In the Beaujolais wine producing region, just to the south of Burgundy, it was traditional to make a young wine. a vin de l’année to drink at the end of the same year. In fact between 1937 and 1951, it could only be sold after December 15th of the year in which it was made, but the date was changed to November 15 in 1951.
Selling a new wine very soon after the harvest was good for cash-flow, and with the right marketing it was an excellent way of clearing a lot of vin ordinaire at a good profit. And so the idea of having a race was born; who could be the first to get the Beaujolais Nouveau to Paris?
By the 1970s this had become a national event, and by the 1980s had expanded across Europe until by the end of the century, people worldwide were racing to get this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau into their glasses as soon as possible after November 15th. These days the wine is shipped in advance and ‘released’ on the third Thursday of November. Beaujolais Day this year will be on November 15.
A light red wine made from hand-harvested, Gamay black grapes, Beaujolais Nouveau sometimes is not actually very good, and is often served chilled, but accounts for around 25% (ie 27.5 million cases) of all Beaujolais produced annually.
Intended for quaffing rather than sipping, having been bottled so young, it is not a wine that improves with age so there is no point in laying it down. Some people do, however, collect the labels, which are often highly decorative.
The success of Beaujolais Nouveau has been copied by other regions who now also make vin primeur like the Gaillac AOC from near Toulouse. In Italy they make vino novello and in Spain, vino joven and in the US, ‘nouveau wine’.
If you happen to be in the area during the last two weeks of November, try and catch one of the 120-odd Beaujolais Nouveau in the region. Probably the best known is ‘Les Sarmentelles’ in Beaujeu, the region’s capital. It starts the evening before Beaujolais Day and lasts for five whole days.
There is obviously a lot of local cuisine on offer as well as wine, a wine-tasting competition in which contestants taste each of the 12 kinds of Beaujolais produced in order to win their own weight in Beaujolais-Villages.
A torchlit parade and fireworks at midnight (when the new wine is released) herald the start of an entire night of drinking and dancing until dawn.
Beaujolais Nouveau is made using carbonic maceration, which is what gives it a lighter taste, but other ‘non-nouveau’ Beaujolais wines are made from Gamay grapes, which are low in tannins, using traditional methods which offer a range of other flavours.
The majority of wines made in the region are red, although 1% of the production is white wine made from Chardonnay grapes.
Although the Beaujolais wine producing region spreads over the region of Bourgogne (Burgundy) as well as the Rhône département north of Lyon, it is sufficiently different in character to be considered separately from Burgundy or Côtes du Rhône wines.
Beaujolais Nouveau is possibly a little less popular in France than it used to be, but is still a fun drink for November. It is not supposed to be taken too seriously, and is perhaps approached in the same spirit as people now drink rosé-and-grapefruit – which has seen its popularity soar in recent years, particularly in summer.