This time of year, it’s tough to miss the signs . . . Le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrive! Is it just hype or should we hail the call? Kurt Michael Friese sheds some light on the matter.
Beaujolais is a region nestled between Burgundy and the Rhone just north of Lyon that’s known for their wines of the same name. Made exclusively from the Gamay grape, Beaujolais is a simple, fruit-forward wine (for France anyway) with high acidity and is broken down into three designations. Roughly half the production goes by the basic appellation of Beaujolais. A step up are the wines known as Beaujolais-Villages, which are grown in the hillier northern region. At the top, also coming from those Northern hills but named after ten villages which have earned their own appellations, are the Cru Beaujolais.
But hands-down the Beaujolais Americans know best is le Beaujolais Nouveau–a name coined by negociant George Duboeuf for youthful wine from any appellation in the region.
Despite its high profile, the history of Beaujolais Nouveau is not entirely novel; winemakers in the area have always produced a “vin de l’anee” (this year’s wine) shortly after harvest as a way to evaluate the quality of the vintage. In the 19th century, in fact, the harvest and the wines were often heralded by the bistros in Lyon with signs proclaiming “Le Beaujolais Est Arrive.” But it all got taken up a notch in 1985 when the Institute National des Appellations d’Origine, lobbied by Duboeuf and other wine purveyors as a way to capitalize on weekend sales, set the third Thursday of November as the official release date for Beaujolais Nouveau.
Throughout the late 1980s and 90s, the date was highly hyped, with cases being shipped around the world and held in special bonded warehouses until one minute after midnight when they could be released. And there were stunts too: wine being delivered by helicopter, balloon, even by elephant. In the United States, Beaujolais Nouveau has been tied by Madison Avenue to the Thanksgiving meal and is said to be the perfect wine to go with roast turkey, stuffing, and grandma’s green bean casserole. Pessimists counter that it’s the perfect wine for the winemakers’ cash flow, and there’s a nugget of truth to both.
Beaujolais Nouveau can be a perfectly delightful wine. Fresh and fruity, light and “easy to drink,” it is a fun and frolicking dash through the park on a sunny autumn day. There are many producers, some even in the US now, but I prefer the Beaujolais Nouveau provided by French négociant Mommesin. A typical description might read something like “very aromatic, offering raspberry with notes of ripe banana and Juicy-Fruit gum. The flavor is tart raspberry with moderate acidity and a hint of tannin.”
So by all means get in on the fun and enjoy a glass with your friends. Just remember that on your holiday table, the best wine is the wine you like best when surrounded by family, friends, and wonderful food.
Kurt Michael Friese is the founding leader of Slow Food Iowa, serves on the Slow Food USA National Board of Directors, and is editor and publisher of the local food magazine Edible Iowa River Valley. He’s also Chef and co-owner of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, a freelance food writer and photographer, and author of A Cook’s Journey: Slow Food in the Heartland.