Extending 34 miles from south to north, the Beaujolais appellation, which produces France’s coveted Nouveau wines (as well as sublime bottlings of Gamay and Pinot Noir), is situated between Lyon and Mâcon.
Leaning up against the last foothills of the Massif Central range to the west, the region slides eastward down to the Saône River plain, its vines carpeting the slopes that change color with the seasons.
Generally northeast to southwest facing, the vine rows coat the Beaujolais hills at an average height of between 300 and 1,000 meters above sea level.
The angle of the hillside vineyards in the north exposes the grapes to more sunshine, which leads to an earlier harvest than in the south. The southern half of the region, also known as the Bas Beaujolais, has flatter terrain with richer, sandstone and clay-based soils and some limestone patches.
Though it’s not unusual for there to be sudden changes in the weather—with winters that sometimes are harsh—the Beaujolais region makes the most of a temperate climate. In winter, continental currents cause frosts that can spread into spring. Between seasons, light ocean winds stir up the regulating role of the River Saône, and soften the temperature differences.
With the return of the summer come winds from the Mediterranean. This is when the Haut Beaujolais mountain chain is particularly good for protecting the vines, and encourages the foehn wind that comes from the west—hot and dry in summer as it passes over the peaks of the Beaujolais hills and down to the Beaujolais plains.
Rain tends to be light, and the vineyards can be subject to very high temperatures for extended periods. Although these long summer droughts are definitely favorable to the quality of the region’s wine, they also can ignite sometimes-devastating storms.
The Gamay grape originated in the village of Gamay, near Beaune in Burgundy, in the 14th century. While the growing of it was prohibited in Burgundy in 1395, the grape found a new home in Beaujolais where it has thrived, producing structured, complex wines in the north, and lighter, fruit-forward wines in the south.