November is a month filled with lots of holidays. The first week of November brings us All Saint’s Day (Toussaint), which is a national holiday. The second week, on November 11th we have Armistice Day celebrating the end of WWI in 1918, which is also a national holiday, so no school or work. The third week of November we have ta da… the arrival of the Beaujolais Nouveau. This year it fell on Thursday, November 17, 2016. Sadly, it’s not a national holiday so we don’t get the day off however badly we might need it.
Beaujolais Nouveau is a French red wine cultivated north of Lyon. It is made from hand picked gamay grapes and called “nouveau” or new because it is the first wine to be consumed after the grape harvest. There is a very intricate (and highly profitable) marketing scheme surrounding the launch of the wine onto the market each year. A French law dating back to 1951 says the wine cannot be released earlier than the third Thursday of November each year. There is no question that it is not a “grand vin” but it has its charm.
The wine belongs to a category of wines called vins primeurs, which is a name given to any wine sold the same year that it is harvested. What makes Beaujolais Nouveau easy to drink is a winemaking process called carbonic maceration, otherwise known as whole-berry fermentation. This method preserves the fruity and fresh quality of the grapes without extracting bitter tannins from the grape skins. One particularity of this wine is that each year it either tastes like bananas or red berries. When my husband pointed this out to me years ago I was skeptical but alas he was right and that is part of the fun, guessing whether it will be bananas or red berries. For 2016 I can say that it is Robitussin all the way, uh I mean red berries.
For me I remember drinking the wine in November around Thanksgiving in the US. It had a sort of caché to it, being French and all; and this was way before the press surrounding the French Women Don’t Get Fat, the French Kids Eat Anything, the You Get a Maid and Pelvic Floor Exercises After Childbirth, etc.… phenomena.
Each year at precisely 12.01am on the third Thursday of November restaurants and bars around the world declare “le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé”! (The Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived!) I say “around the world” because Japan is the largest export market followed by the US and Germany. They are also the first ones to be able to declare “le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” because of their time zone.
The ringleader of the Beaujolais Nouveau circus is a guy named Georges Duboeuf. In the US you will probably recognize his name or the colorful bottles he exports. He was heavily involved in the popularization of the wine and has made a fortune in doing so. In the 1980’s when the race to pop the first cork of the year of Beaujolais Nouveau was at a fever pitch, cases were being delivered around the globe by the Concorde, hot air balloons, parachute jumpers, dancers from the Moulin Rouge, elephants or even one year trained bears helped roll barrels in Red Square in Moscow. Everyone wants an excuse to celebrate and at the end of November on a Thursday evening now we have one.
This buzz around the Beaujolais Nouveau hasn’t made everyone rich and happy, though. The Beaujolais region has 12 different appellations and 10 grand crus. They have suffered by being lumped into the same barrel with this gimmicky little red that doesn’t really score very high marks on taste. This is really unfortunate because there is a lot to discover and appreciate. For example, most people think that Beaujolais wines can’t be stored, or cellared in wine speak, but in fact there are some varieties with a long aging potential (can be kept for between ten and twenty years) like Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent and Chénas.
Also some Beaujolais appellations are paired really well with certain foods. People frequently turn to one of the Beaujolais crus with the classic bistro dish, steak tartare. When you eat raw meat it matches well with a slightly chilled fruity red, often a gamay grape. Voila, Beaujolais Villages and the Beaujolais crus (Brouilly, Juliénas…) are perfect.
I highly recommend taking a look at the website of the Beaujolais region. (www.beaujolais.com/en) There you will find information on other appellations and even find some recipes and their wine pairings. This recipe for chocolate fondant with a salad of oranges looks wonderful and it is paired with a Beaujolais Villages.
The funny thing is with Beaujolais Nouveau is just that, it’s a fun thing! When I spoke with some of the executives I coach, asking them if they were going to partake in the tradition of tasting this year’s vintage, they all laughed me off. These are men and women who eat and drink well and have the luxury of frequent meals at Michelin starred restaurants with wines expertly paired to the gourmet food. Diving a little deeper, however, they all came around and said “well, yes I’ll probably have one glass for the fun of it, it’s a petit vin (little wine, meaning not a grand vintage) but very convivial”.
There is no question that you are not getting a “grand vin” but there is something to be said for the annual experience of drinking a light fruity wine with friends at the same time as people all around the world.
So what about you, did you have a glass this year?
Bananas or red berries?