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France without Pretense

The Beaujolais countryside, glorious in late summer and fall, may be France's prettiest wine region, and is one of the few where jeans are fine and gourmet dining is often casual

September 16, 2007|Doyle McManus | Doyle McManus is The Times' Washington bureau chief.

The winemakers of Beaujolais are not happy this year.

That seems odd, considering they live in some of France's most beautiful villages, where old stone houses are decked with flowers amid hillside vineyards heavy with grapes, a half-day's drive south of Paris.

But to hear the growers tell it, the world is in a perilous state. New wines from Australia are flooding the market, even in France. The cost of labor--each grower hires students, retirees and migrant workers to pick the grapes--keeps going up every fall. The European Union wants to reduce production by ripping out thousands of vines. Even the weather is causing trouble--by being too good: An unusually warm spring meant that this year's harvest began in August, throwing summer vacation schedules into chaos.

Worst of all, the bright, fruity Beaujolais Nouveau that became a worldwide fad in the 1980s has gone the way of all things, throwing these villages' once-booming economy into a palpable slump, if not quite a bust. It's still released on the third Thursday in November, but there's no longer quite the same exuberance for the autumnal rite of passage.

Shaking his head as he led a walk through the vineyards, winemaker Jacques Perraud said, "The demand isn't there."

Happily for visitors, the winemakers' worries haven't made them inhospitable. Quite the contrary: They are happier than ever to see you. They want you to know that Beaujolais isn't just its Nouveau, a novelty wine that many of them were never that happy to be famous for.

No, the vintners of Beaujolais would much rather be known for their high-end work: the 10 special crus, such as Moulin-a-Vent and Morgon, the best of which can compete with the elegant wines of Burgundy to the north. The worldwide wine glut has held down prices: A bottle of perfectly nice Beaujolais can be bought at a winery for $6, a good cru for $11, and much of the best for $16.

Even better, Beaujolais may be France's prettiest wine region, worth visiting for its summer and fall landscapes even more than its wines.

Real wine enthusiasts, when they come to France, may aim for other spots on the map: Bordeaux in the southwest or Burgundy in the center. But the terrain that produces the world's most refined wines in those regions often turns out to be, well, disappointing: nothing but long rows of vines marching along gentle river valleys.

Beaujolais, on the other hand, is worth a journey and a stay. Most of its wine is merely fun, not quite distinguished. But the countryside is lovely: rugged hills and winding roads, villages with ancient stone churches, forest ridgelines touched at sunset by tendrils of fog. It's like the wilder parts of Napa, but with church bells and chateaux.

And the food--this being arguably the "foodiest" part of France, where people talk about the provenance of not only their wines but also their chickens--is simply splendid.

A visit to Beaujolais is mostly about simple pleasures, because that's the only kind here: a countryside made for walks, bike rides or lazy drives, vest-pocket villages with flower-lined paths, hundreds of little wineries with owners who want you to taste their wares, dozens of little restaurants trying to outdo one another with local ingredients, and plenty of good inns. This is France at its least intimidating. The wine is unpretentious, and so are the restaurants and hotels. Jeans and khakis are fine most of the time; at dinner, a casual dress or blue blazer will do. Tourists are valued here, and many people speak workable English. All are gently supportive when an American bravely tries to use his high school French. There are no real museums to visit (except one--more on that later), no serious art to admire, no historical monuments to speak of--just landscapes, food and wine.

The French come here mostly for the walking and biking trails, and so did we. In late May my wife, Paula, and I headed into the Beaujolais hills armed with little more than a rented Peugeot, a Michelin guidebook and walking shoes. At 3 o'clock one afternoon, just as the guidebook promised, a winemaker appeared on the steps of the old stone church in the center of Vauxrenard, a village of tile-roofed houses clinging to a west-facing slope. It was Perraud, a rangy, silver-haired man with a sun-baked face and wary eyes that made him look like a Gallic Gary Cooper, a third-generation grape grower and, that Saturday, the village's designated vineyard guide.

"You're here for the walk?" he asked, allowing a tentative smile. "Good, then. Let's go."

As we followed him on the village's well-marked, two-mile "wine path," here and there a few tiny plots of vines had been taken out of production in exchange for subsidies from the European Union.

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