The return of Beaujolais Nouveau
From the midst of an identity crisis, Beaujolais Nouveau is coming back and it has taken everyone by surprise, as Dominic Rippon discovered
As autumn takes hold and the vineyard leaves turn rich shades of gold and crimson, the fresh scent of fermenting grape must wafts through the villages of Beaujolais. At 12.01am on the third Thursday of November (the 19th in 2015), the new vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau will be released to the public. Winemakers race to ferment and bottle the year’s harvest in time for the annual festivities, which take place in Beaujeu, the region’s historic wine capital.
Beaujolais Nouveau is a primeur wine, released only weeks after the harvest and is not to be confused with en primeur wines from Bordeaux and Burgundy, which are sold long before they are even bottled. Although the tradition for primeur wines began in ancient Greece, where the new vintage was offered as a blessing to the god Dionysus, and was brought to France by the Romans, it was in Beaujolais that the modern festival was born.
In the 1960s, canny vigneron Georges Duboeuf recognised Nouveau’s potential to generate publicity; by the 1970s he had transformed the journey to Paris with the first bottles of Beaujolais into an annual celebration. Success followed elsewhere in Europe and then in the US, where the release of Nouveau coincides happily with Thanksgiving. Today it is Japan that keeps the flame alive, importing nearly half of all Beaujolais Nouveau.
But for all its apparent simplicity – as both a wine and a brand – Beaujolais Nouveau is a puzzle to many. In the 1990s and early 2000s, the wine was lambasted by critics across Europe and the US. They claimed – with much justification – that the brand had been used by complacent vignerons to unload inferior quality juice; which was compounded by accusations of fraud and the unlawful addition of sugar to grape must. Others complained that Nouveau’s brash, fruity flavour profile could be more cheaply replicated by winemakers in the New World. These criticisms rocked Beaujolais to its core, affecting not only Nouveau, but all of the region’s wines, which have since struggled.
I have always loved Beaujolais. The region’s landscape is charmingly beautiful, with sleepy villages hiding between gently undulating hills and some of France’s most interesting, if undervalued, vineyards. The promotional organisation Inter Beaujolais has spent years boosting the profile of the region’s 10 cru villages, among which are Morgon, Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent and Saint-Amour. These smaller AOPs (appellations d’origine protégées) create fuller, more complete wines than those from the larger Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages appellations; their distinct terroirs give wines of individual character, the best of which are toothsome country cousins of the finest reds from nearby Burgundy – and almost always better value.
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Yet despite Beaujolais’s identity crisis and subsequent shift in focus, I recently stumbled upon a surprising set of figures from Inter Beaujolais. They suggested that only one category of Beaujolais has consistently grown in the UK market since 2011: Beaujolais Nouveau! In only four years, the volume of Nouveau exported to the UK has risen from 80,500 to nearly 400,000 litres, despite the difficult 2012 and 2013 vintages.
Inter Beaujolais admits that no one is really sure what has prompted this surge in popularity, although there is quiet optimism in the UK trade that a new generation of wine drinkers is either ignoring, or are simply unaware of, Nouveau’s hitherto negative image. Restaurants and bars have rekindled their interest in Beaujolais Nouveau day and there is even speculation that the fashion for Nouveau has come full circle, entering the enviable realm of ‘retro cool’.
A unique wine
Everyone loves a good festival, but Nouveau is a wine that is best not judged by the usual standards. Most red wines begin life as crushed grapes, the juice from which is fermented by yeasts that live on the skins (or are added by the winemaker) that turn sugar into alcohol with the help of oxygen. Beaujolais Nouveau, by contrast, undergoes an anaerobic fermentation devoid of oxygen. Whole bunches of gamay grapes are placed in sealed vats and a process called carbonic maceration begins: a mysterious intra-cellular fermentation within the grapes themselves that has no need for yeast. Eventually, as the grapes burst, the yeasts take over, but the by-products of this initial fermentation are soft tannins and the aromas of candied red fruit and pear drops for which Nouveau is renowned.
Unlike most red wines, which are praised for their staying power, Nouveau must be drunk young: its lack of exposure to oxygen during fermentation leaves it vulnerable to spoilage – as anyone who has left a bottle of Nouveau open overnight will testify. So it’s a wine made to be quaffed within weeks or months of the harvest. And if good wine must be well mannered, Nouveau presents another challenge: its rasping, rustic flavours are of a wine in a brief, exuberant flush of youth, as impatient to show its character as its fans are to drink the first bottles.
Beaujolais Nouveau, then, is a wine for those who are excited by the first taste of what the vineyards have yielded only weeks earlier: a wine of celebration rather than reflection. So if you decide to join the festivities in Beaujolais this month, remember that Nouveau is best served slightly chilled and approached without dwelling too much on the past.
GETTING THERE: Beaujeu is 6hr 30min from the northern ferry ports; The train from Paris Gare de Lyon to Mâcon-Loché TGV takes 1hr 35min. The nearest airport is Lyon-Saint-Exupéry.
TOURIST INFORMATION: Villefranche Beaujolais tourist office, tel: (Fr) 4 74 07 27 40, www.villefranche-beaujolais.fr.
WINES: Inter Beaujolais, www.beaujolais.com.
Nouveau Pick: La Maison P-U-R ‘Production Unique Rebelle’ Beaujolais Nouveau. An organic, single-vineyard Nouveau, with ripe berry flavours that pair wonderfully with roast turkey (tel: (Fr) 9 65 03 13 33, www.vinpur.fr).
Like this? Then check out Ten things to know about Beaujolais Nouveau