How does a region choose a grape? Back in July 1395, the "Gamay" grape was forbidden to be used in Burgundy. Beaujolais, the southern neighbor, decided it should use Gamay and make its wines from this grape. And thus started a differentiation that continues to this day. Today, 98% of this region is planted with Gamay; the rest is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
The Beaujolais region is made up of 55,000 acres, more than the three other regions of Burgundy combined. Beaujolais itself is split in two by the Nizerand River - north is Haut-Beaujolais with light soil. This produces the Beaujolais-Villages wines and all ten Crus. South of the river are the Bas-Beaujolais.
Beaujolais is very light, fruity, and easy to drink. It typically has aromas of pear, banana, and like smells. Because of its easy drinkability, there is a lot of cheap, jug wine - normally served in 46cl (note this is NOT 1.2 gallon as the Oxford Wine Guide says!) containers. On the other hand, the Crus produce fine quality, crafted wines. Beaujolais Nouveau is the first output from each harvest - ready exactly on the Third Thursday of November each year. It's a celebration across the world, as people gather to taste the first Beaujolais of the new season.
Around half of "Beaujolais" is from Bas Beaujolais, at 10% alcohol. A small amount is Beaujolais Superieur, 10.5% alcohol. One quarter is Beaujolais-Villages, and the remainder is split beteween other varietals. Beaujolais has a distinct wine making method - a combination of carbonic maceration and chaptalization, or adding sugar to boost the alcohol content.
Beaujolais owes much of its fame to Georges Duboeuf, who promoted it far and wide. He controls 10% of Beaujolais production. Louis Jadot also creates a fine wine.
How long can you keep a Beaujolais for? Beaujolais Nouveau should be drunk IMMEDIATELY - it is barely even wine, being released so soon after the harvest. Most Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages should be drunk within 2 years. Some of the best crus can last 3, and some made in more 'traditional' winemaking styles could last up to 10 years if it's a really good vintage.