Beaujolais is for life, not just for Christmas – Pt.1
Ah, Beaujolais! Mention that word and the memories flood back, still fresh from half a lifetime. Beaujolais was where it all started. I never anticipated a lifelong wine journey would result. What would have happened if Beaujolais and I had not coincided? Life would have been very different.
Let me explain.
I did not grow up with wine, so beer was my thing; in no way unusual in those days. I worked at Marks & Spencer, which sold a small selection of wines, as befitted a store that was then a by-word for luxury. The only two wines I took home from there were one-litre bottles called “French red” and “Italian red.” Both tasted the same. Other wines I knew were Hirondelle and Black Tower, which you left at parties and then drank beer. There was one other, called Harvey’s No.1 Claret. That was posh, expensive and tasted of stewed tea-bags. So for me, the whole topic of wine was off-limits, accessible (so I thought) only to the privileged classes.
Around this time we were asked by friends if we’d like to go with them to France on holiday. We’d said yes before asking where.
“Err, repeat it?”
“Bow. Jol. Ay.”
I had no idea where this was and decided that asking would only compound my evident lack of sophistication. So, some months later, on the Dover to Calais ferry,
“The weather’s good in Beaujolais while we’re there, in fact, pretty warm.”
“Yeah, and we’ll be trying the wines from all ten Beaujolais cru”.
“Beaujolais has ten top wine areas, and we’ll be trying all of them”.
“That sounds good. How?”
“At the wineries.”
“Do they have beer as well?”
A long silence ensued. Suddenly I wasn’t sure that this holiday was such a good idea after all.
So here we were. I was waking up to another sunny day, the gorgeous landscape beckoning. In the north of Beaujolais, the pink granite houses seem hewn from the bedrock, with stout chimneys and log burners to resist the snowy winter chill. Yet they also have the sun-kissed terracotta pantiles and wooden shutters of the south. Meanwhile, that granite gives way to golden limestones as you venture further south. Yet everywhere rolling hills, each with panoramic views. Waves of vines occupying every available space, cut by narrow winding roads with verges full of wildflowers.
White vans parked in the vineyards, and what people were doing in those fields I knew not. Each new pretty village marked by a spring, a church, a bakery, a café-bar, perhaps a restaurant. They seemed almost deserted places until you ventured inside.
And Beaujolais was open, by which I mean that there were lots of friendly family producers selling their wines vente directe from the cellar door. Then there were great cooperatives with their long counters and extensive ranges. Meanwhile, these villages seemed to take turns in hosting annual fêtes where wine, food and hospitality flowed freely.
Here then was an epiphany, a damascene moment, a transformation, a revelation. There would be others on the journey to come, but this was the first.
A way of life
We didn’t know which wines were was supposedly good and which wines were not. Let alone why that could be the case – we just kept an open mind. Here I realised that wine wasn’t some lifestyle option, it was a way of life, one never previously encountered.
And the most significant discovery was that these wines tasted different from one another. Some were better than others. However, they were different depending on from where they came. I didn’t yet know that the word for that is terroir.
We rehearsed questions and then asked them in halting French. These unlocked afternoons of full glasses and empty bottles. Then we’d be sent on our way with the addresses of more producers to try. It wasn’t pretentious or stuffy, who knew that wine could be this much fun? Every new visit meant new explorations, going ever deeper down the rabbit hole.
Beaujolais is for life, not just for Christmas.
In Beaujolais, I first learned how to taste wine. At first, we didn’t appreciate visit etiquette and learnt the hard way. Never attempt to visit a wine producer between noon and two, lunchtime is a sacred thing. Winegrowers have been up since first light, give them a break. That was politely mentioned by a vigneron in Juliénas who still happily shared his cheese and baguettes with us. And even if you don’t like the wines still buy a bottle as a way of thanking your hosts for their time – always leave a good impression. Sometimes those very bottles turned out to be gems. Oh, and do ask for a spittoon – it’s called a crachoir.
You know you’re hooked when you can recite the names of all ten crus from memory, like some catechism.
Returning to Beaujolais became an annual ritual. It gave us the courage to explore and to buy wine for ourselves, trusting our palates. And later, wherever we were in France, there was always one question, “shall we go to Beaujolais?” By now, you know the answer to that.
If it weren’t for Beaujolais, I wouldn’t be here.
Parts 2 and 3 of this trilogy contain some great Beaujolais wine recommendations, plus food-matching ideas, including those for the festive season. There are Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages plus all ten of the crus. They would make a cracking case of wine!