History of Beaujolais Wine
The story of Beaujolais Nouveau is one of politics, power, and popularity that takes place from the Saône river to swimming pools in Japan.
It spans centuries and continents, and has always been a reflection of the city of Lyon itself.
Throughout its history, this light and fruity red wine made just north of Lyon has been adored and reviled, celebrated and dismissed, it's been the lifeblood of industry, it's been destroyed en mass.
A study in contradictions, scandal, and the whims of the market, Beaujolais remains controversial to this day.
Beaujolais Nouveau is released on the 3rd Thursday of November.
What is Beaujolais Nouveau?
Beaujolais Nouveau is a totally unique, easy to drink, gluggable red wine made in the Beaujolais region, just north of Lyon, from the Gamay grape.
Beaujolais Nouveau is released to the public just weeks after it's made, it's "Nouveau" because it's the new wine of the just picked vintage. About 25% of total wine production in Beaujolais is Nouveau, coming in at 2.7 million cases a year.
The best of these wines have a bright red berry character, they are light bodied, soft and smooth, and they go down easy. The worst taste like the saddest kind of cheap wine, thin and acidic, with a banana candy or bubblegum vibe.
The best thing about Beaujolais Nouveau is that it’s made to drink now, you don’t need any anxiety about keeping it wondering if it will get better, it’s not supposed to get better, drink it today.
How is Beaujolais Nouveau made?
Beaujolais Nouveau is produced using a very distinct method called carbonic maceration, which start to finish can take less than six weeks.
The grapes are picked by hand, because they must be kept in whole bunches, stems and all, before they are put into a tank.
The weight of the grapes crushes the bottom bunches, and the juice released begins to ferment. The uncrushed grapes on top undergo intracellular fermentation, where they are fermenting within their skins, creating unique and distinct flavors.
This takes place under a blanket of CO2 which is either created naturally from the fermentation process, or often poured over the top of the grapes once they’re in the tank.
In most winemaking, the free run juice is discarded and only the pressed juice is used, but in Beaujolais nouveau the two juices are blended, with about 2/3rds of the wine being made of the juice released in the tank.
This technique is unusual, and it's defined by its widespread use in Beaujolais.
It leads to light wines without much tannin, and I always get a distinct pencil shavings vibe from carbonic maceration.
This fast fermentation means that the wines can be finished and bottled and get to market extremely quickly, and if Beaujolais tells a story of anything, it’s a story of markets.
Why Beaujolais Nouveau?
Short answer: the people need to get their drink on.
Long answer: More than any other wine region in France, and perhaps the world, the region of Beaujolais is synonymous with one grape.
While it is technically legal to make white wine with Chardonnay or Aligoté in Beaujolais, they only account for 1% of plantings.
Beaujolais is Gamay, and Gamay is Beaujolais. You can’t figure out one without understanding the other, so let’s take a short detour through the sad story of the ever-maligned Gamay grape.
Blame it on the Gamay
While winemaking was brought to France by the Romans and has been an essential part of this region’s economy for more than two thousand years, Gamay was made famous on July 31st, 1395 when Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, issued an edict that all Gamay vines be ripped up within five months because it was “a very bad and disloyal variety” that was “harmful to human creatures”, caused “ruin and desolation” of the land by replacing Pinot Noir and was “full of significant and horrible bitterness”.
So don’t be surprised if you hear bad things about Gamay, hating on this grape is an ancient French tradition.
Why the Hate for Gamay?
Philip had a very good reason to ban Gamay from his lands, and it was called money.
By the middle ages Burgundy had already developed a reputation as producing the finest wines in the world, with Pinot Noir as its noble and excellent grape.
This stuff was liquid gold, flowing overland and down the river, feeding Princes and Popes and being fancy and delicious.
Unfortunately for wine growers, Pinot Noir is notoriously fussy and annoying to grow. If you remember watching a grown man cry into a glass of wine in the movie Sideways, that’s what his tragic monologue was about.
Gamay on the other hand is a cross between Pinot and the archaic Gouais Blanc and is an extremely fertile, sturdy, high yielding vine that can produce a lot of juice.
With the Black Plague spreading over France in the 14th Century, generations of farmers were wiped out, and in order to survive those that were left had to keep making wine, which meant planting the way lower maintenance, higher yielding Gamay.
By the 1390s Gamay was taking over Burgundy, driving down quality, and pissing off Philip the Bold. The winemakers of Burgundy were intensely opposed to this new law, and Philip even had the Mayor of Beaune replaced with one of his minions in order to enforce the edict.
The years that followed were devastating to the economy of Burgundy, and much wealth and power was lost because there just wasn’t enough wine, what with so many of the vines having been ripped up.
The strategy ultimately proved correct though, and after a couple decades Burgundy regained its status as the producer of the worlds finest wines. Which brings us back to Beaujolais.
Beaujolais: The Third River of Lyon
While Gamay was banned from Burgundy, it continued to be grown south of Mâcon in the Beaujolais region, named after the 10th Century village Beaujeu. Gamay became the “it” drink in Paris bistros in the 1800s.
It was table wine and it was the lifeblood of the Lyonnais.
The famous phrase that Beaujolais is the third river of Lyon refers to this relationship, and so was Beaujolais an intrinsic part of life here.
With the industrial revolution bringing Lyon into a Golden Age of unprecedented expansion, population, and wealth, the 19th Century saw Beaujolais producing ever bigger volumes to supply the booming city.
Producers would often add sugar, with wines coming out of fermentation at 15% alcohol. The new vintage’s wine used to be sent down the Sôane unfinished, still fermenting away in its barrel as it floated down towards the city, beginning the tradition of Nouveau.
As huge companies were consolidating the silk industry in Lyon, so were major winemakers consolidating Beaujolais production.
Most of the wine was mass produced and cheap, and it provided a huge immediate cashflow to producers, incentivizing them to continue to make more and more of it.
At the same time the ‘bouchon’ restaurant came into its own distinct identity, and Beaujolais was the oil that greased the machine. Beaujolais was everywhere in Lyon, drunk by everyone, all the time.
With the development of the railway to Paris, this strange wine escaped its local boundaries, and became the “it” drink in Paris bistros in the 1800s. It was often sold as fake Burgundy, scandalous!
The first mention of Beaujolais Nouveau in the UK comes from the late 1890s, but by the 1970s, it was a phenomenon unto itself.
Beaujolais Nouveau has Arrived
The first legislation on wine origins (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) came in 1901, and Beaujolais was declared its own region in 1936, with such legislation came rules about when that year’s wine could be released, and how much of it.
After World War Two the Beaujolais producers were allowed to release more wine early, a measure of encouragement on behalf of the government to try and lift everyone’s spirits, and the phenomenon of Beaujolais Nouveau continued to expand and grow.
The most influential producer in the history of Beaujolais is Georges Duboeuf, also known as the King of Beaujolais, who brilliantly and successfully took Beaujolais Nouveau and turned it into an international marketing phenomenon in the 1980s.
It was he who coined the phrase, “Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” The wines were shipped around the world and held in bond until midnight, when massive parties were thrown in celebration.
Mr Duboeuf passed away in early 2020, but can be credited as a pioneer and leader in the global wine trade.
To this day, Japan imports 60 million liters a year, and there is a wine spa where people can swim in it during the celebrations.
Other producers jumped on the bandwagon, flooding the market with crappy wine, and by the late 90s everyone was over it.
Beaujolais Day was celebrated as a holiday in the UK, and the craze overtook the USA and Australia as well.
Hating on Beaujolais
The backlash from the Beaujolais Nouveau craze of the 1980s was reflected by scathing reviews and a massive decrease in sales.
In 2001 the government demanded that winemakers dump over a million cases because there was so much of the stuff that it was worthless. The market had moved on, and Gamay was officially a disloyal and very bad grape again.
In Hugh Johnson’s Wine Companion, published in 1983, my copy revised in 2003, it says of hectares of vines in Beaujolais, “They could really be reduced to half a dozen without greatly grieving anyone but the gastronomes of Lyon.”
Ok Hugh, get in line behind Philip the Bold!
To be fair to Hugh and Philip, most Beaujolais really did get quite bad there for awhile in the 90s and 2000s. So what now?
Beaujolais Nouveau Today
As a gastronome of Lyon and wine industry professional, I would be greatly grieved if Beaujolais were reduced to half a dozen hectares.
The fact is that there is mass produced garbage wine made everywhere, and bad Beaujolais Nouveau is just lighter than other crappy wine.
While large negotiants (companies that buy grapes and wine, but don’t own vines) still dominate, Beaujolais has plenty of producers making high quality wines of exceptionally good value, including the large and famed Dubouef.
On the other side of things we have the generation that were children when their parents got successful and then lost it all from the 80s to now, and they are going back to basics, farming tiny plots and focusing more on the rest of the year than just Beaujolais Nouveau.
While they may make a small amount for tradition’s sake and to see how good they can make it, the priority is making “serious” wines that may be oak aged or require a few more years in the bottle, like a Burgundy.
Beaujolais does in fact have 10 village level designations of higher quality, and the Gamay grape is capable of creating stunning wines of depth and character when made in a traditional manner.
After the backlash, even the massive négociants of Beaujolais Nouveau have had to adapt by making better wine, they have to if they want to sell it!
As it is Lyon never lost its taste for Beaujolais in general or Beaujolais Nouveau, and I imagine that with retrospection we will see that the renaissance of quality we see in Beaujolais right now is connected to Lyon’s emergence as a thriving, modern cultural and economic center.
Beaujolais Nouveau has gone from being an abused work horse to the prettiest girl at the party, to being shown the door and literally dumped down the drain.
It is now in the midst of picking itself back up, dusting off its shoulders, and flirting heavily with hipster sommeliers in San Francisco and New York.
In 2018 Beaujolais Nouveau is is being made to a higher standard than ever, with delicious fruity wines that are meant to be enjoyed today.
Celebrating Beaujolais Nouveau Day is a French and international tradition that tells a story of Lyon and gets you drunk for cheap, so bottoms up!