Is anyone here old enough to remember, back in the 1980s/90s, when the Beaujolais Nouveau marketing machine got into full swing? For most lovers of half-decent wine it was horrible to behold. The UK, a nation of beer drinkers, was really just getting into this wine drinking thing. As more of us explored our neighbours in the “European Economic Community” (remember those heady days?) in the 1970s and early 1980s, the new fangled foods we tried there (oh the croissant! oh the Camembert!) started to appear in restaurants and homes back here, and with those dishes went wine (well, maybe only accompanying the croissants in the most extreme of francophile homes, of course). It’s probably as impossible for some young wine lovers today to imagine an England without wine (for the masses) as it is to imagine a time without mobile phones, computers and the internet.
Wine isn’t an easy drink for the novice, at least not the tannins of young Bordeaux, or the complex bouquet of aged Burgundy. Even Champagne, with the relatively high dosage common back then, was a bit “dry” for palates weaned on German sugar water and “Spanish Sauternes”. What could be better suited to the tastes of the mass consumer who wishes to get to know red wine than nice fruity Gamay? And when it is rushed to market, just fermented, even better…perhaps.
Beaujolais Nouveau is a vin de primeur, fermented for just a few weeks, by the carbonic maceration method (whole berry fermentation in a sealed container filled with CO2, the fermentation starting within the grapes themselves). Such wines thus produced are low in tannin, so that they won’t often age well, but are potentially easy and pleasant to drink as soon as they are bottled.
A simple wine of this type was always made in the region to satisfy the locals, but it soon dawned on the producers and the authorities alike that it might be a good way to shift vast quantities of very ordinaire wine, from the broad and generic Beaujolais AOC, which didn’t have a quarter of the cachet of the finer Crus (such as Morgon and Fleurie) from the region’s northern granitic hills.
The real commercialisation of Nouveau began with the idea of a race to get the new wine, the first of the new vintage in France, to the bars of Paris, and quite naturally this rather good marketing idea gained a lot of publicity. An early release date of 15th November, stipulated by the Regional Body, was soon changed to the third Thursday of November, thus giving the cavistes a good long weekend to promote the wine.
The idea really caught on in the UK in the 1980s, with the Beaujolais Run, a mad dash of both merchants and consumers, down to Beaujolais and back with cases of the new wine. It all became a little tasteless, perhaps to match some of the wines. In fact, rather than being tasteless, some of them tasted rather unflattering. The vast sea of fairly unsaleable basic Beaujolais flowed out by the thousands of hectolitres into supermarket own brand labels. It was fun for some people, for a while, but by the mid 1990s “Nouveau” was a bit gauche, and consumers had moved on. The vast pallets of the stuff which once hogged supermarket aisles had gone, and perhaps a few cases stacked on a shelf was all you’d see.
At around this time the finer Crus of Beaujolais were stirring into life again. Today, the region is one of the most dynamic in France. The “Gang of Four” (Lapierre, Thévenet, Breton and Foillard, the original disciples of Jules Chauvet) were spreading their influence and the region’s reputation was slowly being restored, so that today it is possibly the trendiest wine region in the country, perhaps alongside Jura. This renaissance is being driven with increasing assistance from a host of new and younger producers who adorn the shelves of any self-respecting wine merchant, especially in Paris, London, New York, San Francisco, Tokyo and Berlin.
For the last couple of years these producers have been reviving Beaujolais Nouveau, albeit with fairly miniscule quantities of wine. Sure, it’s a great help to their cashflow at a time when they need tiding over until their Crus are bottled, perhaps in the spring. But these vignerons are committed to quality. They already produce exciting wines, and although their Nouveaux are still simple wines, intended for swift enjoyment among friends in any glass or beaker which is to hand, there’s no reason to expect anything less than good wine, devoid of any cynical desire to exploit the consumer.
In 2016 pretty much any bar in London known for selling natural wines had a Beaujolais Nouveau event on last Thursday. But I was in Paris, and the whole city appeared to be celebrating the event. Of course, the wines were not all good. The norm was perhaps exemplified by the “own label” Beaujolais Nouveau I tried in a branch of the Nicolas chain, far more ubiquitous in Paris than London. It was a vibrant purple, smelling slightly of cherries, tasting slightly more acidic than one might like, but overall it was drinkable, and only 4.50 € a bottle. Expect to pay between 9 € and 15 € for the good stuff in Paris, whilst the UK’s Duty regime makes most up towards the top end of that spread in a London wine shop.
Whilst much Nouveau still emanates from the south of the region, those cuvées made by the new producers are more likely to come from the granitic north, where the named Beaujolais Crus are located. One major difference between the two is often signified by a clue on the label, many of the better wines being “Beaujolais-Villages” Nouveau rather than straight Beaujolais. But you might equally find one of these wines labelled as a Vin de France.
Although it is commonly stated that Beaujolais Nouveau doesn’t age, these better wines will certainly keep fresh for at least six months if well stored, unlike in the old days when it was not unusual to find a bottle of supermarket Nouveau tasting tired by Christmas. So it might be helpful for me to list those producers I think are worth looking out for. Some of them are available in London, although with imported quantities being small, most wine shops will have sold through their stocks. If you find yourself in Paris there are plenty of bars and cavistes who stock the wines listed, but there are perhaps two which have a wider selection than others. Le Verre Volé (their wine shop), on Rue Oberkampf in the exciting 11th, and La Cave des Papilles on Rue Daguerre (14th). Irrespective of whether they have any Beaujolais Nouveau left, those two addresses should be in the little black book of any adventurous wine lover.
Of all the wines to look out for, one of the rarest, a unicorn wine among Beaujolais Nouveau, is that of Jean Foillard. It does exist! Karim Vionnet, whose wines I’ve written about recently, makes a really tasty version as well.
One of the most ubiquitous Nouveaux, to be found in several of the the Parisian natural wine cavistes is Jean-Claude Lapalu. Other producers whose wines graced parties at cavistes across Paris on the night of 17th include France Gonzalvez (you may still find some left at branches of The Sampler in London), Rémi Dufaitre, Château Chambon, Guy Breton and Xavier Benier. From the south of the Beaujolais, long-time star in what used to be a sea of mediocrity, Jean-Paul Brun, makes a Nouveau, though I haven’t tried it this year. Tasting notes suggest it has more bite and spice than most of the surrounding producers would be able to muster.
A good example of one of the “Vins de France” I was talking about is the “Brut de Cuve” of Romain des Grottes – although I’m not entirely sure why Romain doesn’t label this as a Beaujolais, his Domaine des Grottes being located at St-Etienne-des-Ouillères, near Vaux-en-Beaujolais, not far south of Odenas.
There are many outsiders who are making wine from the Beaujolais region now, Jean-François Ganevat being perhaps the most famous. A couple of producers known for their Burgundies have turned to Beaujolais, and both have released a Nouveau this year. Philippe Pacalat’s version I have only seen in France, whereas conversely, that of Andrew and Emma Nielsen (Le Grappin/du Grappin) was all rushed over to the UK, most of it sold from the keg by the glass in selected London bars and restaurants. I believe a little was bottled, well worth grabbing if you can find it.
I’m sure there are plenty of other ” bojo noovos” you all tasted last week. I’d love to hear what you thought were the best, wines for my search list next year.
Finally, it is worth pointing out that “Nouveau”, or more accurately, “vins de primeur“, come from other regions too. To complement Beaujolais Nouveau we are seeing increasing numbers of Muscadets released as primeurs, although they don’t have the lees ageing that a really good sur lie version has undergone. The Côtes du Rhône also makes light and fruity primeurs, and so do a number of Loire producers, just to mention a few French regions from where such wines can be found. They may not get the publicity of the Beaujolais wines, but if you know the producer then it will be worth trying the wine. Drink them with friends and without ceremony. They prefer a noisy and animated environment, not the silence of worship. They are a different beast to the sea of plonk which makes many of the older wine writers rightly shudder when they think back.