Tongues are still glowing purple after the ocean of Beaujolais Nouveau that washed across the nation - as it always does, with fanfare - at the end of November.
But with the strawberried sweetness of that easy red still fresh on the lips like a coy first kiss, some may be thirsting for a taste of something a shade more meaningful. And six months from now, those pretty but shallow young things really won't have much charm left to offer.
Thankfully, that flirtatious little gamay has some more sophisticated, older siblings. Meet the Beaujolais crus, gamay wines vinted with more artisan care, more intensity, and more character, drawn from the volcanic soils of the 10 small designated areas in southern Burgundy that bear their names. These are still largely affordable table wines, ranging from $14 to $20, but they have more than enough substance to last from two to seven years. The celebrated 2005s can still be found in stores, though the early 2006s are just rolling in.
Consider, among others, the elegant Fleurie, wild cherry Morgon, or lovely Chiroubles, the supple and early-arriving favorite of the bistros in Paris. There is the broodingly dark and peppery Moulin-a-Vent, the only cru not named for its village but a 15th-century windmill, considered to be the closest cru to a great aging wine. And then there is Chenas, which Gregory Moore, of Moore Bros., in Pennsauken, says is a "transparent expression" of its stony terrain.
"I like a roast chicken," said Moore. "Just open a bottle of Chenas, and it's all I need."
Opinions are divided on the value of nouveau itself, a happy, sugar-boosted, uncomplicated juice released the third Thursday of each November, destined to be drunk within just a few months of its harvest-time crush. Its annual debut was popularized by Beaujolais giant Georges Duboeuf in the '70s and '80s, but demand has dropped significantly of late, according to Moore.
Ed Murray, the Pennsylvania manager for Majestic Wine & Spirits, which imports Duboeuf's wines, naturally comes to nouveau's defense as a "bright, sharp, entry-level wine that is drinking quite nicely."
Majestic is conducting state store Beaujolais tastings of both nouveau and Morgon across Pennsylvania through the end of December.
The artisan-minded Gregory Moore, meanwhile, considers nouveau to be a scourge of overproduced, oversweetened, unripe industrial swill that has ruined the reputation of a fine regional wine, and replaced the once-glorious pastures of Charolais cattle and fruit orchards with "a poisoned monoculture of gamay growing horizon to horizon where gamay doesn't belong."
Where the gamay grape does belong, Moore said, is in the weathered schist hill towns north of Lyon where the cru vines are carefully pruned, allowed to ripen fully on small parcels (without the help of added sugar), and where the vines draw complexity from the pink and black granite soils.
After tasting 16 crus from different producers and different villages, I'd have to say I agree. These wines show nouveau's low-tannin likability and silky, fruitful approach, but they sing with a deeper, more resonant voice, offering more finesse, more structure and individuality. Moving from nouveau to cru is like stepping up to a cave-aged cheddar from processed cheese.
The wines of Georges Trichard, imported by Moore, present a bolder, less-polished reflection of their "terroir," with clove and peppery anise edging the St. Amour, and a stoniness framing the soft, ruby fruit of Chenas.
Though Duboeuf is responsible for a large part of the mass-market nouveau, it also imports what are clearly some fine Beaujolais crus, including the "Flower Label" series from each village, as well as wines from artisan growers whose names share the Duboeuf labels.
The 2006 Fleurie from M. Darroze's Domaine des Quatre Vents was the big favorite at our tasting, a pretty but dynamic drink that raced from strawberry to sandalwood, with the aromas of clove-stuck oranges. The 2005 Morgon from Jean Descombes had bigger cherry fruit and a little tannic grip, but also vanilla and dusky spice with an aftertaste of mint.
The 2005 La Trinquee from Julienas, meanwhile, was the earthiest wine of the lot, with a funky nose of wild mushrooms and a smoky dryness that was startling on first sniff. But it grew on me as I sipped it, as a surprise puff of vanilla floated up on the finish. It changed every time I took a drink.
A Beaujolais to linger on can be a beautiful thing.
The Fab Eight
Here are eight favorites from a recent tasting of Beaujolais crus, listed by producer. Available vintages may vary, but all are available in selected Pennsylvania State Stores, or by special order (single bottles allowed), except the wines from Trichard, which are sold at Moore Bros., in Pennsauken and Wilmington:
Fleurie Domaine des Quatre Vents by M. Darroze 2006, $15.99: Racy and fresh, almost effervescent, with strawberry fruit perfumed by sandalwood, and a bright orange-anise acidity that carries to a smooth finish.
Moulin-a-Vent "Flower Label" 2005, $16.99: Almost bold, with more tannin than most Beaujolais, with deep red currant fruit, woven with cranberry tartness, pie spice, and a touch of vanilla. Could use another year or two in the bottle.
Julienas "La Trinquee" 2005, $13.49: Startlingly earthy but complex, with a funky shiitake mushroom smell on the nose, and a dry tannic grip wrapped around red fruit softened with vanillas. Needs to breathe before drinking.
Morgon Jean Descombes 2005, $15.99: Big cherry fruit edged by the soft tartness of clove-stuck oranges, with a dusky, minty, sweet finish that reminds me of candy cane. Lots going on here.
(both special orders, but no minimum order):
Julienas 2005, $18.19: Drouhin really specializes in Burgundy, and this Beaujolais is lighter, smoother and less complex than the Duboeuf crus, with a soft red cherry fruit that is closer to nouveau than many. This is a nice step-up wine into crus.
Brouilly 2005, $15.79: Earthy and smooth, with soft and pleasant dark fruit of cherry and clementine dusted with cocoa and clove. Low-key, but well-balanced.
Chenas 2005; $16:
Deep ruby plum fruit, with a measured, natural sweetness, a dusting of spice, and a stony finish. Confident, focused, and suave.
Saint-Amour 2005; $18: Deeper, darker fruit and bigger tannins come braced with orange and cloves, and a tongue-tickling black peppercorn finish.