Beaujolais is an important wine region of eastern France, famous for its vibrant, fruity red wines made from Gamay. It is located immediately south of Burgundy, of which it is sometimes considered to be a part, despite being within the Rhone administrative region.
The widespread plantings of Gamay here make Beaujolais one of the few regions of the world to be so focused on a single grape variety. Pinot Noir is used in small quantities in red and rosé wines, but in the name of regional identity it is being phased out and will be permitted only until the harvest of 2015.
The white varieties of Beaujolais are Chardonnay and Aligote. They are grown here primarily for use in Beaujolais Blanc and white Beaujolais Villages wines, but they are also sometimes used in the production of red wines, where they may constitute up to 15% of the final blend.
Red Beaujolais wines are broken down into four key categories: Beaujolais Cru, Beaujolais Superieur, Beaujolais Villages and the characterful, youthful Beaujolais Nouveau. The nouveau wines, which are released onto the market in November (only weeks after harvest), are what brought the region its original success, providing London and Paris with fresh, flavorful wine for the winter months.
Beaujolais has a borderline continental climate, tempered by the presence of the Massif Central to the west and the Alps to the east. This provides a relatively warm growing season, making it ideal for generating the ripe, fruit-driven flavors which characterize particular nouveau-style wines.
The northern part of Beaujolais is made up of rolling granite hills with patches of clay and limestone, while the south is dominated by richer clay- and sandstone-based soils, and much flatter topography. This differing terroir is a dominant factor in the north, producing typically aromatic, structured and complex wines in contrast to the lighter, younger-drinking and fruitier style of the south.
The Gamay grape used to produce these distinctive wines is an early ripening, acidic variety. For this reason, carbonic maceration has become the accepted method for making most red Beaujolais wines. Whole-bunch grapes are left in fermentation vessels, where the bottom layers are crushed under the weight of those on top. The resultant juice starts to ferment and saturates the upper grapes in carbon dioxide (a by-product of the fermentation process). This causes intra-cellular fermentation, where the grapes ferment as a whole berry, producing brightly colored wines with low tannin levels and intensely fruity flavors.