Beaujolais Nouveau, a marketing ploy that worked, turns 60 today
GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Sixty years ago you had to be in France to get a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau, the light Gamay with notes of strawberries and raspberries that hits the streets of France every year in November.
It was sold, in those good old days, on 15 November, starting in Paris, where the capital adopted with gusto the idea of the newly invented wine, or rather one dressed up and given a birthday and a name in 1951.
The wine was bottled only six to eight weeks after the harvest, which meant it had no tannins to speak of: it would therefore not age well but, as with the pretty young and uncomplicated girl it resembled, who cares about age when you can have fun now.
Leaving home and the pain of middle age
Beaujolas Nouveau in the 1970s became a marketing gimmick, with producers racing to Paris with the first bottles. Then Geneva area bars and cafés started to offer it about the same time that the fun caught on throughout Europe in the 1980s, moving to the US, then going global in the 1990s.
There is nothing new about Beaujolais Nouveau itself: Beaujolais vin de primeur wines have been sold since Beaujolais became an AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) in 1937, just as primeurs have been made in every wine region of the world since wine made its appearance. And before the primeurs the region had a post-harvest wine that was just a shade more fermented than grape juice or must.
Wine merchant Georges Duboeuf almost single-handedly developed the frenzy around the new wine, which initially had the advantage of bringing in some cash for producers at a point in the season where they wait for the wine to reach bottling stage so they can sell it.
The growth rate was phenomenal, with some 2 million bottles sold in the early 1950s, up to 238 million in 2010. In the late 1990s Beaujolais Nouveau almost became a victim of itself, with too much bad wine flooding the market.
The industry had a facelift, lost several kilos in the form of companies that went under, and now it appears to be enjoying its 60th birthday.
The good, the bad, and the fun of it all
Every year the question comes up again: it’s fun for a day, but is it any good?
Answer: Part of the fun is asking the question, as it lets newbies talk about wine and wine snobs wax wise.
Mostly, it depends on whose bottle you buy. The market-dumpers are diminishing, so your chances of falling on a truly awful bottle are less than they were 10 years ago. And Beaujolais AOC, the real stuff that has to wait longer to be bottled, has improved markedly in recent years. Good Beaujolais producers make some beautiful wines.
The vin primeur version is lighter and as good or as bad as the products you’ll get from the same winery later.
Nicolas and Sandrine Durand from St Amour are delighted with their 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau, says Roger Pring from Beaujolais, who works with me as part of the Swiss Wine Guide English version team.
Durand, who was once a Paris-Dakar racer, says the early harvest this year was a bonus.
“We had a very dry June, which worried us, but then a very wet July, which was great for the vines. They ripened earlier and we harvested earlier, so the wine has had more time to mature before bottling.” For Durand, 2011 is a very good year, comparable to the great 2009 vintage, giving him three good years in a row after a disappointing 2008.
Roger agrees, saying Durand’s is an “excellent wine”, even better than another Beaujolais Nouveau he tried earlier.
Here are a few tidbits of Beaujolais trivia while you’re sipping your glass.
- The 2011 harvest was three weeks earlier than the 2010 one, making it one of the earliest on record: 24 August to 16 September this year.
- The late harvest is giving this year’s wine a deeper colour and powerful fruitiness, somewhere between red and black fruits, with less acidity than in 2010.
- Beaujolais, and the primeur is no exception, is made by pressing the grape bunches as a whole.
- The grapes are almost entirely harvested by hand, the only region in France where this is true (and if you see how low the vines are you’ll drink to the pickers’ health, particularly for their backs.
- There are two appellations, Beaujolais, with 72 villages in the south and east and half of it is bottled as Beaujolais Nouveau; Beaujolais Villages, with 38 communes and the steeper, hillier parts of the region.
Now, the serious side: how to drink it
Beaujolais Nouveau – not a sip of it before midnight; it should touch your lips only as you cross the line into the third Thursday of November. Drink it with just about any food and it works well, since it is a relatively light wine. Toast your friends or, as they often say in France raise a glass “to your lovers” (take care who you say this to, though).
Consume in moderation, don’t drive after drinking, and plan a date with the Real Stuff Beaujolais, now that you know 2011 is a very good year.
Background story, GenevaLunch visits two of Beaujolais’s best