What originated as a way to replenish Parisian cafes as their stocks of the previous year’s wines dwindled became a massive wine-world event in the 1960’s. By the 1980’s more than 60% of all of Beaujolais production was going to Nouveau. Everyone wanted to taste the first wine of the year and shops piled up boxes of the stuff because it they couldn’t put it on the shelves fast enough.
Then one year, as the ‘90’s approached, without warning people stopped buying. Shops were left with boxes of Beaujolais Nouveau. The bubble had burst. Much of the Nouveau had been poor, Beaujolais became an unfashionable name and that impacted on the rest of the wine made there.
Beaujolais is a region of east central France at the southern end of the Burgundy wine region. It takes it name from the 10th century town of Beaujeu and, whereas Burgundy is famed for Pinot Noir, Beaujolais grows Gamay, (its full name is Gamay Noir au Jus Blanc) a black variety with clear juice. Gamay is the only black grape allowed in Beaujolais and it is uncommon to find the variety anywhere else in the world.
The other difference with Beaujolais is the method used to ferment the wine, known as Carbonic Maceration. It means whole grape bunches are put in fermenting tanks without being crushed as usual. The weight of the grapes squashes those at the bottom of the tank and the juices start fermenting. Carbon dioxide gas is released by the fermentation process which fills the tank and surrounds whole berries nearer the top. Protected from air they start fermenting inside the berry which then breaks the skins. Carbonic Maceration produces bubble-gum and banana flavours in the finished wines.
While Nouveau is a bit of fun it should not detract from the normal wines of Beaujolais. Quality levels are fairly simple to understand: look for the words ‘appellation controllee’. In between the two words is the region the wine comes from.
First is Beaujolais, a basic wine from grapes grown anywhere in the region. Beaujolais-Villages, from grapes grown in the better areas. The top Beaujolais come from ten named areas, known as Cru. Those names are Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly.
Beaujolais is often recommend to new red wine drinkers as it is soft without tannins. It is a wine to drink and enjoy, not to pontificate about. It is not a wine for aging – although it will keep for some years – and its worth comparing Beaujolais from different crus since I find quite a lot of difference. Fleurie is soft and delicate while Morgon is firmer and bigger.
What do you think about Beaujolais? Aks questions and share your suggestions on our forum.
Peter F May is the author of Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape: Odd Wines from Around the World which features more than 100 wine labels and the stories behind them, and PINOTAGE: Behind the Legends of South Africa’s Own Wine which tells the story behind the Pinotage wine and grape.