It makes perfect sense that we now – mostly – regard Beaujolais as a wine region on its own, or most of us do anyway. I am sure that some traditionalists still maintain that it is a sub-zone of Burgundy, but in every sense Beaujolais is different. The place itself and the red wines that it produces from the Gamay grape are less formal and more relaxed than its northern neighbour. Here the countryside is more rural, the villages more charming and, yes, less obviously wealthy – which is often reflected in the restaurant prices.
In fact, Beaujolais is very much like the rural idyll I have in my mind when thinking of France. Beautiful countryside and delightful little villages with street markets and squares filled with cafés where laid-back diners enjoy wonderful value prix fixe three course lunches washed down with pichets of the local wine.
Villefranche-sur-Saône serves as the region’s capital and is probably the best place to start your Beaujolais adventure. It is a handsome town and a delight to stroll around, but do beware of the very slippery paving stones in the pedestrianised streets – I speak from painful experience. The covered market on Boulevard Jean Jaurès is a must see and there is a heritage route that leads you around the town’s many Renaissance mansions from the 16th century (details from the tourist office, 96 rue de la Sous-Préfecture). Whilst at the tourist office also check out the Espace des Vins du Beaujolais, where you can taste wines from all 12 of the Beaujolais PDOs or appellations. Amongst the town’s many cafés and restaurants you will find the Bistrots Beaujolais, eateries that specialise in serving the Crus of Beaujolais and traditional, local cuisine. Try Le Fleurie or La Ferme du Poulet for relaxed dining or Le Juliénas (1 Michelin star) for something more memorable.
With a population of just 36,000 Villefranche is pretty small, but it dwarves everywhere else in the region. Once you leave it behind, you will be passing through some of the most scenic countryside and most beautiful villages in rural France.
A few kilometres north-west is the gorgeous village of Vaux-en-Beaujolais. It clings to some of the vine covered hillsides of the Beaujolais-Villages appellation and was the inspiration for Clochemerle in Gabriel Chevallier’s famous satire about the installation of a public urinal. Chevallier and Clochmerle are big news here, there is a museum dedicated to him and you can listen to excerpts of the book in different spots around the village. If, like me, you are then in need of refreshment the Cave de Clochemerle is a rather lovely and atmospheric wine bar, while the Auberge De Clochemerle is a sophisticated restaurant that has a charming terrace where you can eat outside and watch the world go by.
If you find yourself anywhere near Ville-sur-Jarnioux, some seven kilometres south of Vaux, L’Auberge de la Place is well worth a visit. It is pretty much the heart and soul of this little village and serves as bar, newsagent and boulangerie as well as being an excellent and great value restaurant.
Heading north you pass through Le Perréon whose pink granite soils are very similar to those in Fleurie. Eventually you arrive in Odenas which is included in the Brouilly appellation. It’s a quiet little place, but it boasts the excellent Restaurant Christian Mabeau, as well as the less formal Le Côte de Brouilly. Be sure to take a peak at the beautiful Château de La Chaize, whose exquisite gardens and kitchen-garden you can tour by appointment.
Just to the north, Mont de Brouilly dominates the landscape. It is an ancient, extinct volcano whose soils produce one of the finest Beaujolais Crus and it is well worth investigating. There are spectacular views and peaceful picnic spots to be found on its slopes. Maison Jean-Luc in nearby Cercié is an excellent traiteur where you can buy food for a memorable alfresco meal, while just across the road you will also find a wonderful Boulangerie Patisserie. Or, if you prefer someone else to serve you, Cercié also boasts Le Pré du Plat, which is a perfect little informal French bistro serving perfectly cooked, classic food. The nearby tiny village of Quincié-en-Beaujolais also has a couple of good restaurants, try the Auberge du Pont des Samsons or Le Mont Brouilly where you can eat out on the terrace. There are three châteaux here too, so be sure to take a look at the very beautiful Château de Varennes, Château du Souzy and Château de la Palud.
Beaujeu gives its name to the area and the famous wine, but was long ago supplanted by Villefranche as the capital. However, it is a charming town and well worth a visit – make sure you see the magnificent Romanesque church of Saint Nicolas and the ancient Hôtel-Dieu. La Maison du Terroir Beaujolais is an excellent exhibition in a wonderful half-timbered medieval building that tells you the history of Beaujolais wine, as well as giving you the chance to taste wine and to buy local specialities.
Make sure you visit the Musée Marius Audin which houses a fascinating collection about local folklore and traditional life. Rather wonderfully the cellars house the Caveau des Beaujolais-Villages where you can taste and buy a wide range of Beaujolais-Villages. I would also recommend visiting the old Apothecary’s House, which gives an amazing insight into how life was lived in the past. If you need refreshment, the best place to have a drink, or a meal, is Le Retinton in the Place de la Liberté.
A Journey of eight km or so to the south-west brings you to Belleville and just outside the town, in Saint Jean d’Ardières you will find L’Or-Fève, a superb artisan chocolatier and biscuit maker, and La Maison des Beaujolais, a wine centre which holds tastings and has a shop as well as a decent restaurant where you can enjoy local specialities such as Escargots de Bourgogne, Oeufs Meurette Pochés au Beaujolais and Coq au Beaujolais.
In Belleville itself, make sure you visit the Hotel-Dieu museum which is a wonderfully preserved 18th century hospital and do try to take in the Romanesque Notre-Dame church as well. Although there are many restaurants in town, try to make sure that you eat at Le Beaujolais in Rue Maréchal Foch on the border with Saint Jean d’Ardières, you won’t regret it.
Of course for many of us the beating heart of Beaujolais are the 10 Crus in the north of the region and most of them are well worth seeing. Villié-Morgon is a sleepy little place that gives its name to the Morgon appellation. Have a stroll around the grounds of the Château de Fontcrenne and visit the Caveau de Morgon in the château’s cellars. Nearby is the magnificent 15th century Château de Corcelles, which is breathtakingly beautiful and well worth a little detour.
Chiroubles is one of the less famous Cru, but as it is slightly to the west of the others and is much higher in the Monts du Beaujolais, so you get amazing panoramic views. If you want views and a meal, then eat out at La Terrasse du Beaujolais while gazing down at the vineyards, it’s a great experience.
Fleurie is, of course, the most famous Cru of all and if you are anywhere nearby, make sure that you visit the Chapelle de la Madone. It is perched on a hill amongst the vines and enables you see wonderful views of Beaujolais vineyards and the River Saône in the distance. There isn’t much else to Fleurie, but a drink at one of the bars in the Place de l’Eglise is always fun and if lunchtime beckons, then pop along to the Auberge du Cep and you will feel that all is right with the world.
Moulin-à-Vent is a slight oddity in that although the wine, or Cru, bears that name, the commune in which it is made does not. The village is actually called Romanèche-Thorins, although some of it is confusingly made in Chénas too, while the wine takes its name from a nearby 300 year old windmill. A real highlight of the village is the Hameau (hamlet) Dubœuf, which is George Dubœuf’s wine themed attraction. It is beautifully constructed and superbly laid out to give an overview of how wine is made, together with the history of Beaujolais. The restaurant and the shop feature Dubœuf wines and there’s mini-golf, model railways and even a railway museum in the old train station. The collection even includes Napoleon III’s railway carriage, so has just about something for everyone.
Whilst you are in the mood for the lighter side of wine travel, Touroparc is a delightful little zoo with a fairground and a waterslide area. So if you have been boring your children with wine and restaurants, this might give you the chance to redress the balance a little.
The Musée Départemental du Compagnonnage is an utter delight. Founded in 1870 as a school for carpenters and construction design, it is now a museum that exhibits an amazing array of the founders’ work. I know it doesn’t sound scintillating, but it is a wonderful museum.
As you might expect, Romanèche-Thorins has some lovely places to eat too. So if hunger strikes, try a meal in the stylish Rouge et Blanc or the less formal La Maison du Moulin à Vent.
Further north we come to three of the Crus that we do not see that often in the UK. Chénas takes its name from the oak (chêne) covered hills that separate it from Juliénas. The latter is supposed to be named in honour of Julius Caesar who is said to have set up camp here during his invasion of Gaul.
Juliénas is one of the prettiest of all the Crus and certainly the most lively. It sits on a hilltop surrounded by vineyards, so you get some lovely views on a nice day. The beautiful old Romanesque church is well worth seeing and you get a reward as it has been deconsecrated and the cellars now serve as a wonderful tasting room. After that, if you need somewhere to rest weary bones, the delightful Le Coq à Juliénas café and restaurant is right on the main square and provides a haven of peace and relaxation – they even still have a traditional zinc bar.
The Cru of Saint-Amour is made in the vineyards around the most northerly Beaujolais commune of Saint-Amour-Bellevue. It is very much a working wine village and it has a lot of wines to make too. It’s actually in Burgundy’s Mâconnais district, so as well as Saint-Amour, the commune is also able to make eight different Burgundy appellations.
As the name of the village implies, there are some beautiful views around here and some of the most breathtaking scenery in the whole region. So this might be the perfect day to grab some cheese and charcuterie and a baguette from the local boulanger and to head off into the countryside with a bottle of Saint-Amour, or even a bottle of Beaujolais blanc, and have memorable picnic. The other option is to try one of the local restaurants and there are two top-notch places to choose, both have one Michelin star. Auberge du Paradis is a beautiful and very traditional place, while the more modern Au 14 Février fuses French and Asian cuisine to great effect.
I hope you can see that Beaujolais is a delightful region to tour around and that as well as the domaines you will be visiting there are many other things to enjoy. The most important thing about the region though, is to just enjoy it. Enjoy its beauty and its ambience. Adjust to its lazy rhythms. Don’t try to do too much, just soak up the feel of the place. It’s Beaujolais, it’s supposed to be relaxed!
Quentin Sadler is a wine writer, wine consultant, wine educator and friend of 3D.
3D’s Cru Beaujolais vineyards
Domaine de la Madone
La Madone, Fleurie
Vine rentals are available at Domaine de la Madone
Domaine les Roches Bleues
Côte de Brouilly, Odenas
Wine: Côte be Brouilly, Brouilly
Domaine de Colonat
St Joseph, Villié-Morgon
Wine: Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent