Among the rolling hills and tiny villages just south of Burgundy and north of Lyon, France, lies Beaujolais. The region is synonymous with Gamay, the area’s most-planted grape. Beaujolais is 34 miles long from north to south, and seven to nine miles wide. There are nearly 4,000 grape growers who make their living in this picturesque region just north of France's third-largest city, Lyon. Today is Beaujolais Nouveau Day and at the crack of 12:01 AM this morning, City Vino and retails shops around the world are now legally allowed to sell this young wine to the public. It is commonly, in the US, thought of as synonymous with Thanksgiving, but how did it get that way?
Gamay is the grape of Beaujolais and Beaujolais Nouveau. It has been documented as being planted in Burgundy and the larger surrounding areas since the 1300s. It is a vivacious, high-yielding vine, producing wines of light- to medium-body and tannins, and a good bit of acidity, with delicate lavender florals and flavors of pomegranate, blackberry, cranberry, red currant, earth, and sometimes laurel. In a lot of ways, Gamay mirrors Pinot Noir with structure and food pairing versatility.
In contrast, Pinot Noir is thought of as the more elegant wine. Well, it would be if you were a winemaker in Burgundy in 1395. The popularity of Pinot Noir wines was just getting traction, as these wines that were billed as wines on King’s tables. Especially noted were the Pinot Noirs from Dijon, Beaune, and Chalon, which were considered highly valued regions. Gamay is not only high-yielding, it is, also, a LOT less fussy a grape to grow. Meaning years when Pinot Noir fruit is damaged, some vignerons may cut Gamay into their Pinot Noir and sell it as “Pinot Noir.” Not exactly truth in advertising. So, a smear campaign started in order to vilify Gamay as the inferior wine.
The Duke of Burgundy, Philip, was encouraged by Pinot Noir winemakers and the growing notoriety of Burgundy’s wine reputation to take action to keep the superior status. The Ordinance of 1395 was the result. Pinot noir was allowed and encouraged. Gamay was then banned in Burgundy and exiled to the south, Beaujolais. It became “disloyal” to grow Gamay, touching in the realm of treason (perhaps). The overall effect being that Burgundy was established as a wine region based on territory, grape variety, yield, and viticultural practice. In essence it was the first characteristics of an appellation. At this point the definition of an appellation d’origine was the same as political lines (a point for a different blog). Beaujolais is warmer (pinot noir is a cold-region growing grape) and it begrudgingly flourished!
As time passed the strength of the Ordinance of 1395 must have waned. Gamay was still known to be grown in Côte de Nuits, Côte de Beaune, and Côte Chalonnaise. By the 1700s a parish in Volnay (in Côte de Nuits) included both Pinot Noir and Gamay. In the early 1900s, the AOC authorities took a middle road, neither banning Gamay, but not giving it full equality in Burgundy. Interestingly, there was a positive to the Duke’s Ordinance in favor of Gamay. Phillip condemned Gamy for being very bitter. But in their youth (the phrase in the ordinance is de nouveaul) they had “a kind of sweetness.” That was surely an argument for drinking them while they were still young. Perhaps this is where Beaujolais Nouveau got its popularity start.
In the 1800s, Nouveau was documented as the young wine, quickly made, and drunk by vineyard workers celebrating the end of the hard work of harvest. It was a cultural thing mainly kept as a laborer enjoyment and the wines didn’t travel outside the local regions from where they were made. Or did they? Some paintings suggest that this had a whole big celebration with it, where the townspeople would roll barrels down the street, filled with Nouveau.
The enjoyment of Gamay grew enough to warrant Beaujolais as a delineated appellation. Finally in 1937, the Union Interprofessionnelle des Vins du Beaujolais (U.I.V.B.) made Beaujolais an Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC), with a specific December 15th release date for the Nouveau. With this recognition came a demand, developed shortly after WWII, for the wine to be sold outside of the region.
During the 1950s, Beaujolais Nouveau’s popularity grew when the fashionable citizens of Paris started to drink the wine. The enthusiasm for the wine encouraged the authorities to have the wine released a month earlier on November 15th. By the early 1960s, bars across Britain and Europe raced to get their stocks of Beaujolais Nouveau. A notable bar called the “No Sign Bar” held influence to popularize it in Swansea, Wales. There you had it with marketing campaigns claiming “Le nouveau est arrive!”
Perhaps no one has done more to advance the celebration of this young wine than Georges Duboeuf, a young winemaker and businessman, who, in 1964 launched his climb to fame. His Nouveau was approachable, easy-drinking and notably inexpensive. Americans were in the mood for French wine and French cuisine. They were an eager audience for something with such an incredible story and history behind it. In its heyday, Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau sold as many as 1.185 million nine-liter cases in U.S. stores, according to the academic society, the American Association of Wine Economists.
New York may have had George Duboeuf’s Beaujolais Nouveau first. But in 1972, Minneapolis began importing it. After which it was wild fire across the US. Duboeuf spearheaded a campaign to promote the wine in his home country, capturing the French imagination with the slogan “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!”
By the 1980s, droves of wine drinkers across Europe, the U.S. and Asia were toasting with glasses of Beaujolais Nouveau. In 1985 Beaujolais Nouveau had become so popular throughout Europe that the release date was moved to the third Thursday of November, to bring it closer to the weekend. The American Thanksgiving marketers could not have had a bigger bang over the heads of their consumers. No match could be better for turkey!