"There are three rivers that run through Lyon." That's the first thing that every taxi driver tells first-time visitors to the city. "The Rhône and the Saône," which actually converge there, "and the river of Beaujolais" wine.
The wine, made from the historically maligned Gamay grape, grown and raised about forty-five minutes by car north of the city, is ubiquitous there, just like the classic saucisson lyonnais, Lyon sausage, typically served with boiled potatoes in red wine sauce (above).
Yesterday, the third Thursday in November, marked the release of the official annual release of the Beaujolais Nouveau -- the "new" Beaujolais -- from the 2012 vintage.
The event has become a popular commercial happening in the U.S. thanks to the shrewd efforts of one of the largest wine merchants in France (I won't mention him or his business but will let it suffice to say that he is widely known as the "pope" of Beaujolais). In the 1970s, he began a "race" to get the wine to Paris as soon as it was released (a brilliant marketing scheme that he exported to the U.S. in the 1980s). Since that time, the yearly arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau in the U.S -- via air courier -- has become one of the greatest marketing coups in the history of wine sales, despite the enormous carbon footprint it creates and the exaggerated price for the truly mediocre wine.
But the origins of Beaujolais Nouveau have much more humble and wholesome origins.
In every winemaking region of France and Italy, grape growers and winemakers traditionally share some of the "new" wine with townsfolk in November. The wine is new inasmuch as it is the first wine to be bottled after harvest.
European grape growers begin harvesting their crop in August, with some regions harvesting as late as mid-October. Nearly all of the grapes are immediately vinified and for the most part, the wine is transferred to a wide variety of vessels for aging (casks, stainless-steel vats, cement vats, etc.), to be bottled once properly aged.
But European winemakers always bottle a small amount of the wine a few weeks after fermentation has been completed.
It's not considered "good" or fine wine. For wine to achieve its full expression, it requires some aging. The "new" wine gives the winemaker (and potential consumers) a first and premature taste of what the wine will become with proper aging.
But the "new" wine also has another purpose, a legacy that stretches back to antiquity and a practice that is still employed in many parts of rural Europe.
In the feudal era, when the residents of a village were essentially employees of the landowner, the winemaker would reward the villagers with a feast once harvest was completed. What wine did he serve (and I say he because it was always a he in the pre-modern era)? The new wine.
It was a means of thanking the townsfolk or villagers. And for the villagers, it was a way to celebrate the harvest, a thanksgiving as it were.
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When I posted my Top 5 Thanksgiving Wine Picks on Monday, reader TinyHands suggested Beaujolais Nouveau, in part because of its low price, its easy application, and its approachability.
I'm going to second that recommendation but not because I'm a fan of Beaujolais Nouveau (for the record, I'm not, and its carbon footprint alone is enough of a turnoff to make me avoid it). It's a great way to remember what Thanksgiving's all about.