When Bon Vivant Wines, Riverfront Times' pick last year for "Best Wine Shop," closed in February, it left a gaping hole in the area's Beaujolais selection. Well-made Beaujolais has the capacity to meld seamlessly with a wide variety of food, and to slake the thirst of warm St. Louis days with a captivating combination of fresh, juicy fruit (no, not Juicy Fruit) flavors and moderate alcohol.
Unfortunately, most Beaujolais remains irredeemable swill. Vineyards are over-cropped by greedy growers selling to large companies or cooperatives, resulting in dilute wines that producers dump sugar into to increase the alcohol content (the official line always being that it is done to extend the length of the fermentation to get "more" out of the grapes). The fermentation is carried out by selected yeasts that produce their own trademark fruity esters to replace the lack of fruit flavors in the grapes themselves.
The result is a headache in a bottle, and a lingering aftertaste of having consumed a wine "product."
When we recently spied a bottling from a topnotch Beaujolais producer, we couldn't resist...
Pale ruby. It smells of ripe strawberries -- not the obnoxious Styrofoam-textured crap from the grocery store, but real ones -- with just a touch of cinnamon. Simple, yet mouthwatering. The flavor is alive, with a juicy acidity that adds real pop to the fruit.
This is one of those all-too-rare wines that is actually invigorating to drink. Rather than weighing you down with heavy, jammy fruit, or oak, this one leaves you refreshed, and staring at the how'd-that-happen-empty bottle with a goofy grin.
The Chermettes are one of a dozen or so producers who are turning gamay grapes into benchmark Beaujolais. Most of these are located in the Cru villages, such as Morgon and Fleurie -- locations that utz them a bit when it comes to name recognition and conveniently don't require them to slap "Beaujolais" on the label. But the Dom. du Vissoux and J.P. Brun of Domaine Terres-Dorées are about the only producers we see in the U.S. who lavish the same care on their "humble" Beaujolais.
So, what are these folks doing? First, they're not allowing too heavy a crop of vines. They're also practicing sustainable, if not organic, viticulture. But the biggest differences occur at the winery. No sugar goes in, so natural yeasts are allowed to accomplish the fermentation. Little or no sulfur is added, and the wines are rarely fined or filtered. The result? A truer picture of both the potential of the grapes and the character of the vintage -- a beautiful thing to behold.
"Thrill or Swill?" aims to expand wine drinkers' horizons -- including Gut Check's. If you have been curious about a grape or wine and want Gut Check to try it, let us know via the comments thread. If we can find it (and if we can afford it), we'll buy us a bottle, yank the cork and report back.