A Wine for This Moment: Beaujolais Nouveau
The third Thursday of November elicits both cheers and jeers from the wine world. But no matter how you view the glass, this date means the arrival of freshly labeled Beaujolais Nouveau.
Beaujolais Nouveau—directly translated as “new Beaujolais”—is the very first release of new wine made from grapes picked just six to eight weeks before bottling. The practice started as a way for locals to enjoy the fruits of their labor after an exhausting harvest season, and the cheap and cheerful wine filled the bars and bistros of nearby Lyon. Eventually, perhaps inevitably, a savvy marketing mind by name of Georges Dubœuf entered the chat, and Beaujolais Nouveau was on track to became a global sensation.
The Legacy of Georges Dubœuf
Winemaking is a resource intensive industry, and the wait for returns on a season's growing and harvest investment until the release of the new vintage can be difficult for smaller producers. More focused sales of Beaujolais Nouveau generated a bit of much needed early cash flow, in addition to spreading some seasonal cheer.
In the 1950s, various distributors began participating in a good natured “race” to Paris to deliver the very first bottles of the new vintage. Once Beaujolais Nouveau started to become popular in Paris, Dubœuf saw a trend in the making and began to actively promote the young wine and related activities. The race to Paris became an annual national event, with similar races in anticipation of the Beaujolais Nouveau release popped up in neighboring European countries in the 1980s, followed by North America and Asia in the 1990s.
Today, the colorful labels of Georges Dubœuf Beaujolais Nouveau are recognizable around the world, along with the original slogan “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!”(The Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived!).
The global growth of Beaujolais Nouveau has unquestionably raised the profile of the Beaujolais region, enabling producers large and small to expand their brands. Before Dubœuf, Beaujolais producers struggled with “take-it-or-leave it” prices imposed by regional dealers. Dubœuf broke through that barrier by selling his family wines directly to restaurants and eventually representing other local producers, who knew he would give them a fair price.
Dubœuf also persuaded many of the best growers and co-ops to dedicate an increasing portion of their harvests to Beaujolais Nouveau, promising that he would sell it if they made good wine. And sell it he did. Beyond riding the wave of an emerging fad, the marketing success of Dubœuf’s “Nouveau” campaign was a crucial factor in generating more exposure for the region’s Cru wines. You can read more about George Dubœuf’s influence on Beaujolais wines in Rudolph Chelminski’s book I’ll Drink to That.
Primeur or Nouveau?
Roughly 25% of total annual wine production in Beaujolais is nouveau. The wine gets its drinkability from a winemaking process called carbonic maceration, also known as whole-berry fermentation. This technique preserves the fresh and fruity quality of the Gamay grape without extracting bitter tannins from the skins.
The best of these wines have a bright and fresh red berry character, are light-bodied and soft, as well as exceptionally easy to drink. The worst examples taste like the saddest kind of cheap wine—thin and acidic, with a banana candy or bubblegum vibe that’s considered a faulty byproduct of fermentation.
Not every Beaujolais producer releases a nouveau and in actuality, many of the best, including those from Pierre-Marie Chermette and Pauline Passot—are technically “primeur” wines.
Both primeur and nouveau wines are young wines released during the same year of harvest. They differ in that primeur wines follow the same strict Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) production rules covering terroir, grape variety, geographical location, and other factors that are required to bottle a wine under the name Beaujolais. Apart from a shorter maceration time, Beaujolais Nouveau wines are quite literally a sneak peak of the wines that will be mellowing and developing in tank, barrel, and bottle before arriving in your glass the following year, or even later.
Nouveau wines, on the other hand, are usually bottled as Indication Géographique Protégée (IGP), which is less location specific and has fewer rules to follow than AOCs. This can include the ability to use machine harvesting or to include a wider selection of grapes than those approved by the AOC. Labeling tends to be more general, such as "Red Table Wine" or the previous "Vin de France" designation. Nouveau wines can also be sold as early as the third Thursday in October, whereas primeur wines cannot be released before the third Thursday in November.
A Wine for This Moment
Longtime friend of Weygandt Wines Pierre-Marie Chermette produces his three nouveaux with the same care and thoughtfulness as his other wines, delivering highly enjoyable cuvées that bring welcome brightness to our chilly nights and holiday celebrations.
His Primeur Les Griottes, named after the myriad cherry (griotte) trees that border the vineyard, is made from the estate's youngest vines, capturing the freshness of red fruit and the essence of the Gamay grape: fruity, fresh, and easy to drink.
Similarly bright and energetic is the estate’s Primeur Les Griottes Rosé, with notes of wild strawberries, white cherries, pomegranate, and wild roses.
Pierre-Marie's Primeur Origine Vieille Vignes is distinctly atypical for the style, in that he uses grapes from old vines, resulting in a fresh but layered profile. This wine has some noticeable structure, along with flavors of very ripe black and red berries, while still remaining quite approachable. This is a preview of the Origine that will eventually be released in 2022, and it’s a delight to enjoy throughout winter and well into spring.
For Pauline Passot of La Grosse Pierre, the nouveau style provides a bit of brightness during the often gray month of November. “These wines represent joy, sharing, and conviviality,” she says, also emphasizing that a good nouveau is "very hard to make.”
Pauline’s preference is to make an exceedingly fresh Beaujolais Nouveau, full of flavors of strawberries, blackberries, and chamomile. But most importantly, her approach captures the essence of a moment in time.
This perfectly encapsulates the purpose of the nouveau, or primeur, style—cheerful, uncomplicated, and meant to be enjoyed in the moment.