Thursday, 15 February 2018

The Wines That Made Us (5): Beaujolais Nouveau

What on earth was all that about?

It was 1979, and I was in my first job, working on a magazine based in Soho, and trying hard to prove my credentials. So I was quick to go along when, one Thursday morning in November, not long after we had actually started work for the day, it was announced that we were all going out for a glass of the Beaujolais Nouveau.

Just around the corner, at a wine bar draped with tricolor bunting, there were people dressed like cartoon Frenchmen, in hooped jerseys and berets, serving a red wine to crowds of office workers who were spilling out on to the pavements. I had never seen so many people publicly drinking wine. And even to someone experienced in PBAB student party wine, this wine was peculiarly bad; but that seemed to be neither here nor there.

Because this wasn’t really about the wine itself, or even about the ridiculous ways people were racing to bring it over from France. It was the fact that Brits who rarely tasted wine otherwise would leave their offices in mid-morning, and go out together, to pay over the odds to drink this red wine. And not a delicious, can’t-possibly-wait-for-it red wine, but this particular, proudly immature wine, the tasting equivalent of consuming cake mix, rather than cake.

What on earth was going on? Bear with me on this one.

There’s a perfectly valid tradition behind the drinking of Beaujolais Nouveau – in Beaujolais itself. Back in the 18th century, the emergence of a fresh, new vintage, even if it was still fermenting in the barrels, was cause for a celebration, with the locals downing some of the barely-drinkable wine on the day of its release in November. 


This eccentric ritual only began to gain wider recognition during World War II, when journalists and exiles fled the occupation of Paris for the Vichy-governed and Beaujolais-drinking “free zone” around Lyon. There, they naturally joined in with the local celebration, and when they returned to Paris looked to continue the tradition; it was an excuse to raise a glass of wine on a drab day in early winter, and to swap tales of the Occupation. So Parisian cafés began to post notices on their windows, to announce by mid-morning of its release that “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est Arrivé”.

In 1970, dining in Beaujeu the night before that release, were Joseph Berkmann, restaurateur and vintner, and Clement Freud, lugubrious politician and gourmand. Each of them argued that they would be able to drive their bottles back to London before the other. And so as midnight passed and the wine was released, they set off.

It wasn’t that much of a race, since both of them had to catch the same early morning ferry back across the Channel. But Berkmann won, largely because he was better at beating London’s rush hour traffic. The following year, Berkmann won again; and with word of their little competition spreading through their respective wine columns, Berkmann won for a third and final time in 1972.

But then a journalist offered in The Sunday Times the modest prize of a bottle of Champagne for the first person to bring a bottle of the next Beaujolais Nouveau to his desk. And the Race was on.

Like many British sporting endeavours, the aim of actually winning was soon to be ignored by participants more interested in entertainment. Increasingly absurd methods were used to bring the bottles back to Britain. Parachutists, fire engines, hot-air balloons, motorised bathtubs and the rest created a circus of publicity, which reached even those completely ignorant of wine – ie the majority of the British population.

Who would be able to drink the first bottles in Britain? Bizarrely, it seemed important at the time. There was an air of triumph, as if the wine had been somehow wrested from the French before they could drink it themselves.

It was the most enormous boost for the newly burgeoning wine bars. With many pubs still not serving wine, here was an ideal reason to visit Champers, and Corks, and all the other poorly-named wine bars then springing up around the UK. Yes, the wine was thin, harsh and, because of a particular yeast used to hasten the production of so much early wine, often contained the unlikely flavours of bananas or bubble-gum. But the taste was easily dismissed as the price of drinking the vintage so young. For some, the poor taste was part of the fun.

The race itself quickly collapsed. The French had always had a somewhat laissez faire attitude towards drink driving, but even they could not condone a widely-publicised road race through the night by hordes of Beaujolais-fuelled Brits. The French police cracked down and the press had to stop promoting it as a race.

But we Brits continued to drink the now efficiently delivered wine. The producers couldn’t believe it. In 1983 The Times reported on the arrival of a staggering five million bottles in Britain in time for breakfast. At its peak, over 64% of the entire output of Beaujolais would be sold early as Nouveau.

What could possibly burst such an entertaining and lucrative bubble? Ironically, it was the very growth of interest in wine itself.

Once, France was considered the be-all and end-all of wine, and the suggestion of a new French vintage might have carried an almost mystical significance. But by the late Eighties, there were decent wines increasingly available from all over the world. So the French had a new vintage – so what?

Not only did blended New World wines not even have a vintage – but they were consistently drinkable. What, really, was the point in overspending on a thin, immature French wine, when there were now thoroughly drinkable Australians or South Americans available?

Sales began to fall. In 1990, several big wine retailers decided not to sell their own Nouveau. And from the 13 varieties available in 1986, there is generally only one sold in the UK today.

A vintage or two back, I tried the Nouveau for old times’ sake. It was hard to find; the occasion is largely ignored now by actual wine merchants, and by wine bars keen to retain their hard-won reputation for connoisseurship. But I found a desultory display in one supermarket. It’s still pretty nasty; its thin colour and spritely nose lead on to a real collision in the mouth between a tart body and that notorious bubblegum fruitiness on top. Perhaps if you had a single quick glass, from a bottle shared with friends, it might be tolerable, but its fruit evaporates quickly to leave a ghostly, inky-flavoured wine. Nowadays, we expect more.

Beaujolais Nouveau could, I suppose, have put me off wine drinking for life. But in fact, it emphasised for me the importance of conviviality, and drinking together, in enjoyment of wine. That enjoyment has moved on to rather more mature tastes – which leaves Beaujolais Nouveau as something of a curiosity, sought out by nostalgists, its taste tolerated like that of a childhood cough mixture, as a transport to the past.

PK

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