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FOOD & DRINK

Does Beaujolais Nouveau wine deserve its bad reputation?

Beaujolais Nouveau wine suffers from a number of negative stereotypes - but are these rumours more fiction than fact?

Does Beaujolais Nouveau wine deserve its bad reputation?
People celebrate the traditional event of "the Sarmentelles" that starts the "Beaujolais Nouveau" edition in 2017. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP)

Each year – on the third Thursday of November – people across the world celebrate one thing, and it is not Thanksgiving. It is the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau, a French wine coming from the east of France, south of the wine growing region of Burgundy.

The release of the Beaujolais Nouveau vintage brings with it lots of celebration – four days of it in the Beaujolais region itself. The vintage is then shipped far and wide for people to consume, more often than not at a very affordable price of just a few euros. 

READ MORE: Beaujolais Nouveau: 13 things you need to know about France’s famous wine

Unfortunately, however, the light, red wine also has suffered from a negative reputation. Critics (or perhaps just those who have drunk too many glasses) say it gives you a hangover, tastes terrible (apparently similar to bananas to some), and above all that it is low-quality.

But to Rod Phillips, wine expert and author of “French Wine: A History”, Beaujolais Nouveau is “young, fruity, bright, cheerful.” 

Phillips went on to say that it is “not a wine to discuss or contemplate,” but “that doesn’t make it bad wine. It’s different from structured, more subtle and nuanced wines.”

For Caroline Conner, sommelier and head of Lyon Wine Tastings, Beaujolais Nouveau is “really fun” and highly encourages people to give the wine a chance, particularly from local producers. 

You can hear Caroline Conner discuss Beaujolais Nouveau in the new episode of the Talking France podcast. Download here or listen below.

Conner explained the stories of Beaujolais Nouveau wine causing hangovers has nothing to do with the way the wine is made, or even how quickly it is produced –  using grapes that were harvested just a few months before being bottled. 

“It’s not about the technique, it’s because most of it is mass produced. Any mass produced wine is probably going to give you a hangover,” the sommelier explained. 

Of course hangovers also depend on how much you drink – of any wine.

According to Rod Phillips, the stereotype that Beaujolais wine is of poor quality stretches back hundreds of years.

“The region had a setback in the Middle Ages and took a long time to recover,” explained Phillips.

In 1395, the Duke of Burgundy issued an edict – grapes from the Gamay vine were “injurious to the human creature” and wine that came from them had “terrible bitterness.” He is even thought to have said that the vine itself was an “evil and disloyal plant.”

According to Phillips, this decree was in the Duke’s interest: “He was protecting pinot noir, which was used for Burgundy’s already-famous wines.

More and more producers were growing Gamay because it had a higher yield, so made more and cheaper wine. They appealed to the Duke to ban Gamay and he obliged in terms that produced an enduring belief that Gamay was an inferior wine.”

This impacted Beaujolais wine because it is produced from that same “disloyal plant” – the Gamay grape. It was not until after the second World War that Beaujolais red wine grew in popularity outside of eastern France.

In the 1970s and 80s, the wine had a surge in popularity, with the start of the Beaujolais Nouveau phenomenon, and the mass production of the wine to be cheaply sent across the world. 

Conner described Beaujolais Nouveau as a “big party” at that time, with celebrations from London to Japan. While it has decreased in popularity in recent years, the third Thursday of November remains an important date in the French calendar.

What about the other Beaujolais wines?

Both wine experts also pointed to the fact that Beaujolais Nouveau is not the only wine to come out of the region. 

“There are a lots of different tiers of quality,” said Conner, adding that the Nouveau only accounts for about 20 percent of production. “The rest of Beaujolais wine is quite different.”

Phillips echoed these sentiments, noting an improvement in quality for other “Beaujolais Crus.”

“More recently people have discovered the 10 Beaujolais Crus (Morgon, Chénas, Brouilly, etc.) which are a real step up in quality,” he said. “There’s a sense in which Beaujolais Nouveau was a drag on the high quality wines of the region because it was associated with inexpensive, easy-drinking wines.”

And as for Beaujolais Nouveau itself, “it’s not all cheap and mass produced,” according to Conner.

If you really want to enjoy a good Beaujolais Nouveau, the sommelier recommends going “to a good caviste or a good restaurant” and drinking wine that was made by a “small producer.”

How much should you spend to get a really good bottle? Conner suggests 20 euros believing you’ll get far more value for money if you spend that amount on a Beaujolais rather than a Burgundy – which you pay a premium on because of its famous name

“You’ll find some excellent value,” she promised.

Member comments

  1. If anyone believes that Beaujolais Nouveau gives you a bad hangover, I have to admire their fortitude. I have never considered the wine good enough to drink enough to cause a hangover. In my humble opinion, it is light, acidic and has been brought to market far too soon to actually be drunk. Terrible stuff!!

  2. Interesting to have more information than I had previously. When I lived in the States, people would get excited about le beaujolais nouveau, but it always tasted watery to me. Maybe the problem was the wine monger’s choice.

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FOOD & DRINK

What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean – and are these products better?

If you're shopping in France it's highly likely that you will see food and drinks that proudly declare their AOP or AOC status - but are these products actually better than the rest?

What does the AOP/AOC label on French food and wine mean - and are these products better?

The French take their food very seriously – a country has to when its gastronomy and baguettes are both listed on Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage lists.

Yes, France is a fast food fountain with an insatiable appetite for burgers and pizza – but it is also justifiably proud of its own traditional cuisine, from boeuf bourguignon to cassoulet – and has put a legal premium on restaurants serving ‘homemade’ food.

That pride extends to food production, with farmers and artisan manufacturers fearlessly defending their techniques – taking their disputes to court in many cases.

READ ALSO French court rules on the appearance of striped cheese

The French developed a labelling system that meant consumers could buy certain agricultural products – from vegetables to cheeses and wines – safe in the knowledge that its production and processing have been carried out in a particular geographical area (the terroir) and using recognised and traditional know-how.

This is the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC).

The designation can indicate a particular geographical area, or that the producer has followed the traditional technique or both.

Under French law, it is illegal to manufacture and sell a product under one of the AOC-controlled indications if it does not comply with the criteria of that AOC. In order to make them recognisable, all AOC products carry a seal, with a number as well as the name of the certifying body. The colour of the seal indicates the product classification: green for field products and red for dairy products.

The origins of AOC labelling date to 1411, when the production of blue Roquefort cheese was regulated by parliamentary decree. 

On August 1st, 1905, AOC rules were introduced for wine – and, in 1919, the Law for the Protection of the Place of Origin was passed which specified the region, right down in some cases to the commune in which a given product had to be manufactured to bear its name. 

As well as wines and cheeses, AOC status has been awarded to Poulet de Bresse, and salt marsh lamb raised in the Baie de Somme; Haute-Provence Lavender Essential Oil; lentils from Le Puy-en-Velay; Corsican honey; butter from Charente, Charente-Maritime, Vienne, Deux-Sèvres and Vendée; and certain spirits.

And these classifications are taken seriously – during the summer of 2022 several cheese producers had to temporarily stop using their AOC/AOP labels because the classification specified that the cheese was made with milk from grass-fed cows and their cows were being fed on hay because of the drought.

The European Union operates a similar geographical protection system that recognises products that are the “result of a unique combination of human and environmental factors that are characteristic of a given territory”.

This is the more common Appellation d’Origine Protégée (AOP).

The difference? Scale. The two labels are fundamentally the same. Just the former is French and older, while the latter European. 

Most products with AOC designation also have AOP protection under EU law, so they use AOP. However, certain wines with AOP status can still use the French AOC designation, and many use both.

So are AOP/AOC products better than non-AOP ones?

Neither of these labels are a quality mark, they refer only to how and where the product is made or grown, so there is nothing intrinsically better about an AOC/AOP cheese, lentil or wine.

However, the marks tend to go to the smaller, artisan producers who take great pride in their products, so in reality many of the AOC/AOP products are the better ones.

Producers of Camembert have fought a decade-long battle over labelling that pitted the AOP camembert producers (whose product must be made with unpasturised milk, at least 50 percent of which is produced by cows that have been grazing on Normandy grass) against the big factory producers who have no such constraints. 

While both are camembert, the AOP producers will tell you (at some length, if you let them) that theirs is an infinitely superior product. 

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