Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Beaujolais Nouveau is a wine made exclusively from Gamay grown in Beaujolais. Designed to be released on markets just a few weeks after harvest, the winemaking process involves carbonic maceration, a technique that results in a wine that is light, fruity and easy-to-drink.
Here is a lil' history about Gamay, Beaujolais and carbonic maceration.
“Gamay Noir”, an offspring of Pinot Noir and Gouais is thought to have appeared near the village that bears its name: Gamay, located just northwest of Saint Aubin, outside of the Côte de Beaune. Toward the end of the middle ages, it slowly spread throughout the vineyards of Burgundy. Growers liked it because of its resistance and ability to produce good yields. The Dukes of Burgundy, however, who consumed the wines of Beaune and sent barrels to the King of France and the Pope, were obsessed with quality and reputation of their wines. To achieve this, they increasingly tightened winemaking regulations. One of these regulations ordered the pulling out of Gamay throughout Burgundy: Philip the Bold judged that Gamay was bitter, prone to diseases and “unhealthy to human consumption”! Pockets of Gamay nevertheless resisted everywhere in the Duchy, especially in the southern Beaujolais where 20,000 ha are still grown today.
Over time, Beaujolais has grown a reputation for its Gamay-based wines consumed locally and the nearby city of Lyon. Back in the nineteenth century, Beaujolais producers were already sending newly made wines “en primeur” to Lyon. Transported in bulk in early December, the wine finished its fermentation in the barrels and was served in the bistro, cafés, brasseries and bouchons Lyonnais. Between the 1950’s and the 1990’s négociants such as Georges Duboeuf and their dynamic marketing campaigns took Beaujolais Nouveau to Paris, London, New York, Tokyo… the craze took on the world and sales peaked at 106 Million bottles sold in 1988. This figure represented nearly 60 percent of the total production.
Carbonic Maceration, first observed and analyzed by Louis Pasteur, became the key technique that makes the wine drinkable so early. It involves anaerobic conditions in which enzymes (not yeasts) within the uncrushed grape berries, first break down about two percent of the sugar to produce ethanol, reduce malic acid, increase glycerol, dissolves pigments without extracting tannins and, depending on temperature, can produce aromatic compounds reminiscent of kirsch and banana. This process can involve all or part of the berries (in which case we talk of semi-carbonic maceration) and last between one and three weeks after which a typical alcoholic fermentation takes place. Following fermentation, the wine is subjected to severe stabilization and is bottled for commercialization. The technique is now widely used in many regions for wines that are destined to early drinking.
Tasting Beaujolais Nouveau is a great introduction to Gamay, but tasting it side by side with a “cru” from one of the key villages such as Julienas, Fleurie or Moulin à Vent is revealing of the diversity that Gamay can produce.
To learn more about grapes, how they taste and where they grow, enroll the WSET Level 2 Award in Wines with Wine & Spirit IQ.
Clarke, O. & Rand, M. (2015) Grapes & Wines. New York: Sterling Epicure
Millard, P. (2016) 'A Very Bad and Disloyal Grape Variety": The Banning of Gamay. Available at https://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2016/07/31-july-1395-the-banning-of-gamay/ (Accessed: 19 November 2020).
Robinson, J. (2015) The Oxford Companion to Wine.New York: Oxford University Press Inc