Love it or hate it, the third Thursday of November means that it’s time once again for Beaujolais Nouveau, the “new wine” from Beaujolais that famously hits the shelves just a couple of months after the annual grape harvest. Often derided as “thin, alcoholic grape juice” and effectively little more than a successful marketing stunt, Beaujolais Nouveau is the very definition of a nouveau wine for most folks.
But in fact, Beaujolais Nouveau is just one of dozens of new wines produced throughout the Old World. Known as vin nouveau, vin (de) primeur, vin jeune or vin de l’année in France and various other names elsewhere in Europe, such young wines are generally made with early ripening varietals like the Gamay grape used in Beaujolais, appearing on the market sometime between the end of October and Christmas. If you’re interested in trying a vin nouveau beyond the ubiquitous bottles of Georges Duboeuf, there are actually plenty of options.
In the Gaillac appellation close to Toulouse in southwest France, the new wine Gaillac Primeur has the same release date as Beaujolais Nouveau and is similarly made with the technique of carbonic maceration, in which hand-picked grapes are fermented whole in a vat filled with carbon dioxide prior to crushing, resulting in low levels of tannins.
(A quick heads-up: primeur or vin de primeur, meaning a new wine, is very different from en primeur, the practice of buying expensive wines from Bordeaux and other renowned French regions in advance of their release.)
Like Beaujolais Nouveau, Gaillac Primeur uses early-ripening Gamay grapes. Unlike the famous-slash-infamous new wine from Beaujolais, Gaillac Primeur is basically unknown outside its home region. But it compares quite favorably, says Jessica Hammer, an American who runs Taste of Toulouse, a local tour-guide service.
“Last year I tasted a Beaujolais and a Gaillac Primeur side by side, and to me the Gaillac had a bit more body, and more depth of flavor,” Hammer says. “This is a bit of a warmer climate here, and I thought that was expressed.”
Gaillac Primeur and other French young wines like the Loire Valley’s Touraine Primeur actually enjoy a decent reputation among the cognoscenti. But unlike Beaujolais Nouveau, you’re unlikely to see Japanese drinkers bathing in giant pools of the stuff.
Farther east, in the natural-wine-loving Czech Republic, the annual St. Martin’s Day holiday on November 11 marks the release of Svatomartinské Víno, or “St. Martin’s Wine,” an early wine required to use a limited number of early, Central European grape varietals, many of which are rarely seen outside the region. For whites, they includes Müller-Thurgau, Frühroter Veltliner (under its local name, Veltlínské Červené Rané), and Muškát Moravský, a version of Muscat from the country’s eastern winemaking region of Moravia. While these new wines are not produced using carbonic maceration, they must receive a minimum score in a blind tasting and undergo evaluation at the Czech state winemaking institute, which has owned the rights to the Svatomartinské Víno name since 2005.
In the Medieval era, local winemakers traditionally first tasted their new wines each year around St Martin’s Day, putting the term Svatomartinské Víno into common use by the late 18th century. Since the concept was relaunched by the Czech winemaking institute in 2005, the number of winemakers producing a Svatomartinské Víno has grown from 31 to 110, with the volume soaring from 125,000 bottles in the first year to 2.2 million in 2018.
Farther east, the holiday itself is an even bigger event in Hungary, the actual birthplace of St. Martin. As in the Czech Republic, the day has traditionally involved holiday goose dinners and the first taste of the year’s new wines, often called Márton bora, or “wine of St. Martin,” or újbor, meaning “new wine.”
“Well, the first wines to be released are the fresh, mostly aromatic white wines, some rosés, and some red wines for fresh consumption,” says Ágnes Nemeth, the editor of HungarianWines.eu. “St Martin is celebrated all over the country with goose dishes. We have goose feasts everywhere.”
While most Hungarian new wines are not made with carbonic maceration, Nemeth notes one big exception: Vylyan’s Bogyólé, a fresh, fruity red that puns upon the name of the most famous vin nouveau (with proper Hungarian pronunciation, the name sounds more or less like “Beaujolais,” though with a couple of noticeably longer vowels). Other young wines are occasionally produced in Hungary, though without as many rules and regulations as elsewhere.
“They are just usually a small lot of wines for early consumption, in some cases with a special label,” says Nemeth. “The only rule is that the terms újbor or primőr can be used only for wines bottled in the year of the harvest.”
Other new wines appear throughout the fall in Spain, Austria, and Italy. Of those, Italy’s vino novello, with its annual release date of October 30, might be the one you’re most likely to find in North America, though both production and imports are rather limited. Even if you’re traveling somewhere in Europe this fall, you often only have a limited amount of time to sample the Old World’s new wines, after which they’re quickly forgotten.
“It’s great, because it brings in some energy — the word they were giving me is dynamisme — to the wine shops and the wine bars,” says Jessica Hammer. “Everybody goes out and celebrates. And then two weeks later, nobody wants it anymore.”