It’s a hot night. I have a fan going on the deck, but drinkers at my party want red wine. That’s why I have bottles of Beaujolais resting on a big tub of ice.
These are the first of the fabulous 2009 vintage to hit shop shelves, several from the “Gang of Four” vintners who rescued the world from bubble-gum-style Beaujolais nouveau. Unlike tannic cabernet and merlot, these reds shine when lightly chilled, perfect for summer.
Beaujolais has had a tough ride. The nouveau version, bottled two months after the grapes are picked, is rushed by truck to Paris each November to float celebratory parties. More marketing gimmick than wine, it nearly destroyed the region’s image. Then scandals piled in.
A magazine was sued and convicted for publishing comments that many wines were “vin de merde.” (The decision and 284,143 euro ($364,896) fine were overturned on appeal in 2005.) Last year 53 producers were found guilty of adding illegal amounts of sugar to boost alcohol levels.
Meanwhile, a handful of passionate artisan winemakers have been keeping the soul in Beaujolais all along. Their labels have long been geeks’ good buys. The finest are flat out the most interesting reds around for $20 or less, especially so in 2009, the best vintage in decades, vintners say.
Near-perfect weather -- plenty of sun but not too hot, cool nights, little rain -- translated into grapes so fantastic that many winemakers didn’t even bother to sort them before pressing.
The wines combine succulent fresh red fruit, earthy minerality, floral aromas, juicy acidity, and seductive, smooth textures. In short, they have everything, even the ability to age, unusual for all but a few of these drink-me-now reds.
Technically, Beaujolais is the southernmost corner of Burgundy, but everyone thinks of it as a separate region. It’s the safe haven for thin-skinned gamay, the grape kicked out of Burgundy by Philippe the Bold in the 14th century for being a “disloyal plant” whose wines had none of the class of pinot noir. True, gamay doesn’t do that well on Burgundy’s limestone, but on the pure granite soil in the hilly northern part of Beaujolais it produces wines with serious character.
My guests make major inroads into the pure, lively, fruity Marcel Lapierre Morgon ($20) gulping it down as if wiping out their collective memory of light, cheap, grape-soda nouveau. Morgon is one of 10 Beaujolais villages, or crus, that produce the top wines, and where the region’s revival started. Lapierre was the first of the so-called Gang of Four -- winemaking friends in the town of Villie-Morgon -- to embrace the ideas of Jules Chauvet, the father of French natural winemaking.
All now focus on old vines, later picking and slow fermentation at cool temperatures with wild yeasts and little or no sulfur dioxide as a preservative. Yet each of them, Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean Foillard, and Jean-Paul Thevenet, has his own style. Some use semi-carbonic maceration, a regional method where whole grape bunches are dumped into vats to enhance fruitiness, while others opt for Burgundian methods to give their wines more structure.
More natural winemaking was a radical departure in the 1980s, when negociants and cooperatives, wary of risk, were (and still are) adding cultured yeast 71B (which gave wines banana and bubble gum aromas), dumping in sugar to pump up alcohol levels and using thermovinification to make vast quantities of artificial-tasting Beaujolais.
Plenty of small estates now follow the more serious route. The cru Beaujolais already in the U.S. tend to be the gorgeous light and medium-bodied styles from Chiroubles, Saint-Amour, Cote de Brouilly, Brouilly, Fleurie, Chenas, and Regnie. Most ageworthy Beaujolais from Morgon and especially Moulin-a-Vent will arrive later this year.
So far, one of my favorite 2009s is the lacy, silky, fruity-tart Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorees Cote de Brouilly ($20), from one of the smallest zones in Beaujolais.
Clos de la Roilette Fleurie ($15) is silky and bright, with a scent of violets, while the Cuvee Tardive of the same wine ($25), a selection from the estate’s oldest vines, is all spiced cherries and rich velvety elegance. Both have the floral element and finesse characteristic of Fleurie.
Even lighter, less distinguished wines labeled Beaujolais-Villages, which account for 25 percent of the region’s wines, are delicious. Sappy, bright 2009 Damien Coquelet Beaujolais-Villages ($16) is perfect right now.
As more 2009 Beaujolais arrive, look for bottlings from the rest of the Gang of Four, plus Louis-Claude Desvignes, Lapalu, Metras, Georges Descombes, new estate Villa Ponciago, and Jadot’s Chateau des Jacques Moulin-a-Vent.
While everyone sprawls on deck chairs and demolishes cold lemon-tarragon roast chicken, grilled sausages, fresh-picked corn on the cob, arugula salad, and a platter of French cheeses, I’m kept busy replacing empty bottles.
Maybe the 2009 vintage will finally be a tipping point, and remind winelovers what made Beaujolais a French classic in the first place.
(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)