This fall, Whole Foods Market is staging a promotion featuring wines and cheeses from France at its stores across the country. Among the wines featured is the 2016 Vignobles des Roches Morgon ($16 a 750-ml.). A Beaujolais wine was also highlighted in the Whole Foods summer “chillable reds” promotion—the 2016 Louis Jadot Beaujolais-Villages Combe Aux Jacques ($12 to $15). “We love Beaujolais,” says Whole Foods global wine and beer buyer Doug Bell. “The wines are food-friendly, and with Burgundy prices through the roof, Beaujolais is a good alternative.”
At the Chicago restaurant Income Tax, general manager Collin Moody is also a fan. “It’s perhaps the red wine I drink most,” he says. “It’s something we love, but it is a hand-sell.” Income Tax typically carries three to four Beaujolais labels on its list. “Sales come from recommendations rather than demand,” Moody says.
Most wine drinkers are familiar with the Beaujolais name but possess little knowledge of this region, which is located south of France’s famed Burgundy, and technically part of the region. Cru Beaujolais wines, made from one of 10 designated areas, typically don’t carry the Beaujolais name on their labels, so associations aren’t apparent to the average drinker. Other wines from the region include Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais Nouveau. The latter is the best known and the most controversial.
Each year, Beaujolais Nouveau producers release the new vintage on the third Thursday in November. These wines are celebrated as the first wines of the year and—with diminishing intensity—have been surrounded by heavy marketing pushes for decades. Georges Duboeuf is the major player in the Nouveau sector, although several other brands vie for attention. Quintessential Wines took over importation and marketing of the Georges Duboeuf line in January 2016, and Quintessential owner Dennis Kreps has shifted the messaging. “It’s more about celebrating the harvest versus a big, crazy, loud party,” Kreps says. “We’re doing kick-off events and Nouveau parties all over the country, where we’re talking about the first wines of the harvest and what Beaujolais is all about.”
Retro Bistro, a French restaurant in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, is one venue that embraces Beaujolais Nouveau every year. “We throw a good party to mark the launch,” says chef and owner Chris Barth. “We serve foods that match well with Beaujolais, like turkey and other poultry. We also typically do a cassoulet with duck, ham and northern beans.” Beaujolais Nouveau—typically the Georges Duboeuf brand—flows in the restaurant on that third November Thursday, and throughout the weekend and into December as well. “Beaujolais Nouveau is supposed to be fun and light, and that’s what it is,” Barth says. “What’s wrong with that?”
Plenty, say some. Thomas Grouard Lillelund, owner of wine importer The French Corner, says wine drinkers have come to equate the region with Nouveau, which is typically fruity, but often acidic and generally perceived as lesser in quality. “The wine community in France will say Beaujolais Nouveau has done more to hit the reputation of Beaujolais than anything else,” Lillelund argues. “Some Beaujolais Nouveau is outstanding, but it’s rare. The Crus are something different altogether.”
Matt Deller, chief wine officer at e-commerce retailer Wine Access, says the modern wine world has made Nouveau largely irrelevant because Southern Hemisphere wineries are first to release their wines. “We’ll see the 2017 Sauvignon Blancs from Marlborough coming in, and Beaujolais Nouveau comes much later in the year,” he says. “The idea of paying $25 for a nondescript wine just because it’s the first wine of the vintage is no longer relevant. There’s no buzz, and as a first experience, it has put a lot of people off Beaujolais.”
Others disagree. “Yes, there’s a somewhat negative image, but at the same time it opens the door and begins a story,” says Anthony Cohen, senior brand manager for French & European estates at Frederick Wildman and Sons. “Consumers know Beaujolais Nouveau, and it can introduce them to other Beaujolais wines. It’s also a name they know how to pronounce, which is a major advantage.”
At the high end of the Beaujolais spectrum, the Cru Beaujolais wines are gradually making inroads. “Cru Beaujolais is the current value, go-to darling for sommeliers,” notes Deller of Wine Access. “It has a lot of the quality of Burgundy for much less money, and it has the brightness and acidity sommeliers love for food pairings. A lot of people are going to be entering the category not for Beaujolais Nouveau, but for Cru Beaujolais.”
Indeed, there is dynamism at the higher end. Nadia Dmytriw, owner of California importer Floraison Selections, imports the wines of Beaujolais producer Julien Sunier for California. He sells three cru wines—Régnié, Fleurie and Morgon, ranging in price from the mid-$20s to around $30—which typically sell out. A Beaujolais-Villages wine from Julien Sunier, retailing at about $20 a 750-ml., is hitting the market this fall. Cohen of Frederick Wildman says demand has begun to rise for wines from Domaine Labruyère and Stéphane Aviron. “From 2013 to 2015, sales were going flat,” he says. “But sales doubled in 2016, and this year we’re up 30 percent so far. The growth came with the 2013 and 2014 vintages. And the ’15 is absolutely fantastic. There’s also the effect of Burgundy becoming very expensive. With Beaujolais we’ve had only slight price increases.”
For Weygandt Wines, which represents Daniel Bouland, Pierre-Marie Chermette (Domaine du Vissoux) and James Wilding (Château Grange Cochard), sales of Beaujolais have grown “exponentially” over the past five years, according to general manager Warren Leonard. “As prices from Burgundy’s Côte d’Or continue to increase, savvy buyers are looking to these Cru wines to fill the void,” Leonard says. “The notion of Beaujolais as only of ‘nouveau’ quality is being overcome, as a new generation of wine drinkers and collectors are looking for interesting, versatile and delicious wines. Cru Beaujolais continues to offer great value for wines that are fresh and delicious on release, but can also be cellared.”
Leonard and others also say Beaujolais pairs well with a wide range of foods. “Top-notch Beaujolais served at the right temperature—slightly chilled—can be paired with a broad range of foods from all over the world, and this new generation of sommeliers are showcasing this fact,” Leonard explains. And The French Corner’s Lillelund notes that style preferences are shifting. “The trend that we see in the United States is a move away from very bold, oaky wines into something with more acidity and finesse,” he says. “Consumers are going for slightly lighter wines than what they were consuming 10 years ago, and Beaujolais is definitely catching that trend.”
Quintessential is also seeing growth for its higher-end Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais-Villages. “We’re focusing on accounts that tell the Georges Duboeuf story,” Kreps says. “The message used to bill it as a big corporate brand, so now we’re talking about the family and their stewardship of Beaujolais. And we’re not just trying to build the Duboeuf brand—we’re also trying to rebuild Beaujolais.”
Moody of Income Tax says younger drinkers in particular are open to learning, partly because of less exposure to Beaujolais Nouveau. “Younger consumers aren’t generally aware of the region, which gives us an opportunity to tell a different story,” he says. “We focus more on what’s happened in the last 30 years, as Beaujolais has emerged as the epicenter of the natural wine movement in France, and that it represents a really remarkable value.”
Trade group Inter Beaujolais is making a push to raise the wines’ profile throughout the industry. Earlier this year Inter Beaujolais chose Sopexa to promote Beaujolais wines in various global markets, including the United States. Sopexa will also organize trade and consumer events, in addition to launching a variety of social media and press relations campaigns.
Frederick Wildman’s Cohen thinks such efforts will pay off. “When I started at Wildman six years ago, Beaujolais was a tough category,” he says. “But I would say to the sales team that one day it’s going to fly. It’s so good that there’s no way it could stay in the shadows for long.”