American Nouveau Wines Have Arrived

To most Americans, Beaujolais Nouveau is synonymous with the mass-produced wines of Georges Duboeuf. But in recent years, it's been reimagined by Beaujolais icons like Jean Foillard, inspiring a crop of U.S. winemakers to follow suit. Zachary Sussman on the rise of America's own nouveau tradition.

scribe pinot noir nouveau wine

It’s a habit among wine writers to “discover” or “reclaim” regions that already existed for quite a long time. For better or worse, it makes for a good story. One such story, which over recent years has practically become wine geek gospel, is the reclamation of Beaujolais as a “serious” or legitimate wine. The central conceit always involves defending “real Beaujolais”—made by small conscientious growers and typically sourced from ten of the top “crus,” or name-designated villages, like Fleurie or Morgon—against that ersatz impostor, Beaujolais Nouveau.

Traditionally, the term “nouveau” simply refers to the practice (by no means exclusive to Beaujolais) of bottling the first wine of the harvest just a few weeks after fermentation. Light, bright and jubilantly fruity, it’s supposed to symbolize the end of the growing season and an invitation to partake of autumn’s bounty. In the minds of modern drinkers, however, the familiar slogan Le Beaujolais nouveau est arivée has not only come to represent something altogether different, and far more dubious in origin.

Given how often wine industry PR campaigns fall comically short of the mark, the annual hype surrounding the release of Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday of each November signifies one of the most successful marketing schemes in the history of wine sales. Ever since the 1980s, when Beaujolais producer Georges Duboeuf masterminded the ritual of air-lifting thousands of crates of generic, brightly colored, mass-produced bottles of nouveau to U.S. shores and beyond, the trend has remained an infamous symbol of our increasingly globalized drinking culture.

It might seem strange, then, that a growing number of ambitious winemakers across the U.S.—from areas as disparate as California (Scribe and POE wineries, among others) and Oregon (Bow & Arrow and Division Wine Company) to the North Fork of Long Island (Macari Vineyards) and the Finger Lakes (Keuka Lake Vineyards)—have recently tried to interpret the genre by producing a nouveau of their own.

Author of The New California Wine and wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle Jon Bonné can’t help but savor the irony. “The celebration of nouveau is really a Boomer tradition that arose when everyone was intrigued with all things French,” he says. “It’s funny to me that all of these folks who are great believers in artisanship are fundamentally seizing upon a giant marketing gimmick.” 

But as he’s the first to admit, this view fails to account for the larger context. From a historical standpoint—at least where California is concerned—it turns out that the recent wave of nouveau bottlings isn’t quite as “nouveau” as one might think.

By now, it’s become a lost chapter of Golden State winemaking, but during the 1970s and early ’80s, when the first shipments of commercial Beaujolais Nouveau were just hitting the market, a handful of California wineries responded with a similarly-styled, homespun effort based upon the ubiquitous zinfandel grape.

In a 1985 New York Times article that documented the trend, none other than legendary Ridge Vineyards owner Paul Draper references “eight styles [of the grape] in the state,”  including “nouveau or nuevo zinfandel, which wineries market before Thanksgiving.” Most famously, in 1975 Joseph Phelps produced the first of several releases of “Zinfandel Nouveau” for the Chez Panisse Zinfandel festival. Other examples existed as well, including the “Zinfandel Nuevo” from Amador County’s Montevina Winery, which was discontinued soon after Sutter Home acquired the property.

Fast forward to the present day, and it’s no coincidence that the most recent iterations of domestic nouveau have coincided with the influx of a new breed of quality-driven, small-production versions of Beaujolais Nouveau from such esteemed icons as late Marcel Lapierre and Jean Foillard, whose names have become synonymous with the “natural wine” movement that so many young American winemakers now emulate.

“When you see a producer like Foillard making a wine in that category, it quickly changes your thinking about the potential for nouveau,” explains Thomas Pastuszak, wine director at The NoMad restaurant in New York City. “It’s now become more of a niche, geeky wine that people are getting excited about.”

This reconsideration of the genre, along with a general stylistic shift in favor of brighter, lower-alcohol wines, helps to account for some of the reasoning behind the latest crop of American nouveau. This time around, the trend isn’t about mimicking nouveau the marketing ploy, but points to a larger desire to embrace the European ideal of a vin de soif—the kind of affordable “everyday wine” that aspires towards drinkability without needing to be powerful or complex.

In a chapter of The New California Wine titled “The Table Wine Dilemma,” Bonné addresses this same paradox, arguing that California—and, by extension, other American wine regions—has struggled to uphold “the moral prerogative that good winemakers should not only pursue greatness but make humble wines as well.” Nascent though the movement might be, American nouveau offers one possible response to this mandate.

This is certainly the democratic attitude with which Scott Frank—the Portland-based winemaker at Bow & Arrow wines—considers his “Gamay Nouveau,” which hovers under the $20 range. “In Oregon, and in the Willamette Valley specifically, there’s certainly a feeling that wine is an aristocratic thing,” he mentions. “Willamette Pinot Noir is generally out of reach for the average person. In line with my populist leanings, my nouveau is a way to make a more accessible wine that’s part of everyday life. It’s supposed to be something celebratory, about people getting together around the harvest.”

In this way, the impulse signals a return to the original spirit of nouveau as a distinctly local phenomenon. Before Duboeuf appropriated it as an international commodity, the idea was to send the new wine up the river to Lyon or Paris, not across the ocean by jet plane.

Despite its global reputation, then, Beaujolais Nouveau represents just one incarnation of the “harvest wine” tradition as it has been practiced for centuries across the world’s various viticultural areas, whether it be the “Jungwein” of Austria or Italy’s “vino novello.” If a new generation of American winemakers now longs to adopt a similar ritual, rather than copy the model of Beaujolais, this presents a larger opportunity to create our own native “harvest wine” traditions, which might reflect our regions’ emerging identities.

“Wine is an agricultural product, and we should celebrate the new harvest the way we’d celebrate the harvest of anything else,” Bonné explains. “Theoretically, this should be a local tradition. The thing that made nouveau such an unpleasant prospect was the rush to air-freight all this French wine to celebrate the harvest, rather than celebrate an indigenous harvest here—which we now have the resources to do.”

Maybe “Zinfandel Nuevo” was on the right track after all. Or perhaps the answer lies with Central Coast grenache or Finger Lakes blaufränkisch or Oregon pinot gris. The point is that it takes time, not to mention a whole lot of trial and error, to lay the foundations for new traditions. In the meanwhile, the way forward will surely be paved by kind of curious winemakers who are willing to embrace experimental styles like “nouveau”—whatever they might understand that term to mean.