A tribute to Georges Duboeuf

Robert Joseph looks back at the life of French wine legend Georges Duboeuf, who not only created a global wine brand, but who also injected elements of fun and carnival into wine.

Georges Duboeuf/From Vins Georges Duboeuf Facebook
Georges Duboeuf/From Vins Georges Duboeuf Facebook

Georges Duboeuf, who has died at the age of 86, was one of the game changers of the wine world. The founder of major French wine company Les Vins Georges Duboeuf, he is remembered for turning Beaujolais nouveau into a worldwide phenomenon.

When he started out in the 1960s and 1970s, the wine industry was a very different place. Not only were there far fewer countries - most wine came from France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Portugal - but there were fewer regions in those countries with international recognition and sales. Most Beaujolais was consumed in France, principally in and around Lyon and Paris and what was exported was often quite unrepresentative of the region and grape. Until 1973, when the UK joined what was then called the European Economic Community and had to comply with French appellation rules, wine sold in Britain under the Beaujolais label often tasted remarkably like Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Nuits-St-Georges.

When I first tasted Duboeuf's Beaujolais Nouveau in 1974 at the age of 19, it was like no red wine I'd ever experienced: there was almost no noticeable tannin; it was juicy, packed with red berry fruits that were somehow blended with banana, with a floral perfume. Looking back, it was as wonderfully shocking as the first mouthful of Rosemount Show Reserve Chardonnay from Australia a decade later.

But Duboeuf did far more than introduce the world to the flavour of maceration carbonique Gamay. He was a born marketer and innovator. Long before most Europeans were thinking seriously about branding and labels, he introduced instantly recognisable labels that were festooned with flowers. After promoting the notion of selling the new vintage in Paris a few weeks after the harvest, he got behind the concept of a race to get Beaujolais nouveau to wine drinkers across the globe. Bottles were carried across the Atlantic by film stars on Concorde and driven at illegal speeds across Europe by racing drivers. The release of Beaujolais Nouveau on the third Thursday of November became a media event on the calendar of every editor.

I was involved in a Beaujolais Nouveau stunt in 1987 that involved racing new English wine to France, just as the French wines were making the opposite journey. Early on a chilly November morning, Oz Clarke – fresh from his last appearance as Peron in Evita on the London West End stage - and I met at a London TV studio, got into a fast car and headed off to Beaujolais, paying far less attention to speed limits than we would have to today.

The coverage efforts like this received helped to introduce Beaujolais to the US, where it had an instant success, and to Japan, where it is still hugely popular. 

It would be wrong, however, to remember Georges Duboeuf as the man behind Beaujolais Nouveau. He was passionate about the cru villages of his region, the individual vineyards, and the vignerons from whom he bought his wine. Indeed, every year there was a blind tasting to choose the best wines of the vintage. The winners enjoyed a celebratory meal at the Michelin-starred Paul Bocuse restaurant and their names appeared on the labels. I first met Duboeuf when I was invited to judge at one of those events. We probably tasted 30 or 40 wines, but I remember being told that he would regularly go through over 200 samples with remarkable accuracy. On that trip, I remember him patiently explaining why vineyards like la Madone in Fleurie deserved to be taken as seriously as their counterparts in the Côte d'Or.

While his passion lay in his region and in the wines – Beaujolais and Maconnais – Duboeuf also pioneered the introduction of Viognier as a grape variety in the Ardeche further south and the production of varietal wines in Languedoc Roussillon.

The only blemish on Duboeuf’s record came in 2005 when his business was fined for having illegally included 2004 Beaujolais Villages wine in bottles labelled as Beaujolais Crus. The volumes concerned were small – less than 17,000 of the two million bottles the company produced that year. Duboeuf claimed that an employee, who was dismissed, had been responsible for the crime, and that he wasn’t working at the direction of the company.

While the resulting fine was widely reported in the French press, it had little impact on Duboeuf’s reputation. The wines still sold globally, and visitors still flocked to the disused railway station in the village of Romanèche-Thorins that he converted into Europe's biggest wine theme park. 

Some two million people have passed through those turnstyles and countless others have attended Beaujolais Nouveau events across the globe like the one I saw in Chisinau in Moldova last November. Thanks to efforts like these and the iconic floral labels, Duboeuf will be remembered as one of the few wine producers whose name is met with recognition across the globe.

Duboeuf died at home on 4 January. He is succeeded by his son Franck, who has run the business since 2018, and his daughter, Fabienne.

Robert Joseph

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