It's well known that in France, wine is an art. But the story of Beaujolais Nouveau turned one wine, some 30 years ago, into a global sport. Le Beaujolais Nouveau est Arrivé! is a familiar proclamation this time of year, painted across the windows of wine shops and cafes in France. It heralds the rush of bottles from Beaujolais, a region north of Lyon, to towns and cities around the world. The excitement is not in the flavor but in the race among producers to go, in a matter of a few weeks, from crushed grapes to glasses clinking "santé."
This Tour de France of wine was started by George Duboeuf, the undisputed king of Beaujolais. Thirty years ago, Duboeuf took the Old World tradition of provincial carnivals celebrating wine fresh off the vines, and globalized it. Today, the party is indeed world wide. Wine snobs scoff at the light taste of this purplish red wine that is more of a white and meant to be drunk chilled, and fast. But Beaujolais continues to be a tradition in France, one that ramped up in popularity after World War II, when people needed a Bacchanalian escape.
Now, the third Thursday of November at midnight marks the start of the carnival of Beaujolais. Just to show how far this tradition has come, it was marked this year in Hakone, Japan with people taking baths in Beaujolais Nouveau.
Franck Duboeuf, the son of Georges and heir apparent to Les Vins Georges Duboeuf--one of France's biggest wine sellers, sat down with me to discuss the art of wine-making. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How much control do you have as a wine maker? Can you create a wine like a musician creates a song? Meaning, can you choose the flavors and "notes" you want in a wine?
No, because it's not a precise science. There is no recipe. It's a matter of experiences. And every harvest is different. It's impossible to reproduce the same thing year after year. Every year is a new challenge, it's a new start.
How involved are you in the actual process of wine-making?
We work with 400 growers and wine-makers in Beaujolais. We taste some grapes, to taste the ripeness, the sugar level, how thick is the skin, the taste of the seeds. All these things give you some information. Twice a day we have tastings in our lab. We taste wines in our cellars, to monitor the aging process. For Beaujolais Nouveau, [for instance], there were 8,000 samples we recorded.
How big is your company?
There are about 150 people.
What is your advice for aspiring winemakers around the world?
We can produce good wine everywhere in the world today. It's not a question of place. It's much more a question of passion you put in wine. You can really feel the passion when you taste the wine. Wine growing, wine-making it's a matter of time, too. It took one or two generations before you extract from the soil the full character. It's not a very quick business. And you really, really, really give a lot of patience to what you are doing.
Are you concerned about the impact of climate change on the vineyards? How are you preparing for global warming?
We all know that nature can be very extreme. In Beaujolais this year, we faced some big issues in terms of frost, then rains, hail storms. We have to deal with it. We have to learn how to manage. C'est la vie, unfortunately.
How did you learn wine-making?
When you are a child, you are intrigued by what your parents are doing, because it was time consuming. So I wanted to discover what they were doing. So I discovered the whole world at the winery. That's how I learned when I was young. Then I joined my mother to taste wines, when I was very young. When I was a teenager, I began tasting wines regularly.
What was the best advice your father Georges ever gave you?
Always get answers to your questions. His presence was, is the most important thing for me. He didn't really push me into business. He never told me one day you're going to sell more bottles than me.
The Americans seem far behind the French when it comes to our palettes. How can one develop a good palette for wine?
It's a question of education. You have to educate your palette to the taste, the aromas, and to recognize, to classify all these experiences. (But I'm not sure the Americans are so far behind the French.) This is something you have to educate your palette at a very early age. And just to work this gift as the others. Like a musician will do with his hands, you have to do with your nose and your palette, and to educate every day, to memorize aromas, memorize what you have tasted the day before. And slowly--it's like sports--if you practice every day, you will make a nice palette.