In 1951, the French government allowed a group of Beaujolais producers to release some of their new wines just a short time after harvest, and a marketing phenomenon was born. The 2011 vintage marks the 60th celebration of Beaujolais Nouveau, a largely marketing-driven event every third Thursday in November that gives wine drinkers their first opportunity to taste the new vintage from the northern hemisphere.
Beaujolais Nouveau and wines from Beaujolais in general reached the peak of their popularity in the U.S. market during the 1980s, before sales subsequently declined. But the region has recently made a quiet comeback, and exports to the U.S. increased by 14 percent in 2010. Producers may have benefited from the much-lauded 2009 vintage, one of the best in Beaujolais’ history, followed by another solid vintage in 2010. And the average price point for Beaujolais—most are between $10 and $20 a bottle—has undeniable appeal for consumers.
Based on our blind tastings of the 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau and reports from producers, the vintage will likely keep the ball rolling for the region. Although not a standout vintage like 2009, the wines seem to be of good to very good quality. They’re fresh and balanced, despite slightly lower acidity than 2010, and they're very approachable—textbook characteristics for the region’s wines. And notably, the wines show even more color than usual, with deep, purple hues, which Franck Duboeuf, head of Beaujolais’ largest négociant, Maison Georges Duboeuf, said is a product of the grapes achieving full phenolic ripeness prior to harvest.
The vines got a head start on ripeness thanks to an unusually warm spring, which promoted an early flowering. Another warm spell at the end of August, prior to harvest, sealed the deal, allowing the grapes to finish ripening.
Duboeuf believes the region’s sales upswing is in part due to the recent good vintages, but also credits hard work on the part of the area’s growers. “Beaujolais went through a difficult time," said Duboeuf. "But it is recuperating, thanks to good vintages, but also everyone involved, especially the growers. They are giving much greater efforts to their vines and you can see it [when you travel] in the region.”
Duboeuf’s aromatic Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau (86 points, $11) shared the top spot in our tasting with another Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau, a lightly smoked bottling from Domaine Passot Les Rampaux (86, $12). Beaujolais-Villages is one of the two appellations approved for Nouveau. The other is the greater Beaujolais appellation. Both wines are made from Gamay grapes, and are usually made by employing carbonic maceration—uncrushed grapes are sealed in a tank without oxygen and begin to ferment on the inside. The resulting wine is lighter and fruitier.
Though Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau offer a good introduction to the region, the best bottlings typically come from one of the area’s 10 named crus, appellations in their own right within the larger Beaujolais appellation that each show their own distinct style. Bottlings of the 2010 crus are still in the marketplace, and are worth seeking out to try alongside 2011’s Nouveaus. In comparing Nouveau versus the crus, Duboeuf said, “It’s hard to understand that from the same grape variety we have such different expressions. [With Nouveau] we offer wine, but we also offer pleasure,” a statement that could as easily apply to the easy-drinking and enjoyable 2011s.