At one minute past midnight on the third Thursday of each November, from little villages and towns, over a million cases of Beaujolais Nouveau begin their journey through a sleeping France to Paris for immediate shipment to all parts of the world. Banners proclaim the good news: Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé! "The New Beaujolais has arrived!" One of the most anticipated and animated rituals in the wine world has begun. By the time it’s over, over seventy-five million bottles, nearly half of the region's total annual production, will be distributed and drunk around the world. It has become a worldwide race to be the first to serve to this new wine of the harvest. In doing so, it will be carried by motorcycle, balloon, truck, helicopter, Learjet, elephant, runners and rickshaws to get it to its final destination. It is amazing to think that just weeks before, this wine was a cluster of grapes in a grower’s vineyard. But thanks to an expeditious harvest, a rapid fermentation and a speedy bottling, all is ready at the midnight hour. By French law, Beaujolais Nouveau is to be released no earlier than the third Thursday of November.
Beaujolais Nouveau began as a local phenomenon in the local bars, cafes, and bistros of Beaujolais and Lyons. Each fall, the new Beaujolais would arrive with much fanfare. In pitchers filled from the growers’ barrels, wine was drunk by an eager & thirsty population. It was wine made quickly to drink while the better Beaujolais took its’ more leisurely course. Eventually, the government stepped in to regulate the sale of this quickly transported, free-flowing wine. In 1938, regulations were put in place to restrict the where, when, and how of this grassroots revolution. After the war years, in 1951, these regulations were revoked by the region's governing body—the Union Interprofessional des Vins de Beaujolais (UIVB)—and the Beaujolais Nouveau was officially recognized. The legal release date was set for November 15th. By this time, what had been a local tradition gained so much popularity that the news of it reached Paris. The race was on. It wasn't long thereafter that the word spilled out of France and around the world. In 1985, the date was again changed, this time to the third Thursday of November, tying it to a weekend and making the celebration complete. On a more technical note, the wine is strictly speaking, more properly termed Beaujolais Primeur. By French and European rules, a wine released during the period between its harvest and a date in the following spring, is termed primeur. A wine released during the period between its own and the following year’s harvest is termed nouveau.
It is a triumph of marketing and promotion, mostly due to the efforts of Georges Dubœuf. The largest negociant in the region, he is a tireless promoter of Beaujolais and Beaujolais Nouveau. More than a fifth of his annual production, about four million bottles, is Beaujolais Nouveau. All in all, in the last forty-five years, sales have risen from around a million bottles to more than seventy million bottles. Apart from the fanfare, what makes Beaujolais Nouveau so popular? And especially in the U.S. where consumption of red wine is less than thirty percent? Simply put, Beaujolais Nouveau is as about as close to white wine as a red wine can get. Due to the way it is made—the must is pressed early after only three days—the phenolic compounds, in particular the astringent tannins, normally found in red wines, aren't there, leaving an easy to drink, fruity wine. This, coupled with the fact that it tastes best when chilled, makes for a festive wine to be gulped rather than sipped, enjoyed in high spirits rather than critiqued. As a side note, it makes a great transitional wine for anyone wanting to move from white to red wines. Finally, the race from grape to glass may be silly, but half the fun is knowing that on the same night, in homes, cafes, restaurants, pubs, bars and bistros around the world, the same celebration is taking place.