Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
October 29, 2009
Ready, Set, Pour.
At 12:01a.m. on the third Thursday in November (Nov. 19 this year), the 2009 vintage Beaujolais Nouveau wines will be released to the world.
You may not have it marked on your calendar, but thanks to the marketing smarts of the winemakers in the Beaujolais region – especially one Georges Duboeuf – the release has become the most globally celebrated of all French holidays. Kind of a French Cinco de Mayo.
As we are three weeks away from the release date, I thought it appropriate to address what the fuss is all about.
Beaujolais is a beautiful wine region located in central France, just south of the considerably more loved and esteemed Burgundy. Running nearly 35 miles in length from Macon, the southern end of Burgundy, to just north of Lyon, Beaujolais is one of the few places in the world where the Gamay grape is grown.
Gamay is a purple, highly acidic, thick-skinned grape that, unfortunately, pales in comparison to the infinitely elegant Pinot Noir grape that dominates the neighborhoods to the north. But it has its advantages. It is hardy, it is prodigious and it ripens early. While there are some very good cru wines produced from Gamay in 10 AOC-sanctioned regions or villages in the area, the bulk of the region’s production goes into the Nouveau wines.
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Each year, the Gamay grapes are harvested by hand (French law states that Beaujolais Nouveau must be hand-picked) in early September, when as many as 50,000 pickers descend on the region to help with the harvest. The grapes are fermented using a process called “carbonic maceration” where whole grapes are placed in a vat and carbon dioxide is pumped into the containers. The juice actually ferments inside the skin of the grapes, as opposed to more standard winemaking techniques where juice is first crushed out of the skins and then ferments on the skins, gathering color and flavor.
The result is a light, fruity wine that gets little, if any, tannins or embellishment, from the skins of the grapes. The wine is quickly bottled and then rushed to market for the anticipated November release date. These wines should be consumed within a year of bottling, and are best if served chilled (think 55 degrees or so).
While the wine has been produced for generations and was poured in Beaujolais as a celebration of the harvest, the aforementioned George Deboeuf had the idea that a race to get the wine to market would create an aura around it. The key was the one-minute-past-midnight release. In the 1970s, the wine was delivered to Parisian bistros by motorcycle, flown to country estates in hot air balloons and even jetted to New York by Concorde. The hoopla created media attention, which, in turn, created unprecedented demand for the wine.
For many, it is not the wine but the event that makes Beaujolais Nouveau interesting. Japan and the U.S. are the biggest markets for the release, and it is nearly impossible to miss the hype in local wine shops and French restaurants in those countries.
Some critics revile the wine, suggesting that it is undrinkable plonk, an unprecedented triumph of marketing over winemaking, and, in an example of criticism nouveau, environmentally destructive. A movement has arisen that argues for a boycott of Beaujolais Nouveau based on the carbon footprint of the wine’s delivery system.
To counter, George Deboeuf and Boisset, the two biggest producers, bottle much of their wine in plastic bottles to reduce the costs and the footprint involved in transportation. Last year Deboeuf even petitioned for and received special dispensation from French authorities to release some of the wine early so that it could transported to Miami by ship rather than air and still arrive in time for release date.
Personally, while I applaud the extra steps, in the global scheme of things the environmental argument is little more than a red herring.
And the wine, though far from epic, can be an enjoyable idle, especially in the holiday season with leftover turkey sandwiches. And as far as marketing, well, the peasants of an overlooked wine region have become rich turning lemons into lemonade and selling the sizzle to the rest of the world. That is as American as apple pie.
All I can say is Vive la French!