As far as I’m concerned, the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau always makes me want to listen to the serious, monotone, improbable voice of one of the lesser known "Madame Delon" (as such). Namely femme fatale, slightly cookie song, especially in public recordings, where, beyond Nico’s voice, future Madonna of Ibiza, there are fragments of such a deep Velvet Underground that it almost becomes lymphatic, in its psychedelic period. With “All tomorrow's parties”, which appears two or three songs later shrouded in drums, it's like the bacchanalia’s aftermath.
Rock fans know what I’m going on about; it is obviously because of the famous cover "cult", as it is known nowadays, because of Andy Warhol banana’s, that I’m thinking about The Velvet Underground & Nico. And about this image of "wine that smells of banana" that Beaujolais is now stuck with.
In order to have a better understanding of this "banana-smelling wine", let us go back to the origin of a phenomenon that goes far beyond the traditional wine boundaries. The story really began in the early eighties, with the momentum of “Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé”, the argumentative book by René Fallet, a companion of Blondin and Brassens. A hymn to the “little people”, those very same ones who are now looked upon by television as “anonymous people”, and who are, in their own passive ways, resisting the advances of all things ugly somewhere in a suburban café which might very well be called The Café of the Poor, the archetype of the popular French bistro which has its place as a World Heritage Site. A hymn to street wine, to the simple stuff which is swallowed in one gulp, to the "quaffer", symbolized by all sorts of drunks on July 14, or on the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau.
A very Parisian fad is launched, with Beaujolais cases travelling up to the capital on the third Thursday of November. It became so popular that it was talked about at all levels! "Did you hear? It tastes of banana this year!" Banana?! Strange, but people like it. In addition, it is easy to recognize and it enhances the consumer because just about anyone can recognize it with just one whiff. Then, as dictated by the modernity that saddens René Fallet and his friends in the Café of the Poor, the banana aroma of this nice quaffer is amplified, boosted. The INRA (the French Institute of Research in Agronomy) selects a type of yeast from Germany, the 71B, otherwise known under the trade name LALVIN71B; the objective is increase the price of banana flavor. Big success. Until the consumer tires of it, that is. No biggie; the producers can also bring on, at will and on demand, aromas of English candy, raspberry, cherry, in short, all the flavors found in supermarket yogurts.
But this banana was so grotesque, so loaded, that it became even more than a symbol or a legend. A "hollow" legend. What could be more infamous now than to say that a wine smells like banana or, in any case, that it contains notes of banana? For the winemaker, it will be banned for life. As for the wine, it is likely to take the direction of the sink.
However, winemaking can naturally produce aromas of banana (that’s to say if the winemaking is not an artificial act, but a human and natural one), without resorting to the famous 71B yeast which was added to strengthen it. The aroma of banana belongs to the amyl flavors category, like the English sweet, the Tagada strawberry, or very mature pear; it is the expression of an ester, isoamyl acetate. Because of Beaujolais, it is now enshrined in red flashing letters in our olfactory memory as being CHEMICAL. It usually appears as a result of carbonic maceration (a winemaking method used especially in Beaujolais) during which the yeast, native or not, will potentiate it, especially in case of a thermal shock or of the stopping and restarting of fermentation. Some stakeholders will chose to provoke this thermal shock in order to increase the amyl feature while for others, the majority, it is accidental and usually linked to a fermentation process that is a little soft, chaotic, due to yeasting that is a bit lazy. Incidentally, in the second case, the amyl aromas can be enhanced with solvent notes, such as a thinner or nail polish, related to the occurrence of ethyl acetate due to the presence of bacteria.
This case is not extraordinary, nor is it exclusive to the Beaujolais or its grape; the Gamay. Any more than it is the signature of a technological type of winemaking. Unless you consider that carbonic maceration, especially in Beaujolais, is a techno vinification. I won’t bring that up again; I already mentioned it few days ago. Nevertheless, these amyl flavors, these banana flavors (or those of English sweets) can sometimes be marked immediately after opening a bottle. They are found in Cinsaults, Grenache or Syrah for instance, on the other side of France, including among winemakers whose "naturalness" no one would dare dispute yet who perform carbonic maceration in a Beaujolais style. It can even be found, fresh out of the alembic, in liqueurs such as Armagnac’s Folle Blanche from the best origin.
What's funny is that, in the same way that marketing feasted this banana 30 years ago, today it uses it as an easy target. To make fun of this easy to remember, diabolical fruit is a sure sign of one’s impeccable taste: "This is a banana I will not touch, Mister!". For the producer, it is the guarantee of the integrity of his work. In the world of BojoNouvo (that’s how it’s said nowadays), there are even some labels who made this rejection their selling point, in a more or less elegant way, by winemakers as well as merchants. So you can be sure that no Beaujolais that you will be drinking this year will have any trace of banana in it! And, if in doubt, if you believe to have detected but a whiff of that obnoxious smell, use the autosuggestion method to rid yourself from it: "A banana? Over my dead body!"
As far as I’m concerned, with or without banana, I must admit that I will not get up at night to go drink Beaujolais Primeur. I will however pay Ànima del Vi a visit, the only wine merchant in Barcelona who sells a few bottles of it, seeing they have also let me know that they’ve received some Coquelet and some Besnier... In addition to that, a certain someone* let it slip that the 2012 vintage, so poor in terms of quantity, was otherwise pretty nice in the glass (even if the cost leaves a lot to be desired!) And this is also what Beaujolais is about; a meeting where wine is had and celebrated, not only in France, but far beyond its borders. In the same way that all these somewhat silly "days" were invented; World Kindness Day, Women's Day, Secretaries’ Day, we could say that the BojoNouvo introduces a kind of Wine Merchants Day, a good opportunity to remind ourselves to visit them. Even if that means going back the next day to buy some Fleurie, Chenas, Moulin-à-vent or Morgon…
* a certain someone who for once is not an idiot but Philippe Lagarde from Tire-Bouchon in Toulouse, placed somewhere between Michel Guignier and Pierre-Marie Chermette’s Domaine de Vissoux.