Typically, winemaking and the phrase “warp speed” don’t go together. But Beaujolais nouveau is not your typical wine. It goes from grapes to glass in a matter of weeks.
“The ultimate challenge of the nouveau is the time limit,” says Carl Helrich, winemaker and owner of Allegro Vineyards & Winery in Brogue, York County. “It’s pretty straightforward winemaking — just at warp speed.”
Helrich, who took over the business and the tradition of making a Beaujolais-style nouveau wine from former owners John and Tim Crouch in 2001, is the only local winemaker —as far as he knows — who now makes a Beaujolais-style nouveau.
The wine will be available at the Allegro shop in Strasburg.
He refers to Allegro’s Nouveau as Beaujolais-style because, technically if the wine isn’t made in the Beaujolais region of France it can’t be called a Beaujolais wine. It’s a controlled term similar to Champagne, although that might be the only way it’s like Champagne, the highly-regarded winemaking region in France.
“Beaujolais is kind of like the Rodney Dangerfield of French wine regions,” Helrich says. “I’m sure they would not want me to say that, but it’s true. They never get any respect. And they made some fine wines and wine people know the good wines, and they’re bargains.”
Every region in France has its own specific wine style. And in the world of wine, the dry reds are king. It seems the Beaujolais region of France, like Pennsylvania, became known for its soft, sweet, fruity wines — despite having talented winemakers producing all kinds of high-quality wines.
Winemakers in the Beaujolais region, Helrich points out, might have decided that if they couldn’t make the longest-lived wine, they’d make the quickest wine and get it to market fast. With many wines, Helrich says, it’s around 18 months from picking grapes to the first bottle sold. With the nouveau, the timeline is closer to six weeks from picking grapes to making the wine available for purchase.
“There’s a saying in our industry: ‘This wine has a bouquet of cash flow,’ ” says Helrich. “(Beaujolais nouveau) kind of point (the region) on the map. It gives them a little niche market.”
There was a time in the ’70s and ’80s, Helrich points out, when Beaujolais nouveau was a big deal. The rapidly refined wine was even flown from France to New York City on the supersonic Concorde jet. People that were plugged into the wine world viewed Beaujolais nouveau as a sneak peek of the vintage.
For many small local wineries the logistics of making a Beaujolais-style nouveau just don’t work. Larry Kennel, owner and winemaker of the Grandview Vineyard in Mount Joy, notes that his small 5 1/2-acre vineyard wouldn’t be able to produce a significant amount of Beaujolais-style nouveau and their signature rose to make producing either worthwhile. And it would tie up their bottling line during a busy harvest season.
Allegro’s Nouveau is a niche product and a small part of the winery’s overall output, but Helrich says it is a fun and interesting challenge for him and his team, though he admits producing it can be a pain.
“It’s a heck of a lot of work in the middle of harvest to say stop and make an entire wine and get it in a bottle in 10 days,” Helrich says. “But people like it. People are looking for a reason to party and here’s one of them. You need 52 of them, right?”
Allegro’s Beaujolais-style nouveau differs in a few ways from the French version. For one thing, the grape that the wine is made from is Chancellor, as opposed to the Gamay grapes grown in Beaujolais, France. The Chancellor grapes, grown on a Stewartstown vineyard that Allegro manages, are similar to Gamay in the glass, Helrich says.
“There’s a specific winemaking style that you use (for making nouveau) called carbonic maceration,” Helrich says. Carbonic maceraton basically means that the grapes are fermented in carbon dioxide before being crushed. “We don’t do 100-percent carbonic maceration, but we do something in that same vein,” Helrich says.
The young wine, Helrich says, is chaotic and unpredictable, and shepherding the wine through the violent fermentation process so quickly presents a challenge to winemakers. And winemakers must sometimes improvise and innovate to make good wine. In 2011, because of a bad harvest, Helrich had to make a unique white nouveau wine from chardonnay grapes.
That’s one way winemaking differs from brewing, a process that relies on adherence to a specific recipe. (Helrich makes the culinary analogy that winemakers are to chefs as brewers are to bakers.)
“You've got to figure out how, through aeration or other ways, to soften the wine to make it so it’s palatable by November,” Helrich says. “This is not a very stable wine. If I had it in my cellar for another six months, I could make sure it could last another year on the shelf. It might last six months, but I’m not going to guarantee it past two,” says Helrich, who adds that that harmless, natural tartaric crystals can occasionally form in the wine in the bottom of a bottle — especially if you put the wine in the refrigerator, which Helrich doesn't recommend. Beaujolais-style nouveau is best served at room temperature.
So when is the best time to drink Beaujolais-style nouveau?
“Thanksgiving is like the optimal time. We encourage people to drink it by New Year’s because that’s when you're going to get the most bang for your buck.”