Le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrivé!
Sadly, the marketeers of Beaujolais nouveau no longer use the phrase Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé! (“The new Beaujolais has arrived!”) to trumpet its late-November appearance in wine shops. That slogan, dropped in 2005, stoked unreasonable enthusiasm for a purply-red, ultra-young wine that at its best is enjoyably tasty but at its worst—which happens depressingly often—is plonk.
Beaujolais is the southernmost district in the French winegrowing region of Burgundy. Beaujolais’s red wines—and almost all Beaujolais wines are red—differ markedly from other Burgundy reds because they’re made from a different grape. In the rest of Burgundy, pinot noir predominates; in Beaujolais, it’s a grape called gamay (sometimes gamay noir). Gamay thrives in acidic soils and produces wines with a distinctive flavor and aroma (berrylike with notes of banana and pear) that are immediately recognizable to a savvy palate. This is due partly to the grape itself, partly to how gamay is traditionally fermented. In the carbonic maceration method, whole clusters are crammed into large vessels to begin fermenting before the juice is pressed from them.
Most Burgundy wines, including those from Beaujolais, are produced not by individual estates but by wine merchants, called négociants, who buy grapes or raw wine from growers, then complete the winemaking process. Among the négociants of Beaujolais, one name reigns supreme: Georges Duboeuf, a native Burgundian who has tirelessly promoted the wines of Beaujolais throughout his career. Duboeuf even coined the “Beaujolais nouveau” moniker. And it’s Duboeuf’s Beaujolais nouveau you’re likeliest to find in your local wine shop.
Unlike almost any other wine, Beaujolais nouveau isn’t aged. It’s basically just fermented, bottled and shipped lickety-split. It’s never a terribly interesting wine, but youth has other virtues, and Beaujolais nouveau can be crisply, fruitily refreshing. (Best to serve it slightly chilled.) Unfortunately, vintages are extremely unpredictable, and Beaujolais nouveau may differ by producer as well as by year. Despite the annual fanfare, Beaujolais nouveau’s quality typically ranges from the decent to the barely drinkable.
And then there are the years when Beaujolais nouveau is ghastly. But does the variable quality of Beaujolais nouveau justify its being called vin de merde, i.e., “shit wine”? That’s how wine critic François Mauss described it in a 2002 interview, setting off a firestorm. Beaujolais vintners sued Lyon Mag, the newspaper that published the interview. They won the case, then lost on appeal. In a 2006 scandal likewise damaging to Beaujolais’s reputation, famed négociant Georges Duboeuf, so powerful a force in the region that he’s sometimes called the King of Beaujolais, was fined by a French court for mixing wines from different sources—a fraudulent practice under the appellation d’origine contrôlée system, which strictly regulates the production of French wine.
Georges Duboeuf is doubtless a marketing whiz, having transformed a French vin primeur (“early wine”) formerly little known outside Burgundy into an internationally recognized brand. Significantly, Beaujolais nouveau’s release date is at least partly responsible for its success in the U.S. market. Each year, Beaujolais nouveau becomes available on the third Thursday of November—that is, one week before Thanksgiving. As it happens, Beaujolais nouveau isn’t a bad choice to serve with traditional Thanksgiving fare. Its fruitiness will please guests not in the habit of drinking wine, and it’s both light enough to complement the turkey’s white meat and robust enough (well, sometimes) to hold its own against drumstick and thigh. Trouble is, nouveau’s popularity has tended to overshadow other, superior Beaujolais wines. Your Thanksgiving table will be all the more impressive if you serve a Beaujolais-Villages, an ordinary “village” wine but usually a huge step up from nouveau. Or even better, choose a wine from one of the 10 Beaujolais crus, wines judged good enough to carry their own distinct names. These days cru wines from the Beaujolais communes of Brouilly, Fleurie and Juliénas, among others, can be found at many better wine shops.
In October 1621, about a year after the Mayflower made landfall at what is now Plymouth, Massachusetts, the Pilgrims and the Native Americans they’d befriended sat down together for a harvesttime feast—marking the first Thanksgiving. But if you want your family’s repast to resemble what the Pilgrims ate and drank, you won’t serve Beaujolais nouveau. In fact, you won’t serve wine at all, since the Pilgrims rarely drank it. What they mostly drank was beer, which for most northern Europeans of the time was a source of daily sustenance. The story that the Pilgrims chose to disembark at Plymouth rather than continue their voyage farther south (as originally intended) because the Mayflower’s store of beer was running low is probably apocryphal. But setting up a brewing operation certainly was a top priority on these settlers’ agenda. The historical record, however, seems silent on whether there was any beer—brought by supply ships or brewed from the maize the Indians had taught the Pilgrims to grow—at that first Thanksgiving. No matter. Have some anyway—perhaps one of those pumpkin ales today’s craft breweries offer at harvesttime. The Pilgrims would approve.
Freshness isn’t generally a virtue in wines. Most, even lighter white wines, have to age, or mature, for a time in a tank, barrel or bottle before becoming drinkable. And certain wines, not only reds but also a smattering of whites, gradually improve over long periods of time. Without question, Beaujolais nouveau does not belong in this category. If you have a bottle that’s six months old, just chuck it.
Beer is different. A few beers become better when aged, but freshness—after a brief maturing period at the brewery—is paramount for most. Oktoberfest, the annual harvesttime beer bash in Munich, Germany (which has spawned numerous such festivals worldwide), actually began as a way to unload beer that otherwise would have gone stale. This was beer brewed back in March to last through the summer—that’s why Oktoberfest-style beer is also known as Märzen, German for “March.” Once the grain harvest was in and fresh beer brewed, the barrels of leftover March beer had to be emptied to make room for the new. What better excuse for a drinking party?
Beaujolais nouveau’s international popularity dates only to the 1980s, when it first became widely available throughout Europe, the United States and eventually Asia. But new Beaujolais wine has long been enjoyed in France. Historically, Beaujolais winemakers would use a portion of each year’s harvest for the production of this vin de l’année (“wine of the year”—that is, the year of harvest). They delivered most of it to cafés and restaurants in the city of Lyon (just south of Beaujolais), where quaffing the bracing, grapey wine was a regular autumn ritual.
It wasn’t until 1985 that the Union Interprofessionnelle des Vins du Beaujolais, a regional wine industry association, designated the third Thursday in November (at precisely 12:01 a.m.!) as the official release date. That early date—awfully early for the release of even a brand-new wine—is possible because the gamay grape is so quick to ripen; the wine harvest in Beaujolais typically occurs in August. By contrast, the wine harvest in the rest of Burgundy, which produces pinot noir grapes for red wines and chardonnay grapes for whites, doesn’t begin until the middle of September or slightly later.