France without pretense

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 California's Napa Valley , 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's but one museum to visit, 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 — 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.

"They're talking about building houses on this one," Perraud said, gesturing with disapproval at a sandy, denuded slope between two fields of glorious spring-green vines. (The sandy soil, produced by slowly eroding granite, is what makes the wine so good.) But the rest of the view, from the pine-green mountain range down across symmetrical vineyards to the broad Saone River Valley below, was sunny and glorious.

"On a clear day you can see the Alps," Perraud said brightly, the troubles of wine-selling forgotten for a moment. He bent down to a gnarled root. How old? "Forty years old, maybe more," he said with respect.

A few minutes later, we were inside the Perraud family winery &

a small but tidy workshop with a mechanical presser, a handful of fermentation tanks and a total of four oak casks for the family's best product, its Moulin-a-Vent. (The name means "windmill," after an old mill in a vineyard; it's one of those 10 special crus.) The tasting room was spartan &

a small wooden bar and a picnic table set on a pea-gravel floor &

but the tasting was free, and the wine was delicious. "Not bad," Perraud allowed. The price for a bottle of his best two-year-old Moulin-a-Vent: $9.50.

Another winery was just around the bend in the road, and another after that. The family-owned wineries of Beaujolais are tiny. Twenty-five acres of vines is considered a good-sized property; 18 acres is the average. A holding that size produces enough grapes for about 38,000 bottles of wine a year, but most of the fruit is sold to Georges Duboeuf, Louis Jadot or other big winemaking houses. In the Perrauds' case, two-thirds of their grapes go to Duboeuf; of the 20,000 or so bottles they make under their label, only about 1,000 qualify as Moulin-a-Vent.

In the evening, a few hours later, we stood on an old terrace in Julienas, two villages to the north, and watched the sun set over the same ridge after bathing the vineyards in golden light. We sat down for dinner in the courtyard of a charming restaurant, Le Coq a Julienas (coq au vin, delicious cheeses, several pages of wines from the neighborhood). And we repaired happily to a country inn, the Auberge de la Boucle, whose sole defect was the noisy debate, early the next morning, between the innkeeper's dog and a neighbor's angry goose.

The villages here are a few miles apart, tantalizingly close on the map. But the landscape is rugged enough &

all hills and canyons and switchbacks &

that our initial plans to hike a neat circuit through three or four villages a day turned out to be overly ambitious.

Happily, each village came to the rescue with its own little walking map: one trail for vineyards, one for forests, one to take you by the old chapel and so on. We discovered it was easiest to choose a village, start at the main square (inevitably centered on the church) and chart a hike along one or two of the designated paths, depending on how energetic we felt and how much time we had before the next meal. There are well-marked bike paths, too, both along the main highways and a converted rail bed.

Up in the hills, the traffic is sparse and unthreatening, unless you count the otherworldly appearance of insect-like high-rider tractors built for straddling 3-foot-tall vines.

From the village square in Fleurie, just down the hill from Vauxrenard, we followed a well-marked trail through a vineyard (the farmer politely returned our wave from his tractor) and a little wood, down paths lined by purple delphinium and along country roads punctuated by farmers' ornamental rosebushes.

The reward, after a 35-minute climb, was a hilltop chapel with another breathtaking view. The downhill walk to the village took 25 minutes, and the reward was lunch under an umbrella on the veranda of an old bistro: salade beaujolaise, a local specialty made with a poached egg, croutons, chopped tomatoes and chunky bacon on top of greens.

Among the region's wineries &

which could, by Day 3, turn into a bit of a blur &

the Chateau de La Chaize, the only classic big-chateau winery among the 10 crus, is worth mentioning. Relatives of Francois de La Chaize, one of Louis XIV's military officers, have been growing grapes and making wine here since 1676, clinging to the property through the revolution and wars. The winery is newer than the castle; it was built between 1771 and 1811 and is still being used.

The current proprietress, the Marquise de Roussy de Sales, inherited the chateau from an aunt who married into the La Chaize line; even if she's not technically a La Chaize, she has devoted herself to maintaining the winery, the chateau and its gardens full of boxwood and lavender. She has responded to the challenge of slumping consumer demand by marketing some of her low-end production in 5-liter boxes even as her high-end reserve de la marquise wins glowing reviews.

The marquise and her 242 acres are an exception. For most Beaujolais growers on smaller holdings, bottling proprietary wine is not economical.

Three-quarters of the region's grapes are sold to the wine merchants, the negociants, who blend, bottle and market Beaujolais worldwide. The largest is Georges Duboeuf, the marketing genius who made Beaujolais Nouveau a global phenomenon two decades ago. Duboeuf is the Robert Mondavi of Beaujolais, respected and resented in almost equal measures. He and his son Franck, his designated successor, buy about 20 percent of the grapes produced in this area. Like the Mondavis and Gallos of California, they would like more respect for the best wines their giant company makes, but the ocean of just-pretty-good wine that made the family fortune keeps getting in the way.

What to do with all the wine you've bought? As you know, you can't carry liquids onto the plane anymore. We packed three of our best finds &

wines that aren't sold in the United States &

inside our sturdiest suitcase, cushioned by shirts and sweaters. (Serious oenophiles buy foam packing forms.) All three bottles made it home, and we've already served them at dinner parties. It's hard to resist: "We found this outside the nicest little village in Beaujolais. Can't buy it here; they don't make enough to export. The winemaker said it was one of the best he'd ever made...."

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