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Beaujolais [BOE-zjoh-lay] Nouveau is always released the third Thursday of November at one minute past midnight, regardless of the start of the harvest. All the grapes in the Beaujolais region must be picked by hand. These are the only vineyards, along with Champagne, where hand harvesting is mandatory.
History of Beaujolais
As Caesar's army crossed the Alps and into Gaul in the 1st century B.C., they built temples, aqueducts, amphitheaters and roads. Along those roads, Rome's army planted the vine. There is still evidence today in Brouilly and Morgon of those Roman vineyards. After Rome left, the area was invaded by the Barbarians and then the Arabs who also tended the vines and enjoyed the fruits thereof.
Founded in the 10th century by the powerful nobility that created the principality, the town of Beaujeu in the western hills of Beaujolais, gives the region its name. It was ruled by the Dukes of Beaujeu until it was ceded to the Bourbonnais in 1400.
The region really began to develop an identity distinct from its northern neighbor Burgundy, after Philippe the Bold made his famous decree in July 1395, outlawing the Gamay grape and forbidding its cultivation in the great duchy of Burgundy proper. So Burgundy went with Pinot Noir and Beaujolais went with Gamay. Although the edict was not at all popular with the growers of his day, it proved to be a good thing for each of the two regions.
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 population. It was wine made fast to drink while the better Beaujolais was taking a more leisurely course. Eventually, the government stepped into regulate the sale of all this quickly transported, free-flowing wine.
In 1938 regulations and restrictions were put in place to restrict the where, when, and how of all this carrying on. 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 official release date was set for November 15th. Beaujolais Nouveau was officially born. By this time, what was just a local tradition had gained so much popularity that the news of it reached Paris. The race was born. 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. But wherever the new Beaujolais went, importers had to agree not to sell it before midnight on the third Thursday of November.
Beaujolais the Region
Located South of Burgundy, between Macon and Lyon, Beaujolais is a prosperous region. Cultivating almost 55,000 acres, more than the other three departments of Burgundy combined, it produces an average of 13 million cases annually. Best of all, once a year, when the world falls in love with Beaujolais Nouveau , nearly half of this crop is pressed, fermented, racked, fined, filtered and sold within weeks. The rapid cash flow generated is the envy of winemakers everywhere.
This 34-mile strip along the Saone River, comprises the 4th department, Rhone, of the Burgundy region. Beaujolais is diverse geographically, but it is unified by the Gamay Noir grape. Ninety-eight percent of the area is planted with it. The other 2% is basically planted with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
From the 16th century onwards, the grape gradually became the dominant crop of the region. This was aided largely by improvements in transportation. As transportation improved the market expanded. For centuries, Lyon was the region's principle market. A crucial development for the economy was the opening of the Braire Canal to link the Loire and the Seine Rivers. Now Beaujolais was only two or three days journey by wagon to a water route that would take the wine all the way to Paris.
As the market for wines grew, new vineyards were planted away from the small towns and villages, and on better the soils and exposures of the hill slopes. Thus the "soil-zones" of Beaujolais were beginning to take shape.
Developing at the same time was a system of viticuture that exists to this day. Unlike Bordeaux, there are no large properties in Beaujolais. The system, called "vigneronnage," consists of hundreds of small to medium sized properties on which the grapes are grown. Most of these grapes are purchased by Negociants who make and market the wines.
Beaujolais is comprised of 12 appellations and is divided into Haut- and Bas-Beaujolais. This division is based on distinctions in the soil of each area. The valley of the River Nizerand, just north of the regional capital of Villefranche, is the dividing point. South of the river is the flat plains of Bas-Beaujolais. The soil here is rich and mostly limestone/clay with occasional sandy patches. The soil produces more quantity than quality.
North of the River Nizerand is Haut-Beaujolais. The hilly topography here has a lighter granite and schist based sandy soil and thus makes a better wine. It is in Haut-Beaujolais that you will find the Beaujolais-Villages appellation and the 10 Beaujolais Crus.
Beaujolais has the warm summers and cool winters indicative of a temperate climate. Snow is common in the winter as a result of its proximity to the Massif Central Mountains to the west. The hills of Beaujolais do provide some protection from the cold and rain generated in these mountains, but in late summer, hail storms are an all too frequent threat to the growers.
So abundant was Beaujolais in Lyon, it was said that Lyon had three rivers: The Rhone, the Saone and the Beaujolais.
What the fuss is about!
In Beaujolais, the Gamay grape is in its element on the third Thursday of each November, from little villages and towns like Romaneche-Thorins, 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 arrive! "The New Beaujolais has arrived!" One of the most frivolous and animated rituals in the wine world has begun.
By the time it is over, over 65 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, Concorde jet, elephant, runners and rickshaws to get it to its final destination. It is amazing to realize that just weeks before this wine was a cluster of grapes in a growers vineyard. But by 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.
Apart from the fanfare, what makes Beaujolais Nouveau so popular? And especially in the U.S. where consumption of red wine is less than 30%? 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, isn'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. It hasn't the pedigree to be a classic wine, but it is always good. Any other opinion you may regard as boorish and uninformed.
Principle Producers of Beaujolais
The two most common Beaujolais producers are Georges Duboeuf and Louis Jadot.
George Duboeuf has been called the King of Beaujolais . This is a title of appreciation as much as it is for achievement. He is, in fact, the region's largest producer, controlling more than 10 percent of the total production. But he is also the relentless promoter of Beaujolais. It would not be inaccurate to state that he has almost single handedly made Beaujolais Nouveau a worldwide phenomenon.
The Duoeuf family has lived in the Maconnais (on the northern border of Beaujolais) since the 15th century and has been involved in the wine business for over 300 years. Although Georges Duoeuf originally went to Paris to study physical education, he returned home in 1953 and began selling wine to restaurants and became a contract bottler. In 1957 he formed a group of 45 growers called the Beaujolais Casket. The venture was not to be. Three years later he branched out on his own and in 1964 formed his own negociant and bottling firm based in Romaneche-Thorins. Today, his son Franck works with him and is intimately involved in the business.
His firm offers the most wines of any in Beaujolais, at the best prices, and the most consistent style. He works with 20 cooperatives and over 400 growers. Of an annual production of 20 million bottles, over 4 million of those bottles are Beaujolais Nouveau. In fact, the Dubœuf label appears on more than 15 percent of the bottles of Beaujolais sold anywhere.
A young, refreshing, and fruity wine that has been so popular in the French cafes. Traditionally served from a 1.2 gallon jug, it is a carafe wine or as the French would say in Lyon, a "bouchons" wine. The fruity, exuberant, intensely aromatic wines produced here, owe a lot not only to the Gamay grape, but to the style of vinification used. In Beaujolais a variation of the maceration carbonique method or more simply, what has become to be known as the Beaujolais Method, is used. The strength of this method is that it extracts the maximum color and aroma from the grape without the astringency associated with red wine. The inherent fresh, fruity, and juicy characteristics of the Gamay grape make this a good marriage.
While a few white wines are made in Beaujolais, the wine produced here for all intents and purposes, are decidedly red. There are many small growers in the region who sell their grapes to companies (negociants) who make, bottle and market the vines under their own labels. Some of the best negociants are Georges Dubœuf, Loius Jadot, Joseph Drouhin and Mommessin.
The 12 appelations of the region are divided into 3 categories or levels of quality - the basic Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and the Crus of Beaujolais.
About half of all Beaujolais produced, approximately 7 million cases a year, is sold as Beaujolais. This is wine from grapes grown in the southernmost region called Bas-Beaujolais. The minimum alcoholic degree is 9. These flowery and fruity wines must be drunk young, as they are not intended for keeping.
With a minimum of 10 degrees of alcohol, Beaujolais-Villages is the next level. Wines bearing the Beaujolais-Villages label are restricted to using grapes coming from at least 2 of the 39 communes in Haut-Beaujolais and account for about a quarter of the total annual production of this region. Due to the better growing conditions, these are better wines with more complexity and depth. They can be kept from one to three years.
Within the northernmost part of this region are the 10 crus - Saint-Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Brouilly, and Cote de Brouilly - that have been singled out and named due to their distinctive characteristics. That being said, these distinctive characteristics are not always that easy to detect and can be quite subjective. Brouilly is said to be grapey, while Fleurie is said to have the aroma of violets and Saint-Amour of peach. Categorically, Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie, Saint-Amour, and Chenas, share a common elegance and fragrant delicacy, whereas Julienas, Morgon, and Moulin-a-Vent, are fuller, have a deeper flavor and have more lasting power.
Chiroubles is the highest in altitude of the cru wines and is the most balanced. The wine made here is highly sought after for its lacy texture and suppleness. From the village of Chiroubles came Victor Pulliat who in 1888, perfected the technique of grafting French vines on to American rootstock, thus saving the vines of France.
Regnie is the most recent of the Beaujolias wines to be assigned the prestigious cru status, joining the others in 1988.
Perhaps the most famous of the crus is Moulin-a-Vent. Its name comes from an ancient windmill built on the hills surrounding the town of Romaneche-Thorins. Its great aging potential and exceptional quality is attributed to the granite subsoil of the area.
Chenas is next door to Moulin-a-Vent and is the rarest of the ten cru. With more aroma than Julienas, this is a heady wine for laying down.
Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly are separate crus as Cote de Brouilly is grown on the volcanic hillsides of the 1585 foot Mont Brouilly and the grapes of Brouilly are grown on the plains around about it. Brouilly is the largest and highest yielding of the Beaujolais crus with 3000 acres under vine.
The wines of Beaujolais, whether basic or cru, provide immediate enjoyment at reasonable prices. Their easy compatibility with food and under $10 pricing, make them a value not to be missed.
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