It's safe to drink Beaujolais again. Let me revise that. It's a splendid time to drink Beaujolais, perhaps the best in a generation.
After distracting itself for decades with a mission to pump out a sea of largely mediocre Beaujolais nouveau, the French region is back on the straight and narrow, scaling back nouveau production and retooling its brand with renewed emphasis on quality. Recently, nature has come to the rescue, too. The past three harvests, starting with the stellar 2009 vintage and culminating with the just-picked 2011 crop, were a rare hat trick for Beaujolais. The results are particularly apparent at the top tier known as cru Beaujolais, where the wines, confusingly, go by such village names as Brouilly, Fleurie, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent rather than by the catch-all "Beaujolais."
Home to the same, light-bodied gamay grape that goes into regular red Beaujolais, the 10 top-ranked villages of the region, in the rolling hills near the northern border with Burgundy's famed Côte d'Or, tend to produce wines with more stuffing and structure. Often capable of improving with three to seven years in the cellar, they nonetheless retain the best elements of Beaujolais's cheerful charm, notably a blast of bright berry fruit and subtle notes of flowers and black pepper.
If your familiarity with France's bistro staple extends no further than the much-hyped Beaujolais nouveau – the quaff-it-now red released with fanfare every November – it may be time to take a closer look. Nouveau is to good Beaujolais what Velveeta is to cheese.
"We are calling them the three glorious vintages," said Anthony Collet, head of marketing and communications for Inter Beaujolais, the region's trade association. One could almost call them the salvation vintages.
Beaujolais is finally crawling from the wreckage of a decade that saw sales plummet and thousands of vineyard hectares uprooted. Ironically, the culprit was nouveau, the youthfully raw, candy-nuanced red that catapulted the region to prominence in the 1970s and '80s, prompting line-ups and shopping-cart gridlock worthy of the Cabbage Patch doll frenzy.
At its height, nouveau accounted for 65 per cent of the region's volume, which since dropped to 30 per cent, the victim of consumer fatigue.
Fifty years ago this November, Georges Duboeuf, a major producer, decided to bottle some of his wines early, literally two months after crush. It started out well-intentioned enough, a way to enable far-flung consumers to share vicariously in the harvest ritual, in which locals sample the year's young wines to gauge quality before the wines have had a chance to mellow. Hundreds of producers rushed to cash in, devoting more and more land to nouveau at the cost of traditional offerings designed to mature in tank or barrel.
To meet demand, many nouveau growers picked early in the season, maximizing tonnage against the threat of poor weather in late fall. (It wasn't going to make serious wine anyway.) They also hiked up grape yields per hectare. Together the measures resulted in thin, confected wines with strong notes of pink bubblegum and banana. To goose alcohol and impart more body to the otherwise lean wines, producers also aggressively engaged in "chaptalization," the legal practice of spiking fermenting juice with sugar. Think of it as electric Kool-Aid.
When the market started imploding about a decade ago, growers who'd turned their focus to nouveau were caught off-guard. Many opted to pack it in rather than stay in business, lured by European subsidies doled out to those willing to pull out vines. In the past three years, the region's vineyard area fell 10 per cent, to 18,000 hectares from 20,000. "Beaujolais in the last 10 years has gone through hell," Mr. Collet conceded.
Today, there are strong signs of a rebound. Sales to Beaujolais's largest foreign market, the United States, grew by 14 per cent in volume last year. In Canada, the region's fourth-largest export destination, the figure was down by 15 per cent but still tells an interesting story. In dollar value, shipments gained 1 per cent. In other words, we drank less but better Beaujolais. "We're at a point where people are starting to recognize that Beaujolais wines are not just the cheap, slightly chilled beverages," said Taylor Thompson, wine director at Toronto's Ritz-Carlton hotel.
Credit the reversal of fortune to renewed focus over the past decade on low-yielding vineyard practices, which has resulted in more concentrated wines. Then there was the near-perfect summer of 2009.
"We're buying up 2009 Beaujolais wines like crazy," said J.P. Potters, general manager of George restaurant, a fine-dining establishment in Toronto. "We're thrilled with the fruit density of the wines." Those 2009s from the 10 cru villages continue to make their way onto Canadian shelves, with the also fine, if less exceptional, 2010 vintage close behind.
Fruit density notwithstanding, Beaujolais will always seem less serious than full-bodied Bordeaux, shiraz or Barolo, never a trophy wine for investment-banker blowout dinners. Yet a Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon or Brouilly can often trick you into believing you're sipping a fine red Burgundy made from hallowed pinot noir.
"These are wines that belong on the table," said Brent Fraser, the sommelier at Toronto's Granite Club.
Domaine de Saint Ennemond Moulin-à-Vent 2009 ($17.95 in Ontario) shows remarkable flavour intensity without the palate-assaulting weight of, say, a cabernet sauvignon, while the lively acidity draws out the wine's flavour through every bite of food. Louis Tête Morgon Les Charmes 2009 ($17.35 in Quebec) is rich, silky and warm, while Château de Pierreux Brouilly 2010, from the big producer Mommessin ($18.95 in Ontario), delivers a little jolt of tannins and a bracing acid spine. The excellent 2009 sells for $19.99 in British Columbia.
Fleurie and Juliénas make up the other half of Beaujolais better-known crus, and you can enjoy the region's occasional off-road detour onto rustic, earthy terrain with Château du Bois de La Salle Sublime Juliénas 2009 ($17.95 in Ontario).
Village hierarchy, or popularity, isn't a hard-and-fast indicator of the wine's size. There are substantial wines among the less-vaunted crus: Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Régnié and St. Amour. Particularly beguiling is Domaine Piron-Lameloise Chénas Quartz 2009 ($22.95 in Ontario), tannic and still youthfully firm owing to very low-yielding, 52-year-old vines.
With these and other crus Beaujolais, import quantities tend to be small, so consider exploring other producers.
Another fetching trait of Beaujolais is price. Most cost less than $20, and the best are typically no more than $30. That's more than you can say for just about every other famed wine region.