Forget the nouveau hype, try gamay Beaujolais instead

Dave DeSimone
| Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2012, 8:57 p.m.

Mid-September brings the pleasure of rediscovering invigorating, nippy evenings and the warmth of a busy kitchen. When warming up the stove, Coq au Vin — chicken slow-cooked in red wine, bacon, pearl onions and mushrooms — makes a perfect choice.

Burgundy-born chef Pierre Franey (1921-96) provided a classic recipe in his New York Times' “60-Minute Gourmet” column, which later appeared in an anthology cookbook. Previously, Franey presided over kitchens at Le Pavillon and La Côte Basque ­— two of America's legendary French restaurants. He sagely recommended pairing Coq au Vin with a fruity Cru Beaujolais such as Brouilly.

Unlike the more famous pinot noir-based reds of northern Burgundy, by law Cru Beaujolais (pronounced boh-joh-lay) reds use gamay grapes. The resulting wines typically lack Burgundies' depth and complexity, but the best Cru Beaujolais compensate with unaffected, charming fruitiness, refreshing acidity and distinct personality.

The history of gamay noir à jus blanc — as it is formally known — contains controversy. After first appearing in written records around 1430, the Dukes of Burgundy banned gamay from northern Burgundy in favor of pinot noir. Over-cropping gamay led to highly acidic wines of indifferent quality that undermined Burgundy's reputation for producing high-quality wines.

Today, the controversy continues. Each year on the third Thursday of November, the much ballyhooed Beaujolais nouveau arrives. This slightly gassy, “first wine” of the vintage come from southern Beaujolais, where the vines grow in flat, sandy soils to produce unremarkable fruit high in acidity.

Growers use barely ripened grapes in the rush to churn out wines rapidly in high volume. Carbonic maceration — the fermentation of whole grape clusters in a closed container — masks the harsh acidity and accentuates gamay's fruitiness. But with Beaujolais nouveau, the hustle for profits trumps quality.

Worse yet, media hype inflates prices. The category perpetuates gamay's undeserved bad reputation.

By contrast, dedicated growers in the 10 Cru Beaujolais appellations can produce terrific wines with gamay. The Cru vineyards occupy northern Beaujolais where gamay grows on infertile slopes with high proportions of granite and limestone.

By limiting crop yields, the resulting fruit has more complexity and character to complement gamay's fruitiness. Again, producers use carbonic maceration to tone down gamay's high acidity, but, by starting with high-quality fruit, the final wines shine through with tempting sour cherry, blueberry and black-raspberry traits.

Cru Beaujolais delivers tremendous pleasure and value especially in outstanding vintages such as 2009. Instead of falling for the hype surrounding Beaujolais nouveau, whip up a batch of Pierre Franey's Coq au Vin and enjoy these authentic Cru Beaujolais:

2009 Château Thivin, Côte de Brouilly, France (Luxury 30493; $18.99): Winegrower Claude Geoffray and family direct the Thivin domaine, the oldest in the Côte de Brouilly Cru Beaujolais. Their gamay vines average more than 50 years in age and unfurl on steep, south-facing slopes composed of pink granite. The grade makes manual vineyard work arduous, but the resulting fruit justifies the efforts.

After traditional carbonic maceration, aging in large foudre oak barrels helps the wine demonstrate Cru Beaujolais at its best. The light-purple color offers spicy black-raspberry and blueberry aromas with a touch of violets and earthiness. Fruity red-berry and jam flavors balance with bright acidity through a soft, dry finish.

The French call such wines gouleyant — gulpable — which makes sense, considering the Thivin motto is: L'éclat de rire de la table — the roar of laughter at the dinner table. Highly recommended.

2009 Pascal Granger, Juliénas, France (Luxury 36879; $18.99): Since the Napoleonic era, this family-owned domaine has made wine in Juliénas and, until now, each winegrower has been named Philippe. Not to worry, the current occupant has continued the traditional ways while expanding the estate to about 30 acres. �

The gamay vines grow in gravelly soils on hillsides in several sites with slightly different terroirs around the village of Juliénas. Granger maintains that each site adds vital traits that, taken together, realize Juliénas' best potential.

Lovely black-raspberry and earthy aromas open to spicy, dark-red-fruit flavors. A burst of fresh acidity provides good balance through the dry, fruity finish. Highly recommended.

Dave DeSimone is the wine columnist for Trib Total Media.

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