Beaujolais Nouveau is the name given to Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages wines which are released almost immediately after harvest. Arguably the most famous expression of the Gamay grape variety, these light, fruity reds are usually the first of the year's harvest in France, and are released annually to huge international fanfare.
Simple wines made from the freshly harvested grapes have slaked the thirst of vineyard workers at the end of the vintage in Beaujolais for centuries, but traditionally these were distributed only locally. Interest in the style spread following appellation law reform at the end of World War II, and by the 1960s, the early Beaujolais wines were being sold widely across France upon their release, often with the announcement, 'Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!'
Producers of Beaujolais saw the marketing opportunities in being the first wine of the harvest and a 'race' to get the first bottle of wine to Paris was implemented by some of the bigger names, promoting the Nouveau style and attracting international interest. In the 1970s and 1980s, Beaujolais Nouveau grew into a worldwide phenomenon, with a particular following in the United States, Japan and Germany. By law, sales of the wine are restricted until one minute past midnight on the third Thursday of November.
Beaujolais Nouveau wines can be red or rosé (the term is not applicable to Beaujolais Blanc wines) and are made predominantly from Gamay grapes. With a bright, violet-red hue, they have an aroma that is often compared to candied cherries, red plums, bananas and even bubblegum. The wines are vinified by carbonic maceration, which leaves them light in body and almost entirely free of tannins. It is because of this lack of tannin and extract that the wines do not age well, lacking the necessary structure.
Most Beaujolais Nouveau is produced from grapes grown in the southern part of Beaujolais on the plains just north of Lyon; the region's more serious wines are grown in the hillier terrain of northern Beaujolais. In southern (or 'Bas') Beaujolais, the soils are more clay-dominant, and do not warm the vineyards as efficiently as the drier, granitic soils of the north. As a result, the grapes grown in southern Beaujolais do not have as much flavor complexity from ripening; rather, they are light and fruity and are well suited to the production of Beaujolais Nouveau. That said, the 'nouveau' designation can also apply to wines made under the Beaujolais Villages appellation, which is reserved for vineyards in the northern part of Beaujolais.
The term nouveau (meaning 'new' in French) is applied to the wines of several appellations of France, including Macon and Ventoux, but is most famous for its association with Beaujolais. Primeur is synonymous with nouveau, but is much less commonly used.
Today, lighter styles of wine have fallen out of favor internationally and the popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau is waning as consumers look to richer wine styles with more complexity. Sales have decreased dramatically since the 1980s, although around half of all wine made in the Beaujolais region is still sold as Nouveau.