A fresco depicting winegrowers at the town of Marcy, in Beaujolais
As we enter November, the name of one wine region comes to mind more easily than any other: Beaujolais. The third week of the month is when bottles of young Beaujolais start appearing on shelves less than six weeks after harvest. Le Beaujolais Nouveau is both a wine and a tradition: something of a marketing coup that began when Beaujolais wine makers raced to bring their recently made wines to Paris, and drinkers competed to be the first to taste (and pronounce on) the year’s offering. Simple, fruity and inexpensive, the wines were not meant to be savoured but to be drunk. Quickly. These are wines on which everyone could have a view; part of a true French democracy of wine criticism.
What of the wines themselves? Some Beaujolais Nouveaux are rather good. The fresh fruit flavours of the Gamay grape are saved for early drinking through a process of carbonic maceration. Whole grapes are fermented in their skins through the action of carbon dioxide on a large bunch of un-pressed grapes. Meanwhile, juice from the grapes crushed at the bottom of the vats undergoes normal alcoholic fermentation. The result is fruity, almost jammy wines, low in tannin, high in acidity, that often taste of bubblegum or banana, and are best served chilled. If ever you needed a good example of a quaffing wine, this is it.
The tradition of “Beaujo,” as it is called, soon spread, bringing fun to drinkers all over the world, and improving the cash flow of wine makers whose more serious samples wouldn’t appear for another year. French embassies promoted Beaujolais Nouveau as a cultural event, even though it was hardly the epitome of the country’s wine making. Nothing could have done more to promote the name of Beaujolais or to damage it. The region’s reputation for producing fine wines plummeted.
It wasn’t always so. Voltaire records that while he drank his Burgundies young, he preferred to keep his Beaujolais. It could be that both regions made and stored their wines very differently in those days. A more plausible explanation is that Voltaire had no taste when it came to wines.
The lesson of Beaujolais Nouveau is to be careful in what you wish for, since in recent years the region’s wine makers have struggled to find a market for their prestige wines:…