The weather's chilly, the leaves have fallen, and the holidays are fast-approaching. We're about to commemorate the end of the growing season – and the imminent end to a year that has been difficult on so many levels – with Thanksgiving, a traditional celebration of the year's bounty.
There's a wine for that: A wine of this vintage, fresh as the memory of harvest and raw as the experience of the year, unpolished by time, a reflection of the emotion of the moment.
This style of wine is called nouveau. The best known is beaujolais nouveau, released on the third Thursday of November. It's easy to dismiss beaujolais nouveau as a marketing gimmick meant to sell wine quickly. An apocryphal tasting note I haven't been able to trace to its original writer says it "smells like cash flow." But the tradition dates to the late 19th century, when the wines would finish fermenting in cask during their journey to Lyon or Paris. The modern incarnation was popularized in the 1970s and 1980s by Georges Duboeuf, a leading negociant and champion of beaujolais who died in early January at 86.
Beaujolais nouveau is typically made by a technique called carbonic maceration, in which the grapes (the red gamay in beaujolais) are put in a tank with carbon dioxide to exclude oxygen. The intact grapes ferment on the inside, eventually bursting and producing effusively fruity aromas and flavors. The technique and the resulting wines are not subtle. Beaujolais nouveau tends to taste distinctively of banana. Subtlety is not the point – fun and celebration are.
Nouveau is more than just beaujolais. In Austria, the fresh vintage is celebrated at heurigen, small taverns operated by wineries, especially around the capital, Vienna. And many U.S. wineries are producing nouveau wines, not just to rush juice out the door and into their bank accounts, but to put a coda on the year and maybe just to have a little fun.
This year, Old Westminster Winery in Maryland made a nouveau of chambourcin, a hybrid grape that reflects Maryland's wine history and is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in the Mid-Atlantic. "It's a raw, unfiltered agrarian product less than one month removed from the vine," says Drew Baker, who runs the operation with his sisters, Lisa Hinton and Ashli Johnson. "That's why we love this style – it's just fermented grape juice without any makeup." The Old Westminster Nouveau is now in the local D.C. market, especially in organic grocery stores.
In Virginia, Ankida Ridge Vineyards produced its second nouveau from young gamay vines planted on the steep Blue Ridge slopes northwest of Amherst. The nouveau is the hobbyhorse of Christine and Dennis Vrooman, while their son, Nathan, "takes care of the serious wines," Christine Vrooman says.
"I think this is a great year to drink nouveau," she says. "The sooner we get this vintage drunk, the sooner we can forget 2020."
'Why delay the gratification in a year like this?'
In California's Sonoma County, Scribe Vineyards made a delicious nouveau, its sixth vintage from pinot noir grown in the Carneros region. Pinot "without the makeup" is a good description. Made in the beaujolais method, the wine is young, fresh and raw, obviously untouched by oak and just a pure expression of good young fruit.
"Fermented with native yeast, with no additions of sulfur, and bottled unfiltered, there's a purity, vibrancy and freshness to this wine, intended to be enjoyed as soon as possible," says Andrew Mariani, who founded the winery in 2007 with his brother, Adam. "You could age the wine, but why delay the gratification in a year like this?"
Martha Stoumen made her first nouveau last year in honor of the birth of her son and named it Patatino, or "little potato." Stoumen, based in Sonoma County, told me her inspiration for nouveau came from tasting freshly fermented wines with other winemakers. "Any barrel could be a nouveau," she said.
This year's Patatino is extra special to Stoumen. Using nero d'avola grown in Mendocino, she fermented some of the juice as a rosé and blended it back into the rest, vinified as a light red. Stoumen made lighter reds this year, limiting the time juice was in contact with grape skins because the skins could have smoke residue from the wildfires that devastated Northern California wine country this harvest season. So her nouveau is a poignant expression not just of this year's harvest, but of the year itself.
"Consumers may not appreciate the emotional stress of this vintage in California, but it's interesting to put out a wine from this year that's supposed to be a celebration of the harvest," Stoumen says. "It shows what Mother Nature gives us. This is what the harvest is."
We have all experienced the emotional stress of 2020 in our own way. Enjoying a nouveau may help us come to terms with it and put it behind us.