In France, there are certain things that must be on every dinner table. Bread and wine are two of the first things that come to mind when considering staples of the French meal. A few decades ago, the wines of the Beaujolais region of France were at the peak of their popularity, being the “unofficial” wine of Lyon, France and becoming the staple on every Lyonnais table. However, things have changed. The Lyonnais abandoned their neighbors to the north and began drinking the wines produced by their southern neighbors of the Côte-du-Rhône region. Ever since, the reputation of Beaujolais has been on a steady decline and now seems to be the metaphorical “ugly duckling” of French wines that no one really wants to acknowledge, unless of course one needs to write a bad review of a French wine.
According to Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times, Beaujolais has the reputation of being “a simple, light-hearted, fun, good-doggy kind of wine.” While it is true that some of the wines coming from these regions don’t tend to be overly complicated (or particularly good), this is perhaps too much of a generalization as some of Beaujolais wines are quite complex and layered while maintaining the joyous and fun qualities associated with the region. Most people are quick to blame the downfall of Beaujolais on Beaujolais Nouveau, a once successful wine celebrating the harvest that is now the most notable, but certainly not the highest quality wine coming out of the region. Winemakers in the region attempted to capitalize on the success of the harvest wine which in turn led to over-production, poor viticultural practices and bad wine making. Beaujolais is now almost universally thought of as une piquette de mass market which may be in the process of dying a slow death.
But it seems that some French aren’t prepared to let that happen just yet, and the Beaujolais region has perhaps stumbled upon one last, decisive chance at survival. The mission is simple: reconquer the tables of Lyon. 2011 looks to be a decisive year as a few Beaujolais enthusiasts as well as winemakers have organized events throughout the city of Lyon in an attempt to recapture the interest of its citizens. Each Beaujolais cru (Régnié, Brouilly, Morgon, Saint-Amour, etc) will be assigned to its own arrondissement (similar to boroughs in New York) and events will be held throughout the year at the city hall of its given arrondissement. Gilles Paris, president of the Organization for the Defense and Management (ODG) of Beaujolais crus, states “C’est aux Lyonnais de nous aider. Quand il rentre dans un restaurant, c’est à eux de demander une bouteille de Beaujolais.” (It’s up to the citizens of Lyon to help us. When he enters a restaurant, it’s up to him to order a bottle of Beaujolais.)
Saving Beaujolais has been declared un acte citoyen, the responsible and right thing for the Lyon inhabitant to do. But one must wonder if this attempt to revamp the Beaujolais reputation is too late. Only time will tell, but it is clear that some aren’t quite ready to let that happen as it would be very un-French to let a product steeped in history and tradition just fade away and be forgotten. Maybe you can preform your acte citoyen and pick up a bottle of Beaujolais the next time you’re at the grocery store (I can’t promise that it will be good though). Perhaps Beaujolais will fulfill its destiny as the “ugly duckling” of French wines and emerge from this campaign in Lyon as the “beautiful swan” instead.