By Ceila Strong
Well, in the wine world, there’s always the one new thing this time every year. Beaujolais Nouveau. (We usually call it Nouveau Beaujolais, but that is the Americanized version of the name; the French switches the order of the words because their adjectives follow the noun they refer to.) Either way, “nouveau” means “new” and in this case refers to the new Beaujolais wine of the current year. So, every year, there is another Nouveau Beaujolais. Despite whatever wine you currently like, the coming of each year’s Nouveau should be duly noted because of all it stands for. So, today, we’re going to remember, and maybe learn, some tidbits about Beaujolais and Nouveau and re-appreciate one of the world’s great wine phenomenons.
Beaujolais is a French wine appellation, located at the southern end of the Burgundy region, ending with the city of Lyon. The wines from this area are predominantly red, light bodied with relatively high levels of acidity, aromatic and distinctly “grapey” tasting. They are made from the Gamay grape, a thinner skinned red variety that is particularly well suited to “carbonic maceration,” a process in which whole grape clusters are put into cement or stainless steel tanks and the weight of the upper bunches crushes the grapes beneath them and the fermentation starts with the natural yeasts. Then, the carbon dioxide that is a by-product of fermentation seeps into the other whole grapes and their juice is fermented inside the skins. The resulting wine is very fruity (that “grapey” taste) and has very low tannin levels (the higher acidity).
There is a difference between regular Beaujolais wines and Nouveau Beaujolais. The new Beaujolais is a particularly young wine where the maceration takes as little as four days. By French wine law, the Nouveau is bottled 30 days after the harvest of the grapes and released for sale on the third Thursday of November. Not new Beaujolais, meaning regular, is fermented longer, develops more flavors, textures and tannins. In some cases, these wines are oak barrel aged as well and can be aged for up to 10 years. Within the hierarchy of Beaujolais wines, Beaujolais Villages is better than plain Beaujolais, and a Cru Beaujolais is better still.
So, what’s the big deal about Nouveau Beaujolais every year? Well, until so many southern hemisphere wines were available in the market, it was the first wine of the new vintage. In 2011, it would have been the first 2011 wine we’d see and been able to buy and drink. Because the Nouveau was available so soon, it was the obvious wine with which to celebrate the harvest. In a country like France where so many are involved in the wine business, and food as well, Beaujolais Day was basically a national holiday. The growth of this one day into a worldwide wine event is due mainly to one man, Georges Duboeuf, fondly know as “the king of Beaujolais” or “the pope of Beaujolais.”
Duboeuf is a wine grower and merchant and, obviously, a master merchandiser. Born in 1933 in southern Burgundy, he grew up working in vineyards. In 1964, after some failed attempts at organizing many of the small growers in the area, he founded Le Vins Georges Duboeuf. He now produces more than two and a half million cases of wine each year. It was his enthusiasm and vision in the late 1960’s that started the French craze for Nouveau Beaujolais. There was a race to Paris every year, between different producers, to get the Nouveau into bistros and restaurants first. This attracted a lot of media attention and, by the 1970’s became a national event. The races spread to neighboring countries in the 1980’s and then spread to North America and Asia. Several years ago, a limousine went to the Charleston airport at 12:01 a.m. on Beaujolais Day, picked up the first case of Nouveau and rushed it to a downtown French restaurant for an immediate tasting. In 1985, the official release date for Nouveau was changed to the third Thursday of November for the best marketing benefits. Duboeuf is still the biggest producer of Beaujolais wines.
Over the years, Duboeuf Nouveau has always been available. Every year the wine has a different label, a commissioned painting adapted for the bottle. This year’s is a graffiti-inspired bistro scene by a Brooklyn artist. Some people collect the bottles and labels. The 2011 wine is full of red cherry and banana fruit flavors. It is soft, juicy and bright. Its fresh acidity shows best when the wine is slightly chilled —about 20 or 30 minutes.
Some years, we’ve even been able to get one or two other Nouveau wines. This year, a second one is from Bouchard Aine. It is also full for red cherry flavors, light tannins and a bit more full bodied than the Duboeuf. Like with any other category of wine, there is a range of styles in Nouveau. When there is a chance to try more than one, why not? If we step back and remember that this wine celebrates the harvest of this year’s grapes, and Thanksgiving is a celebration from our country’s early history, maybe they should go together. Or, you can wait until Christmas dinner if you prefer. Although meant to be drunk young, Nouveau Beaujolais will last for several months. So, let’s celebrate for whatever reason. These wines are only about $10 each and fresh and fun. Happy Holidays! Enjoy.