“Nouveau” is nothing new. The term refers to the tradition of bottling the first wine of the fall harvest immediately after fermentation—sometimes just a few days or weeks—to celebrate the end of a vintner's long harvest season and provide a chuggable party wine for the holidays. In France, they've been doing it for decades, with winemaker Georges Duboeuf and a like-minded coterie of Beaujolais producers seized upon the tradition into a marketing moment non-pareil. Since the mid-1980s the third Thursday of November has been designated as Beaujolais Nouveau Day, and the story might have ended there were it not for the fact that this is wine, and in wine, no story ever really ends.
In the Beaujolais there has been a backlash to the Nouveau tradition brewing for decades. Gamay (the predominate red growing in the region) is not some trite table grape, and the future of Beaujolais, as pondered by Bonné and others, does not lay in the production of fresh and fruity quick drinkers. Quite the opposite, actually: as the marketing wheels that drive Beaujolais Nouveau reached a fever pitch in the late 20th century, the region's so-called “Gang Of Four” winemakers (Lapierre, Thevenet, Foillard, Breton) were laying the ground for a natural wine revival in France and beyond. Today the very best wine shops and bars in America and Europe are enthusiastic advocates for elegant, sophisticated, and accessibly priced wines from Beaujolais winemakers—but you probably won't find them splashing out much Duboeuf.
Wine in America is a mixtape, a mash-up. Its disparate origins and borrowed traditions collide with colloquial quirks and generational narratives. Sometimes our wines get the conventional wisdom wrong in beautiful ways; and in the same breath, there is nothing more boring, at least in my opinion, than a “technically correct” American wine. And in this milieu, a movement has bubbled up over the last few years, in which young American winemakers have embraced the party-ready zeal and festive joie de soif of the Nouveau tradition from France while leaving the mass market monkey business largely at the door. Beaujolais Nouveau may be the source material, its roots true and delicious, but on these shores, the beat's a little different—the sample has been pitch-shifted. It's how “Peg” becomes “Eye Know“, how “Juicy Fruit‘ becomes, simply, “Juicy“.
Accessible, delicious, a window into what makes wine fun and special, West Coast Nouveau is America's best and most essential wine trend right now. It's Live At The El Mocambo—a supercharged live expression of This Year's Model. It encapsulates what Oregon winemaker Scott Frank (of Bow & Arrow) calls “the energy and excitement around our nascent local wine culture.” There's no need to say it in French: West Coast Nouveau has arrived.
Ordinaire in Oakland and St. Jack in Portland are twin basecamps for the West Coast Nouveau movement, each offering highly different events featuring nouveau-mad winemakers from California and Oregon, respectively. There are satellite events as well—elsewhere in Portland at the much-loved (and blessedly free) annual exhibition at Southeast Wine Collective and in Los Angeles, where nouveau tastings (Silverlake Wine) and glass pours (Bar Bandini et. al.) help kick off the week. Note that not all of these—indeed, not most of these—are wines made with the Gamay grape; they are instead wines inspired by the Beaujolais Nouveau expression of the Gamay grape, or at least that's the original hook. “It's not just gamay, it's not just from a single region, there's white wine and pet nat,” says Ordinaire founder Bradford Taylor. “But despite all that, I like to think that [West Coast Nouveau] channels the old spirit of Beaujolais Nouveau, when most of wine was not commodified on a global market, but was instead all consumed in the region. Some of the winemakers made a small amount of nouveau for distribution, but most just bottled two cases of something they thought would work and it was all sold by the glass.”
Here's an admittedly incomplete list of West Coast winemakers who bottled Nouveau in 2017:
Donkey & Goat
La Clarine Farm
Scar Of The Sea
Sonoma Mtn. Winery
Bichi Wines (Mexico)
Division Winemaking Company
Bow & Arrow
St. Reginald Parish
If this year's roster of Nouveau makers reads like a who's who of American wine in 2017, that's because it is. Which is not to say that these winemakers party all the time: every last one of them bottle wines that are considerably more complex and contemplative. It's just that, well, it's November, and this is time to party—it's the start of wine's most lucrative and exhausting season, across every facet of the industry (outside the vineyard), and these Nouveau releases afford winemakers the chance to do something a bit more punk rock and immediate while waiting for the statement pieces to settle.
I love Nouveau wines as a drinker for their immediacy, a give no fucks “I bottled this twenty minutes ago” spirit on clear and unabashed display. This year I watched a winemaker hand-label their Nouveau not 5 seconds before pouring for an attentive crowd; drank mystery nouveau (“Merlot, probably”) from a repurposed Gallo jug; purchased a magnum of Dolcetto nouveau for $20 whopping dollars; received a hand-lettered “No. 31 of 40” bottling of some orange-ass nouveau Pinot Gris; observed a winemaker insists that he and he alone could be permitted to finish each bottle, drunk straight from the neck, “for quality control”; crushed a glass of keg-only Müller-Thurgau pet-nat nouveau and went back for seconds; and observed at a distance (so as not to startle) a coterie of local winemakers finishing off their miniscule nouveau stocks via bone luge.
It's cheap, it's delicious, it's live and loud, and it kicks ass—this style has moved beyond the hand-wringing stage and is now fully optimized to party. That stuffy wine bullshit my generation of drinkers are working to recast, democratize, and dismantle? West Coast Nouveau is the tip of the spear. Here's a half dozen or so of this year's tastiest stuff from California and Oregon, acquired directly from winemakers or via select and highly limited retail purchases (at Division Wines and Silverlake Wine, respectively).
Division Winemaking Company
They host the party. They bring the party. Division Wine Co.‘s annual “Nouveau Nouveau” release of Columbia Valley Gamay sets the standard for Oregon Nouveau bottlings. You can chug it, sure, but it's the rare West Coast Nouveau that'll still taste good on Christmas Day.
(I'm sitting optimistically on a 2016 release.)
Holden Wine Company
Sweet, sticky Dolcetto from Holden, one of Oregon's true rising star small winemakers. I bought a magnum of the stuff for $20 in a charmingly hand-stenciled bottle. The back label has “2016” crossed out in sharpie, with “2017” written in. Better at 10 pm than it was at 7pm…maybe that's my palate? Maybe it's the oxygen? Maybe the wine needed a couple more hours to ferment??
C'est la vie.
Bow & Arrow
Portland winemaker Scott Frank of Bow & Arrow specializes in light, approachable, everyday wines, and so it's no surprise that he'd show a special touch with Gamay Nouveau.
I like this year's wine better than last year's, but last year's label was cooler so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ — Frank tells me it's the same wine as his upcoming 2017 Gamay release, just released in time to party.
St. Reginald Parish
Orange. Tangy. Different. Who says Nouveau has to be red? St. Reginald Parish winemaker Andy Young's Nouveau Gris was a defining Oregon nouveau release in 2016, and this year much of the Gris production was held back for sediment concerns. An expanded release is due out later this year, making scoring one of these early bottles a matter of completist nerdery for true fans.
I'm setting this bottle of 2017 Nouveau Andy next to the 2006 bottle of Susucaru 2 in my basement, so that someday in the future we may have a sedimentary chunk-off.
Scribe was early to the West Coast Nouveau game, releasing their first bottling of Carneros Pinot Noir Nouveau back in 2014. This year's release benefits La Luz Center, a non-profit in Sonoma County focused on immigrant communities and doing essential outreach in the wake of this year's devastating wildfires. Harvest August 31st from the Pathi Vineyards in Carneros, 6-day carbonic maceration from 100% whole cluster, all in stainless steel, bottled October 26th.
This is a definitive American Nouveau Wine, Pinot be damned.
I love Merlot and I love Nouveau. The words even sound great together: Merlot Nouveau. Nouveau Merlot. Lo-Fi calls this bottling “Clos Mullet”, and co-winemaker Mike Roth poured me a splash of it himself at RAW WINE LA.
No sulphites, all liquid lightning.
I tried a fresh & fruity splash of Broc Cellars' “Got Grapes” blend of Chenin Blanc & Valdiguie, made in a Nouveau style and released fresh in time for RAW WINE events earlier this month in Los Angeles.
This is fruit cocktail party punch—”Juicy Fruit' indeed.
Jordan Michelman is a co-founder of Sprudge. His writing has appeared in T Magazine, The New York Times, Seattle Metropolitan Magazine, and Willamette Week.