The politics behind Beaujolais’ new(ish) set of regulations
The French are nothing if not pragmatic. In 1953, the winemakers of the Côtes-du-Rhône looked north to the Beaujolais region and saw that the system for differentiating quality made economic sense, so they decided to emulate it. It took 13 years of politicking before their regulations were set in place. (I would have loved to be a fly on the wall at those negotiations.)
Beaujolais had its own unique class structure originally established in 1936: in the flat southern part of the region you have your generic Beaujolais, grown in sandstone or clay and limestone. In the hilly north, the soils are granite or schist on the upper slopes, and stone and clay soils on the lower slopes. In the north, whose soils produce more complex, structured wines, you have Beaujolais-Villages — wines from a single vineyard or commune. Then at the top of the quality pyramid you have the 10 villages whose names appear on the label without the designation “Beaujolais,” which separates them from the pack: from north to south, they are St Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly. They’re known collectively as the Beaujolais crus. Here, the term cru encompasses an entire wine-producing area rather than a single vineyard as it does in, for example, Bordeaux.
Both Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages can, by law, produce Beaujolais Nouveau whereas the regulations do not permit St Amour et al to be produced as a new wine. Though with the fading popularity of this fruity, aging cheerleader of a wine, the point may well become academic.
While Beaujolais, like its Burgundy neighbour, has simply one black grape to contend with (Gamay in Beaujolais, Pinot Noir in Burgundy), Côtes-du-Rhône has 10 permitted black varieties: Brun Argenté, Carignan, Cinsault, Counoise, Grenache Noir, Muscardin, Mourvèdre, Picpoul Noir, Syrah and Terret Noir.
So, following the Beaujolais model, you have generic Côtes-du-Rhône, Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages and the top quality, the named villages of which there are now 18. The list is too long to enumerate here but the most famous of them are Cairanne, Chusclan, Laudun, Saint-Maurice-sur-Eygues, Séguret and Sablét. (Gigondas was part of the original group but in 1971 it was elevated to the status Appellation d’Origine Controlée. Vacqueyras, also an early member of the club, was given its own AOC in 1990.)
To use the term Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages vintners must adhere to stricter regulations than those governing the production of simpler Côtes-du-Rhône. For red wines, Grenache must make up at least 50 per cent of the blend along with 20 per cent Syrah and/or Mourvèdre. They can then use up to 20 per cent of other sanctioned varieties. Their rosés must contain the same amounts of black grapes as the red wines but not more than 20 per cent of white varieties (of which there are eight — everything is big in the Rhône). The minimum alcoholic strength of the wines must be 12 per cent, one degree higher than generic Côtes-du-Rhône.
And how does all this translate into the taste of the wine? I had the opportunity recently to compare two wines made by Louis Bernard from the 2013 vintage — Côtes-du-Rhône and a Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages. The generic Côtes-du-Rhône was deep ruby in colour with a black raspberry nose threaded with a mineral note and carried on vanilla oak. The Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages was deeper in colour with a raspberry and pencil lead bouquet, richer and firmer on the palate with an earthy note but with the same intensity of vanilla oak. It reminded me of a Beaujolais on steroids. The price: $14.95 in Ontario, just a dollar more than the simpler Côtes-du-Rhône.
So my advice is, given the choice, opt for Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages. The extra cost is well worth it.