Just as the industrial revolution wouldn’t have happened without the steam engine and the digital age would be unthinkable without the home computer, our current era of wine consumption would look entirely different without the American wine industry’s belated discovery of Beaujolais.
The famed region north of Lyon has become required drinking, an essential pillar of the contemporary canon of wines that helped rewrite the script about where greatness resides. Long gone are days when the region suffered under the stigma of cheap, mass-market “nouveau,” that boomer-era marketing gimmick (since repurposed as cool) that nearly tanked Beaujolais’ image for an entire generation of consumers.
Whenever industry types mention Beaujolais today, they mean cru Beaujolais—sourced from the 10 name-designated villages, including Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, and Morgon, where the most famous Beaujolais is grown. And for drinkers who came of age amid the region’s postmodern renaissance (i.e., the early aughts), these were the bottles that offered the first glimpse of how profound real Beaujolais could be.
Not only were the crus billed as a bargain alternative to Burgundy (to which collectors were just beginning to flock), but Beaujolais was also the birthplace of natural wine. Known as the Gang of Four (though technically there were more of them), the band of rogue vignerons credited with kick-starting the movement in the 1980s had already been canonized as patron saints of wine’s counterculture by the time their bottles surfaced on U.S. shores. This perfect mix of affordability, drinkability and alternative street cred transformed Beaujolais into the emblematic wine of our times.
Then, of course, Beaujolais got expensive. Benchmark bottles that reliably landed in the $25 range—notably, the celebrated Morgons from Jean Foillard and Marcel Lapierre—have since doubled in cost. To fill the void, buyers rushed to expand their horizons, combing the globe for other light, chillable reds, from Sicilian frappato to Spanish mencía to Chilean país and Piedmontese pelaverga. In this constant hunt for the new, however, many overlooked the humble appellations of Beaujolais (a regional designation encompassing all of Beaujolais) and Beaujolais-Villages (a specific group of 38 hillside villages clustered in the area’s north). Increasingly, production in these appellations is being driven by small, often natural-leaning growers who are working to reclaim the potential of these unheralded corners of the region.
“We always talk of the crus,” says Jean-Paul Dubost, winemaker at his family’s fourth-generation estate in the up-and-coming village of Lantignié. “But in Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages there are great terroirs as well, giving wines that are extremely interesting with identities of their own.”
With Beaujolais’ top bottlings quickly encroaching upon fine wine territory, meticulously picked apart for subtle distinctions in terroir, soil type, and production methods, Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages provide an ideal point of entry and what Eric Moorer, director of sales at Washington, D.C.’s Domestique Wine, calls “a ‘big picture’ sense of what Beaujolais is about as a region.”
Stylistically, that translates to a spectrum ranging from friendly, fruit-driven wines designed for immediate enjoyment to more concentrated, structured efforts that approach cru-level complexity. Without knowing a producer’s individual style, it can be difficult to anticipate which part of this continuum to expect. But with prices rarely exceeding $25 per bottle—and then only for cult names like Lapierre and Foillard, both of whom make excellent versions—the results rarely disappoint. As Moorer puts it, “I struggle to find bad examples of these wines.”
It’s a sentiment worth keeping in mind the next time someone complains about that bottle of Morgon hovering at $140 on the wine list. While the price inflation that has befallen the biggest names in Beaujolais shows no signs of abating, there’s an upside. No longer confined to the same handful of famous reference points, the Beaujolais section of the average U.S. wine shop has rapidly expanded—and with that growth has come a new wave of wines that invite us to consider a timely paradox: What if the Beaujolais substitutes we’ve been seeking have been under our noses this whole time?