike Bennie, fine wine consultant Andrew Caillard MW, sommelier Louella Mathews, wine judge and writer Toni Paterson MW and me, winemaking consultant Nick Bulleid MW. 

Mike Bennie.

We restricted the Beaujolais wines to Beaujolais-Villages and the 10 crus, but also found two gamays from elsewhere in France and one from New Zealand.

It would be wonderful to say that Australia is making great strides with gamay, but unfortunately our tasting wouldn’t entirely bear this out. Six of 13 wines tasted made a review below, but it was encouraging that all showed gamay’s style well. Also encouraging was that most had been grown in moderately warm or cool regions that would suit the variety. Beaujolais, on the other hand, had never looked better, helped in part by several strong vintages, 2020 and 2018 the stand-outs. There was nevertheless a lot of discussion about complexity and wine faults. This type of whole-bunch fermentation has risks, principally the growth of Brettanomyces – brett – but also of slight volatility. We reached compromise over some wines but decided that a few were simply too horse-stable-like to recommend.

The panel thought the best wines were simply excellent and are confident that some younger cru wines, particularly from Moulin-à-Vent, will cellar well. It’s time to ignore Philippe The Bold.

As for those differences, look to our notes. There’s plenty of scope here for any riesling lover.

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Beaujolais

★★★★★

2020 Domaine Dominique Piron Beaujolais-Villages, A$27, punches above its classification. Paterson wrote: “A charming wine with excellent palate weight with a frame of balanced acidity and fine tannin. Cherry stone succulence and lingering berry flavours. An impressive core of concentrated soft red fruit. Astute winemaking allows the variety character to shine.” It was one of my tops, the lush fruit flavours, supple palate and length appealing. (95)

2019 Domaine Raphaël Chopin Regnié La Ronza, A$59, appealed to Paterson and was another of our top wines. “A high-toned wine with aromatic fruit, snappy, primary, engaging and rather gorgeous. Fabulous concentration, poise and focus. A mix of red and dark cherry, plus a touch of graphite, a hint of meatiness and a little blackberry juice.” It’s plump in the mouth and the tannins distinct but fine. (95)

2018 Jean-Paul Dubost Moulin à Vent Nature, A$50, also appealed to the group, with Paterson summing up the sentiment. “Concentrated dark cherries and baked cream. Background earthiness adds depth. The palate is powerful, weighty and structural. It is a bold wine with incredible fruit depth. A multi-layered wine with great appeal.” The rich flavours are matched by balanced, mouth-coating tannins. (95)

★★★★

2018 Clos de Mez Fleurie La Dot, A$61, shows red and dark berries with spices, plenty of body, fine tannin texture and good length. Caillard noted, “dark cherry, hint of praline, herb garden petrichor aromas. Generous, fresh, with redcurrant, strawberry fruits, fine supple textures, underlying marzipan, roasted almond and oak notes. Finishes chalky firm and long.” (94)

2020 Domaine Richard Rottiers Moulin à Vent, A$54, is stacked with juicy berry and cherry flavour, showing the cru’s full body and concentration, yet beautifully supple. Paterson found, “So much to love in this wine! Bright, focused fruit in the red plum and red cherry spectrum. Pleasing weight and tension. Excellent core of acidity and pleasing length. Lovely now and will improve.” (94)

2020 Domaine Laurent-Savoye Beaujolais-Villages Cuvée Prestige, A$38, is stacked with dark berried fruit. To Bourne, it was, “A concentrated style with good structure and drive. Lots of dark cherry and ripe plum flavours underpinned by pumice-like tannins. A case of character over complexity.” There’s certainly plenty of juicy-fresh, aromatic fruit, but the firm tannins may surprise you. (93)

2020 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages, A$27, had plenty of sweet fruit and distinct, green stem character giving some chewiness. Caillard noted, “Lifted herb garden, rose garden. Redcurrant with cola, violet notes. Generous yet minerally with attractive red fruits, graphite notes and fresh long acidity. Finishes sappy firm with pastille notes. Characterful.”  (93)

2020 Domaine Louis Claude Desvignes Morgon Corcelette, A$50, has a jazzy label you can’t miss. I loved its rich cherry/berry nose and depth of dark fruit flavour. It’s lush and distinctly ripe, with superb balance and even tannins. Bourne added: “A whiff of H2S blows off to reveal juicy plum and boysenberry aromas with fresh liquorice in the background. Charming palate with plenty of drive and persistence.” (92)

Wine writer and panellist Andrew Caillard MW blind-tastes the Beaujolais.

018 Georges Duboeuf Fleurie, A$38, had strong support from Bourne, who told us: “A lifted bouquet of candy floss, violets and redcurrant pastilles. Rich mouthfeel with lots of sweet berry fruits. Gently persuasive tannins extend the finish.” Subtle development is adding complexity, yet the wine is still fresh. Its charm, suppleness and excellent line are typical Fleurie.  (92)

2020 Jean-Paul Dubost Beaujolais-Lantignié, A$33, pleased Bourne, who wrote: “Surprising structure, weight and power here with a lifted bouquet of mulberries, plums and cinnamon bark spice. Good concentration and a positive finish.” The wine’s vibrant with juicy dark berries and shows great charm and balance. (92)

2020 Pierre-Marie Chermette Moulin à Vent Les Trois Roches, A$66, is “A structured, vin de garde expression,” according to Bennie. “Woody spice, earthy notes, red cherries, some nougat and twiggy characters. Feels quite lean and tart to taste. The tannin and architecture are great. It’s detailed and interesting now, better with time in the cellar.” I thought the nose fragrant, almost ethereal. There’s plenty of berried flavour and even tannins.  (92)

2020 Charles Renoir Beaujolais, A$10, is a fresh, juicy style with raspberry flavours, fine tannins and brisk acidity, but with suppleness as well. Bourne reported: “Bright cherry and blood plum aromas with a whiff of star anise. A generous, sweet-fruited palate with gentle tannins and a refreshing acid lift. Simplicity and drinkability the keys.” (91)

2020 Château Thivin Côte de Brouilly 120 Clos Bertrand, A$76, combines red and dark fruits with savoury overtones. It’s intense and supple, with a nice cut of tannin. Mathews thought it: “Dark and brooding with flavours of ironstone, aniseed and tightly wound blackberries. The length driven by a refreshing acid line with brown button mushroom and turned earth lingering on the finish.” (91)

2019 Domaine Lafarge-Vial Fleurie Clos Vernay, A$89, has a drier texture than some, but with the red-fruited flesh to carry it. Bennie reported: “Sappy, ripe cherry-led medium weight wine with grippy, frisky tannin and a general sense of drinkability. Crisp, crunchy, vibrant with great energy and vitality. Faint savouriness and game meat notes underlying.” (91)

Often younger, the blanc de blancs were among our top-rated wines.

2020 Domaine Raphaël Chopin Beaujolais-Villages La Savoye, A$48, is distinctly aromatic, with red cherry and raspberry. The palate’s supple, with succulent berry flavours and fine, dry tannins. Paterson saw it differently, saying: “Dark fruits and dried herbs. A little potpourri. Weighty and voluminous. Hints of cola, iodine and ink. An intriguing, interesting and satisfying wine.” (91)

2019 Domaine Raphaël Chopin Morgon Les Charmes, A$59, shows the cru’s dense structure well, but there’s plenty of red berry flavour to match. Caillard noted, “Red cherry, redcurrant, cranberry fruits with some sappy herb notes. Generous and surprisingly vigorous on the palate with attractive mid-palate viscosity and integrated mineral acidity. Finishes chalky firm.” (91)

2020 Pierre-Marie Chermette Beaujolais Origine Vieilles Vignes, A$43, divided the panel. Caillard and I found the animal overtones distracting, but Mathews spoke for the rest. “Compact fresh berries. Dried violets and autumn leaves. Chalky firm tannins. A lot to love in this bright wine. Simply satisfying!”  (91)

2019 Bernard Metrat Fleurie La Roilette, A$42, Savoury, funky. “Strong green peppercorn notes,” wrote Paterson, while Mathews reported: “Slightly wild nose. Tightly coiled red fruits. Yin and yang – savoury tar and bright red roses.” (90)

2017 Château Cambon Brouilly, A$60, Fragrant red fruits, forest floor complexity but still fresh. Soft, supple. “Sour-sweet fruit, dried strawberry. Truffle, beetroot juice. Savoury, gently silty tannins,” said Bennie. (90)

2020 Château de Pizay Beaujolais, A$29. Fresh red fruits. Raspberry. Lively, brisk brush of tannin. “Ultra-juicy, sappy, sour-sweet cherry juice. Simple, vibrant. Easy to like early drinking style,” Bennie wrote.  (90)

2019 Château Thivin Brouilly Reverdon, A$49. Fragrant red berries, a little complexity from age. Supple, a touch of stalk. “Winter berry compote flavours. Dried herbs and exotic spices,” Bourne noted. (90)

2020 Domaine de Selene Brouilly AOC, A$58. Highly fragrant, red and black berries plus savoury. Plenty of weight. “Fuller flavoured style. Choc-cherry, anise notes. Soft tannins,” Bennie recorded.  (90)

2020 Louis Jadot Château des Jacques Beaujolais-Villages Combe aux Jacques, A$40. Mathews wrote: “Perfectly made gamay. Silky glossy oak, opulent fruit, slippery palate. Extremely enjoyable but a little two dimensional.” (90)

2019 Mommessin Château de Montmelas Beaujolais-Villages, A$17, Complex, fragrant, red fruits, autumn leaves. Spices linger. Bennie wrote: “Au naturale feel. Lovely, soft, loose-knit feel, a web of fine, frisky tannin.” (90) 

Nick Bulleid MW has been a member of our expert panel for over 20 years.

Other France

★★★★

2020 Guillaume Clusel Traboules, Coteaux du Lyonnais, A$39. Intense dark cherry and berries. Savoury, whole bunches. “Untamed expression of gamay,” wrote Mathews. “Freshly picked wild raspberries and blueberries. Generous dark core, fruit, lavender essence, a powerful finish.”  (90)

2020 Uva Non Grata Gamay, Vin de France, A$26. Dense, concentrated, dark plum. Firm, with weight. “Strawberry, black cherry, fragrant herb garden,” noted Caillard. “Generous. Chalky. Sappy textures fresh long acidity.”  (90)

The production of sparklings has gradually moved to the cooler south of the island.

Australasia

★★★★

2021 Te Mata Gamay Noir, Hawke’s Bay, A$23/NZ$30, pleased Paterson, who found “an attractive wine with vibrant fruit characters. Intense, fleshy-fruit aromas in the strawberry and red cherry spectrum. The palate has energy, depth and tension.” The red and black cherry flavours are rich and primary, while the tannins, although balanced, take the wine into sterner territory. (94) 

2021 Te Mata Gamay Noir, Hawke’s Bay, A$23/NZ$30, pleased Paterson, who found “an attractive wine with vibrant fruit characters. Intense, fleshy-fruit aromas in the strawberry and red cherry spectrum. The palate has energy, depth and tension.” The red and black cherry flavours are rich and primary, while the tannins, although balanced, take the wine into sterner territory. (94) 

2021 Punt Road Gamay, Yarra Valley, A$29. Bourne wrote: “Sweet raspberry aromas mingle with woodsmoke and whole bunch characters. Ample red fruits fill the mouth, plus fresh liquorice and a hint of mocha. A juicy palate with plenty of energy, acid and tannin playing equal roles in enlivening the finish. I loved its intensely fragrant red cherries, but thought the acidity a little brisk.”  (91)

2021 Sentio Gamay, Beechworth, A$40, has generous red and black fruits displayed across a beautifully plump palate. The light brush of tannin reinforces its great drinkability. Caillard reported to us: “Attractive red plum, strawberry aromas with a hint of chinotto. Well concentrated red plum, strawberry fruits, fine lacy/ chalky textures, attractive mid-palate richness and integrated, persistent acidity.” (91)

2021 Coulter C6 Gamay, Adelaide Hills, A$35, Stem-driven savoury fragrance. Raspberry coming alive in the mouth. Mathews noted: “Lightly reductive, savoury on the nose. Nicely structured, dark core of fruit, forest floor earthiness.”

Different flavour profiles appealed to some in the panel, making agreement hard.