Challengers to the king Keeping the faith: He may step out with other Beaujolais, but Duboeuf's remain his true love.

Vintage Point

March 06, 1996|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

Georges Duboeuf is to Beaujolais as . . .

a.) Morton is to salt.

b.) Cal Ripken Jr. is to endurance.

c.) Elvis is to sightings.

d.) All of the above.

If you guessed d.), you are correct. The estimable Monsieur Duboeuf dominates his region more thoroughly than any other important figure in the world of wine.

Go into just about any serious wine shop in the United States and ask for Beaujolais. Most likely the sales person will lead you to a display of Duboeuf wines. There might be a few scattered offerings from other producers, but there will be no doubt who holds the title of "King of Beaujolais."

But what about the peasants? What about those other vintners from this classic wine region known for its light, refreshing red wines? Are they merely chopped foie gras?

Hardly. While none can be called superior to Mr. Duboeuf, there are peers in his realm. Fortunately, American wine consumers are beginning to see a few more choices in the Beaujolais sections of major wine stores. A few, such as Mills Liquors in Annapolis, offer extensive portfolios of non-Duboeuf Beaujolais producers.

This is good. Even if you always buy Kodak, it's good to have Fuji around to keep the top dog honest. It's much the same with wine.

Besides the sheer joy of having a choice, there's also the matter of style. When you taste the wines from many of these small, artisanal producers, it's clear that some of them have a vision of Beaujolais far different from that of Mr. Duboeuf. Some prefer a more chunky style with a greater resemblance to Burgundy. That's not necessarily better or worse. It's a matter of taste.

There is an area in which Mr. Duboeuf is unchallenged, however, and its importance cannot be overstated. He gets his wines to market in a timely way. This is critical for Beaujolais, for it is not a long-lived wine.

With rare exceptions, Beaujolais is better in the first year after the vintage than in the second or third. Anything older than that isn't worth the risk. Thus, it's a plus for Mr. Duboeuf that most of his wines on retail shelves are 1994s and that 1995s are coming soon. Some of his competitors are still selling their 1993s, a good vintage but one that should be consumed without delay.

Buying Beaujolais can be confusing until you get the hang of it, because the best wines of the region often don't carry the Beaujolais name at all. These are the "crus" of Beaujolais -- 10 villages or vineyard areas that produce wines that are considered superior to regional Beaujolais or Beaujolais-Villages.

They are -- and you will be tested on this -- Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Cotes de Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Regnie and Saint-Amour. This is actually one of those rare wine factoids that's useful to know.

A recent series of Beaujolais tastings focused on the non-Duboeuf wines, with a few of the "King's" estates thrown in for comparison.

The best wine in the bunch came from one of the challengers. It was a 1993 Jacky Piret Cote de Brouilly "Vieille Vignes," which was selling at Mills for a bargain price of $9.49.

This was a rich, full-bodied style of Beaujolais with intense black raspberry and black cherry flavors that stirred up memories of a great Rhone wine from Cote-Rotie. It's fully mature without fading. This exceptional Beaujolais is definitely a change of pace from Duboeuf's style.

Mr. Piret also made a fine effort with his 1993 Regnie "La Plaigne" ($8) and did a respectable job on his 1995 Beaujolais Nouveau ($8). Piret's 1994 Beaujolais "Clos Jasseron" ($8) isn't a great wine but delivers tremendous concentration for a wine that doesn't even qualify as Beaujolais-Villages.

Two other solid performers were the 1994 Jean-Paul Champagnon Fleurie and the 1994 Bernard Striffling Morgon "Domaine de Croix de Chevre" (both $11).

The Champagnon was a textbook Fleurie, with all the nuanced, delicate charm of this most elegant of Beaujolais "appellations." The Striffling, on the other hand, was a strapping wine in the Burgundian style so often found in Morgon. Both offered intensity, character and youthful charm. Keep an eye on these producers.

Just a small step down, but still impressive, was the 1994 Domaine Les Fines Graves Moulin-a-Vent ($12). Delicate for a Moulin-a-Vent, it nevertheless offered fine raspberry flavors and persistence on the palate.

For several years now, Jean-Marc Aujoux has been shipping his brand of chunky, flavorful Beaujolais to the United States. His wines offer a distinct stylistic contrast with Duboeuf, zaftig rather than sleek. That extra fruit might be why the 1993 Aujoux Beaujolais-Villages ($9) has held up so well, displaying a depth of fruit flavor more akin to a Morgon.

These small producers do not have a monopoly on quality and value, however. The Burgundian negociant (blender & merchant) house of Jadot has crafted an exceptionally stylish 1994 Beaujolais-Villages ($9) with an intensity and balance comparable to many $11 cru wines. The Jadot also has the virtue of wide availability.

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