Beaujolais' bid to grow up

35 years after the first Beaujolais nouveau, president of the Beaujolais wine interprofessional council says now is the time to 'rebuild' and focus on ‘quality’

19 November 2020
Wine sold as nouveau should be drunk quickly – if it is kept, there is no guarantee that it will improve, and quite likely it will lose flavours and aromas
By Connexion journalist

Beaujolais became the most talked-about wine in the 1980s with its Beaujolais nouveau promotion – but the region is trying to make sure it is also associated with quality.

Bistros in Lyon and Paris, UK wine bars and pubs, TV stations, radio and newspapers all did their bit to boost the “race” to be the first across the Channel with bottles of Beaujolais on the third Thursday of November.

Read more: From grape to glass - Beaujolais Nouveau

The day was chosen by the French government in 1985 and formalised by decree, to try to bring order to Beaujolais nouveau promotions.

It proved to be an inspired marketing choice.

Any wine sold to be drunk in the year after the grapes are harvested can be classified as nouveau but it was the marketing genius of winemaker and trader Georges Duboeuf, who died in January, that pushed Beaujolais above all others.

Starting in the mid-1960s, he used what had been a local Lyon fête of Beaujolais nouveau for worldwide promotion, inviting stars of the stage and screen, politicians and top chefs to well-publicised parties.

The idea spread and became an excellent excuse to celebrate, to raise money for charity and for many people who hardly ever drank wine to help consume hundreds of thousands of litres.

Most bottles were good, often with fruity flavours coming through, although there were also a few thin, acidic horrors.

Wine sold as nouveau should be drunk quickly – if it is kept, there is no guarantee that it will improve, and quite likely it will lose flavours and aromas.

Standard Beaujolais is released usually at least a month after the nouveau

This wine can be graded as Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages, or a Beaujolais with the name of one of 39 communes added.

On top of this are 10 cru wines from Beaujolais. Some of these wines are only sold five years after harvest, and these wines might improve with age.

At its peak, in 1992, the Beaujolais nouveau promotion accounted for half of the wine produced in the region.

Beaujolais wine
'Beaujolais is a family, with the crus being the adults while the nouveau the children.'

Today, Beaujolais nouveau makes up a quarter of the wine sold. In the last 15 years, some estimates say the region has lost 40% of its vines and half the sales.

Dominique Piron, president of the Beaujolais wine interprofessional council, told The Connexion: “We are definitely now rebuilding and a good 80% of producers are consciously working to improve the quality of the wine they produce."

“That is to say, they produce a clean wine, in a way which respects nature, while keeping all the qualities which have made Beaujolais famous.” Mr Piron said many of the places where vines had been uprooted for economic reasons are being replanted. “You could say we are precursors for many other regions of France,” he said.

“For example, in Moselle they are starting to uproot vines, and there is a lot of talk that the same thing might happen in Bordeaux too. We have already been through that and are now out the other side. People are replanting and investing now.”

Part of the problem for Beaujolais came from the success of the Beaujolais nouveau

Part of the problem for Beaujolais came from the success of the Beaujolais nouveau, which still accounts for 25million bottles of wine drunk around the world in the three days after the release date.

That, and the scandals – some wines were adulterated with low-quality imports, and sugar salesmen were found to be selling hundreds of tonnes illegally to winemakers who used it to boost their wine – led some French writers to criticise Beaujolais in the early 2000s, saying the rush to get nouveau wines had ruined the quality.

Mr Piron said it is accepted now, even among quality producers, that Beaujolais nouveau was a good story.

“We sell 25million bottles of wine around the world in three days – it is an incredible feat,” he said. “Even the producers of the crus, who complain sometimes that nouveau is hiding their virtues, look at their sales figures and see they sell more wine in November, at the time of the nouveau, than any other."

“On one level, it is a party but on the other, it opens the window to the whole region. Beaujolais is a family, with the crus being the adults while the nouveau the children.”

Marion Fessy, managing director of Château de Poncié, said she has seen a significant change: “There is a recognition that quality Beaujolais are being made.”

Château de Poncié, which received investment from a fund in 2008, is in the news this year because a Lyon businessman bought out the fund for an undisclosed sum and has promised heavy investment to further develop the domain.

The vineyard is on the way to getting full bio certification in 2022.

“We are very happy to have a new partner,” said Ms Fessy, who is the third generation to run the domain. “Even before 2008, and certainly since then, we have been pushing to improve the quality of our wines and it has now paid off."

“We are not alone, and the story around Beaujolais has changed – it is no longer the nouveau and nothing else.”

Other nouveaus are available

Although it is by far the best-known nouveau wine, Beaujolais nouveau is not alone.

Some 55 Appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) wines in France can be sold as nouveau. The definition can be put on labels of wines from AOCs bottled and sold to be drunk in the 12 months after they are harvested.

Such is the reputation of Beaujolais nouveau wines, however, that many winemakers who could put nouveau on their bottles hesitate to do so. Another way of showing the wine is bottled to be drunk the same year it was harvested is to put primeur on the label.

This, though, is often confused with wine sold en primeur – that is, in the spring following the harvest while it is still in barrels, with the wine bottled two or three years later.

Popular for Bordeaux wines, buyers effectively gamble that by the time the wine is bottled, the price will have gone up.

Bojo’s back!

The wine-seller who trademarked BoJo wine, a bio Beaujolais nouveau, confirmed it will be on sale again.

“We have plans to sell 12,000 bottles, but only in France,” said Bruno Mallet, managing director of JM Aujoux. “It is too early to say what the characteristics will be. Our wine assemblers have been busy but have not yet reached a final decision.”

Bojo wine
BoJo wine, a bio Beaujolais nouveau, confirmed it will be on sale again

The company began selling BoJo wine – bojo is French slang for Beaujolais nouveau – six years ago, long before Boris Johnson reached the level of name recognition he has now.

“It has always sold well, but I think that is due to the fact it is a quality bio Beaujolais nouveau, and there is a growing interest in bio wines,” he said.

“Now, with Boris Johnson being so prominent, it gets a lot of attention, but I am not altogether convinced it is good for sales.”

The wine will sell for around €6 a bottle in selected supermarkets.

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