At one minute past midnight on the third Thursday of each November, from little villages and towns like Romanèche-Thorins, over a million cases of Beaujolais Nouveau wine begin their journey through a sleeping France to Paris for immediate shipment to all parts of the world. Posters proclaim the good news: Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé! - 'The New Beaujolais has arrived!'. This was changed in 2005 to ‘Its Beaujolais Nouveau time’.
One of the most lighthearted and animated rituals in the wine world has begun. By the time it is over, approximately 60 million bottles, approximately 1/3 of the region's total annual wine production, will be distributed and drunk around the world. It has become a worldwide race to be the first to serve this new wine of the harvest.
In doing so, it has been carried by motorcycle, balloon, truck, helicopter, jet-plane, elephant, runners and rickshaws to get it to its final destination. It is amazing to think that just weeks before this wine was a bunch of grapes in a vineyard. But by an expeditious harvest, a rapid fermentation and a speedy bottling, all is ready at the midnight hour. By French law, Beaujolais Nouveau is to be released no earlier than the third Thursday of November.
Beaujolais Nouveau began as a local phenomenon in the local bars, cafes and bistros of Beaujolais and Lyons. Each autumn the new Beaujolais would arrive with much fanfare. In pitchers filled from the grower’s barrels, wine was drunk by an eager population. It was wine made fast to drink while the better Beaujolais was taking a more leisurely course. Eventually, the government stepped in to regulate the sale of all this quickly transported, free-flowing wine.
The official release date was set for November 15th. But what was just a local tradition had gained so much popularity that the news of it reached Paris. The race was born. It wasn't long thereafter that the word spread around the world. In 1985, the date was again changed, this time to the third Thursday of November tying it to a weekend (for restaurants to design a light hearted, fun menu to match the wine) and making the celebration complete.
It is a triumph of marketing and promotion, mostly due to the efforts of Georges Duboeuf - (taken over by his son Franck Duboeuf, pictured below). The largest négociants in the region, he is a tireless promoter of Beaujolais and Beaujolais Nouveau. More than a fifth of his annual production, about 4 million bottles, is Beaujolais Nouveau. All in all, in the last 45 years, sales have risen from around a million bottles to more than 60 million bottles worldwide.
How is Beaujolais Nouveau made?
Few other wines are produced, bottled, and released within a few weeks of the harvest. Beaujolais Nouveau is made from the Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc grape, better known simply as Gamay. By law, all grapes in the region must be harvested by hand. This is because Beaujolais is made using the carbonic maceration method.
Without getting too technical, carbonic maceration is essentially the fermentation of grapes occurring inside the skins. Traditionally, the winemaking process begins with the crushing of grapes; the juice of the grapes is pushed out of the skins and gradually ferments.
For red wines, this juice is often left to sit on its skins so that colour and tannins are extracted, giving the wine a fuller, more concentrated structure, and often adding some bitter flavours. With carbonic maceration, the grapes are not crushed. Rather, the grapes are carefully piled on top of each other in a sealed container that is filled with carbon dioxide. More CO2 is emitted by the grapes on the bottom of the container, as it is gently crushed by the weight of the grapes above. All this carbon dioxide causes fermentation to take place inside the grape skins.
The resulting wine is fresh, fruity, and very low in tannins. The wine is then pasteurized to preserve the 'fresh' taste of the wine by preventing malolactic fermentation. The wine is ready to be drunk just 6-8 weeks after the harvest.
What does Beaujolais Nouveau taste like?
It’s quite hard to say, because it tastes different every year. Typically 'Nouveau' red wines will have very bright, fresh, red fruit flavours, such as cherries, strawberries and raspberry, and will be delivered to your palate with a distinct zing. Because of the reduced tannins, it should be very soft in the mouth and easy to drink. Beaujolais Nouveau is not a wine to sniff, swirl and contemplate too seriously; it’s a wine to pour (best when chilled approx. 12-14°C), and simply enjoy with cold meat dishes, glazed sweet ham, salmon, pâté, tapas' and good friends.