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Beaujolais: Light wine, serious beauty

Here you meander, savor, absorb, and observe, be it village life or bustling Lyon

Email|Print| Text size + By John Powers
Globe Staff / July 11, 2004

Driving along the rural French roads from Villefranche-sur-Saone to Macon is like browsing the Beaujolais aisle at your local wine shop. The familiar labels (that is, villages) pop up one after the other: Morgon, Brouilly, Chiroubles, Chenas, Fleurie, Julienas, Saint-Amour.

You can zip through most of them as quickly as you can down a glass of cherry-colored Regnie and cover most of the area in the time it takes to finish a bottle.

For better and worse, fast-forward has been the popular image of this storied region a half-hour's drive north of Lyon. The grapes are harvested in September. The bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau are shipped on the third Thursday of November. By May, after the wines have done their Easter duty, they're already being guzzled. No dust-covered Chateauneufs-du-Papes in this vicinity.

For years, wine snobs have dismissed Beaujolais as pedestrian plonk, fun and fruity wines with neither pedigree nor sophistication. Foreign tourists largely have bypassed the region, either staying in Paris or flocking to Provence, the country's new theme park ever since expat British author Peter Mayle interpreted it in English.

Yet for those pokers and wanderers willing to fold themselves into a stick-shift Peugeot and cruise in second gear, the Pays Beaujolais serves up a degustation of delights for eyes, ears, nose, and throat that can be sampled in a day trip or spread over a week.

For those who want an immediate immersion in the French countryside, there's no place easier to reach. Take an evening Air France flight from Logan to Paris, step on the TGV at Charles de Gaulle Airport in the morning, and be at the Lyon Part-Dieu station in two hours. Just outside is a row of rental-car agencies whose English-speaking employees need only a credit card and a US license.

Drive a few minutes to the Rhone, cross the bridge leading to the Fourviere Tunnel beneath the old city, and you're on A6, the toll road for Macon and Paris. Take the exit for Belleville and you're at the gateway to Beaujolais in plenty of time for lunch.

To get a sense of the area, it's a good idea to stop at La Maison des Beaujolais in Saint-Jean-d'Ardieres, which offers information and tastings (with lamb and sausage) of the 12 established "crs," from the stately Moulin Vent to the rare Chenas.

If you want to see Beaujolais in festival, the best times are spring, when villages offer tastings; October, just after the harvest; or November, when Beaujeu has its Fte des Sarmentelles, where the torches are made from vine prunings and the first barrel of Beaujolais Nouveau is opened at midnight. Virtually all the cellars offer samples year round, however, and are pleased to sell a bottle or a case.

If you have only a few hours to tour, a charming starting point in Saint-Jean-d'Ardieres is the Chteau de Pizay, a castle from the 14th and 17th centuries where the US men's soccer team was housed during the 1998 World Cup to keep the players away from urban distractions.

The Chteau, with its chapel and dungeon and topiary garden, offers not only spacious air-conditioned rooms and a swimming pool, but also a gourmet restaurant where local families, with "mmre" and "ppre" (Grandma and Grandpa), come on Sundays for the frogs' legs and the "poulet de Bresse," the famed blue-footed chicken from just up the road.

From there, any of several roads -- D18, D19, D37, D68, D69 -- will take you through the cluster of 37 communes and more than 3,000 farms that make up the wine-growing area.

The route de Beaujolais isn't so much a route as it is a continuous diversion, a web of meandering two-lane blacktops that dip and twist between the Sane and the chalky, granitic slopes where the black-colored gamay grape flourishes.

This is the France of stone houses, church steeples, and small monuments to resistance fighters shot by the Germans in 1944. This is the drowsy France, where shops and post offices close during the afternoon, where the only sounds between the villages are crowing cocks and growling tractors.

Our favorite place along the route is Saint-Amour, a cozy enclave at the northern tip of Beaujolais that produces a sprightly, spicy wine that warms the heart. Saint-Amour is all about hearts. They're everywhere -- on wine labels, on road signs, hanging from windows. The biggest festival falls on St. Valentine's Day, when women do the judging of the local wines.

At the Auberge du Paradis, the dining room is all done up in red, with cherubs and other "heartwork" gracing the walls. The menu is both hearty and creative. My wife (whose mother's name was Saint-Amour) and I lunched on grated curried carrots topped with herbed cheese and sliced saucissons en crote, poulet la crme with spinach risotto, a half bottle of last year's communal vintage, fresh fruit fondue, and coffee. The price for two: less than $72.

Just across the street from the Auberge, you can pick up everything from coffee mugs to cachepots at La Poterie de St. Amour and buy bottles of Saint-Amour wine at a tasting shop a few steps away.

The charm of Pays Beaujolais is that you can while away a couple of hours in one village and still poke around half a dozen more before heading back to the toll road. And unlike Paris and Provence (or, mon dieu, the overrun Riviera), the pace doesn't change much from spring to summer. The only difference is the black grapes get fatter.

If Beaujolais is the throat of the Rhne region, Lyon, which bills itself as the country's gastronomic capital, is its belly. The specialties haven't changed for generations: andouillette (grilled sausage stuffed with pork innards), "cervelle de canut," literally "silkworker's brain" (fromage blanc blended with shallots, garlic, and herbs), quenelles (pike dumplings in Nantua sauce), "tablier de sapeur," or "fireman's apron" (fried tripe in herbed mayonnaise).

To work up an appetite, hike up Fourvire hill to the ancient city the Romans founded in 43 BC as the capital of Gaul. The ruins of the old theater are next to an open-air odeum that still is used for Les Nuits de Fourvire, the summer performing arts festival. Atop the hill is the basilica, Lyon's most prominent landmark. Climb the 300 steps to the observation tower for a spectacular view of the city.

Lyon, France's second largest city, may not match Paris for splendor and sophistication, but it's decidedly easier to get one's arms around and it's nearly as lovely, especially at night when more than 200 buildings, bridges, and monuments are illuminated. While there is a subway (a model railroad by Parisian standards), Lyon is best covered on foot since most of the attractions are in Presqu'ile, the peninsula squeezed between the city's two rivers, the roiling Rhne and the serene Sane.

Around the Place Bellecour, the massive 17th-century square where friends arrange to meet under the horse's tail of the equestrian statue of Louis XIV, are luxury stores and antiques shops.

Not far away, off the Place des Jacobins, is Rue Mercire, the city's main eating street with its rows of "bouchons," the homestyle bistros where locals and tourists sit elbow to elbow eating Lyonnaise specialties such as pig's feet in mustard sauce and boudin noir, washed down with half-liters of Ctes-du-Rhne and Beaujolais.

The most alluring restaurant on the street, though, is Chez Moss, where shellfish gourmands order L'avalanche, a towering $112 pile of oysters, clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, prawns, conches, and winkles. For more modest appetites, there's the Plateau Moss, a $48 assortment served in a yard-long, ice-filled boat that easily accommodates two.

A few blocks away, where Place Antonin Poncet nudges the Rhne, is Le Sud, fabled chef Paul Bocuse's Mediterranean-themed restaurant. (He also has Le Nord, L'Est, and L'Ouest, all in Lyon.) Start with the marvelous eggplant caviar, then proceed to either the lamb with nicoise vegetables or the tajine with chicken and preserved lemons.

Lyon, proudly and unavoidably, is about food. If you can't wait until dinner, stop by the Halle de Lyon, the seven-day-a-week market not far from the Part-Dieu station, and stock up on bread, cheese, charcuterie, and marinated vegetables. Then head for the Parc de la Tte d'Or, the sprawling expanse on the north side of town, claim a swatch of greensward, and have a two-hour "djeuner sur l'herbe" with a bottle (or two) of Chiroubles. The local waiters say it's the hidden treasure of Beaujolais.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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