Since the birth of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago, autumn has been synonymous with harvest and celebration. The days grow shorter and the nights colder. The verdant hues of summer’s paintbrush explode into rich reds, oranges, and golds, and the raw crunch of fresh vegetables gives way to the warmth of squash, grain, and other prizes of the hard won harvest. It is a time of year when we prepare ourselves for the winter ahead the most human way we know how: feasting upon our labor’s fruits. Alongside the overflowing cornucopia of harvest always sits a glass, goblet, stein, or mug spilling over with Dionysian nectar, some fermented concoction sure to drive the evening towards naught but fun and folly. There’s no better way to warm the soul, to make us bold enough to laugh at the waxing darkness, or to ease us into the icy clutches of winter. This is no time for refined sipping. This is when we feast.
Some regions around the globe, as one might imagine, have gotten superlatively good at crafting these autumnal delights, and thanks to certain modern conveniences, we can enjoy it worlds away at the exact moment it was intended to be. We take our name from one such region, a region that has the entire world waiting with bated breath until 12:01 a.m. on the third Thursday of every November. Today is that day. Today is the day that le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé! As with most curious traditions, a lot had to happen for this particular wine to claim its strangely precise annual release date and, of course, its place in our hearts.
The region now known as Beaujolais was first cultivated by the Romans, those spreaders of culture and wine (synonymous in many circles). Hundreds of years of viticulture later, from the seventh century through the Middle Ages, the vineyards were tended and wines made by the Benedictine monks. These oenophiles lived and presumably drank by the creed “Ora et labora,” which means “Pray and work” in Latin. During this time, around the tenth century, the growing region took the name it bears today from the town of Beaujeu. It was ruled by the Dukes of Beaujeu until circa 1400 CE, when the region was ceded to the Bourbonnais.
It was around this time that Beaujolais began in earnest to develop an identity distinct from the Burgundy region to the north. It was also around this time that Europe was recovering from the horrors of the Black Plague. A pandemic that takes the lives of one in three is enough to make anyone want to take things like wine a bit more seriously, and that is exactly what was happening in Burgundy. The Gamay grape, the only grape used in Beaujolais Nouveau, first appeared during this time, too, in the eponymous village. The grape is a cross of the classic varietal Pinot Noir and the ancient white wine grape Gouais, which was brought from central Europe to France by those aforementioned, industrious Romans.
It’s difficult to overstate how welcomed this new varietal was to a region only just limping back to normalcy after the plague. The Gamay grape is not only easier to cultivate than its progenitor, Pinot Noir, it also ripens a fortnight earlier. The wine that can be made with this godsend of grape is fruity and strong, and it can be made quickly in great abundance. For reasons likely related to affluence and anemia, Gamay was a grape looked down upon by nobility. It was twice banned from the Burgundy region, once in 1395 by Philippe the Bold and again for good measure in 1455 by Philippe the Good. It was maligned as being less elegant than Pinot Noir and was said to be ruining the reputation of the Dukes of Burgundy, who fancied themselves “the lords of the best wines in Christendom.”
This close-minded class warfare pushed Gamay growers south, further into the Beaujolais region, where the vigorous vine prospered like never before in the granite- and schist-laden soils. The soils of Burgundy, filled as they are with limestone, are alkaline, and the Gamay grapes didn’t root as deeply. In the region they now call home, however, the soil is arguably ideal for the varietal, as is the climate.
Beaujolais as a region is 34 miles from north to south and anywhere from seven to nine miles wide. Today, it’s home to over 44,000 acres of vineyards tended by some 2,300 farmers. The Saône River graciously provides fresh water. The region’s proximity to the Mediterranean influences the climate to the degree the vintages of many varietals are allowed to fully ripen more consistently than many other regions of France. By the time Beaujolais Nouveau is released, for example, there’s often snow in neighboring Burgundy. All of this leads Beaujolais to be one of the most densely vined wine regions in the world.
Harvest is still done predominantly by hand because the way the Gamay grapes are fermented for Beaujolais Nouveau allows whole clumps and clusteres to be thrown in. This is due to the unique style of carbonic maceration used for the wine. Grape clusters are piled high in large cement or steel tanks that run roughly between 1,000 and 8,000 gallons. The bottom third of the grapes is crushed under the sheer weight of what’s above. At this point, the fermentation process starts using only the ambient yeasts present on the skin of the harvested grapes. Fermentation produces carbon dioxide, which starts to saturate the intact fruit above what’s been crushed. This stimulates fermentation at the intracellular level. The whole process can take as little as four days for Beaujolais Nouveau, which spends a legal maximum of ten days at this stage. A malolactic fermentation is typically used to soften the wine at this point. Some wine makers will add sugar to boost alcohol content; others will aggressively filter the wine for consistency’s sake. Respectively, these processes can leave the vin de primeur (a wine enjoyed the year it’s harvested) having its more subtle notes blown out by the taste of of high-proof wine and being reduced to a more plebian, Jello-like fruitiness.
Beaujolais Nouveau is and will always be a vin de l’année, meant to celebrate the end of another successful harvest year. While today the largest importers of the wine are Japan, Germany, and the United States (in that order), this autumnal tradition wasn’t shared with the world until World War II, when its popularity began to grow. In 1937, the first official release day of December 15th was set for the newly formed Beaujolais AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée). As the popularity of the wine grew, so did it for the release day. Winemakers would create quite the spectacle racing to Paris to be the first to deliver Beaujolais Nouveau, as would the wine sellers themselves. In 1951, the date was pushed forward to November 15th, where it stayed for 34 years until being moved to the third Thursday in November, a move thought to encourage taking off Friday for a long Beaujolais-fueled weekend that would make Bacchus blush.
Here in America, we can delight in the fact that Beaujolais Nouveau pairs brilliantly with one of our harvest-feast favorites: turkey. The light red wine is fruity and floral, with notes of raspberry, cherry, cranberry, violet, mushrooms, and smoke. Join us to celebrate its arrival for 2014, and be sure to try each Beaujolais Nouveau we’ve gotten our hands on to truly get a feel for this wonderful wine that like our restaurant is truly and elegantly everyday French.