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The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Beaujolais Nouveau

Once the most popular wine style in the world, younger vignerons are giving the wine a fresh start

Emily Monaco By November 18, 2021
vineyard and the town of Saint Julien in the region of Beaujolais, France
Vineyard and the town of Saint Julien in the region of Beaujolais, France. Photo by mbonaparte/iStock.

At the stroke of midnight on the third Thursday of November, and not a moment before, French bistrotiers with doors bedecked by signs crowing “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé” pull corks and pour the inexpensive red into the glasses of the waiting; in the Beaujolais region alone, 100 different parties are held, with visitors invited to proceed from cellar to cellar, storefront to storefront, to taste the fruits of the most recent harvest. 

“We’re the only wine-growing region in the world with three days in the wine world that belong only to us,” says Gilles Gelin, winemaker at the Domaine des Nugues in northern Beaujolais and co-president of the Inter Beaujolais Communication Commission. “No one else in the world has done that.”

Despite all the excitement, Beaujolais Nouveau isn’t always painted in the fondest light. With a flavor usually compared, not to fruit, but to the synthetic aromas associated with fruity candy — banana Runts or Tagada strawberries — it’s more about the event than the product. In Japan, people even bathe in it.

But a new, younger group of winemakers is working with a new style of Beaujolais — one that demands to be taken more seriously.

In 1985, Beaujolais Nouveau’s début date was fixed: the third Thursday of November. And in 1989, the first official Sarmentelles festival beckoned tourists to the region’s historic capital of Beaujeu to celebrate. By the ’90s, half of all Beaujolais sold was Nouveau, and events in its honor were held from New York to Tokyo.

A blockbuster is born

Beaujolais’ current reputation is probably not exactly what the local winemakers union had in mind when the seeds of this event were planted back in the ’50s, after a law was passed that would have forbidden the sale of new harvest wine before December 15. Beaujolais winemakers, who had been selling primeurs as early as the 19th century, fought back, winning the right to continue to sell these wines with just a few weeks of fermentation under their belts. 

Beginning in the 1950s, the release of Beaujolais Nouveau became an event, with distributors racing each other to be the first to get to Paris with the wine.

Then came the earthquake of the 1970s, when a wine distributor called Georges Duboeuf transformed those races into an international phenomenon and cemented his reputation as the King of Beaujolais. Cameras, placed to capture the moment the wine was loaded onto transport — one minute after midnight — encouraged ever bigger stunts, which eventually involved everything from elephants to jets.

In 1985, Beaujolais Nouveau’s début date was fixed: the third Thursday of November. And in 1989, the first official Sarmentelles festival beckoned tourists to the region’s historic capital of Beaujeu to celebrate. By the ’90s, half of all Beaujolais sold was Nouveau, and events in its honor were held from New York to Tokyo.

“We were conquerors,” said Georges Duboeuf in a video produced in 2015, of this period. 

By the 1980s, Beaujolais Nouveau represented 50% of the region’s output. But as the ocean expanded, quality contracted, damaging the region’s reputation.

photo of Beaujolais Nouveau with pumpkins in background

Georges Duboeuf turned Beaujolais Nouveau into a global phenomenon. Photo courtesy of Georges Duboeuf Winery.

Easy to drink

If Beaujolais’ primeur wines became so popular, it’s in part due to their very nature. Made by definition with black-skinned, white-juiced Gamay, Beaujolais naturally tends toward fruitier aromas, a characteristic only highlighted by the semi-carbonic maceration typical of the region, where grapes fermented as whole bunches without compacting. “Gamay naturally and easily produces those so-called candy aromas on very short vinifications,” explains Pierre-Alexandre Gauthier of Domaine de Colette, making it particularly easy to market and sell these wines young. “We didn’t necessarily do it on purpose,” adds Gelin of the development of these aromas. 

Today, somewhere between 50,000 and 1.5 million euros ($58,000 and $1.7 million) is invested each year to promote this wine. But unlike their predecessors, modern Beaujolais winemakers are less concerned with speed of distribution or quantity, but are instead experimenting with new approaches to this historic winemaking style. In Le Clerjon, David Large makes an unsulfured Beaujolais Nouveau and pairs it with poetry and music. Jean-Paul Brun of Charnay eschews semi-carbonic maceration to vinify in the Burgundian style, for improved structure. Gelin, meanwhile, crafts Beaujolais Nouveau that is, perhaps counterintuitively, built to last.

“I’m looking for a wine that’s tasty, that’s drinkable, but also something that’s fairly wine-y,” he says. “So that if you forget about the bottle, and you drink it in a year, you’ll still enjoy it.

Instead of the bespoke yeasts preferred by some of his colleagues, which, he says, have “overtaken us for the past 30 years,” he opts for more neutral yeasts, “so the terroir speaks more than technology.” The winemaker, who was described by Terre des Vins as being “a reformer but not a revolutionary, a visionary but not totalitarian,” says he is, in essence, returning to an “almost classic winemaking style.”

It does us good to live these simple moments, with friends and a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau.

Pauline PassotProducer at family-run Domaine de la Grosse Pierre

Long way to go

Despite these steps, Beaujolais Nouveau consumption is falling — from enough wine to fill 375 million bottles in the middle of the ’80s, to about a third of that in 2020.

This is as much to do with demand as it is to do with production. Gelin says the primeur wine makes up just 25% to 30% of his total output; Pauline Passot of Domaine de la Grosse Pierre makes even less: just 5% of her wine is Beaujolais Nouveau. 

“I prefer that we make a smaller volume and that we make it very good,” says Gelin, “rather than make wine for the sake of making wine.”

Indeed, for many modern winemakers, Beaujolais Nouveau is above all an event to open people’s eyes to the region’s other wines. 

“It’s ephemeral,” says Gauthier. “We’ll talk about it for a month, a month and a half … and then let’s move on to the crus, you know?”

High-altitude Chiroubles, elegant Fleurie, and reputable Moulin-à-Vent which, with aging, can grow to resemble the wines of neighboring Burgundy are, says Gelin, often forgotten come December, once the hype of Beaujolais Nouveau has passed. And this, he adds, must stop.

“We shouldn’t be renouncing our Beaujolais Nouveau,” says Gelin. “But we need to be proud of making lovely wines. And it’s complicated to communicate about both at the same time.”

To combat this issue, he says, he has a very simple rule, “I don’t sell Beaujolais Nouveau to someone who doesn’t sell my wines all year long.”

This desire to show off the richness of Beaujolais crus is paying off, with export markets embracing bottles outside of the Nouveaux. Gauthier notes that he doesn’t export any Beaujolais Nouveau to the U.S. at all, focusing instead on bottles made to last. And to hear him tell it, it’s working.

“Wine is a universe driven by trends,” explains Adrien Duboeuf-Lacombe, grandson of Georges Duboeuf, who passed away in 2020, and a member of the family business since 2012. “Not too long ago, it was trendy for wine lovers to badmouth Beaujolais. For almost ten years, young people have been discovering this region because they don’t have the same preconceived notions as their parents did.”

photo of Adrien Duboeuf-Lacombe, grandson of Georges Duboeu

Adrien Duboeuf-Lacombe, grandson of Georges Duboeuf. Photo by Saby Maviel.

This year, on the third Thursday of November, Gauthier says, he will not be celebrating but rather delivering wine to hopeful revelers; for Duboeuf-Lacombe, it will be an essential moment to mark the end of a year of work. And despite making a very small amount of the ephemeral wine, Passot says she is “proud of it, especially in this time of crisis. It does us good to live these simple moments, with friends and a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau.”

3 Beaujolais Nouveaux to try:

bottle of Henry Fessy Beaujolais Nouveau Villages 2021

Henry Fessy Beaujolais Nouveau Villages 2021 ($10)

Henry Fessy’s Beaujolais Nouveau won a gold medal in Lyon’s annual contest last year, lauded for its “incomparable elegance” and meaty, berry notes with a touch of spice. So we have no doubt this year’s will be just as enticing.

This wine is available for pre-order.

bottle of Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau Château d’Ouilly 2021

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau Château d’Ouilly 2021 ($11)

The prototypical Bojo Nouveau offers notes of strawberry and currant. Perfect to accompany a cheese platter.

This wine is available for pre-order.

bottle of Terres Dorées Beaujolais Nouveau L’ancien 2020

Terres Dorées Beaujolais Nouveau L’ancien 2020 ($16)

What’s old is new with this old-vine Beaujolais made by Jean-Paul Brun at Terres Dorées in the southern part of the region. Ripe fruit with a lovely structure defines this beautiful bottle.