Food & Wine Thursdays: A Short Explanation of Beaujolais Nouveau

Today is “Beaujolais Nouveau Day” where, since the dawn of wine making history, we have gathered hunched and huddled in groups at the city gates and eagerly anticipated the arrival of fresh bottles of pink-purple wines, borne aloft on gilded palanquins studded with gems by members of a secret monastic group who, upon delivering their sacred charge, return to their mountaintop cloisters not to return again until the next third Thursday in November. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to its place where it ariseth.

(Or so I once read in some Georges Duboeuf marketing literature.)

Okay, so none of that is true save that the third Thursday in November is “Beaujolais Nouveau Day.” It is the first day each year where the “vins de primeur” from the Beaujolais AOC are legally allowed to be sold. But what is Beaujolais Nouveau and why should you care?

Beaujolais Nouveau , or “Bojo Novo” as nobody at all calls it, is the best known of the world’s “vins de primeur.” These are wines which are allowed to be released for sale in the same year they were harvested. Typically, wine grapes (in the Northern Hemisphere) are harvested from late August through early November, depending on region and grape variety. These wines made from conventional yeast fermentation are typically released the following year, meaning that grapes harvested in 2010 were released as wine in 2011. Whites and Roses are usually released in mid-Spring, Red wines typically in early Fall.

(And of course wines which undergo extensive oak and bottle aging before release are a different category. A “current vintage” of most premium Napa Cabernet is 2008, for instance.)

With Beaujolais Nouveau, however, a process called “carbonic maceration” allows for rapid wine making, where a wine goes from grape on the vine to bottle on the shelf in just six weeks. Whole grapes are put uncrushed into fermentation vessels and the vessels are filled with carbon dioxide. The anaerobic environment facilitates an enzymatic fermentation that takes place inside the whole berry. Besides ethanol, carbonic maceration also produces distinct phenols which give wines produced in this manner their unique flavors and aromas (often described as “bubble gum” or “banana”). Since, in the interest of time, the grape juice in a vin de primeur does not remain in contact with the grape skins for very long the wine is light red in color and has virtually no tannin, since both color and tannin in wine come from grape skins.

(It should be noted that Beaujolais Nouveau also undergoes a short secondary yeast fermentation and, also, most wines fermented in a closed container will undergo some degree of partial carbonic maceration. It isn’t a purely “you can get with this or you can get with that” proposition.)

So what’s the big deal with Beaujolais Nouveau?

There isn’t one. Vineyard workers would always take a small portion of the harvest to make a light, unaged fruity wine to drink at the end of the harvest, but this wine was exclusively drunk locally until the 1970s. Beaujolais AOC relaxed its rules and moved up the earliest release date for Beaujolais to November 15 of the harvest year which, as those of you doing the math at home have now realized, is the earliest date the third day of any month can be.

Recognizing the enormous cash flow advantage of selling a wine immediately after harvest, several Beaujolais producers worked to build an aura of excitement and anticipation around what is essentially a cheap wine made as quickly as possible. By the 1970s, led by negociant Georges Duboeuf (whose firm produces and markets nearly a fifth of all Beaujolais wine), they had successfully turned “Beaujolais Nouveau Day” into a national event which quickly spread to other European nations (Germany, in particular) and, by the 1980s, to the United States and Japan.

So Beaujolais Nouveau is essentially ordinary peasant wine which you have the privilege of paying $15+ a bottle for. Some of it is perfectly enjoyable and, at its best, has all the right components to pair well with Thanksgiving dinner, even if its Village and Cru Beaujolais cousins would be a much better fit for, honestly, not much more money.

But it’s a profoundly unnatural wine which is air-freighted around the world and that’s a lot of fuss (and emissions) over a truly ordinary vin ordinaire.

(I’ll still be at my local wine bar tonight to try a few of the 2011s. I’ll pretend it’s professional development.)

About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
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