A guide to the best Beaujolais—and no, we don't mean nouveau.

The French certainly know how to complicate a wine drinker's life. Without the help of a map, a book or a well-informed wine-shop clerk, how is anyone but an enthusiast supposed to know what to make of a wine called Régnié or Côte de Brouilly? Taking a magnifying glass to the label won't help much—all you'll learn is that the wine is from a French appellation most likely bottled in a place with a name like Romanêche-Thorins. If you're very, very lucky, there might be a back label, but don't be surprised if it's all in French and obsessively focused on the venerable age of the château where the wine was made or the number of generations the vineyards have belonged to the family. Helpful wine-shop owners may well have stacked these wines—which (mystery revealed) are Cru Beaujolais—alongside the red Burgundies. And they are right to do so, because Beaujolais is part of Burgundy. As a result, countless shoppers have probably carried these wines home in the misguided expectation that they'd taste like red Burgundy. The fact is, they won't. The southern part of Burgundy, where Cru Beaujolais are made, has a different climate (warm) and a different soil (granite) than the rest of the region. Cru Beaujolais are also made from an altogether different grape than red Burgundy—Gamay, not Pinot Noir.

The wines they actually do resemble are the ones simply labeled "Beaujolais" and "Beaujolais-Villages." In fact Cru Beaujolais come from the same region and are made from the same grape variety, grown in more or less the same soil and climate. But you won't find the word Beaujolais on their labels. Instead, they'll simply be labeled Régnié, Côte de Brouilly, Morgon and so on—for they are all named after the areas within Beaujolais where they were made. Cru Beaujolais are supposed to be the best wines that the Beaujolais region can produce. Which, in the wine world of the twenty-first century, is a little bit like being an aristocrat from a particularly obscure European country.

Before going further, I have to declare my personal preference. Although I enjoy drinking a ludicrously wide range of wine styles, I have a special affection for the wines grown in the hills of Beaujolais. At their best, they brim over with the flavors of freshly picked berries, cherries and even dark chocolate. Their soft, easy-going texture means they go much better with food than most 90-plus-point Cabernets. Try one, for example, with a creamy cheese such as Camembert or Brie and you'll never dream of drinking a Bordeaux with either again. They're also great party wines—ideal for drinking through a long evening. In short, Beaujolais is fun, and Cru Beaujolais offer some of the highest-grade fun of all.

Unfortunately, fun isn't high on the list of attributes valued by wine critics today, who seem to prefer to be seduced—not to say ravished—by wines that are black rather than red, packed with spicy, intense flavors and tannins, and wrapped up in generous amounts of new oak. Compared with most of the wines that get high scores nowadays, even the biggest Cru Beaujolais seem like a quaint set of bicycles in a Harley-Davidson showroom.

Some producers are bending with the winds of fashion. Beaune-based merchant Louis Jadot, for example, makes Cru Beaujolais that have become increasingly big, rich and woody. Even Georges Duboeuf, dubbed "the King of Beaujolais," who introduced this wine to the world, makes a Moulin-à-Vent that proudly declares its oakiness with the words Elevé en Fut de Chêne on the label. These wines, for a real Beaujolais lover, are like a 1,340-cc engine bolted onto one of those bicycles. But Duboeuf's other wines, and those of smaller producers such as Trenel, offer the chance to experience traditional Beaujolais style at its best. To help you discover what Cru Beaujolais are all about, I'll provide descriptions of how they should taste—and the names of some producers worth looking for.

Until this village won its battle for Cru Beaujolais status (in 1988), the wines produced here were sold under the humbler regional appellation of Beaujolais-Villages. Unfortunately, simply tapping a peasant on the shoulder with a sword doesn't instantly give him aristocratic manners; there are plenty of rustic examples of wines carrying the name Régnié that compare poorly with the best producers' Beaujolais-Villages. But the good, vibrantly fruity efforts by winemakers such as Noël Aucoeur, Dominique Piron, Joël Rochette and Georges and Gilles Roux are all worth looking for. Drink within three years of the vintage.

Beaujolais for Beaujolais lovers, this is the village whose wines are least likely to be banged on the head with oak barrels. The altitude here is high, and the vines are grown in a natural amphitheater, more than 1,250 feet above the plain, where lesser wines are produced. This altitude and the granite-sand soil make for lovely, delicate, violet-scented wines that go wonderfully with the charcuterie (cold meat) that is popular in the region. Georges Duboeuf makes a good, widely available example, but wines from growers such as Emile Cheysson, Hubert Lapierre and Alain Passot are all fine, too. Drink young, certainly within three years of the vintage.

Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly
The words Côte de reveal the difference in the locations of these two neighboring appellations. Brouilly's vines are on the foothills of the Mont de Brouilly, while those of Côte de Brouilly are on the steeper, higher slopes. The style of the two wines is similar—a little heftier than Chiroubles or Régnié. The granite-and-schist soil also gives them greater longevity, especially in the case of the Côte de Brouilly. The best of these wines can improve for up to five years. Château Thivin makes one of my favorite examples of Côte de Brouilly, and the Château du Grand Vernay and Jacques Depagneux are names to remember, too. Laurent Martray and the Château de Tours produce good Brouilly.

Isn't this the most romantically named wine? It seems unfair to reveal that this Beaujolais has nothing to do with love. But in fact the wine owes its name to a Roman soldier, Amator, who was martyred for his Christian beliefs. I prefer the romantic angle—especially as this wine from the northernmost part of the region produces beautiful, soft, seductive, mid-weight wines with a chocolaty note that makes them perfect wines for Valentine's Day. Good young, they last for four years or so. André Poitevin, Georges Trichard and Domaine des Billards all produce some very notable Saint-Amours.

Another memorably appropriate name, this appellation really does produce wines that smell of freshly picked flowers. Situated between Chiroubles and Moulin-à-Vent, its Crus Beaujolais have the same kind of perfume found in the wines of the former village and some of the weight of those from the latter. Possibly the Cru Beaujolais most people have heard of, it sells for high—often too high—prices. Look for wines from individual vineyards, such as the "Point du Jour" and "La Madonne," and from producers such as Paul Beaudet, Georges Duboeuf, Berrod, Pierre Ferraud and Domaine de la Treille. Fleurie can improve with age, but I prefer to drink it within three or four years of the vintage.

This is another appellation whose wines can be good values. Located in the north of the region and grown in granite soil, the wines are full of wonderfully zippy fruit when young but deserve to be left for a year or so to evolve richer, more complex flavors. They can then be kept for up to eight years. Gérard Descombes, Pascal Granger and Raymond Trichard are all good producers.

One of the least-known of the Cru Beaujolais, this is a bit of a curiosity. Its name suggests a naturally oaky flavor that may be attributed to the silty soils of the land, situated to the north of Fleurie. At its best, Chénas is a quite rich, medium-weight wine with a little less immediate fruit than some of its neighbors. However, it is often more attractively priced. Wines from good producers such as Louis Champagnon, Hubert Lapierre and the Château de Chénas can last up to five or six years.

This is the wine that the winemakers of the region often claim is the best—largely because of its greater concentration of flavor and its potential for aging. (These are also the qualities that are cited to justify aging it in new oak barrels.) The flavor is often more of plums than cherries though it has a vibrant, berry-ish style when young. By 10 years of age it becomes more and more like a mature red Burgundy. To my mind, however, old Beaujolais rarely tastes as good as old Burgundy—or, for that matter, better than young Beaujolais. So I drink my Moulin-à-Vent from three to seven years of age. Producers I like include Paul Janin, Benoît Trichard and Château du Moulin-à-Vent.

This is one of my favorite Cru Beaujolais, the exception to the rule. At its youngest, Morgon can seem dull and unyielding but give it a couple of years and it blossoms into intensely cherry-ish life, often with notes of dark chocolate and even a hint of apricot. Leave it for a few more years and it becomes richer and deeper—a process for which the locals have even invented a verb: morgoner. It's good at varying ages, from three to 10 years. Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard and Château de Raousset are all good, as are the wines of Jean Descombes, which are sold by Duboeuf.