Bottles of the 2016 vintage Beaujolais Nouveau wine are displayed at a countdown event in Tokyo on November 17, 2016.
Yoshikazu Tsuno | Gamma-Rapho | Getty Images
WASHINGTON – Every year on the third Thursday of November, at exactly 12:01 a.m., the French release their celebrated first wine of the harvest — the crisp and fruity Beaujolais Nouveau.
This year, American oenophiles woke up to a Beaujolais Nouveau market hampered by supply chain problems that have become all-too-common in today’s economy, particularly driver shortages and other shipping issues.
And all of that translates into cost increases for suppliers and consumers alike.
“There are definitely issues with the supply chain. There’s always a problem with containers and there’s always a problem with space on ships, but it’s been really difficult this year,” said Dennis Kreps, co-founder of importer Quintessential Wines, which is based in California’s Napa Valley.
The market was already at a disadvantage due to climate problems. Beaujolais Nouveau production was down nearly 50% this year because of spring frost and hail, followed by a drought.
“It’s kind of a phenomenon that’s happening worldwide right now,” Kreps said. “I know some of the numbers in France specifically are down dramatically across all regions. Beaujolais was one of the hardest hit.”
Kreps, the exclusive U.S. importer of prominent wine merchant Georges Duboeuf, coordinates with a small team on the colossal logistics of distributing the wine to American retailers on the precise French schedule.
In Beaujolais, considered a subregion of Burgundy, vineyards carpet approximately 42,000 acres of low granite hills north of Lyon in eastern France.
Here is where thin-skinned magenta gamay grapes are queen and Georges Duboeuf is king.
Duboeuf, affectionately called “Papa of Beaujolais,” has the gamay grapes hand-harvested in September. Then follows a quick fermentation and bottling in October.
A picker cuts grapes at a vineyard in Beaujolais, eastern France, on early September 3, 2018, during this year’s first Beaujolais’ harvest.
Philippe Desmazes | AFP | Getty Images
The Beaujolais Nouveau wine – typically light in body with a juicy fruit-forward palate – is then shipped around the world and staged for its November debut.
First, Beaujolais suppliers needed to secure containers to begin shipping. Then they were concerned about delays at the ports.
“You can’t control the backlog at the ports,” Kreps said.
One ship was rerouted from New York to Norfolk, Virginia, due to a major backup, he said. The ship destined for New York typically carries the majority of the wine meant to be distributed across the country, Kreps added.
“We then had to reroute all of the drivers and the trucks from New York down to Norfolk and then get the containers off the ship and get those guys rolling to the West Coast immediately,” Kreps said.
They also had problems hiring qualified drivers due to a labor shortage, he said.
“We’ve never had an issue before, but one truck had a flip over so everything on that container was lost,” he said. “So, unfortunately, all the wine for Arkansas was lost, most of the wine for Memphis was lost, and I think a large portion of the wine for West Virginia was lost.”
Beaujolais grapes lie in a basket in the “Moulin a Vent” vineyard, near Chenas, Beaujolais, eastern France on August 26, 2015, after this year’s first Beaujolais’ harvest.
Jean-Philippe Ksiazek | AFP | Getty Images
Yet even with all the supply and production problems – freight costs have tripled and the cost of the fruit itself was significantly higher, as well – a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau will sell this year for only a slightly higher retail price than usual, Kreps said.
“We had already committed to pricing to all of our wholesalers, the wholesalers call the retailers, the retailers had then committed quantities,” he said. “Now’s not the time to go back to them with a cost increase. So we worked with the winery and ate the cost.”
Kreps did have a positive message for the people who are able to get their hands on a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau: Despite all the difficulties with the supply chain and the small harvest, he said, “the quality is fantastic.”