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Understanding The French Love Of Beaujolais Nouveau

Picture of Ami B. Cadugan
Updated: 14 November 2016
Think of French wine and full bodied reds and luscious vintages will come to mind. Beaujolais Nouveau defies these expectations; as the first wine of the season, it’s a light, drinkable red, only aged for a few days. We explore the history and culture behind France’s most unique wine.

It’s the third Thursday in November in Paris, and colorful banners have been splashed all across town. From the tiniest of wine caves to the largest of chain stores, all are proclaiming ‘Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé’ (‘The new Beaujolais is here!’). But why would the French make such a big fuss over a wine whose very name suggests newness? It turns out it’s the first wine of the year, and its arrival signals the beginning of the winter season. Can you think of a better reason to have a party on a Thursday night? The entire wine world celebrates on the same day, historically at midnight, although most events start earlier than that.

Originally, wine makers in the Beaujolais region wanted a way to celebrate the end of their harvest season, use up their extra grapes and make a little extra money along the way. So they came up with the idea of a quick turnaround on the fermenting and bottling process, now called carbonic maceration, or whole berry fermentation. This allows the juice to be extracted from the grapes with minimal tannins, thus giving birth to what we know as Beaujolais Nouveau.

For centuries, this new wine was celebrated in the Beaujolais region, until World War II when the French government stepped in to get a piece of the action. In 1937, the Beaujolais AOC (a label indicating superior quality) was established, bringing national attention to the little local wine. In 1956, the Union Interprofessionnelle des Vins du Beaujolais (UIVB) set November 15th as the release date and the growers decided they needed to make an event out of it. They set up a ‘race’ to get the first bottle to Paris, and it’s been going ever since. In 1985, it was decided the release date should change to a Thursday, to allow for greater partying potential.

From a technical standpoint, the Beaujolais Nouveau is part of a class of wines known as vins primeurs, which are wines sold within the same year of harvest. Gamay grapes are used to produce both Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages wines, both appellations (specific growing areas) within the Beaujolais region. The region is divided up into 12 main appellations (with 96 villages) and now the Beaujolais Nouveau makes up well over 50 per cent of the wine sold. In a way, the Beaujolais Nouveau has lessened the name of the region, which had always been known for more sophisticated, complex, and full-bodied wines. After all, the Beaujolais Nouveau only ‘ages’ for 10 days. The other 10 appellations are more traditional (in other words, higher quality) and have ‘Cru’ in their name to indicate that. Many of them don’t even mention ‘Beaujolais’ on their labels at all.

Even though it’s a red wine, the Beaujolais Nouveau is actually supposed to be served chilled, due to its low tannins and fruity flavors, and drinks very much like a white wine. Experts say there are overtones of banana, grape, strawberry, fig and even pear drop. And don’t worry about making space in your own personal wine cellar for the Beaujolais Nouveau. Since it is a very ‘young’ wine, it is meant for immediate consumption (within a few months). Even the very best vintage, from way back in 2000, only had a two-year shelf life.

As for who drinks the most Beaujolais Nouveau, naturally, the French are first (it’s their wine, after all…), drinking over 50 per cent of it, but surprisingly the Japanese are right behind them. After that it’s the US, the UK, Germany, and then everyone else. But is it worth the hype? For only a few euros a bottle, sample the Beaujolais Nouveau yourself and come to your own conclusions. There will be plenty of tasting opportunities all over Paris; and watch out for some charcuterie to help wash it down.

Many thanks to Le Vin en Bouche co-owners, Vincent Martin and Jonathan Jean, for sharing their extensive Beaujolais knowledge. Le Vin en Bouche are located in the 6th arrondissement and serve traditional meals to accompany their wine tasting.