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Grownup Beaujolais is the victim of a generation gap that never narrows. Each year, when the clock strikes 12 on the evening of Nov. 14, the midnight's children of this legendary south-central French wine region are ritually loosed on a thirsty world. Beaujolais Nouveau, Britney Spears in a bottle, arrives with a bang. There are parties. There are celebrations. There's dancing in the streets.
All in praise of a simple young wine whipped up faster than you can say "Justin Timberlake." Unfortunately, Beaujolais Nouveau has become such a phenomenal marketing success over the past 50 years that it has rendered the finer wines of the Beaujolais region almost completely obscure.
Which is too bad, since the wines of Beaujolais' 10 major appellations -- its crus, or classified growths -- offer some of the best deals going in French wine. They also offer a mature and versatile counterpoint to Nouveau's bubblegum charms. For Nouveau, a one-hit wonder that's built for quick thrills, it's all over after six months in the bottle. Cru Beaujolais, on the other hand, tends to hang around longer. Not much longer, but let's put it this way: cru Beaujolais has flip-side. And it knows what a flip-side is.
Both Nouveau and the crus are made from the same grape, the Gamay, which dominates Beaujolais' 49,000 vineyard acres. The key difference is that Nouveau is vinified at warp speed, employing a process known as carbonic maceration, in which whole grapes are placed under a "blanket" of carbon dioxide (which displaces oxygen) and left to ferment inside their skins. This keeps tannins low and ensures the fresh, fruity aspect that serves as Nouveau's main selling point (Nouveau is the definitive drink-me-now wine -- it exists, nowadays, only so that it can be rushed to market).
The crus, on the other hand, are produced more traditionally, left to mature over a number of months, and can in some exceptional cases benefit from a few years of cellaring. Of course, many can also be drunk on release; their flavors, due to the Gamay grape's natural exuberance, exist on a happy, candy-colored continuum, from red and black cherry to cinnamon and chocolate. Luckily -- or unluckily, depending on whether you're buying or selling -- cru prices tend to occupy a space between el-cheapo Nouveau and cru's nearest relation, the red village wines of Burgundy.
Getting acquainted with cru Beaujolais is like climbing a ladder of increasing intensity. There are 10 crus in all. In increasing order of body and complexity, they are: Chiroubles, St.-Amour, Régnié, Chénas, Côte de Brouilly, Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. You drink Chiroubles with Chicken McNuggets. You drink Moulin-à-Vent with beef stew.
As Wine Spectator's Beaujolais specialist, tasting coordinator James Molesworth has pointed out that 1999 was a good, solid vintage for cru Beaujolais, while the 2000 vintage is superb, with the wines showing vivid fruit flavors and juicy, almost crunchy acidity. That means good wines are on retailers' shelves now, with more to come. For a complete look at the Beaujolais we've reviewed in the past year, check out our alphabetical listing.
These wines are, to put it mildly, a massive bargain. Prices for the best crus continue to lag far behind those for top reds from other prominent wine regions. In the past year, Beaujolais that have rated from 85 to 90 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale have averaged only $15.81 per bottle. And while this is the highest average price yet for these wines, the increase it represents is almost meaningless. Overall, during the past five years, Beaujolais in this category have averaged only $14.35 per bottle. Did we say bargain? Maybe we should say steal.
Price-wise, Beaujolais isn't even in the same ballpark as California Cabernets that score in the same range. The most expensive wine we've reviewed from Beaujolais in the last year costs $23, and it's a 90-point wine. That puts the region's most expensive wine well below the average price of California Cabernet ($38.51) or red Bordeaux ($53.30) in the last year.
Producers worth trying include the ubiquitous Georges Duboeuf, whose name is practically synonymous with the region. But don't let the widespread availability and large production fool you. While there is a sense of continuity in his range, Duboeuf's wines have character and finesse. His numerous bottlings of small individual domaines comprise an impressive portfolio.
In addition to Duboeuf's omnipresent selection, several other producers' wines offer fine quality. These include the Fleuries from Clos de la Roilette, the Moulin-à-Vent of Diochon and Louis Jadot's newly expanded Château des Jacques line. The Juliénas of Michel Tête and the Morgon from M. Lapierre are also benchmark bottlings for Beaujolais.
So once you've polished off your last bouncy little bottle of Nouveau, don't forget about Beaujolais until next year. Your palate -- and your wallet -- will thank you.
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