Beaujolais Nouveau and the crisis in French wine

Beaujolais Nouveau ? Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2014 ($8, purchased, 12%)

? Thorin Beaujolais Nouveau 2014 ($8, purchased, 11-14%)

These Beaujolais Nouveaus were two of the worst professionally-made wines I’ve tasted in 25 years, practically undrinkable and as bad as some of the amateur regional plonk I endured in the local wine movement’s early days. The Duboeuf, from one of France’s major producers, was thin, watery, and almost devoid of fruit save for the faint taste of overripe bananas. The Thorin was even more offensive — more thin, more watery, and without any fruit at all. The Rene Barbier Mediterranean Red, which I tasted with the nouveaus because I was afraid this would happen, cost a dollar less and was of a quality the nouveaus could only dream about.

Beaujolais Nouveau hasn’t been good for a while, but these wines were past even that. That anyone would have made them, let alone sell them, is an embarrassment to wine and to the glory that is French wine. More, after the jump:

In this, they’re the perfect example of the crisis in French wine, in which the bulk of the country’s production — the cheap wine that isn’t Burgundy, Champagne, and high-end Bordeaux — is being ignored by consumers. Wine drinkers can get better quality for less money from almost anywhere else in the world. In some French wine regions, as many as half of the producers may be close to going out of business; warehouses have been full of excess wine for years; and exports have been declining regularly since before the recession.

As one official told the Guardian newspaper: “French wines are losing their competitive edge alarmingly fast, and the crisis is being felt in virtually every winegrowing region.”

Which brings us back to the nouveaus. When I started drinking wine in the mid-1980s, the release of nouveau on the third Thursday of November was practically a holiday, and nouveau was some of the best cheap wine in the world. The wines were fruity, grapey, and balanced, and delivered exceptional value. But no more. Today, these are marketing-driven wines — the Thorin bottle design screams 25-year-old women — where grape costs were apparently cut at every corner to maximize margins, regardless of the harm to the wine.

Why is it almost impossible to find quality $10 wine from France, which was its staple two decades ago? Save for a handful of producers like Tariquet, Bonnet, Cave de Lugny, and Little James, French wine that should be cheap isn’t. The vast majority of red Bordeaux, entry-level Alsace, and the simplest Burgundies can cost $15, $20, and even $25, and yet deliver only $10 or $15 worth of value.

Two reasons: The inability of too many in French wine to understand what’s going on, and what seems to be unadulterated greed. I sympathize with the former; if you’ve been doing something the same way for hundreds of years and have had tremendous success, change is difficult. But there’s no excuse for the latter. Corrupt Chinese generals, Russian plutocrats, and U.S. tech millionaires may be happy to pay inflated prices for 98-point French wines, but why does that mean should I pay $17 for very ordinary red Bordeaux — and especially when I can buy $10 Bogle merlot or $12 Josh Cellars cabernet sauvignon? The French reason, “Because we say you should,” isn’t acceptable in the 21st century.

The saddest part about all this is that the French don’t see the solution — make better wine and charge less for it, which is what everyone else in the world has done. Who drank New Zealand, Chilean, or Argentine wine 25 years ago? Instead, they see it as marketing problem, which can be solved with better advertising. I stopped buying most French wine because it cost too much. How will advertising fix that?

This was not an easy piece to write; the first wines I drank were French, and I love French wine in a way I’ll never love any others. But when a Texas wine, the $10 McPherson Cellars Tre Colore, makes me happier than most cheap French wine does, it’s time for hard truths. And the hard truth is that French wine — the French wine that most of us drink — is overpriced and underwhelming. Until the French recognize this, we’ll get nouveau that makes grape juice taste like 98-point wine. And who wants that?

4 thoughts on “Beaujolais Nouveau and the crisis in French wine

  • By Alfonso Cevola (@italianwineguy) - Reply

    “When a Texas wine, the $10 McPherson Cellars Tre Colore, makes me happier than most cheap French wine does, it???s time for hard truths. And the hard truth is that French wine ??? the French wine that most of us drink ??? is overpriced and underwhelming.”

    I’d say you’re throwing down the gauntlet…..Texas vs France and Texas wins? Radical, dude….you go for it!

    • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

      Which is not true with Italian wine. Intriguingly, for all of the excesses with high-end wine from Italy, there are still dozens of quality cheap wines.

      Why do you think that is?

      • By Adam - Reply

        Because they run it more like a business and less like a cultural pursuit, maybe? Because they aren’t hampered by their own reputation?

        The cheap French wine you write about in this article is the French wine *I* grew up with (as a millennial). And I think that’s exactly why my age group, from regular people to somms, doesn’t care about French wine. Because the cheap stuff isn’t good, and the good stuff isn’t cheap. The former is probably a bigger problem: because we aren’t exposed to good stuff now, while we’re young, we don’t see any romance in French wine. Which your generation definitely does.

        I doubt my generation will ever have a particularly high level of affection for French wine. I think that’s a good a thing, but as I just said, I’m biased.

        • By Wine Curmudgeon - Reply

          Well-said, Adam. You wrote in a paragraph what it took me 700 words to rant about. Very impressive.

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