1986, 2007, 2014. It’s supposed to last two months.
I thought for a year or three or four it had disappeared. It was all originally a seller’s myth rather than a cellar story anyway, culminating in the 1980s in highly-publicized car rallies to deliver the first bottles to England, “The Beaujolais Run”. Wine bars and pubs had Beaujolais Nouveau days. New wine, first wine of the season, was never limited to France, nor to Beaujolais, and I’ve had some excellent, very local novella wine in Italy in late November. No one ever thought light new harvest wines would travel until someone had a brainwave in Beaujolais in 1951 and started a celebration out of opening the new wine on the third Thursday in November.
In the late 80s even the august Sunday Times Wine Club was in on the act, though they preferred Beaujolais Villages Nouveau and pointed out that it could be kept for two years and would then be the same as any other Beaujolais Villages wine. The trouble is that it didn’t taste like Beaujolais. This contrasted with the other myth, current in the 80s that it had to be consumed by Boxing Day, and even, building bullshit into myth, that it was “traditional” in France to finish it off on Boxing Day. Oui, right. One year, maybe late 90s, they had a Portuguese “new wine” a week earlier than Beaujolais Nouveau. Someone picked up on the idea and in late Spring they were selling “First wines of this year” from Chile, in a red and white variety. The Southern Hemisphere ones didn’t taste particularly “nouveau” either. The whites were Sauvignon Blancs and very good. I haven’t seen them recently. There was also a brief flurry when Côtes du Rhône Primeur appeared on British shelves in late November, but it was getting near the end of the nouveau craze. I haven’t seen it for many years.
Beaujolais Nouveau was an ideal light red for people who didn’t like red wine. Serve it lightly chilled, we were advised. It was part of the wine drinking progression of my generation. When I was a kid, sweet Sauternes appeared with the Christmas Day chicken (turkey came ten years later) and was disgusting. In the 60s, romantic meals in the Indian or Chinese restaurant were washed down by sweet fizzy Mateus Rose in funny bottles from Portugal, or Lutomer Reisling, which was a Yugoslav budget imitation of Blue Nun Liebfraumilch. They sold it everywhere. In the 70s, pizzerias spread and we got a taste for red wine. I still remember eating in our favourite Bournemouth pizza place with our editor. He had stayed overnight. He sipped the wine, allegedly “Chianti” served in carafes, and said “Bournemouth tap water has a distinctive mineral flavour. I’d say this wine was between 25% and 33% Bournemouth tap water.”
Beaujolais Nouveau took off in Japan spectacularly, and they are now by far the biggest consumers. Back in the 1980s it was served there in tiny bottles, proudly bearing the Air France logo and brand name. The first time I saw it, in Tokyo, I thought they were on-board miniatures sold off by enterprising flight attendants. By 2004, I bought some in a convenience store in Nara … just a corner 7/11 or Tesco Express type outlet. They had ELEVEN brands.
As it went worldwide, demand declined sharply in Britain. “As naff as Blue Nun” was the verdict. Still, maybe not as naff as Mateus. I still tried to pick up a couple of bottles and drink them the weekend of release, but I was beginning to notice that as well as sweetness and lightness, it could also be described as “acidic” and usually had mild laxative properties. I wondered about marketing it as a pleasanter Syrup of Figs. Beaujolais Nouveau certainly damaged the general reputation of the appellation, and more and more properly-matured wine was sold under the individual village names.
Ten years ago the lower and lower quantities stuttered to a stop. At that point, Britain was importing less than one sixtieth of the Japanese quantities. Then around three years ago, it started appearing again. Marks & Spencer introduced the thin plastic bottle. This year they had it at £7.50, or two for £12. But then if you bought six bottles you got another 25% discount, bringing it down to £4 a bottle. That’s probably about right … the cheapest wine in the entire store by more than £1. I bought six. At 9.30 a.m. they only had nine bottles on display. Perhaps they had more in the back, but it hardly seemed worth the fuss to move a dozen or two at low prices.
We have a wine store under the stairs. I recently found a mislaid Beaujolais Nouveau 2007, the nadir of the AC’s British popularity. So I had a sort out, and right at the back, having rolled away into a dark corner was a 1986 bottle covered in spider’s webs. Twenty-eight years old. It’s lost 5 cm in level, and the top is nastily sticky. Surprisingly the wine looks clear. We have gazed at it and wondered. They opened bottles of Thomas Jefferson’s 1790s wine, and that can’t have been produced particularly well. I’ve dared friends to try it. That black sticky syrup at the top is off-putting naturally. No one has accepted the challenge of the ‘86. At least, not yet. The 2007? Don’t know. If it was properly made it would be well past its peak, but dull rather than poisonous.
The 2014 has the classic flavour.
UPDATE: 2015 introduced Beaujolais Nouveau ROSÉ for the first time, from Marks & Spencer. No one else did it, and as with the red, the plastic bottles are near impossible to open.
Class of 2015