Philip Day discusses Beaujolais Nouveau
Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé! This detailed article by Philip Day includes history, viticulture and recommendations
All over France on Thursday 16th November, 2017 corks will be pulled out of bottles of wine to mark this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau day – the day when bottles of 2017 Beaujolais Nouveau wine hit the shelves.
It’s one of the best known festivals in France’s jam-packed cultural calendar and is still passionately celebrated all over the world.
As several of my acquaintances locally have been asking me to explain what all the fuss is about and how Beaujolais Nouveau differs from other wines originating from the historical Province of Beaujolais, the wine producing region to the north of Lyon, I thought I’d write about a few facts to introduce the phenomenon.
What is it that makes Beaujolais Nouveau so popular? Particularly in the U.S. where generally, consumption of red wine is less than 30%? The main reason is simply that Beaujolais Nouveau is as about as close to white wine as a red wine can get. As a result of the way it is produced the number of phenolic compounds, in particular the astringent tannins, normally found in red wines are dramatically reduced, leaving an easy to drink, fruity wine. This, coupled with the fact that like many white wines, it tastes best when chilled, makes for a wine to be readily quaffed rather than sipped; enjoyed with groups of friends rather than critiqued or saved.
Beaujolais had always made a vin de l’année to be drunk to celebrate the end of the harvest, but until the end of World War II it was predominantly a local phenomenon, consumed in the local bars, cafes, and bistros of Beaujolais and Lyons. Each autumn the new Beaujolais wine made relatively quickly to drink while the better Beaujolais wines were taking a more leisurely slumber in oak barrels, was drunk by an eager population.
Eventually, the government stepped into regulate the sale of all this quickly transported, free-flowing wine. Once the Beaujolais AOC was established in 1937, AOC rules meant that Beaujolais wine could only be officially sold after 15 December in the year of the harvest.
After the war years, in 1951, the region’s governing body, the Union Interprofessional des Vins de Beaujolais (UIVB), revoked the earlier regulations, and Beaujolais Nouveau was officially recognized, with an official release date set at November 15th. By this time, what had been just a local tradition had gained so much popularity that the news of it reached Paris. The race was born. It wasn’t long thereafter that the word spilled out of France and around the world.
In 1985, the date was again changed to the third Thursday of November to take best advantage of marketing over the following weekend. No matter wherever the new Beaujolais was shipped to, importers had to agree not to sell it before midnight on the third Thursday of November. Hence the current release practice is to ship the wine ahead of the third Thursday of November and release it to the local markets at 12:01 a.m. local time.
Some of the members of the UIVB saw the potential for marketing Beaujolais Nouveau. Not only was it good a way to clear batches of vin ordinaire at a good profit, but selling wine within weeks of the harvest would greatly assist cash flow, while producers waited for their main products to mature. Hence the idea of a race to Paris carrying the first bottles of the new vintage was born. The event attracted a lot of media coverage and by the 1970s, the race to get Beaujolais Nouveau into shops and restaurants had become a national event. The races spread to neighbouring countries in Europe in the 1980s, followed by North America, adding markets in Asia in the 1990s.
It rise to fame was a triumph of marketing and promotion, mostly thanks to the efforts of Georges Duboeuf, the largest négociant in the region and a tireless promoter of Beaujolais and Beaujolais Nouveau. Its was Dubeouf who came up with the famous tag-line: ‘Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!’
The popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau is on the wane. Some ten million fewer bottles are sold today than in the 1980s, as lighter styles of wine have generally fallen out of favour internationally, as consumers look to richer wine styles with more complexity. Still around half of all wine made in the Beaujolais region is still sold as Beaujolais Nouveau. In 2005 the tag-line was changed to ‘It’s Beaujolais Nouveau Time!’.
In the United States, Beaujolais Nouveau is heavily promoted as a drink to celebrate Thanksgiving, which always falls exactly one week after the wine is released. Many producers release the nouveau with colourful or abstract design labels that change every year. The Duboeuf company also has silk ties with their label’s abstract design made each year, releasing them through select wholesalers and distributors.
The very short production time span means that the winemakers have to use special yeasts and artisanal techniques to speed up the fermentation process. This fact alone causes many wine snobs to refuse to go anywhere near it, referring to it as ‘imbuvable’ (undrinkable).
In spite of its reputation among wine snobs, over 28 million bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau produced each year, several million of which head Stateside and in Japan the wine is immensely popular, particularly at the country’s wine spa, where people can even bathe in the drink.
On a technical note, Beaujolais Nouveau wine should strictly speaking, be termed ‘Beaujolais Primeur‘. Under French and European rules, a wine released during the period between its harvest and a date in the following spring, is termed as ‘vin primeur‘. Any wine released during the period between its own and the following years harvest, is termed ‘vin nouveau‘. I’m not going to be pedantic!
The region of Beaujolais is only 54.7 km (34 miles) long from north to south and 11 to 14.5km (7 to 9 miles) in width. There are approximately 4,000 grape growers who make their living in this picturesque region just north of Lyon, France’s third largest city.
Most Beaujolais Nouveau, taking its name from the historical Province of Beaujolais, is produced from grapes grown in the southern part of Beaujolais on the plains just north of Lyon in the northern part of the Rhône department and southern area of the Saône-et-Loire department of the region of Burgundy. (Although, the ‘nouveau’ designation can also apply to wines made under the Beaujolais Villages appellation, grown in vineyards in the northern part of Beaujolais, as ‘Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau‘.)
The region’s more serious wines are grown in the hillier terrains of northern Beaujolais. In southern (or ‘Bas’) Beaujolais, where there is more clay in the soils, which do not warm the vineyards as efficiently as the drier, granitic soils to the north, the grapes grown are not as complex in their flavours as they undergo ripening; rather, the flavours are light and fruity, well suited to the production of Beaujolais Nouveau.
Beaujolais Nouveau is made from the Gamay Noir à jus blanc grape, usually referred to simply as Gamay, the only grape permitted for Beaujolais. The grapes which were introduced into France by the Romans, must come from the Beaujolais AOC region but not from the ten ‘cru’ appellations. Grapes for the Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau come from the non-cru villages in the region.
By strict wine laws, all grapes in the region must be harvested by hand.
Beaujolais Nouveau owes its ease of drinking to a wine-making process called ‘carbonic maceration’, also called ‘whole berry anaerobic fermentation’. This technique leaves the resultant wines light in body preserving the fresh, fruity qualities of the wine, without extracting bitter tannins from the grape skins, rendering them almost entirely free of tannins. It is because of this lack of tannin that the Beaujolais Nouveau wines do not age well, lacking the necessary structure to do so.
The harvested grapes are loaded into large (typically 76,000 litres) sealed containers filled with carbon dioxide. The grapes that are gently crushed at the bottom of the container by the weight of the grapes above them starting to ferment, giving off even more CO2. All this carbon dioxide then causes fermentation to take place inside the uncrushed grapes.
Reflecting its youth, having been bottled only 6–8 weeks after harvest, the finished Beaujolais Nouveau wine is purple-pink in colour. Its method of production means that as there is very little tannin present, the wine can be dominated by such fruity ester (fragrant chemical compounds) flavours as banana, grape, strawberry, fig and even pear drops. They can also have a bouquet that is often compared to candied cherries, red plums, bananas and even bubblegum.
It is recommended to serve Beaujolais Nouveau and Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau wines slightly chilled. At about 13°C (55°F) the wine is more refreshing and its fruity flavours are then more apparent than if it is served at room temperature.
Beaujolais Nouveau and Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau wine is intended for immediate drinking. While some Nouveau can be kept for a year or two, there’s no real reason to, as it doesn’t improve with age.
While its the Beaujolais Nouveau that gets all the headlines, it’s far from the only wine made in the region. Although around a half of the Beaujolais region’s vineyards are dedicated to producing Beaujolais Nouveau, the other vineyards of the area produce wines such as Beaujolais AOC, Beaujolais-Villages AOC and Beaujolais Cru – the highest category of wine, where the name Beaujolais will not even appear on the bottle label but rather the name of the village: Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Morgon, Saint-Amour, Chenas, Julienas and Chiroubles.
If predictions are correct, the 2017 Beaujolais Nouveau will rely more on elegance than on power but will maintain a perfect balance between acidity, fruit and structure.
The race from grape to glass may seem silly to the outsider but half the fun is knowing that on the same night, in homes, cafés, restaurants, pubs, bars and bistros around the world, the same celebration of this year’s harvest is taking place.
Although Beaujolais Nouveau hasn’t the pedigree to be a classic wine, it is from a reliable parentage and should always good. Any other opinion can be frankly dismissed as ungracious and unenlightened.
All wine experts agree that there are all sorts of winemakers: good, bad, mediocre, industrial and artisanal.
Among all the different kinds of Beaujolais Nouveau, there are good ones to be found. The difference between good and bad is the reputation of the winemaker.
If the grapes are good, thanks to the vagaries of the weather and the wine has been fermented properly, then there is absolutely no reason why it should be bad.
If the wine has been harvested too early, however and the grapes are too green or picked too late so that they are overloaded with various unwanted bi-products, the result is not going to be that great.
Here’s twelve Beaujolais Nouveaux and Beaujolais-Villages Nouveaux to look out for:
- Despres Domaine de la Madone Beaujolais Villages Nouveau, Beaujolais, France
- Louis Tete Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais, France
- Vignerons de Bel-Air Beaujolais Villages Nouveau, Beaujolais, France
- Albert Bichot Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau, France
- Paul Durdilly Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais, France
- Jean-Paul Brun Domaine des Terres Dorees ‘Cuvee Premiere’ Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais, France
- Manoir du Carra Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais, France
- Joseph Drouhin Beaujolais Villages Nouveau, Beaujolais, France
- Dupeuble Pere et Fils Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais, France
- Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Villages Nouveau, Beaujolais, France
- Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais, France
The 2017 Beaujolais Nouveau will arrive on November 16, 2017.
Pick up a bottle and join in the fun. À votre santé!
- Lichine, Alexis (1967).Alexis Lichine’s Encyclopedia of Wines and Spirits. London: Cassell & Company Ltd.
- Johnson H & Robinson J (2013) The World Atlas of Wine 7th Edition, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., London.
- Johnson H, (2017) Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book, 2016, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., London
- MacNeil, Karen (2015) The Wine Bible, Workman Publishing Co., Inc., New York.