Each year on the third Thursday of November, the world awakens with two words on its parched lips: Beaujolais Nouveau. The next morning it massages its temples and sighs.
In between, 40 million bottles of zingy Beaujolais Nouveau-the quaffable new-wine-are uncorked and spill their purple contents from Anchorage to Zhengzhou. Parties bubble into life, the biggest of them held on the eve of the official launch in the unlikely, homely little French town of Beaujeu, near Lyon. Long the seat of the aristocratic Sires de Beaujeu, it’s the mothership that squeezes and sends forth this annual vinous tsunami.
Under a tent the size of a sports stadium, penguin-suited waiters hefting giant wooden buckets pour gallons of Beaujolais Nouveau into the raucous gullets of some 1,500 merrymakers. The grapey, intoxicating scent of carbonic maceration from freshly fermented gamay grape juice fills the air. Performers in silly costumes belly dance or belt out folk songs to the sound of accordions, fiddles, drums and saxophones. As the fête reaches dionysian paroxysms, fledgling members of the Compagnons du Beaujolais-in even sillier suits-are sworn into the bacchic brotherhood of Beaujolais winemakers.
Outside, fireworks and torches, the latter fashioned from grapevine stumps, light up the façades of the town’s low stone houses and its hulking medieval church. There’s dancing in the narrow main street, and gluttony, guzzling and genteel debauchery behind half-closed doors. The extravaganza-in its 22nd year running-is called the “Sarmentelles de Beaujolais” and it lasts five days, this year from Wednesday, November 17 through Sunday, November 21.
Anyone who associates France with regal history, the Enlightenment, cultural sophistication and high-brow intellectual discourse might want to think again. This mega-festival for Beaujolais Nouveau is pure populism and, given the zeitgeist, increasingly popular. French political pundits, anthropologists and peripatetic, telegenic philosophers such as André Gluxman or Bernard-Hénri Levy should consider attending.
If you don’t happen to be in Beaujeu on the 17th you must wait an extra day: Beaujolais Nouveau wine officially arrives elsewhere on November 18. It’s launched worldwide with greater precision than a smart bomb. The masterminds are the big négociants like Georges Duboeuf and the region’s giant co-op wineries. They’re responsible for the lion’s share of the 133 million bottles of wine made in the region. But even some mom-and-pop and upscale boutique wineries join in the Nouveau fun. A single word explains why: money.
This is the reason the medieval church of Beaujeu, lovingly restored, sports several crystal chandeliers with nary a speck of dust on them. It’s also why the spruce town and region as a whole are thriving despite the recession.
Frenchmen have long joked that France’s second city, Lyon-20 minutes south of Beaujeu-has three rivers: the Rhone, the Saone and the Beaujolais. It’s surprising that the ancient Romans, builders of Lugdunum-alias Lyon-and makers of the first Beaujolais wines, didn’t build a vinoduct from the region’s vineyards to their capacious arena. Nowadays the environmentally friendly solution would be a pipeline. The French themselves guzzle two-thirds of the wines made in the Beaujolais.
Many regions of France produce wines, but few are so densely planted with vines or so dependent on le vin for survival. Of the millions of gallons of Beaujolais bottled annually, a third is Nouveau, and two in three bottles of that come from the vineyards of the region’s southernmost portion.
The lovely limestone hills of the southern Beaujolais have given that area its name, Pays des Pierres Dorées, “Land of Golden Stones.” Strange to tell, limestone and gamay don’t make a particularly happy match-the soil of preference for gamay is the decomposed granite and clay of the region’s central and northern districts. But limestone doesn’t lower the quantity of the grapes grown.
The wine of this golden land may not be remarkable, but it’s good enough for Nouveau-and the sightseeing makes up for it.
The high-yielding grape variety and the sheer volume of wine production explain why, historically, in terms of prestige, Beaujolais is Burgundy’s poor cousin, its homely sister, a Cinderella of the vineyards. It’s also eclipsed by the big, brawny, inky, outsized Rhone Valley wines-the kinds kingpin Robert Parker loves-made in the broiling climes south of Lyon.
The upside is that Beaujolais has no posses of Rhone Rangers or Burgundy Bores. Its main peril is the kind of populism that encourages boozers who can’t tell the difference between soda pop and sludge. And this does the Beaujolais region as a whole an injustice.
For one thing, the area grows dozens of fine Beaujolais Villages appellation wines and ten excellent crus. Many of them improve with time. The premium cru districts are, from north to south, Saint Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgan, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly and Brouilly.
For another thing, the Beaujolais is wonderful even if you aren’t into drinking, Nouveau or old. While billions of people know the wine and millions taste it, few seem to realize that somewhere out there a place exists geographically, a place called the Beaujolais. It’s filled not only with happy vintners but also with non-wine-related folk who busily animate the landscape year-round.
Unless you’re an anthropologist or you actually like Beaujolais Nouveau, you might want to schedule a visit before or after Les Sarmentelles de Beaujeu and the 100 other Nouveau fêtes held in most Beaujolais villages and towns from mid to late November. You might even want to do as I did recently and skip the region’s rich valley areas entirely, sneaking up instead from the side or back, via the ballooning Monts du Beaujolais mountains that hem in the south and west.
La Montagne is damp, brisk, mysterious and mountainous. Ravines are cloaked by fir forests and cleft by deep river valleys, with isolated hamlets and stone-built villages fringed in moss. Knotty pine décor, wood-burning stoves and heavy woolen sweaters are de rigueur. The food-served at roadside eateries-features slow-cooked beef or pork sausages braised in wine, rustic, rich in flavor, and appropriately caloric.
Arriving too early for wine or lunch, I walked to the summit of the region’s tallest peak, Mont Saint Rigaud. Breathtaking? Rising from a few hundred feet at its base, it tops 3,000 feet. Across the Rhone Valley to the east rose the Alps and Switzerland, close enough to touch. Needless to add, I had the place to myself.
Antiquity permeates La Montagne. The Roman road from Lyon to Autun ran through here, and along it sprang up Romanesque churches belonging to the Abbey of Cluny. In them are stunning sculpted architectural details even a freethinker will find divine. At atmospheric Avenas, a village clamped to the hillside, I discovered a 12th-century altar showing Christ in Majesty, among the finest I’ve ever seen in France.
Up the road at the pass I stopped to taste honey at Miellerie du Fût d’Avenas. There was bosky fir tree and mountain honey, piquant heather honey, tangy dandelion honey, and half a dozen others, all delicious. Honey-making, forestry, wood-working and cattle ranching are the economic mainstays-there is no wine.
La Montagne was right behind my back, but it already felt a million meters away.
From La Terrasse looking south into the sunny valley, what you see is a gently rolling, plump and prosperous universe of grapes, villages of sturdy granite blocks, the rushing Rhone River, plus highways and TGV high-speed railways. Scattered around are improbable New World-style, faux-hacienda wineries and ticky-tacky tract home developments, the French equivalent of Napa Valley sprawl. They have sprung up in the last few decades thanks in part to the wealth derived from Beaujolais Nouveau.
Cars and cyclists beetled up the looping two-lane highway from the valley bottom. I coasted down it and picked up the wine route to Beaujeu-which is hidden in a trough-and then to the more picturesque, hillside village of Lantignié.
At Morgon there was no there, there. But neighboring Villié-Morgon proved lively, with an outdoor market in the main square, and excellent vintage wines spurting from every crack and crevice. The most seductive sight appeared before my eyes unexpectedly: a chapel to the Madonna of the Vineyards, behind Fleurie on a sugarloaf knoll. From its porch I got an even better view than before of the Beaujolais vineyards shared by Burgundy’s southernmost Maconnais region. The two overlap.
Despite France’s ferocious secularism-espoused since the Revolution of 1789-many Vinous Virgins and Madonnas of the Vineyards were erected hereabouts in the 1860s and ’70s to protect vines from phyloxera and other blights. The Madonnas failed. But two Beaujolais native sons saved the day, discovering the secret of treating vine roots with boiling water, and grafting native varieties such as gamay and pinot noir onto phyloxera-resistant American rootstock. They saved not only local vintners but the winemaking industry of Europe.
Predating the Madonnas are an almost equal number of effigies of Bacchus, found even in holy places. They suggest that the paganism of the Romans has always been fine in France as long as it is drinkable. The cellar of the old church in Juliénas, now a wine-tasting room, is covered with scenes of bacchanalia. They seemed to me an illustration of how medieval churchmen seamlessly transmogrified the old lushes Bacchus and Dionysius into upstanding Saint Vincent, patron of winemakers-with an emphasis on the “vin” in Vincent’s name.
At Romanèche-Thorins, in the bustling bottom of the valley which I’d meant to avoid, I skipped the wild animal park-a huge tourist attraction-and hesitated before heading to the “Hameau du Vin” in the village’s former train station. This is the Beaujolais’ answer to Frontier Village or Disneyland, a theme park of wine, dreamed up by Georges Duboeuf, the négociant who helped put Beaujolais Nouveau on the world map. He too is a local hero of sorts.
As always, the Hameau was crowded with French families. Initiation into the mysteries of wine comes early hereabouts. Children of all ages-from toddlers to childlike super-seniors-were having a ball. Automatons act out the Four Seasons of the winegrower, and there’s an audio-visual show with a short history of wine, from Noah’s drunkenness to the present. The displays brought to mind the Sarmentelles de Beaujolais, and I realized that one of the real miracles of the Beaujolais, performed perhaps by the region’s Madonnas, is that the reputation of the area’s fine wines remains intact despite the millions of gallons of Nouveau.
Charging back into the hills as fast as I could safely drive, it occurred to me that Don Quixote would have gone wild at Moulin-à-Vent, an appellation named for the centuries-old windmill that is the northern Beaujolais region’s greatest landmark. Moulin-à-Vent happens to be one of the best growing areas. Ironically, like several other premium appellations, part of Moulin-à-Vent is actually in Burgundy.
The windmill belongs to the Château Portier-Denys Chastel-Sauzet winery. It’s not a theme park and has been in business since the 1800s. Alas, in November, you can visit the monument only on weekends. Feeling more like Sancho Panza than Don Quixote, I consoled myself by buying a few bottles of Moulin-à-Vent and Chénas, the antithesis of Beaujolais Nouveau. They would be ready to drink, said the solicitous winemaker, looking like a cross of Bacchus and Saint Vincent, in three or four years. That seemed reasonable to me. With Beaujolais, it’s the vintage wines and antique wonders of the region that win hands down.