Beaujolais is administratively part of Burgundy, but its primarily red wine is made from a different type of grape: Gamay instead of Pinot Noir. There is history to this.
In 1395, Philip the Bold, powerful Duke of Burgundy, decided that the Gamay grape, which he called “a very bad and disloyal plant,” was inferior (to Pinot Noir) and banished Gamay from his realm. Sixty years later, Philip the Good also came down hard on the grape. The two Phils might have been on to something: Gamay does not do particularly well on the limestone soils of Burgundy proper. It did thrive further south on the sandstone, granite and schist soils of Beaujolais. It ripens two weeks earlier than Pinot Noir and is easier to grow (of course, most grapes are easier to grow than Pinot Noir).
Beaujolais produces more wine that all of the rest of Burgundy, including Chablis. The wine is light and fruity, very easy to drink. Most of it is plain Beaujolais, produced in great qualities on the sandstone soils of the southern part of the region.
Some of this Beaujolais is the famous (or infamous) Beaujolais Nouveau. Under the aegis of wine promoter Georges Dubouef , who coined the term Beaujolais Nouveau, the light fruity virtually tannin-free wine became all the rage on the international market. Beaujolais Nouveau is released the third Thursday of November each year, and it is wise to consume it by the fourth Thursday, Thanksgiving Day because it is not designed to keep. It is made using a process called “carbonic maceration” rather than the standard alcoholic fermentation common in other wines. During carbonic maceration, the winemaker pumps carbon dioxide into a sealed fermentation vessel filled with whole clusters of uncrushed grapes. The CO2 seeps into the individual grapes and starts a fermentation process on a grape-by-grape basis, producing alcohol as well as the esters ethyl cinnamate which adds strawberry and raspberry aromas and benzaldehyde, responsible for cherry and kirsch aromas. Eventually, the weight of the grapes and the pressure of the CO2 caused the skins to break, juice trickles down to the bottom of the vessel, and ambient yeasts accomplish a standard fermentation.
Wine from ninety-six villages may be labeled Beaujolais, but thirty-nine of these villages qualify for the appellation Beaujolais Villages. These villages are more likely to rest on schist and granite soil and produce better quality wine meant to last a year or two. Ten appellations in the northern reach of Beaujolais comprise the Cru Beaujolais, the highest quality tier. These wines are labeled with their village or location names and do not need to indicate “Beaujolais” on the label (although sometimes they do, for our benefit). The ten are:
Brouilly: The largest Beaujolais Cru, around Mont Brouilly, noted for aromas of blueberries, cherries, raspberries and currants.
Côte de Brouilly. A hilly sub-region within Brouilly
Régnié: Makes fuller body wines with red currant and raspberry flavors. Thought to the site of the first vineyards planted in Beaujolais by the Romans
Morgon: Earthy, deeply colored wines which take on a silky texture when aged. Aromas of apricots and peaches
Chiroubles: With some of the highest altitudes in Beaujolais, known for a delicate perfume that often includes aromas of violets.
Fleurie: Velvety, delicate wines that can age up to four years.
Moulin-à-Vent: Literally “windmill.” Formidable full-bodied wine often aged in oak
Chénas: Aroma of wild roses.
Juliénas: Rich, spicy and floral
Saint-Amour: Spicy flavors and aromas of peaches.