Beaujolais. Another year has passed in which I haven’t drunk any Beaujolais. I am reminded by the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau, which takes place on the third Thursday of November and I am recall that this once golden egg of a money spinner turned out to be a viper in the nest. Beaujolais Nouveau would make – and probably already is – a cautionary tale on any marketing and business management class.
Where to start? Beaujolais is region in France, north of the world famous Burgundy that it is officially part of, and close to Paris. Like many French wines, the region gives its name to the wine and since wine laws restrict which grape varieties can be grown in that region, the name also tells you what the wine will be. Beaujolais (pronounced Boe-Zho-lay) wines are mostly red and they are made from the Gamay grape. Gamay is not grown very much anywhere else and yet in Beaujolais it makes an attractive, light fresh wine.
It is this easy drinking quality that made it so attractive for the bars and cafes of Paris where a ‘vin rouge’ or glass of red wine was the preferred drink of the masses. The wine was meant for drinking young and so it was with relief that the new vintage was greeted and Paris could replenish its depleted stock with fresh new wine. The Beaujolais wineries made these wines as quickly as possible to get them to Paris.
Young fresh and lively, these wines had a charm about them and foreign visitors to Paris spread the word and the new – Nouveau (pronounced Noe-Voo) -- wine started appearing in bars around the world at the end on November.
In the 1970’s a sudden craze for the wine took hold in the capitals of Europe with every bar wanting to have the Beaujolais Nouveau as soon as possible. They’d plaster their windows with posters boasting the wine had arrived.
The English made a sport of it, racing to be first to get it home. They had to contend with a sea crossing and customs formalities, but restaurant, bar and shop owners would waiting outside the cellars when the wine could be legally released at one minute past midnight and then racing to the ferry ports to serve it a Beaujolais breakfasts in London. The authorities took a dim view of racing on public roads but the wine kept coming, a couple of bottles at one time strapped to the legs of a sky-diver who landed in a London park.
Such was worldwide demand for Nouveau that more and more wine production went to it rather than the regions to serious wines.
Then after 15-20 years the fashion moved on. People grew tired of it. Much of the wine had been made too hurriedly and wasn’t something you’d want more than a glass off.
For the Beaujolais winemakers it had been a golden time. They got their money within weeks of harvest when others had to mature their wines for months or years and invest in expensive barrels.
However, Beaujolais Nouveau had impressed itself in the minds of the public so much that when the craze ended the wine region of Beaujolais was associated only with Nouveau and no-one wanted the serious wines of the region. Winemakers went out of business. Decades later so much Beaujolais is unsold each year that millions of litres are poured away. Many now avoid putting the word Beaujolais on their label, instead using the name of their village, in order not to be associated with Nouveau.
Beaujolais Nouveau was a bit of fun that gave an impression of what the vintage was like, but serious, properly made Beaujolais is a delight. And it is a wine that can be recommended to new red wine drinkers as it doesn’t have bitter tannins, is light in alcohol is pleasantly fruity and matches well with white meats, making it ideal for festive dinners.
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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, also available for the Kindle.