Is there anything less French than the vision of a raucous nationwide street party thrown with the express goal of guzzling cheap, young wine?
And yet, the third Thursday of November has become a national cultural holiday in France, trading crystal stemware for plastic cups and stodgy restraint for freewheeling zeal.
Beaujolais Nouveau Day, in all of its unfettered glory, helps fund the national pastime (drinking fine wine, of course) by providing an injection of capital just following harvest; it’s also helped prop up a sub-region’s economy for more than half a century. There are more than 120 festivals within Beaujolais alone featuring fireworks, torch-lit parades, and carousing until dawn. There are hundreds more celebrations in Paris and cities spanning the globe.
More than 60 million bottles of two-month-old wine are consumed in one day (by conservative estimates) and, while a concise financial analysis of the trickle-down effect on the hospitality industry doesn’t appear to exist, it’s difficult to imagine Beaujolais would remain the charming, still-rural enclave it does without it.
How did this most unlikely of scenarios come to pass?
Credit must go, primarily, to the uniquely joyful, but still resoundingly French, aesthetic and marketing vision of Georges Duboeuf (pictured above, far left, during the 2018 harvest), the 85-year-old founder of Les Vins Georges Duboeuf, who turned a Beaujolais tradition into a global craze—but how?
France’s first custom bottler
The Duboeuf family has owned vineyards and made wine in France’s Mâconnais region for four centuries. Sales were steady, but unremarkable, until a young Georges took responsibility for the business. When he was 18, he began delivering samples of his family’s wine to chefs in Lyon, eventually ginning up the courage to knock on chef Paul Blanc’s kitchen door.
“Few winemakers were bottling their own wines at the time,” remembers Duboeuf. “Most of the wine just went to négociants. Paul appreciated the quality of the wine my family was making and asked for other examples, specifically reds, from the region.” But Duboeuf’s family didn’t make reds.
By chance around the same time, in 1951, the French government declared November 15 the official release date for Beaujolais Nouveau (that changed in 1985, when it became the third Thursday), and distributors began drumming up publicity by racing their bottles in rickshaws to Paris on Beaujolais Day.
Duboeuf cannily merged the interest of Blanc (and other chefs, who sampled Duboeuf wines at Blanc’s behest), who wanted local red wines, with the growing media spotlight on Beaujolais Nouveau.
Beaujolais Nouveau, or vin de l’année, was, at the time, primarily for local consumption—that is, until Duboeuf made the (in retrospect) hilariously gangster decision to convert an old Renault truck into a portable bottling machine, becoming France’s first custom bottler, or façonnier embouteilleur. He hitched a white trailer behind, outfitted with modern filtration equipment.
Many growers in Beaujolais at the time were simply shipping their bulk juice to négociants, because creating a bottling line was too financially daunting. They jumped on the opportunity to bottle their own pocket of terroir, says Georges’ son, Franck, who today helps run the business. The growers were pleased, and the community of chefs Georges had cultivated expressed their delight via ever-increasing orders. The first decade of growth was slow and steady, in which he formed a syndicate of 45 growers. In 1964, he launched an official négociant, Les Vins Georges Duboeuf.
Creative entrepreneurs are a dime a dozen, but it’s rare to find a successful chief executive who’s comfortable in front of a canvas. Georges Duboeuf is one of those rarities. In addition to creating a market for estate- and domaine-bottled wines in Beaujolais, Duboeuf designed many of the bottles and labels for the wines he produced, now known as the Georges Duboeuf “Flower Labels.”
But the true coup occurred when he poured gasoline on the slowly building Beaujolais Nouveau bonfire. “[My father] built on what was started by the government in 1951,” Franck recalls.
Georges threw lavish parties, inviting film stars, famous artists and sports heroes. He commissioned Formula One drivers to race each other into Paris on Beaujolais Day with deliveries of Nouveau. He sent bottles to New York on the Concorde SST and to London on the bullet train. The press devoured the dazzle and hyped his supercharged efforts; between the 1970s and 1980s, he increased his sales of Nouveau alone six-fold.
There was, inevitably, a backlash, with Nouveau falling “out of fashion” and sales dropping through the ’90s and into the new century. In response, says Franck, “We’re returning to our roots as a company, going back to our DNA, working one-on-one with growers.”
On many days, father and son spend hours in the vineyard fields, and during the Beaujolais harvest time, they’ll personally sample up to 300 different wines each day as they prepare their final Nouveau blend. Currently, Duboeuf sources wine for Beaujolais from 400 growers (about 200 through one cooperative), and buys 20 percent of the grapes in Beaujolais. Last year, Duboeuf shipped 150,000 cases to the United Sates, up 20 percent year-over-year. This year, he hopes to sell 2.5 million cases across the company portfolio.
Thrumming under Duboeuf’s business objectives is an overall aesthetic and cultural vision. In 1993, Georges opened the doors to Le Hameau Duboeuf, a museum displaying 3,000 historical artifacts dedicated to the 2,000-plus year history of winemaking.
The museum is based on a vision he had as a child; the first iteration of it was on the grounds of his family’s vineyard in the Maconnais. He opened a tasting room, featuring themed wall murals he painted (pictures of these paintings are being published here for the first time) that laid out his plans for the museum, from its layout to the type of artifacts it would showcase.
As Franck takes on more of the day-to-day duties at Duboeuf, his vision for the company is beginning to emerge from the long shadow of his father’s. His most visible project is the new Beaujolais Nouveau rosé, which debuted in 2018 right alongside the regular Nouveau and also made from gamay grapes grown in the AOC.
Is the world ready for mid-range rosé all year? Demand has grown steadily, with sales increasing more than 53 percent last year, but consumption—especially in the U.S.—spikes during the summer months. If America embraces the pink this winter, it will be a game-changer for Duboeuf.
Lightning does occasionally strike twice, but for now, Franck and Georges are playing it cool. For this initial release, they’ve produced 20,000 cases of rosé, just a fraction of the 375,000 cases of Beaujolais Nouveau.