As everyone in the US is gearing up for the fourth Thursday of November, we in France get the party started on the third Thursday of the month. While there’s no equivalent over here for Thanksgiving, we do have a holiday giving thanks for one of France’s greatest bounties: wine!.
As the clock strikes midnight on November 17th this year, millions of bottles of one specific wine hailing from just north of Lyon are popped open all around France (and the world). This wine is none other than the Beaujolais Nouveau (new Beaujolais).
© Olivia Hoffman
What is Beaujolais Nouveau and why is it the wine consumed on this particular autumn day? If you read our early October article on the vendanges in France, you’re aware that the wine harvest begins in August and finishes around the end of September. Well, after the grapes are picked and pressed, they need to sit and ferment in tanks or oak casks for some time before being left to age in a bottle. Typically for red wines, this process could require a handful of months or multiple years. The exception? Beaujolais Nouveau.
Produced using the region’s primary grape variety, Gamay, Beaujolais Nouveau is made with the intent of being the very first wine to be opened from the year’s vintage. As you may know, the French are pretty strict when it comes to rules and regulations around their wine and cuisine. Therefore, the third Thursday of November at 12:01 a.m. is the legal date and time that wine produced with grapes grown that year can be released.
On this glorious fall morning, bistros all around France hang signs announcing the official arrival of the new year’s harvest with the coined phrase: “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” Consumed more for the tradition of it all, and less for the taste (which is quite light and fruity), parties commemorating the end of the harvest with this nouveau wine involve dinner, dancing and, of course, lots of drinking.
The history behind this Beaujolais sensation, believe it or not, dates back to the year 1395, when the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, declared that all Gamay vines must be ripped from the ground because the resulting wine was “full of significant and horrible bitterness” while causing “ruin and desolation to the land.” This pretty “bold” claim had some validity to it, but the real motivation was money.
The neighboring wine region to the north, Burgundy, produced some of the most excellent wines in the world from the more labor-intensive grape, Pinot Noir. When the Black Plague in the 14th century significantly reduced the labor force, wine growers began planting more Gamay vines which were easier to maintain and produced a higher yield of juice. Unfortunately, this brought down the quality of the wine in the Burgundy region, decreasing demand, which launched the decree to dig up Gamay vines. However, the Beaujolais region was spared from this Gamay ban…
Fast-forward to the 1800s, and suddenly Beaujolais had become all the rage. The easy-to-drink wine was set on bistro tables all around France, and its high alcohol content made those Belle Époque parties all the more fun. Seeing the opportunity in the Industrial Revolution, Beaujolais wine producers raced to get their wines to the big cities in large quantities as fast as possible.
Beaujolais was first declared an official wine region in 1936 which subsequently put limits on how much they could sell and when they could sell it. But after World War II, restrictions were eased, and producers were encouraged to sell the wine earlier to help boost everyone’s spirits following the war. This is when the official Beaujolais Nouveau Day really started to take off.
The most influential wine producer from the Beaujolais region, a man by the name of Georges Duboeuf, launched Beaujolais Nouveau Day into international fame in the 1980s. Shipping the bottles around the world, he hyped up the marketing and created an eager buildup to the wine, which was held in bond until the official release date. All this suspense is what has led to over 40 million bottles being sold in France and worldwide every year.
While it may not be the most delicious or complex wine you’ve ever tasted, the thirst for Beaujolais Nouveau is still hot today. And with the launch day celebrations as fun as they are, we don’t think it’s going anywhere any time soon…