Continuing his family firm’s tradition of dramatic celebrations, Franck Duboeuf unveiled the new vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau today wielding a jeroboam of the 2012 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau and leading a small parade of wine lovers accompanied by a brass ensemble playing “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Nouveau’s worldwide release officially occurs the third Thursday in November each year, and 2012 marks the 30th anniversary of Beaujolais Nouveau’s distribution in the United States.
While this largely PR-driven event has lost some steam over the years, growers and producers in the French region of Beaujolais are perhaps looking to it as the light at the end of the tunnel, after a difficult growing season drastically reduced yields throughout the vineyards. Overall, yields were down 40 to 50 percent from 2011, which was considered an average-size crop in the region. “This year, Beaujolais rhymes with ‘scarcity,’” said Arnaud Briday, owner and winemaker of Domaine des Chers in the Juliénas appellation. “Climatic conditions were very difficult for the cultivation of the vine.”
Spring frost affected old vines, early summer rain resulted in slow and uneven flowering, and several areas in the region were hit by summer hailstorms that wiped out significant portions, even entire plots, of developing grapes and vines. Hardest hit were the growers in the southern Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages AOCs, the only appellations from which Nouveau is permitted to be made and the appellations that typically produce the region’s larger-volume, lower-priced wines.
Since many Beaujolais vignerons sell grapes or vinified wines to négociant firms that are highly sensitive to the value price-point at which Beaujolais is typically marketed, the small crop could spell disaster and has already created serious cash-flow issues for many growers. “Bulk prices have risen, but by nothing near as much as the shortfall in yield. For those who sell most of their production in bulk to négociants—the great majority—this will be a tough year,” said James Wilding, who makes cru Beaujolais from the 15-acre Château Grange Cochard estate in the Morgon appellation.
Despite these difficulties, there’s a silver lining to this cloud for wine drinkers: Lower yields mean that the remaining fruit can draw on more of a vine’s resources during the rest of the growing season, often resulting in better-quality fruit and potentially better wine. In my blind tastings, the 2012 Nouveaus were pleasant wines that rated in the good (80-84 points on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale) to very good (85-89 points) ranges, showing more red fruit than black fruit character, along with Beaujolais’ typical spice notes and fresh acidity.
“In the end, the lower yields were good for the maturity,” explained Franck Duboeuf. Among the producers Georges Duboeuf works with in the Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages AOCs, the average yield was 1.5 tons per acre. The legal limit is 3.7 tons per acre, which most growers probably come closer to in standard vintages.
While Nouveau provides a preview of a new vintage, Beaujolais’ reputation rests on its crus, 10 recognized areas in the northern part of the region—Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié and St.-Amour—each awarded AOC status. Wines from the crus usually offer more depth and distinctive character than wines from the larger Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages appellations. Though often still good values, these bottlings typically demand slightly higher prices as well, with most in the $15 to $25 range.
The 2012 cru Beaujolais won’t be available in the United States until spring 2013, but in the interim, many bottlings of 2009, 2010 and 2011 are still available at retailers and on wine lists. With these three solid, successful vintages behind them, many producers in Beaujolais may be in good enough shape financially to hold on until next year.