This year there are two good excuses for rediscovering the pleasures of real beaujolais. For one, the Beaujolais region was one of the few in France last year to escape the April frosts and to pick before the late September harvest storms. In a year that was a near write-off for so many regions, Beaujolais not only delivered an abundant crop, but the grapes were healthy and rich in fruit quality, too. Paul Boutinot, an English wine merchant who is also a negociant working in the region, says that '1991 vintage is as good as the great 1964 vintage'. The other reason to be cheerful is that the glut of beaujolais on the market caused by four good to excellent vintages means that prices for the 1991s have started to tumble.
The distinctive feature of beaujolais is that it demands to be drunk sooner rather than later: hence the successful milking of the nouveau cash cow. While other reds ask for time to soften, the juicy gamay grape, with its gentle tannins and fresh acidity, demands instant attention. The crus, though, can often improve over two to four years, especially in a vintage as powerful as 1991. To bring out its best qualities, the producers of beaujolais have developed a technique over the years. Instead of crushing the grapes before fermenting them, as is the norm for red wine, whole bunches of grapes are picked and piled one on top of another. The weight of the bunches on top causes those below to burst, setting off a fermentation in the skin of the grape. This extracts a vivid purple colour from the grapes and enhances the aromatic power of the wines. The juice spends a minimum amount of time in contact with the grape skins, capturing the natural fragrance of the grape and fruity flavours reminiscent of banana, cherry, strawberry and raspberry. Because of its low tannin, beaujolais should be lightly chilled, in order to bring out its irresistibly gulpable - the French call it gouleyant - fruitiness. To maintain the fresh fruit character of the wine, beaujolais, except in rare cases, is not vinified or matured in oak barrels.
In an effort to refocus the spotlight on the 10 crus, Food and Wine from France recently organised the Beaujolais Crus Challenge in London. As many of the wines from the 10 crus of Beaujolais as could be assembled in this country, some 140-odd, were lined up to be tasted. A shortlist of 55 were tasted blind by two juries composed of wine writers, including myself, and a number of beaujolais specialists in the wine trade. We did not know the identity of the individual wines, only which village they came from.
The distinctions between the village appellations can be subtle. By and large, they can be subdivided into groups according to general characteristics. As a rough and ready guide, look to Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie and Chiroubles for fragrance, elegance and finesse. Morgon, Chenas, Julienas and Moulin-a-Vent tend to be fuller, richer and longer-lived wines. Brouilly and the newest cru, Regnie, created in 1989, are rambling and generally less distinguished. Saint-Amour produces good, solid, fruity wines. Of the 10, Moulin-a-Vent and Fleurie share the crown for the most expensive, most sought-after wines.
Predictably, the best crus in my group (which also included Brouilly, Regnie and Saint-Amour) were Julienas and Moulin-a-Vent. Two Julienas stood out, the 'serious', complex Domaine Rene Monnet and a vibrantly juicy 1991 from Duboeuf (pounds 5.31, Berkmann Wine Cellars). In Moulin-a-Vent, there were three exceptional wines: the winner, from Paul Janin et Fils, a rich and concentrated wine with a sensuously spicy, cinnamon character, and Duboeuf's Domaine de la Tour de Bief (pounds 6.46, Berkmann Wine Cellars), also rich and full, needing time to soften. Bloud's Chateau du Moulin-a-Vent was unusual for being oaked, but in this case the quality of the raspberryish fruit was excellent, and oak perfectly integrated.
I was more enamoured of Saint-Amour than I had expected. I particularly liked Louis Tete's aromatic, richly fruity Saint-Amour (F & E May Ltd). As anticipated, the Regnie and Brouilly wines were on the whole less exciting.
A selection of the winning beaujolais:
Moulin-a-Vent: Paul Janin et Fils 1990, pounds 66 a case, Bacchus les Vignobles de France (081-675 9007)
Regnie: Louis Tete 1991, pounds 57.50 a case, F & E May Ltd (071-405 6249)
Julienas: Domaine Rene Monnet 1991, pounds 62 a case, High Breck Vintners (0420 62218).
Chenas: Hubert Lapierre 1989 Futs de Chene, pounds 7.50, Lay & Wheeler, Colchester (0206 764446)
Fleurie: Domaine des Quatre Vents 1991, Duboeuf, pounds 6.20, Berkmann Wine Cellars (071-609 4711)
Morgon: JC Boisset Les Dailloux 1990, pounds 48.60, Bablake Wines (0203 228272).