Le Beaujolais est arrivé!

Centuries ago, vineyard owners in the Beaujolais region of France began making wine from just-picked grapes in celebration of the fall harvest. Unlike most wine, which is bottled and released no sooner than a year after it is harvested, the new vin de l’annee was made to drink in just two months. 

Growers soon realized that releasing and selling this new “new wine” would result in unprecedented early income that could sustain them through the year until the rest of the vintage reached minimum maturity for sale.

The novelty of a “sneak preview” of the vintage didn’t extend beyond the countryside until after World War II. In 1937, local industry regulators originally set Dec. 15 as the official release date. In 1951, it was moved a month earlier, to Nov. 15. 

Producers in Beaujolais started to conduct and promote actual races to Paris to see who could first deliver their nouveau to market. By the 1970s, media coverage made it a well-known and beloved national event.

The visionary marketing mind of Georges Duboeuf, the region’s largest exporter, led the race across Europe, North America and Asia. In 1985 the official release date was changed to the third Thursday of November, the primary reason nouveau has become ubiquitous on Thanksgiving dinner tables in the U.S.

Unfortunately for Beaujolais, the newfound fame and easy revenue led to, well, what newfound fame and easy revenue often lead to: controversy and scandal.

In 2001, fueled by harsh criticism from wine journalists, consumers’ tolerance for nouveaus of decreasing quality reached an end. Due to a sudden and severe drop in sales, more than 1 million cases of wine from Beaujolais, mostly nouveau, never made it to the market.

In 2005, Duboeuf’s wine company was accused of mixing its inferior 2004 juice with better vintages, illegal under Beaujolais wine law. Ultimately, the court found the company guilty of fraud, although the wine of questionable character represented only a small fraction of Duboeuf’s annual production.

Producers seemed to have learned their lesson since then; authentic (i.e., legal) productions, price and quality have been consistent during the last decade.

Of course, quality is subjective, and no more so than in the subculture of serious wine appreciation. Many critics dismiss nouveau as raw and unsophisticated. And it is. But I will forever stand behind what I wrote on this subject in this column five years ago: “There is something undeniably romantic about drinking wine made from grapes that were hand-selected from their vine just a few weeks earlier.”

To me and other wine geeks, nouveaus are like spring training for baseball fans or the early primary debates for political junkies. They’re unformed potential, an early taste of the possible.

I can’t recommend a specific nouveau from this year’s lot until after Thursday. At an average of $10 a bottle, my advice is to try two or three different ones and compare for yourself. They’ll be hard to miss at your local supermarket or wine shop. Drink them slightly chilled, at less than room temperature.

Derek M. LaVallee, partner at Kemp Goldberg Partners and certified wine buff, can be reached at dereklavallee@hotmail.com.