Beaujolais Nouveau. The First Wine of the Harvest.

On the third Thursday of November, Beaujolais Nouveau of currant year’s harvest appears on the market.
This is the first wine of this harvest; all others still need a lot of time until they are ready for consumption. In France, England, Japan and many other countries this is the feast day (and not just a single day), the celebration day of a young wine.

Beaujolais Nouveau is a non-expensive simple wine, it has nothing in common with any of the great wines, however, many people, not only wine-lovers, are familiar with this name. What is so specific about Beaujolais Nouveau? First, it is the youngest wine, which is supposed to be drunk immediately after production. Second, the technology of its preparation differs from a typical wine technology. Third, the story of the popularization of this wine, which made unknown local wine a worldwide famous, is very illuminative.

Anyway, I am going to be consecutive. Beaujolais is a small wine region on east of France, between Bourgogne and Rhone Valley. Pretty often it is considered as a part of Bourgogne, but I don’t think that it is a correct approach, because Beaujolais significantly differs from Bourgogne in the grape used and in the approach to winemaking. The main grape of the region is Gamay, and this is the grape, which is used for making Beaujolais Nouveau. Gamay also growths in Bourgogne, Switzerland, Croatia, and Serbia. They make light wines with bright red fruits aroma out of Gamay, but in these wines Gamay is used mostly as a part of blend and not as the main component.

In Beaujolais, the situation is different; here Gamay is the lord and the master. Also, local winemakers suddenly pushed yeast to a secondary role. What is the typical process of red wine production? Crush grapes, add yeast and wait until the yeast converts glucose into ethanol and carbon dioxide. Presence of oxygen is required for this process. In the case of Beaujolais Nouveau winemakers use a different approach. The name of this approach is carbonic maceration. Bunches of grapes with undamaged berries are placed into a tank, then the tank is filled with carbonic dioxide. Until recently, the berries produced carbonic dioxide themselves and slowly filled tanks, as of now producers have increased the process by adding outer gas. In a plant cell (and grape berry is definitely a plant), glucose oxidizes into water and carbonic dioxide at the presence of oxygen (it is a normal process for a living plant cell). However, if we remove oxygen from the cell (replacing it with heavier carbonic dioxide), glucose will start to convert into ethanol and carbonic dioxide. A berry starts making ethanol itself, without help of the yeast. When the process is completed, the grapes are crushed and pressed. Added yeast finishes the conversion of the rest of glucose into ethanol (inner-cell processes cannot convert all glucose and give the required amount of ethanol). The new wine has almost no tannins (tannins extract into wine from crushed skins, and there is no contact between juice and crushed skins during this process), but is enriched with pigments (pigments are easily extracted from a whole skin during a warm condition of fermentation). As a result, we have bright, smooth wine with very fruity taste and unusual for red wine strong notes of banana, caramel and even bubble-gum (these notes are also the result of carbonic maceration). Kind of like a bright alcoholic fruit compote.

Other winemakers occasionally use elements of carbonic maceration when they want to decrease the amount of tannins in a wine and add a bright fruit note. In this case, some undamaged grape brunches are added into juice, and carbonic maceration runs parallel with conventional yeast fermentation. Such approach, for example, is traditional for Rioja.

Let’s come back to Beaujolais Nouveau. Gamay itself has high acidity, so the wine is quite acidic as well. Such level of acidity is more typical for white wines then for red ones. Very often Beaujolais Nouveau is described as refreshing. This is an actual reference to high acidity. Since the wine is light-bodied and has high acidity, the best temperature for its consumption is the same as for dry white wines, 11-15C. Since the taste of Beaujolais Nouveau is not complicated, it doesn’t depend that much on the temperature, so it is a very convenient wine for picnic basket. You can start with a cold wine and finish your party with a warm one without any moral damage to your taste receptors.

As I’ve mentioned above, Beaujolais Nouveau is the first wine of the harvest. According to the law, it can be released to the market at the first minute of the third Thursday of November of the harvest year. That is, the wine is only about six weeks old. According to the same law it’s allowed to be sold only until August 31 of the next year. In the US, sellers don’t really care about this law. Very often you can find bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau of current and previous years standing on the same shelf. Although some Beaujolais Nouveau can keep the quality for two or three years, most of them start to lose its quality dramatically after one year or even earlier. Thus, don’t buy last year’s Beaujolais Nouveau if it is already September of the current year. I would even recommend to limit yourself to a wine of the current harvest of fall, and the last harvest of winter, and in spring forget about Beaujolais Nouveau until next November.

Besides Beaujolais Nouveau there also exists Beaujolais Primeur. It is made the same way, but it can be sold only until January 31 of the year next after its harvest. I have never seen this wine in the US.

Originally Beaujolais Nouveau was the wine dedicated for local consumption by the workers of vineyards and wineries. After harvest is collected and new wine is settled, it’s a good point to celebrate the end of the season with a cheap and bright young wine.

In 1970-s, however, quirky Georges Duboeuf started selling young Beaujolais Nouveau to England following the idea of the taste of the first wine of the season. Later he’d extended his sales to Japan. The idea was accepted, and the local village feast later became an international wine celebration. The price for Beaujolais Nouveau became higher as well. By the way, pay closer attention to the name – Georges Duboeuf. Most of Beaujolais Nouveau gets imported in the US under his name.

Nowadays Beaujolais Nouveau bottles have bright funny labels that change every year.

Only half of Gamay in Beaujolais is used for Beaujolais Nouveau production, the other half is used for Beaujolais wine (without “Nouveau”). Beaujolais wine is made under the standard wine technology (well, with some elements of carbonic maceration). That wine is not supposed to be drunk while it’s still very young, it can easily be kept for several years, and has a different taste than Beaujolais Nouveau. This article is about Beaujolais Nouveau, not Beaujolais, so I am not going to write more about that wine, just keep in mind that Beaujolais Nouveau and Beaujolais are two different things and pay attention what is written on a bottle’s label.

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