When French wine authority Louis Orizet was once asked to describe the color of Beaujolais, he pondered his glass for a moment, then said its hue resembled “the thigh of a flustered nymph.” Orizet’s response — poetic, refreshing and light-hearted — is very much like Beaujolais itself.
Beaujolais is the “fun” French wine, especially Beaujolais nouveau, the fresh-out-of-the-tank red wine that goes on sale with great fanfare every year on the third Thursday of November. At this time of year, signs proclaiming “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!” can be seen in wine shops from Paris to Peoria and beyond.
The custom of making Beaujolais en primeur (“fresh made”) dates back well into the nineteenth century, and the race to bring the new Beaujolais to market in Paris became a French tradition in the 1950s. But the worldwide craze for Beaujolais nouveau, which took off like a grape-powered rocket in the 1970s, was largely created by one man: Georges Duboeuf.
Duboeuf, now 73, was the son of a winegrowing family with roots deep in the history of the Mâconnais. In the 1950s, Duboeuf gave up his studies in Paris to return home and travel around the region — by bicycle, bien sur — selling his family’s Pouilly-Fuissé. Some of his best clients were celebrated Michelin-starred chefs such as Paul Bocuse and Georges Blanc, both of whom still have restaurants nearby.
Business was good. Duboeuf became a contract bottler for many of the local growers in Beaujolais. In 1964, he finally established his own négociant business, Les Vins Georges Duboeuf, with help from celebrated wine merchant and writer Alexis Lichine. “Tradition and Quality” has been Duboeuf’s motto since the beginning, and sticking to it has been the reason for his great success. Although about a third of Duboeuf’s wines now come from the Rhône Valley, the Languedoc and the Mâconnais, the name Duboeuf is now practically synonymous with Beaujolais.
Today, Duboeuf’s total output is 30 million bottles per year, including 6 million of Beaujolais nouveau, and his firm accounts for around 15 percent of the entire production of the Beaujolais region. The wines find their way to 120 countries across the globe. Outside France, Duboeuf’s largest consumers are the United States, Canada, Japan, Great Britain, Switzerland, The Netherlands and Germany. “Japan is our largest market for Beaujolais nouveau,” reports Duboeuf. Why Japan? “Somebody told the Japanese that red wine was good for their sex life,” says Duboeuf’s U.S. importer, Bill Deutsch.
The Beaujolais Process
“It’s actually harder to make Beaujolais nouveau than it is to make cru Beaujolais,” says the soft-spoken Duboeuf. He has the youthful voice of a man half his age as he describes the process – one that he knows intimately. “Every hour counts. The winemaker must pay great attention to detail because the fermentation is so fast. It takes a lot of savoir-faire.”
The process by which all Beaujolais is produced is known as semi-carbonic maceration, in which whole, uncrushed grapes are kept in a carbon dioxide atmosphere to permit intercellular fermentation, without the aid of yeasts.
Converting a portion of the grapes’ sugars to ethanol, the process develops very distinctive flavors of fruit, especially banana and cherry. The wines are then subject to a standard yeast fermentation as well. The fermentation period for wines destined to be sold as Beaujolais nouveau (which accounts for more than half of the production of Beaujolais) is around four days. The process is extended for higher-level Beaujolais, including Beaujolais-Villages and wines from the region’s ten named crus.
Seeing no time in oak and only a short time in bottle before being rushed to market, Beaujolais nouveau retains the vivacious freshness of the grape, making it the most gulpable of all French wines. These are wines of immediate, unabashed enjoyment and are not meant to be aged. “They’re gourmand wines rather than gourmet wines,” says Duboeuf.
In the Game for Gamay
Is it possible to use Beaujolais nouveau as a barometer for the entire Beaujolais vintage? “That’s a very good question and I can see why you ask it,” said Duboeuf, cautiously. But the note of hesitation in his voice betrayed the answer: “Not exactly.” The Beaujolais nouveau comes from the extreme south of the region, he explained. It would be difficult to predict the success of the cru or village Beaujolais on the basis of the nouveau. But Duboeuf nevertheless describes both versions as “very, very good” in the 2006 vintage.
There are close to 4,000 growers in Beaujolais. Duboeuf sources from more 400 of them, in addition purchasing wine from twenty local cooperatives. Gamay — technically Gamay Noir Jus Blanc — is the only grape permitted in the region. (The Gamay Beaujolais grape grown in California is unrelated and is actually a less noble clone of Pinot Noir.)
Gamay — technically Gamay Noir Jus Blanc — is the only grape permitted in the region.
Duboeuf is fanatic about sampling the wines as they are being made, and the accuracy of his palate is legendary. When Duboeuf spoke with Patterson’s by phone, in mid-October, he had just come from marathon tasting of this year’s Beaujolais-in-the-making, where he and his enology team had sampled nearly 300 individual cuvées. Duboeuf seemed impressed — even obsessed — with the quality of this year’s vintage. “The color is a ruby-red, bright and ringed with purplish tints,” he says, in tones that one might use to speak about precious jewels. “The nose shows complex red and black fruit, a beautiful touch of spiciness, and accents of violets and peonies. I can tell you that this is a very lovely vintage.”
Weather cooperated with the harvest, which started on September 5 and was completed on September 29. Duboeuf notes that when the back-carried gathering buckets were emptied into the receptacles at the end of each vine row, the grapes bounced — to Duboeuf’s well-trained eye this is another sign of a good harvest. As in Champagne, all harvesting in Beaujolais is done by hand, a labor-intensive process that makes the reasonable price of these wines all the more astonishing.
Conditions earlier in the year were also ideal. July was extremely hot while August was, by contrast, cool and wet. September was very sunny with alternating north and west winds which helped concentration levels. “The vines were stressed this year,” says Duboeuf, “and you can taste the structure and heat of July, the soft, cooler aspect of August, and the gentleness of September in the wines.”
Weather cooperated with the 2006 harvest, which started on September 5 and was completed on September 29.
WJ Deutsch & Sons, U.S. Importer
American importer Bill Deutsch has been importing Duboeuf since 1982 and acquired the franchise to market Duboeuf in the entire United States in 2004. “When we started, there were maybe twenty brands of Beaujolais nouveau in New York,” Deutsch says. “Now there are very few left, because Duboeuf has such a strong presence.” Deutsch’s people-oriented, hands-on marketing helped enormously in the success of Duboeuf in the States. “For one of the first vintages we put a couple of bottles of Beaujolais nouveau on the Concorde with some of Paul Bocuse’s boeuf bourgignon,” Deutsch vividly recalls. “We ran from the airport to with this boeuf bourgignon to Bloomingdale’s for a Beaujolais nouveau luncheon.”
In yet another repeat of the longstanding tradition, Duboeuf and his son Franck will accompany this year’s Beaujolais nouveau on its overnight flight from Paris, arriving in New York on November 16. The West Coast début of Duboeuf’s 2006 Beaujolais nouveau is scheduled for the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach. Follow our report in the January issue that covers this event!
With a new winery opened three years ago in Romaneche-Thorins and an ever-youthful attitude, Duboeuf is positioned to provide many more vintages of Beaujolais-driven joie de vivre.
(Distributed by Southern Wine & Spirits)
Georges Duboeuf and son Franck will accompany this year’s Beaujolais nouveau on its overnight flight from Paris, arriving in New York on November 16.
Beaujolais nouveau retains the vivacious freshness of the grape, making it the most gulpable of all French wines. These are wines of immediate, unabashed enjoyment and are not meant to be aged. ‘They’re gourmand wines rather than gourmet wines,’ says Duboeuf.