This article is from Issue 7 of the magazine from author Mike Alexander. I’ll admit it, I rush out to the store to get the first batch in the fall as well!
At exactly one minute past midnight tonight, the third Thursday of November, it will be legal, under French law, to start marketing the 2013 vintage of Beaujolais nouveau. Only a few weeks ago those grapes still clung to the vine. Gamy Noir grapes to be precise first brought to France by the Romans and later cultivated by Benedictine monks.
Beaujolais nouveau is not a name you bandy about when you are on an evening out with your sophisticated wine connoisseur friends. The very name makes wine critics and better-educated writers wrinkle up their noses and reach for their vitriol pens. Unburdened by that degree of pretentiousness we can take a look at this little wine with less prejudice. Over the next few months there are plenty of big name European wines we can consider to sharpen our levels of snobbishness but for now, we shall just pretend we are ordinary mortals.
Beaujolais is a region of France just south of Burgundy. It is not very big, measuring just 34 miles by 7.9 miles, but having over 4000 vineyards. The area can be divided into two distinct areas split roughly by the Nizerand River. One region is made up of granite schist and the other of clays soils. As with nearly all wines in France, it is terroir that governs the wine and it is from the clay lowland that the Nouveau wine comes. All the fine quality cru wines, there are ten of them, come from the harsher schist soils.
The nouveau is produced by a quick fermentation process known as carbonic maceration where whole grapes are placed into giant vats which are sealed and filled with carbon dioxide. The grapes start to ferment and as the skins are not broken very little tannin is produced. This process is very quick and grapes that were harvested in September are now bottled and ready for sale. The result is a light fruity wine that does not lay down well but which is great now.
This wine was originally intended to be drunk by the workers after the harvest. Some producers, notably negociant Georges Dubouef saw this as a great marketing opportunity. He started a race to see who could get the first bottle to Paris and suddenly a craze for the new wine developed. Normally in a country so fond of its fine wines the excitement over this one might have ended there but George took the craze to a new level. In what has to be one of the wine industries greatest ever marketing coups. Suddenly the world was vying to get hold of the first bottle. In the 1970’s it took off all across France, by the mid-eighties it was all over Europe and in the mid-nineties, it took Asia by storm. Last year Japan was the biggest buyer and it is hoped that they will follow that trend again with the 2013 vintage.
Georges Duboeuf is a colorful character in the wine industry, frequently referred to as “le Roi du Beaujolais” ( king of Beaujolais) . He brings out a bright new label for each years wine and that label he matches to silk ties which he sells through select dealers. He has succeeded in taking a wine that may otherwise have been regarded as ordinary and turning it into a 50 million liter per year marketing extravaganza. Throughout France, there will be celebrations to welcome the new Beaujolais this week and some of those festivals will last the whole week long. That trend has now spread to every corner of the globe.
His success, however, has not won Duboeuf friends across the board. As many wine critics have turned up their noses at this product there has been a knock on effect to the more expensive Beaujolais wines such as Beaujolais-Village and most notably the top end Beaujolais “crus”. Most of the cru producers no longer even use the word Beaujolais on their labels but choose instead to mention only the name of the individual estate.
The nouveau is a fruity, light red wine, high in acid and low in tannin that has the scent of raspberry, cherry, and cranberry. It is never going to be an extraordinary wine but nor does it pretend to be. At this time of year, it is a fun wine to serve slightly chilled around a relaxed table of good friends. You should still be able to get a bottle for the next few months. No need to roll out the wagon, a good beef burger or a large bowl of spaghetti with some clams and a few tomatoes thrown in and you can be assured of a great evening. (Just don’t invite any real wine aficionados.)