Le [Beaujolais] Nouveau est arrivé
Drinking wine is a joyous, irreverent, and convivial experience. Drinking Beaujolais [Nouveau]; even more so. Yet amongst some “wine pros,” this fruity, quaffable, and delicious beverage has gained notoriety for being “inferior,” “basic,” and -in some cases- “not even wine, if you think about it, really.” Though these pessimistic, self-important buzzkills may attempt to dissuade even trying Nouveau, I am here to tell you that it is 100% worth it. But I won’t just stop there. In this article, we will discuss the nature of Beaujolais Nouveau, its winemaking process, origins, cultural perception, and recommended ways of consumption.
On y va!
The Historic Rise and Fall of Nouveau
It is fair to say that Beaujolais Nouveau rides the ebbs and flows of cultural trends. The French have enjoyed this easy-drinking “vin de soif” for centuries. Yet, the wine did not get international recognition until 1951, when the Beaujolais winemaking union gave it the Nouveau moniker. The wine flooded the U.S. [and global] market in the Eighties, filling the glasses and hearts of Yuppie (and largely Francophilic) U.S. audiences. Much like Champagne has co-opted New Year’s ball drops in Times Square, Nouveau (With its release date of the 3rd Thursday of November) was welcomed at the Thanksgiving table, becoming the holiday’s indispensable partner.
Yet soon, with the new recognition of quality American wines (along with something we, in the industry, call the “Robert Parker effect”), the palates shifted away from quaffable Nouveau toward “more serious” and often overoaked domestic selections. In the 2000s, Nouveau sales began to drop in the U.S. Beaujolais producers bemoaned Nouveau’s effects on the global perception of Beaujolais ( a region producing some stunning and serious examples of the Gamay grape) as consumers associated the style with the entire area. Much like many wines that rose to fame in the Eighties, Nouveau became a victim of its fame.
What is Nouveau?
Nouveau is a style of wine produced in the region of Beaujolais, located North of the city of Lyon. Historically, this region has been part of Burgundy. However, it is more apt to represent a cultural [and viticultural] bridge between [South] Burgundy and the Northern Rhone. Lyon is the central economic hub of the region and one of the gastronomic capitals of France (and, therefore, the world)
In Beaujolais, Gamay reigns supreme, with nearly 99% of the vineyards dedicated to the grape. Like many regions in France, there is a hierarchy to the vineyards of Beaujolais. However, the hierarchy structure is more similar to Champagne than Burgundy, and quality is attributed to the villages rather than specific vineyards/lots of land. At the top of the pyramid sit the Beaujolais “Crus,” a selection of ten villages from the North of Beaujolais with the most diverse soils and aspects. Going south, we find the regional Beaujolais AOC [on flatter lands] vineyards and Beaujolais-Villages, which are not quite “cru” but still of higher reputation. Typically, the vitification for Nouveau focuses on grapes from those “inferior” appellations.
Nonetheless, Beaujolais Nouveau is not your stereotypical mass-produced nonsense. Making Nouveau requires significant effort and viticultural prowess. For one, the carbonic maceration, a method that gives Nouveau its classic fruitiness, requires perfectly ripe, hand-harvested grapes. For the carbonic process to take effect, the intact berries are placed in an entirely inert tank, and the enzymes within the berries begin intercellular fermentation. At about 1-2% alcohol, they unseal the tank, and standard fermentation commences. Nouveau is France’s earliest-release wine, thus undergoing nearly no aging and seeing no oak. Therefore, you obtain a pure fruited, berry-forward wine that can also have the characteristics of kirsch, watermelon candy, and banana from the enzymatic reaction.
The Argument of Taste
A big argument against the Nouveau style is that “it doesn’t taste good. But, aside, it’s important to remember that taste is incredibly subjective and varies from person to person. Beaujo Nouveau has signature pink bubblegum, kirsch, and berry candy flavors. Not liking those flavors (and, therefore, the wine) is perfectly acceptable. But [someone]not giving the wine the “old college try” because of predisposition and bad publicity is just…lame man.
Nouveau and the Modern Consumer
Now that we know what Nouveau is and how it has historically captured (and then lost) the hearts of the wine-drinking populace let’s look at its modern existence. At present, the outlook for traditional Nouveau isn’t optimistic. 2019 represented a nadir for Nouveau sales, a pallid shadow of the 1.2 million cases sold by Georges Dubeuf in 1999. Beaujolais as a region, however, has seen an uptick in exports of its other wines. After all, it is essential to remember that Beaujolais is not just Nouveau, and forgetting this simple fact was what caused the region’s decline in the first place. The top producers of Beaujolais Crus now represent a “wallet-healthy” alternative to the massively overpriced (and some may say, overhyped) Burgundies. Still, it is a saddening thought that Nouveau is fading from the market due to preconceived notions of inferior quality. There is undoubtedly still a massive market ready to consume wines dubbed “Glou Glou”, many of which use the same winemaking method as Nouveau, leading me to believe that the problem isn’t so much quality as marketing-based. After all, who amongst the millennials (or Gen Z) wants to drink wine that was cool in the 80s?
The Future of Nouveau
As said at the beginning of this rant, the ebbs and flows of fashion govern the consumption of Nouveau. The wine was in vogue in the 80s through the 2000s but fell off with the changing palates. Now, Nouveau is competing in an environment with far more diversity. Grocery store shelves inundate consumers with many easy-drinking options [wine or otherwise] year-round. To add insult to injury, the COVID pandemic has isolated us from each other and changed the way we perceive and consume alcoholic beverages. Here is where the wine has its opportunities. Fads indeed ebb and flow, but culture remains steady. Nouveau isn’t just a wine but an event to bring everyone together over the dinner table. The unobtrusive and not severely complex wine provides ample social lubricant for free-flowing conversations. No, Nouveau would not be the focus of discussion at your Thanksgiving table, but that is its superpower.
The Final “Pitch”
At some point in one’s life, one casts off the immature whims of young adulthood. No longer children [at heart], we abandon the youthful optimism we had prior in life in favor of reason, logic, and pragmatism. Our worldview darkens, our dreams wane, and our palate changes. Though we yearn for the innocent and naïve experiences of our youth, we -at the same time- feel shame about doing so. In my eyes, Nouveau- with its brightness, freshness, and childish flavors- represents that youthful exuberance we may have felt before, the strong friendships we have made as younger adults but have waned with time, work, and other obligations.
So, there is no need for negative stereotypes or derogatory put-downs when talking about [or drinking] Beaujo Nouveau. It is a wine that exudes joy, conviviality, and camaraderie. All you need is a hearty winter fare, a group of friends, and a few bottles of this fresh juice, and you’ve got yourself a party.