The leaves are falling, the turkeys are fattening, the football game is on TV. This could only mean one thing — it’s almost time for the Beaujolais Nouveau to arrive!
While it seems like every wine has its own celebration these days (maybe you missed International Tempranillo Day last Thursday?), the celebration of Beaujolais Nouveau is indisputably the first and the greatest wine holiday.
Searching the annals of winemaking history, we find that the tradition of making “early wines” (vins primeurs) predates the marketing genius of Georges Duboeuf, and can be traced to ancient times. According to Cato and Pliny, the Romans made a number of early wines, none of which closely approximated Beaujolais Nouveau but are interesting nonetheless. Vinum preliganeum was made from unripe grapes and was intended for workers to drink during the harvest, lors was a cheap wine made by macerating the newly pressed marc (seeds and stems), and slaves drank vinum faecatum, which was made from sediment left over after the grapes were pressed.
With this pedigree, we are fortunate that today’s primeur wines have morphed into something infinitely tastier.
Primeur wines get a lot of flak for being overly simple and approachable, but keep in mind that they were never meant to be great. If you can find them, primeur wines are best consumed within six months of release. They are relatively inexpensive, and are meant to give consumers and vintners their first glimpse into the potential quality of a vintage. They mark the end of the harvest season, and their release is naturally a cause for celebration in the rural areas where they are made.
Early wines are produced everywhere in Europe. Wines of this family are called vins nouveaux in France, vini novelli in Italy, Federweisser and Federroter in Germany, Sturm in Austria, vino joven in Spain, and almost every region within these countries has its own version.
Tomorrow, Thursday, November 15 is the official release day of the most famous primeur wine, Beaujolais Nouveau. Around the world, embassies and bars are hosting parties to celebrate,
But perhaps you suffer from Beaujolais Nouveau fatigue. That’s understandable. It has been both a blessing and a curse that George Duboeuf was so successful marketing the wine during the 70s, 80s and 90s. He deserves his own VH1 show. On the one hand, it’s incredible that a wine with such a short lifespan, that was previously very difficult to find outside of Beaujolais, is now available in Tokyo and New York at the same time it is released in Lyon. On the other hand, the already low quality of the wine has been diluted due to mass production, and prices have gone up due to the cost of air freighting the wine around the world.
But just because you don’t want to stay up till midnight on a Wednesday to watch your hundred closest friends’ mouths turn purple, doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the celebration of the harvest with some early wine. You’re sick of supporting the Georges Duboef juggernaut? Seek out an alternate producer.
The two other major negociants of Burgundy, Joseph Drouhin and Louis Jadot, also make Nouveau wines that are available in the U.S., but it’s much more difficult to find Nouveau wines from high-quality small-scale producers. Two remarkable exceptions are Jean Foillard (imported by Kermit Lynch) and Pierre-Marie Chermette of Domaine du Vissoux (imported by Peter Weygandt).
These two producers make their Beaujolais Nouveau wines following the same minimal intervention philosophy that they both famously use in their cru Beaujolais wines, and as a result these Nouveau wines have more nuance and better balance than many of the mass-market options.
So in the spirit of the season, I’d encourage you to give primeur wines another try. They have a rich history and there are now higher quality options available on the U.S. market than ever before. Don’t expect too much, and keep in mind that this is one of the most enjoyable ways to celebrate wine for wine’s sake.