What is Beaujolais Nouveau?

The third Thursday in November is the date for a wine phenomenon each and every year.  “Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive” marks the worldwide marketing campaign for this unlikely wine.  What is Beaujolais Nouveau and how did we get here?

Under the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) wine regulations of France, wine released in the year the grapes were harvested must be labeled nouveau or vin (de) primeur.  Each AOC will determine the specific dates the wine may be released.  These wines are fruity wines that have just barely made the change from grape juice to wine.  They are made quickly, barely allowing time for the grapes to ferment.  Some versions are sweet as they have not completed their fermentations and still have some residual sugar. 

There are a several purposes to making such a wine.  First, it allows everyone to get an initial impression of the vintage.  Even at this early stage, one can taste the ripeness of the grapes and the potential depth of the wines.  Second, and for most wineries, the most important reason is that it generates cash flow for the winery.  At the time of year when the wine growers need money for bottling and preparing for the next season, these sales can be the life blood of cash into the winery. 

Although there are over 50 AOC nouveau wines produced, by far, the most famous is Beaujolais Nouveau. 

Beaujolais is a wine region that is technically part of the Burgundy wine region of France.  While most of Burgundy uses the Pinot Noir grape for its red wines, Beaujolais uses the Gamay grape.  The fruity Gamay grape may be more suited than most grapes for making a nouveau wine.  For more information on the region and some its wines see Wines of Burgundy's Beaujolais Wine Region: Quality You Might Not Expect

The Beaujolais AOC regulations require that the grapes come from the Beaujolais AOC excluding the higher quality Beaujolais Cru AOCs which make more “serious” wines.  The grapes are harvested by hand but do not go thru the typical fermentation process.  Rather, they go thru a carbonic maceration.  Instead of crushing the grapes and allowing the juice to ferment, carbonic maceration allows the whole grapes to ferment.  The grapes are put into a vessel and the weight of the grapes will crush some of the bottom grapes which begin to ferment.  The remainder of the juice still inside the uncrushed grapes will also ferment.  The wine is pasteurized to prevent secondary malolactic fermentation.  The whole process can be accomplished in about six weeks.  This type of fermentation can produce a drinkable wine more quickly, although the wine will never be great or one capable of ageing. 

Total production of Beaujolais Nouveau is over five million cases with about half of that destined for export markets in Germany, Japan and the United States.  That is over half of the entire production of Beaujolais. 

The release on the third Thursday of November is a more recent phenomenon.  Historically, a vin de l'année was released shortly after harvest and consumed locally.  These wines were served in the local cafés and as far away as Lyon which was reachable via river.  There was some fanfare about the release but mostly it was an inexpensive and tasty beverage that locals had pride in.  With the adoption of the AOC system, this early release was no longer permitted requiring the wineries to produce a nouveau wine.  Over the years, the AOC Beaujolais Nouveau release date changed from December 15, to November 13th.  A local trade organization was formed called the Union Interprofessionnelle des Vins du Beaujolais (UIVB) which set the date at November 15th.  Led by marketing genius and Beaujolais producer Georges Duboeuf, the UIVB set out to create a marketing event out of the release.  A race was created where the objective was to see who could arrive in Paris first with the first Beaujolais Nouveau of the year.  The race become a phenomenon, first in France, then Europe and by the 1970s was garnering press worldwide.  In the 1980s, the race itself was expanded to worldwide locations culminating in the 1990s with end points in Japan and the United States.  Over the years, wines were carried by race car, motorcycle, airplane and even the Concord. 

In 1985, the UIVB changed the release date to the third Thursday in November to ensure the festivities would be enjoyed over that following weekend.  By the end of the 1990s, events were staged in almost every major city of the wine drinking world.  The theme was Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!  Since that time, the demand has fallen, and while not quite the juggernaut it was, there is still much fanfare.  In 2005, the slogan, however, was updated to It's Beaujolais Nouveau Time!  In the United States, marketing has also tied the release with the Thanksgiving holiday, which is that time of year. 

The wine itself is purple in color with some lavender hues to it.  It is very light in body.  There are little or no tannins as the juice was not allowed to be in contact with the skins of the grapes as is traditionally done with red grapes.  The wines taste very fruity with lots of strawberry and raspberry flavors.  Often they have a banana quality as well.  It is recommended to drink the wine slightly chilled. 

The general recommendation for Beaujolais Nouveau is to drink it in the first year.  I would wait that long and recommend drinking it by New Years.  Its best quality is its freshness.  I don’t find that it is harmed by shipping and distribution, so it is as good on the day one brings it home from the store as it will ever be.  Please note, that I am talking only about the Beaujolais Nouveau wines.  Beaujolais, especially from the Cru’s, will last in a good cellar. 

Don’t expect anything profound just a light, fruity drink.  Taken in that manner, it can be a fun one as well.  Accordingly, the food should be lighter as well.  It does actually go well with a typical Thanksgiving meal of Turkey and especially cranberry sauce.  Also ham or cheese dishes work well.  I don’t find that it works well as a cocktail, due to its lightness, and that it really is better suited to serving with food. 

The wines can be found almost anywhere wine is sold.  The Duboeuf wines are probably the most common.  These wines are known for their very colorful labels, a trait which many other producers have also cashed in on.  I wouldn’t spend more than $10 on a bottle, and hopefully a few dollars less.  Other producers to look for would include Mommessin, Drouhin, and Bouchard, three venerated Burgundy Nègociants who have gotten into the Beaujolais Nouveau game in recent years.  There have been more and more of the better, smaller producers making wines as well.  I have not tried many of these yet, but Domain Dupeuble got rave reviews for their 2009 (although that was also a great vintage). 

As for vintage, only drink it in the year it was made.  By the time we know how good the actual vintage is; the Beaujolais Nouveau wines are already too old.  While 2009 and 2010 are stellar vintages in Beaujolais, it’s too late for their nouveau’s.  In the end, I doubt it really matters.  Beaujolais Nouveau is not about great wine.  It’s about celebrating the harvest and enjoying ones friends and family.