Few of us wine drinkers understand exactly why we do it, but it has become one of the rituals of the fall: On the third Thursday in November, the release date for Beaujolais Nouveau, people around the world engage in an intense competition to be the first to taste the bottling. Let’s look at just what led to the annual celebration of the wine’s official release.
Beaujolais Nouveau basics: For centuries, many wine estates have been making some form of new wine to give to their harvest workers. After all, it’s cheaper than having them drink the prime stuff. Beaujolais Nouveau is harvested, fermented and immediately bottled without aging. In France, it’s illegal to sell it after January 1.
Taste profile: Beaujolais is known for its vivid flavors of fresh berries, and Nouveau is no exception. It is light in texture and alcohol content and goes down easily. It’s a red that appeals to white wine drinkers. Nouveau makes a good aperitif and pairs well with an assortment of finger foods, fish and white meat dishes—including that Thanksgiving turkey.
Stylish sipping: Beaujolais Nouveau always enjoyed some popularity, first in the bistros of Lyon and later in Paris. It became fashionable more widely after World War II. However, many observers trace its worldwide popularity back to the late 1970s. California wine was on the rise, and sales of French wine were declining in America for the first time. Winemaker Georges Duboeuf is often credited with the idea of making the Beaujolais Nouveau release a global event, and he succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.
The good: From a consumer point of view, Nouveau is a no-brainer. The wine is almost impossible to dislike. From the standpoint of producers, it’s a cash cow—a wine that allows them to rake in immediate income without expensive oak aging. To a winemaker or wine geek, Nouveau also provides the first clue as to what the Burgundy vintage will be like.
The bad: At first, the stepped-up marketing of Nouveau was a bonanza for the region, but after a few years, problems began to emerge. Many consumers got faulty impressions—that all Beaujolais was Nouveau; that they only ought to buy it in November; that Beaujolais wasn’t a serious wine; and that they should never pay more than $10 for it. In fact, the top Beaujolais from the 10 crus are some of the most glorious wines produced in France. In a good year, these wines easily rival the best Burgundies, though it would be hard to convince the average American wine drinker of that. Nouveau damaged the market for real Beaujolais in the United States, effectively tossing the region into a tailspin from which it still hasn’t recovered.
The myth: Many mistakenly believe Beaujolais doesn’t age well. In fact, top crus, such as Moulin-à-Vent or Brouilly, don’t reach their peak before four to six years and can last far longer than that. When I visited Mommessin, I tasted 15- and 16-year-old examples of Brouilly that were bright, fresh and pristine. So go ahead and race to the Nouveau kickoff, but later slow down to savor some serious Beaujolais.
Bottles to Seek Out
The hopes of Beaujolais producers are high this year after a disappointing 2012 harvest that was plagued by rain. The most reliable Nouveau in the United States comes from the large négociants, or wine merchants, who blend wine from dozens or hundreds of different growers.