One minute after the strike of midnight on the third Thursday of November every year something unique to France happens in Burgundy. The year’s recently harvested Beaujolais Nouveau is released for sale.
So on Thursday 17 November 2016 the residents of Beaujeu, Beaujolais’s regional capital, will drink this year’s wine until dawn as part of Les Sarmentelles festival. This Thursday has become known as Beaujolais Nouveau Day. Celebrations typically begin the evening before in the form of festivals, tastings, music and fireworks.
Wine hype rarely lasts forever
What began as a wine for the locals of Burgundy to celebrate the end of the harvest, became a national and then international craze. Across the Beaujolais region alone some 100 festivals are held in relation to the release of the year’s wine. But following a poor harvest in 2012, enthusiasm began to wane.
It could also be argued that the evolution of the wine industry over the last 10-15 years has made wine more accessible and the general public more wine savvy. In turn people buy more superior wines with greater knowledge and are less swayed by the marketing and hype surrounding wine ‘one-offs’ like Beaujolais nouveau.
In the UK these days you’ll struggle to find a wine retailer or wine merchant promoting the Beaujolais Nouveau 2016 vintage. By 2011, sales of nouveau in the UK had slumped to a seventh of the figures from 1999. But this is Burgundy, the home of superior French wine thanks to the perfect combination of soil and micro climates. Where the focus on Beaujolais rather than the nouveau is promising some sort of renaissance for the region’s wine.
The Marmite of French wine
We’re a fickle bunch when it comes to hype these days. Even those who don’t know their Chablis from their Chardonnay call themselves wine snobs. And across France the mood around Beaujolais nouveau is no different: love it or hate it.
At just 6-8 weeks old, the need to chill the wine to eek out some of the flavours is enough of a faux pas for some. For others, the initiative to celebrate a hard harvest with just desserts is a tradition to be upheld and heralded.
Take it or leave it, but take it as it comes. There’s little complexity on the matter. While some see the release as an insight into the quality of the year’s grape harvest, others implore you to take a more relaxed view. Due to the rapid fermentation process, this wine won’t improve with age. So drink it now or, still chilled, as a spring aperitif. It’s said the wine’s quality depreciates from May onwards in the year following harvest.
11 facts to convince you to try Beaujolais Nouveau
- The original Beaujolais Nouveau publicity stunt was to see who could race the fastest to market to sell their vintage. Hence the slogan Le Beaujolais est arrive.
- Nowadays, the harvest is shipped ahead of Beaujolais Nouveau Day but still not allowed to be sold until 00:01 on the third Thursday of November. Note a revised slogan of It’s Beaujolais Nouveau time.
- Wines with such a brief fermentation process are known as vins primeurs. These wines are drunk within the same year they are harvested. Unless they are a particularly fine vintage, they typically need to be drunk within 12 months.
- 100% handpicked Gamay grapes are used to make the red version of the wine. The rapid fermentation process extracts the juice from the fruit without drawing the bitter tannins from the skin. It’s known as carbonic maceration (or whole berry fermentation).
- The relative lack of tannins is what makes Beaujolais Nouveau drinkable at such a young age. The tradition and recommendation of drinking the wine chilled also aids the fruit on the palate.
- Drinking red wine chilled, which is something we’d typically only do with white wine, naturally leads some to use the drink as a vehicle to learning about and enjoying red wine. Beaujolais nouveau is easy on the palate and largely quaffable, in celebratory style. The perfect red wine ice breaker.
- As is typical of French produce standards and labelling, there are strict rules. Aside from handpicking the Gamay, the grapes must be grown in the appellations of Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages. The grapes cannot be harvested in the crus of Beaujolais.
- The 10 Beaujolais crus are still made from the Gamay grape but via a more traditional fermentation process and cellaring. These more complex wines are packed with tannins and will improve with age to some degree. The 10 villages that form these crus and their wines are St Amour, Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Moulin a Vent and Regnie.
- You’ll need to remember those village names for when you’re label hunting in the supermarket or bottle shop, because these vintages rarely mention “Beaujolais” on their labels.
- George Duboeuf is the name most commonly and positively associated with Beaujolais. His Fleurie takes pride of place on restaurant shelfs the world over. Yet he is also heralded as the man behind the original race to market of the region’s celebratory nouveau.
- Whatever your opinion of French wine, it is where it all started. Other wine producing regions and countries have followed suit with their own vin primeurs. Gaillac AOC is produced near Toulouse. Vino Novello is Italy’s take on the method. Some even stick to the tradition of the November release date too.
Time to find out who will be stocking Beaujolais Nouveau 2016…