The third Thursday in November is a big deal in Bourgogne (aka Burgundy). At midnight, just north of the city of Lyon, the latest vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau is released. And there is much rejoicing in Beaujolais, all over France, and all over the world.
Beaujolais is made solely from the gamay grape (full name: gamay noir au jus blanc, i.e. black-skinned grape with white juice), a thin-skinned variety that yields light, fruit-forward reds. Gamay represents 98% of the vines grown in Beaujolais (chardonnay makes up the other 2%).
Beaujolais Nouveau wines are strictly made from hand-picked grapes from the most recent harvest. Generally, grapes are harvested from late August to late September, depending on the weather (the longer you have nice weather, the longer grape growers will leave the fruit on the vine). Given that they have to be ready by November, the winemaking process is expedited. This means very little to no ageing, as well as the use of carbonic maceration. Without getting too technical, this process involves putting the grapes in a tank which is then filled with carbon dioxide. The berries at the bottom are crushed and start fermenting. However, due to the lack of oxygen in the tank, the uncrushed berries at the top begin fermenting within their skins (anaerobic intracellular fermentation—sorry, I said I wasn’t going to get too technical). This technique decreases tannins and acidity while increasing fruitiness.
After two to three weeks, you have a pale red wine with hints of blue that has fun aromas of banana, cotton candy, cola, bubble gum and candied fruit. What’s not to like!
These wines are not meant to be cellared. In fact, they should be consumed within 6 months. But they are easy to drink, and well marketed. In fact, the Beaujolais Nouveau trend only started in the 1970s, and was a genius marketing gimmick to popularize Beaujolais wines. And clearly a successful one as well, considering that these celebrations are repeated from year to year, and the wines sold around the world (France consumes more than half of the Beaujolais Nouveau produced, and the rest is shipped off to other countries, with Japan, Germany and the US being the top importers).
And I wasn’t kidding about the rejoicing. The release of the year’s Beaujolais Nouveau calls for a big party in France, with the 5‑day Sarmentelles de Beaujeu as the main event. During the day, there are tours of the vineyards, and local food and wine is served in large heated tents, and in the evening, there is a parade honouring the grape growers. At midnight, fireworks are set off to mark the official release of the wine, which is then sampled in mass quantities until the wee small hours of the morning. Traditionally, the party celebrated the end of the harvest, and in 1985 the French government declared the third Thursday in November the official release day of Beaujolais Nouveau wines, and now the parties have spread all over the world. What better way for Beaujolais winemakers to sell off their wines quickly to make room in their cellars for other wines, as well as make some much-needed cash after the harvest.
That said, I have a confession: beaujolais is not one of my favourite wines. I much prefer the fuller-bodied wines. But in honour of Beaujolais Nouveau day, I figured I should join in the festivities and grab a bottle. Unfortunately this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau was not yet at the LCBO earlier this week, so I settled for a bottle of Beaujolais-Villages to get into the spirit of things.
[side-note: Beaujolais-Villages is still made from Gamay grapes, but only those from a few select villages, which form their own AOC appellation. These wines do not undergo carbonic maceration and are allowed to age longer than the barely-off-the-vine Beaujolais Nouveau. However, they should still be consumed within 2 years].
Domaine de la Madone – Le Perréon Beaujolais Villages 2014
This wine is a medium ruby red in the glass, and is quite light on the nose at first: light fruit, red cherry, a bit jammy, dark fruit and a hint of spice. On the palate, the dry, light-bodied wine is very unassuming, and reminds me a bit of pinot noir, which would make sense since the two varietals are actually related. However, with its high acidity and light fruity flavours, it is extremely food-friendly. In fact, beaujolais is the “quintessential food wine”.
To test this out, we drank it two nights in a row with a variety of different foods.
Night 1: Pan-fried salmon, roasted squash and broccoli
Night 2: Morrocan beef stew
Conclusion – To my surprise, the Beaujolais-Villages went well with both meals, as well as each of the individual components of said meals. I was impressed! At under $15 a bottle, that’s one to remember for dinner parties where you don’t know what will be served. It’s also an easy-drinking red for meals you might normally pair with a white wine (the LCBO’s recommended pairing is grilled chicken). And for the record, yes, I often choose my meals based on what wine I have on hand, and not the other way around.
As you know, it’s been a difficult week for France (and the rest of the world, mind you), following the terrible terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday. Not that an annual oenological celebration is going to fix things, but I hope it provides a distraction and the levity the French need right about now.
P.S. Tonight I will be attending an event here in Ottawa featuring Ontario wines, so I hope to report back with some new local favourites!