Bigger is not always better for Beaujolais.
When the gamay grapes in the best vineyards of this splendid region become too ripe, the resulting wines can become dead ringers for concentrated red Burgundy of northern Rhones.
That's what happened in 1989, and it might seem to be a great thing. You pick up a $10 bottle of Beaujolais from one of the top villages, and you could swear you're drinking a $20 wine from Savigny-Les-Beaune. What a bargain!
But is it really? What was so disturbing about the vintage was that many of the wines had lost their connection with Beaujolais. The special character of that region, which produces wines in a racy style that no other part of the globe can duplicate, was muted if not lost.
That didn't happen in 1991, and while the wines are not as massive or majestic as they were in 1989, they are actually more racy, more flavorful, just plain better. It was a vintage that let Beaujolais be Beaujolais.
In recent weeks I tasted through the Georges Duboeuf "flower label" line of Beaujolais, including all the 10 "crus" -- the best winegrowing villages, or appellations, of this sprawling region. The "flower" wines, blends from multiple vineyards within each appellation, were superb. (Duboeuf's single-estate 1991s will be shipped soon.)
Georges Duboeuf is the Elvis Presley of Beaujolais. He's the largest producer in the region, and his wines are enormously popular. Beyond that mass appeal, he's also extremely good at what he does.
Of course, he is only one producer, and it's difficult to judge an entire region by one producer. But at least where Maryland wine buyers are concerned, Duboeuf and Beaujolais are virtually synonymous. His wines are widely available, while those from other top Beaujolais producers can be as difficult to spot as the allegedly late King of Rock 'n' Roll.
Among the 1991s from Duboeuf, the standout was the 1991 Chiroubles, one of the greatest Beaujolais wines I have ever encountered. The aroma is seductive -- violets and raspberries wafting out of the glass.
On the palate, it is the complete expression of Chiroubles, which produces wines of relatively light body but exquisite perfume, intensity and raciness. Don't miss this wine, but don't sit on it, either. It should be consumed within the year.
A close second to the Chiroubles was the 1991 Fleurie, a delightful strumpet of a wine. This wine of easy virtue is nothing but a rush of pure, uncomplicated pleasure, with a silky feel and voluptuous black raspberry fruit. Stick with it, and it proves to have more depth and complexity than are immediately apparent.
Not far behind the Chiroubles and the Fleurie were the 1991 Brouilly, Julienas, Cote de Brouilly and Morgon -- all exceptional and quite representative of their appellations.
The Brouilly was brisk and racy, the Cote de Brouilly more full and soft, the Morgon ripe and rounded and the Julienas, as it should, stood right in the middle.
Chenas and Regnie typically lag just a little bit behind the other crus, and in 1991 they're true to form. The Duboeuf Chenas seems a little light for the appellation, which is just as well. The Regnie has unusual richness, but the flavors are a little more blunt than the finest crus. These are fine wines, however, and they suffer only by comparison.
You don't need to pick a cru Beaujolais to enjoy superb quality however. Duboeuf's 1991 regional Beaujolais-Villages is a delightful blend, with just the right balance of fruit and racy acidity. At $8, it's a fine value -- better, in fact, than the 1991 Duboeuf Saint Amour, a pleasant but somewhat blunt wine.
The only 1991 Duboeuf wine that was truly disappointing was the Moulin-a-Vent, typically the ripest, longest-lived and most Burgundy-like wine of the region. A slight mustiness made me suspect there might have been a bad cork.
The only non-Duboeuf 1991 Beaujolais I was able to find was a winner. The Regnie "La Riche Thulon" ($9.49) from Louis Latour was surprisingly intense wine for a Regnie, and the heavy sediment (rare for a Beaujolais) indicated an admirable restraint in the use of filtration.
The prices of the 1991s are more reasonable than in past years, no doubt because of a glut of wine on the market and the dubious reputation of the overall vintage. (An off year in Bordeaux tends to drag down prices in other regions.)
In Maryland, you can expect to pay about $12 for a Fleurie; about $10 for Morgon, Julienas, Brouilly or Moulin-a-Vent; and about $8 for Regnie and Chenas. One store in Washington has been selling all the wines for between $5.99 and $7.99.
Beaujolais is an excellent companion to grilled foods on a hot summer night (try it with tuna steaks). The wines should be served colder than other redwines, but not chilled.
In some years, some of the crus will repay a year or two of aging, but because of the freshness and early approachability of the 1991 vintage, there is no reason to postpone your enjoyment.