The question went something like this. ‘Would you [as a wine snob] consider writing a piece on Beaujolais Nouveau for our magazine’? I said yes, partly following P.T. Barnum’s lead on publicity, but mainly because I actually rather like vins de primeur. They hark back to simpler, halcyon days before big, blowsy, brands bestrode the world like Tyrannosaurs, ravenously gobbling up every little, low alcohol, wine in their voracious path.
Back then, traditional wine merchants would eagerly, if somewhat self-consciously, swap their pinstripes and food stained ties for breezy, Chanelesque, Breton shirts and make their jaunty be- bereted way back and forth across the English channel – on a range of eccentric and dangerous transports – vying to be the first the bring back the, barely fermented, first wines of the harvest – before the stroke of midnight morphed them into pumpkins on the third Thursday of November. They would then assemble riotously at the nearest ‘stand up and shout’ for the start of a gloriously bibulous weekend, in what was described by Le Figaro, as ”The greatest marketing stroke since the end of World War Two”.
Admittedly great for cash flow, this poor mans en primeur allows producers to release their vin ordinaire on the open market, mere weeks after fermentation ends – providing some much needed brass in pocket to lavish on their more serious vinous offspring. But what else accounts for their popularity – particularly in the U.S where wine consumption per capita is less than 30%.
Well, to begin with, it’s the nearest a red wine can get to a white, and yes there’s some nerdiness involved, but it’s the kind of chemistry our distant ancestors with their earthenware pots would have been familiar. All Beaujolais wines are made entirely from one single grape variety, the Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc and display a remarkable bugle clear, youthful, zingy freshness, from Villages level through to the nine Crus. The phenolics are low and the astringent tannins or extract normally associated with red wines are absent. Acidity is naturally high, making it refreshing, and alcohol levels in the best examples are low at around 11- 12% abv – meaning you can drink a lot of it!
The bunches are hand harvested, to keep them intact, then fermented whole to preserve the purity and freshness of the fruit. The lower berries in the vat are split by the increased weight of the new bunches at the top, and a unique intracellular fermentation takes place, where the compote of fruit consumes its own grape sugars releasing CO2 which in turn attacks the sugars in the remaining juice initiating the alcoholic fermentation. Accetification at the top of the vat is avoided as the remaining bunches collapse into the bubbling must. The wine is ‘run off’, after three days, in two parts. The ‘free run’ juice, which contains little or no residual sugars, and the must still with some whole berries intact. Rapid fermentation of the whole then takes place naturally, due to high ph and amino acids, then the wine is racked, fined, filtered, bottled and dispatched to the cafes of Paris and Lyon where they are greeted as eagerly as a family birth.
So why do I like simple vins de bouche? Well its part nostalgia and part practicality. These light purple, high acid, low tannin, medium weight elixirs, reeking of strawberry jam and nail polish, served in a ludicrously small glass or a pichet remind me of carefree, impoverished, art student days trawling the galleries and bar tabacs of Paris and the South of France. The less romantic reason is that they are a great autumnal lunchtime drink, possessing a straightforward glugability, unworthy of cerebral comment, to slake the generational thirsts of farm workers and artisans alike in a manner to make Ugolin and Papet proud.