Winery work is never more intense than at harvest.
Months of pruning, training, thinning, protecting, nourishing, analyzing and decision making in the vineyard climax with harvest — extracting grapes from the vine and hauling heavy lugs, buckets and vats of them from the field to the winery.
There, weeks of work — crushing, pressing, soaking, fermenting and transferring massive quantities of grape juice from one vessel to another — punctuate its journey to becoming wine.
And that's to say nothing of the cleaning, pumping, siphoning and spraying hundreds of gallons of cold water to get equipment ready for the next batch of grapes that arrive, always, a little too soon.
As the grape harvest wraps up around our region, vineyard and winery workers, stained, sore and soaked, having worked long days that often stretch into late nights, will naturally be looking forward to kicking back with a beverage. But it won't be the year's hard work they get to enjoy. This year's vintage won't be ready until late spring, at the earliest.
One region in France — go figure — decided not to wait to enjoy the fruits of the season's labours. Beaujolais, a subregion in the south of Burgundy, is unique in many ways, including getting the party started right at the end of harvest, beginning the tradition in the early 1900s of uncorking some early bottles of wine to celebrate.
Beaujolais Nouveau, the first wine of the year, became a popular treat in the region for vineyard workers but also for the maisons de vin, the producers, who saw income from early sales. The rest of the world thought this was a great idea, but instead of each region starting its own Nouveau tradition, 65 million bottles of Beaujolais are shipped around the world each November for our enjoyment, and Beaujolais producers' profit.
Beaujolais Nouveau has a bit of a cult following, for a few reasons. First, the early wine, which is bottled six to eight weeks after the grapes are harvested, is the first indication of the quality of the year's harvest. It is released, every year, at midnight on the third Thursday of November.
Next, Beaujolais Nouveau is made in an interesting way. Grapes must be harvested by hand, and they are not crushed before being put into a tank. The weight of grapes on top crushes grapes at the bottom, releasing juice, and this begins fermentation. As carbon dioxide, which is heavier than air, is produced by the fermenting grapes, it displaces any oxygen around the grapes, bathing the entire tank in CO2. Intact grapes at the top of the tank ferment in their own skins. This whole process is called carbonic maceration, and the result is wine that tastes particularly fresh, because much of the grape skin will not have been part of the fermenting process, and much of the juice will not have been exposed to the aging impacts of oxygen. This wine will not cellar well, so it must be drunk young.
Beaujolais is also a bit of an underdog in the wine world. Located in the southern part of Burgundy, a region venerated for its sublime Pinot Noir-based reds, Beaujolais is different from the rest of the region in its climate, soil and grapes. Its red grape is Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc. (You can get away with just calling it Gamay.)
This grape is easier to cultivate than Pinot Noir, and produces a lot of fruit, but is much less complex and has high acid that is significantly softened by carbonic maceration. Gamay was banned from Burgundy twice, by dukes Philip the Bold and later Philip the Good, who didn't want the sub-par grape to water down the region's Pinot power. But, particularly now, with better vineyard practices, Gamay can produce wines of depth and elegance, and Beaujolais' 400-odd wine producers make as much wine as the rest of the entire region of Burgundy.
Nova Scotians can partake in the Beaujolais Nouveau tradition this year on Nov. 17 with a choice of three different wines. The NSLC will list Mommessin's 2016 Beaujolais Nouveau ($16), Georges Duboeuf's ($18) and Joseph Drouhin's ($19). The Port by NSLC in Halifax will sample all three on the third Thursday of this month.
Last year, Alliance Française, a French language school and cultural centre in Halifax, threw a Beaujolais Nouveau party, and Haligonians popped the cork on a couple of cases of the 2015 vintage from Joseph Douhin. A brief discussion of the wine brought varying opinions of its fruit aromas (plum, pear, banana), but all agreed that the wine was gouleyant — it slid nicely down the throat.
Perhaps this is the important take-away from Beaujolais Nouveau. It is not a wine meant to be stored or pondered or deliberated. Instead, celebrating the year's hard work is best done right now.