The Italian Connection: Beaujolais Crus & Ancient Rome

lawrence OP Santa CostanzaThe end of November is here and with it our tables are being adorned with French Beaujolais.  This ritualistic gulping down of Beaujolais is for good reason – not only is the freshly harvested and vinified Nouveau released on the 3rd Thursday of November but these and the other Beaujolais crew/Crus are floral and berry-driven wines which partner extremely well with fall foods from roasted turkey or duck to vegetable plates with butternut squash and sweet potatoes.

This southern Burgundy wine region has an (ancient) Italian connection that many folks don’t know about:  Beaujolais was once part of an important ancient Roman trade route where Romans also planted vines – especially on the hills that are now the modern Cru of Morgon and Brouilly.  In fact six of the ten Beaujolais Cru sites (=the best subregions of this area) are actually named for ancient Romans:

  • Juliénasnamed after Julius Caesar.
  • Saint Amour– named after a Roman soldier (who according to legend converted to Christianity to escape execution).
  • Fleurienamed after the Roman general Floricum.
  • Regnienamed after a Gallo-Roman nobleman named Reginus.
  • Côte de Brouilly/Brouillynamed after Roman lieutenant Brulius.

*The remaining Crus (Chenas, Morgon, Chiroubles & Moulin-à-Vent) are however NOT named for any ancient Roman.

Following the Romans, the Benedictine monks – originally from Cassino, halfway between Rome and Naples – planted and harvested grapevines in the region from the 7th century well into the medieval period.  Monasteries were actually of fundamental wine importance in medieval Europe.  Though viticulture certainly would have survived without them (despite some exaggerations that suggest wine would have been all but gone) they definitely had the economics, stability, land, and man-power that enabled (large-scale) wine production for many centuries through the so-called Dark Ages.

20151117_112305Quite a lot has changed since ancient Roman and Benedictine vineyards were planted in the area however.  While there’s a fun historical connection between Beaujolais and (ancient/medieval) Italy, it’s important to note that the wines of the area’s past are wildly different than those the French region makes today.  Grapes, taste, and vinification techniques have unsurprisingly changed over time.  Wines of southern Burgundy’s past may have been combinations of Pinot Noir, Aligoté, Chardonnay, and Gamay – with ancient wines being diluted with water and even flavoured with herbs, honey, and raisins.  In Beaujolais today the dominant grape is undeniably Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc (a specific Gamay clone).  The shifting of grapes around Burgundy – with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay taking precedence in the northern areas and Gamay moving to the southern Beaujolais area – has in part been due to certain historical figures’ preferences.  For example in the 14th century the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe the Bold, formally banned Gamay from being planted in the Burgundy area thereby pushing its plantings south to the Beaujolais region.  As luck would have it however, Gamay actually grows much better in the granitic soils that characterize the Beaujolais hillsides!

Who might like Beaujolais wines?
Fans of Pinot Noir, Merlot, Valdeguié, Cinsault, and other fruity (but not sugary sweet) reds.  The Nouveau edition of Beaujolais are typically so light and fruity they can even stand to be chilled.  Other Beaujolais AC and Villages appellations are a bit less banana and bubble-gummy and more complex.  Wines from any of the Crus are lush, full-bodied, and mineral-driven reds with red fruits and fresh floral flavours and aromas.

Fans of Beaujolais Nouveau should check out Italy’s many Novello options or look for northern Italian wines like Schiava or Lagrein.

Aubrie Talarico

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