Beaujolais is a wine region cultivated almost exclusively with a single grape variety: Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, or simply Gamay. Used to develop the emblematic regional red wines, Village and Cru Beaujolais as well as an increasing share of rosé, one would think that if a white wine came from this region, it would also be made from Gamay. But no. A familiar but unexpected grape variety is the only one authorized in the development of Beaujolais Blanc, and that is Chardonnay.
Chardonnay only represents about 3% of Beaujolais vineyards – just a tiny part of the production – in this French region located between Mâconnais in the north and Lyon in the south. But this category is gaining more and more attention because it is a delicious diversification. Just under 2.5 million bottles of Beaujolais Blanc (including Village – the Crus do not produce white wines, only red) were produced in 2020. While the French keep around 65% of Beaujolais production at home, about 35% are exported. . The United States is the largest export market for Beaujolais wines, followed by the United Kingdom, Japan and Canada.
Aromatic, with notes of citrus and green apple, as well as a chalky mineral complexity, this is a wine to refresh. Depending on the vintage, Beaujolais Blanc may present notes of more ripe fruit, but always tends to be restrained and balanced. And while the region’s reputation is based on Gamay red wine, the production of white wine in this region has a history that goes back just as far.
Aurélien Fiardet represents Terroirs Originels, a group of artisan winegrowers from Beaujolais and Mâconnais. He says that while the production of Beaujolais Blanc may be small, there is an advantage in doing so. “A diverse range is important, and it’s always good to be able to offer a few options,” he says. “It is very useful to offer blanks.
The reason why there is so little Chardonnay in Beaujolais is “due to the terroir”, according to Fiardet. Although over 300 soil variants have been identified in Beaujolais, the granite substrate is the source of many of the best examples of red Beaujolais, especially the Cru sites. Texas-based Master Sommelier Melissa Monosoff says granite is the “soil of choice” for Gamay, which controls yields and may promise more concentrated wine.
Fiardet says the Chardonnay grown on this granite would be “too acidic, too lean”. He also counts the commercial success of Beaujolais Nouveau as a distraction from Chardonnay. “Many have taken out Chardonnay to plant Gamay,” he says. But in areas where the soil is more favorable to Chardonnay, he notices that new plantings are appearing.
These favorable spots tend to be in the northernmost pockets of Beaujolais, located on the border with Burgundy (Burgundy) where Chardonnay is, of course, the main suspect for white wine. In some areas around the Saint-Amour appellation, there are vineyards that could be sold like Mâcon or Bourgogne Blanc. There is also Chardonnay in the eastern part of Beaujolais, where the soils are more alluvial than granite.
Beaujolais Blanc can come from the regional appellation (simply: Beaujolais) or Beaujolais Villages. The Villages versions are often more complex and will allow a few years of aging. Beaujolais Cru is only produced in red, so you will not find a White of this category on the market.
Fiardet says that Beaujolais Blanc is three things besides taste: “a small production, spread out and difficult to find”. But while there aren’t many in the US market, it’s worth grabbing a bottle when you find them. Generally affordable and versatile, these wines will accompany many meals, including weekday dinners and special occasions.