Nestled between the southern border of Burgundy and the city of Lyon is the French wine region of Beaujolais. This is an area of predominately red wine which, by AOC proclamation, must be made from handpicked gamay grapes. The wine tends to be light and breezy like its name–a wine not taken too seriously across the pantheon of more snooty French wines.
Beaujolais nouveau is one of several wines which constitutes the Beaujolais AOCs. In nouveau, the grapes are picked, mashed, fermented, bottled and sold in a matter of three months. By law, Beaujolais nouveau can not be sold until the stroke of midnight on the third Thursday of November–Beaujolais Nouveau Day.
If you’ve never heard of Beaujolais Nouveau Day, you aren’t alone. I first learned of it during a book club meeting at the American Library in Paris in 2018. Our meetings were set for 7 PM on the third Thursday of each month from fall into winter. All of the books we read focused on wine.
Come the November meeting, with Wine and War on the agenda, half the group didn’t show. The remainder peeked in sheepishly and took a seat muttering some version of, “I never dreamed we’d meet on Beaujolais Nouveau Day.”
I was too embarrassed to admit to people who worked in the wine trade—and had joined a wine-based book club— that I had never heard of Beaujolais Nouveau Day. But that night, as I walked back to my apartment, bars overflowed in a celebration that rivaled the night that France won the world cup (minus the amateur pyrotechnics and sundry near-fatal antics).
When I got home, I read about Beaujolais nouveau and learned that it had become popular in the 19th century as a cheap wine for workers to toast the end of the harvest. It was discovered to pair well with the pork, sausage and paté prevalent in the bistro-style bouchons of nearby Lyon.
In the 1960s, the local winemaker and marketing genius, Georges Duboeuf, catapulted Beaujolais to a wider audience. Grand-prix style races were created from Parisian wine bars to the Beaujolais vineyards and back in time for the evening crowd. As the world began to take notice, planes left Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris shortly after midnight destined to awaiting francophiles globally. Festivals popped up in every village in the Beaujolais region.
Reading all this and witnessing the fervor, I committed that I would celebrate Beaujolais Nouveau Day the following year.
By the next November, Pat and I had left Paris, but still we sipped Beaujolais nouveau at the Tria Taproom in Philadelphia. This year, I purchased a bottle of 2020 Beaujolais nouveau at a wineshop in Charlottesville, Virginia where a single case was cracked open precisely on schedule.
That evening, at our son and daughter-in-law’s home, we feasted on a trio of local cheeses and a terrine I had made from David Lebovitz’s blog . I brought my French wine book and map. As we nibbled and sipped, we discussed the Beaujolais region, and more specifically, Beaujolais nouveau.
Before Beaujolais nouveau, the last time I had drunk new wine was in the back seat of a Kia that my friend Igor was driving through the Slovakian wine village of Modra one fall evening. Without me realizing what he was doing, he pulled over at a folding table set up garage-sale style in front of a home and returned seconds later with a bottle of recently home-brewed wine in a recommissioned plastic Sprite bottle. The wine cost, from memory, 2 euro and came with three Dixie cups.
Stuffed into that back seat, I poured a round for Pat, my friend Amy and me. We toasted and giggled, downed our cups and refilled them. I have such a perfect memory of that night, one which doesn’t include the drinkability of that wine.
Now, thanks to Beaujolais nouveau, my son and daughter-in-law have requested that we start a monthly French wine club. I have appointed myself president.
This is the beauty, and the power, of wine. It unites us, creates memories and fosters celebration—and all without a whit of care to our salary, ethnicity or political proclivities. And it’s been doing so for a few thousand years.
Who among us won’t drink to that?