This is the season that wines with this year’s vintage date start turning up like newly minted pennies. A few early 2018s from South America, South Africa or the Antipodes have already appeared on retail shelves, courtesy of a harvest six months earlier than ours. Beaujolais nouveau, the most famous new wine from the northern hemisphere, arrives on the third Thursday of November. And in the same week, Austrian winemakers introduce their first wines of the vintage at local wine taverns called heurige.
Beaujolais nouveau is not really new. It started in the 19th century, according to “The Oxford Companion to Wine,” as the newly pressed wine from the region finished fermenting in cask on the way to be enjoyed by the city folk in Lyon. Some of the earliest-maturing wines were no doubt consumed by vineyard workers celebrating the harvest. In the 1950s, as the region struggled economically, vignerons were permitted to sell more “primeur” wine to generate quick cash flow from each harvest.
Marketing soon took over, and “Beaujolais Nouveau Day” became an unofficial holiday in France, with races to Paris starting at midnight to see who could get their nouveau to the thirsty Parisians the fastest. It’s still celebrated with festivals throughout the Beaujolais region, just south of Burgundy.
Nouveau became synonymous with Georges Duboeuf, a negociant with marketing flair whose company was the region’s largest and best-known producer — so much so that he gained the sobriquet “Mr. Beaujolais.” Georges Duboeuf is still the most popular and widely available beaujolais in the United States. And never one to miss out on a trend, the company this year is selling its first beaujolais nouveau rosé.
If your wine-loving friend scoffs and tells you beaujolais nouveau is not a serious wine, just shrug and say, “So what?” It isn’t meant to be serious. It’s an annual ritual, a commemoration of the harvest. And since it arrives one week before our own harvest celebration, I often like to have a bottle on the Thanksgiving table.
The Austrian tradition of enjoying newly pressed grape juice (“Most”) and partially fermented wine (“Sturm”) and then the newly completed wine hasn’t caught on internationally. Perhaps it isn’t as easily marketable as beaujolais nouveau. The tradition dates to 1784, when Emperor Joseph II decreed that people could sell homemade food and wine without a special permit. Heuriger — the singular for “heurige” — refers to “this year’s,” and the private taverns were a seasonal affair at harvest time. Today they are open year-round and are especially popular in Vienna, which has several hundred wineries within the city limits. Many of these operate their own taverns.
While the tradition may not have spread beyond Austria, it has influenced the Austrian wines we drink. The continued popularity of heurige among younger Austrians and tourists has created demand for wineries to release their wines sooner, even as soon as possible after the harvest. Many winegrowers chafe at this, believing their rieslings and grüner veltliners benefit from more time in the winery cellar. This market demand isn’t limited to Viennese millennials, of course. We all tend to disregard the aging potential of white wines, mistakenly thinking they are for early drinking.
Some wineries in the United States have adopted the nouveau tradition. Maryland’s Old Westminster Winery this year made a 2018 wine called “Piquette,” its first nouveau release. It’s a field blend of unspecified grape varieties made in the pétillant-naturel, or pet-nat, style, in which the wine finishes fermenting in the bottle, giving it sparkle and fizz.
If you’ve ever visited a winery just after harvest and smelled the aroma of fermenting wine, you may relive those memories with Piquette. “It’s a simple product bottled straight from the tank without any additions,” says Drew Baker, vineyard manager and co-owner of Old Westminster. “Without any additions” includes sulfur, the traditional preservative used to keep wine stable.
As a red wine, Old Westminster’s Piquette resembles Italy’s lambrusco, an underappreciated partner to salumi and smoked meats, such as barbecue. Or turkey, with all the trimmings.