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How a 200-year-old French harvest celebration got invited to an American family holiday dinner

The phenomenon that is called Beaujolais Nouveau

The culture of wine is ancient, dating back to the beginning of civilization…rich in history and tradition.

Until the last few decades most of that culture wasn’t known outside of the native country or region that created it. Now we have a truly global awareness of wine that’s driven by consumer interest and supported by media and wine professionals that provide background and education. Given the easy availability of in-depth information via the internet, a plethora of print publications, blogs and advertising, it’s easy to forget that there was a time before social media and on-line marketing when an introduction to new wines and traditions was revolutionary!

A perfect example is the phenomenon that is called Beaujolais Nouveau.

It’s a tradition in the Beaujolais region of France that celebrates the conclusion of a successful harvest dating back more than two centuries.

The French have a term, “vin de primeur” which translates to “early wines”. These are wines that are made to be drunk with little or no aging in the same year as the harvest. Beginning in the 1800’s, this is an unusual practice that is only allowed legally in 55 appellations in all of France. The wines were simple, sweet, refreshingly fruity and often served directly from the barrel.

In 1937 the system known as Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) was established to oversee and regulate the wine industry in France, ensuring quality and consistency of the wine and adherence to local custom and tradition. Over time the rules regarding Beaujolais Nouveau evolved, including when the wine could be released to the public. In 1987 it was decided that the third Thursday in November would be the official day, creating a uniform release worldwide for a thirsty public.

The reason this regulation was required is due in large part to a man named Georges Duboeuf.

Georges was born in 1933 on a small farm near the village of Chaintré in the Burgundy region of France. His family had a small vineyard that produced Chardonnay grapes and they made wine under the Pouilly-Fuisse appellation. It was a venture that everyone in the family participated in, including Georges. He began his winemaking career at the age of six by turning the crank of the small, manual grape crusher the family used to make their wines.

When his father passed away, the business was run by his uncle and older brother. He learned winemaking from the two of them and helped make the wines.

As a teenager, one of Georges’ jobs was to deliver wines on his bicycle to local buyers, bars and restaurants. At 18 years old he took it upon himself to visit several Michelin starred restaurants in the area and promoted the family wine so well that they became new customers, raising the family’s reputation as quality winemakers. Eventually he accepted a commission from a client to produce wines from the Beaujolais region to the south of where his family lived.

In the early 1950’s Georges set up a modest bottling operation and took contracts from small wine producers in the region to custom bottle and help market their wines. Up until this point many of these wineries sold wine only in small casks. He then established a syndicate of small growers in the region, the Ecrin Mâconnais-Beaujolais, helping to grow and develop the wine industry in the area.

This eventually led to Georges moving to Beaujolais and establishing himself as a négociant, a wine merchant that makes wines and buys and sells wines from other suppliers under his own brand. To promote awareness about Beaujolais wines Duboeuf took the rustic, regional tradition of the Beaujolais Nouveau celebration to fine dining restaurants in Paris and invited celebrities to his own festival hosted by his company, Les Vins Georges Duboeuf. It became a hugely successful event that grew in popularity as the years passed and influenced other wineries to follow his example. His company has become one of the largest négociants in France, producing over 25 million bottles of wine per year.

His unflagging promotion of Beaujolais wines earned him the title - The Pope of Beaujolais.

In the 1980’s he introduced Beaujolais Nouveau worldwide. The flavorful, off-dry, fizzy, fruity wine that had aromas of pink bubble gum was a huge hit in America, Australia and even Japan! Beaujolais Nouveau became a global phenomenon.

In America the annual release date on the third Thursday of November happened to coincide with the tradition of Thanksgiving dinner that follows a week later. Beaujolais Nouveau has now become a fixture on many Thanksgiving tables. The semi-sweet flavors of cranberry, red cherry, raspberry, the high acidity and slight effervescence from the fermentation makes it a perfect complement to roast turkey with all the fixings.

Like most youngsters, it’s a wine that demands your immediate attention. It’s made to be experienced now…not later and offers simplicity and freshness rather than depth and aging potential.

Or as a friend of mine says…it’s for drinking, not thinking.

So, my fellow wine lovers, mark November 16th on your calendar this year and grab a bottle before it’s gone.

Think of it as a reminder to live, (and drink), in the moment and relish the experience because, like Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthdays, it won’t come around again for another year!

About the Author: James Andrews-CS, is the wine manager and sommelier at Parkhill’s South Liquors & Wine. He has been a certified sommelier since 1999 with The Court of Master Sommeliers. James is also a wine educator and cellar consultant.

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