Beaujolais: It's Not Just Nouveau

The arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau from eastern France this year will be accompanied by a frenzy second only to that of the Red Sox finally winning the World Series. The instant the clock strikes midnight on Thursday, November 18, this young wine will be poured around the world, having already been jetted to places like Tokyo and New York.

What is Beaujolais Nouveau and why all the fuss? First let's talk about non-Nouveau or "regular" Beaujolais. Beaujolais is a light and fruity red wine made from the Gamay grape, technically Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, though a small amount of Chardonnay-based white Beaujolais Blanc is produced. Most Beaujolais is meant to be drunk within two years, however, some is more ageworthy. In "Daniel Johnnes's Top 200 Wines" (Penguin), the author talks about drinking an "amazing" 65 year-old Beaujolais.

Beaujolais Nouveau, sometimes called Beaujolais primeur, takes the light and fruity concept even further. It is sort of the reverse of what Orson Wells used to say. It is a wine sold before its time, or at least before regular Beaujolais. Beaujolais Nouveau is released on or after the third Thursday of November following that year's harvest. The remaining (regular) Beaujolais is available the following spring. Because Beaujolais Nouveau is unfinished wine, it should be consumed within six months.

Beaujolais Nouveau and regular Beaujolais are made much the same way, using a process called carbonic maceration or whole berry fermentation. Whole bunches of fresh grapes are put into large vats filled with carbon dioxide and yeast. Grapes on the bottom of the pile get crushed and their juice begins the fermentation process. More carbon dioxide gas is formed by this fermentation and it, plus the existing carbon dioxide, surrounds the uncrushed grapes blocking out normal air. Fermentation then starts within each grape and more juice is extracted. After a few days (for Beaujolais Nouveau) or up to a week (for regular Beaujolais) the remaining grapes are pressed and combined with this juice and fermentation proceeds rather quickly to conclusion.

The result is that a minimal amount of tannin from the grape skins gets into the wine, though the Gamay grape is already low-tannin red grape variety. So the wine is soft and supple, even softer and more supple with Nouveau since grape skins have less contact with the juice. The process also produces wines that have good color and fresh, fruity flavors.

After about seven weeks, the Beaujolais Nouveau is bottled and shipped. For many parts of France, particularly the bistros and cafes of Paris where the wine is quaffed like so much Coca Cola, the wine is shipped in barrels. Depending on the harvest, roughly 60 million bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau are produced each year, about a third of all Beaujolais. The United States is the world's third largest Beaujolais Nouveau importer, after Japan and Germany, respectively.

It's unfortunate that all the hoopla surrounding Beaujolais Nouveau  hasn't resulted in more regular Beaujolais being drunk, because the latter is one of the world's most pleasurable wines and one of the best wine bargains around. Depending on the type of Beaujolais and where it's from (see below) regular Beaujolais ranges $8 to $20, sometimes a bit more for the very best stuff. (Beaujolais Nouveau generally retails for $9 to $12.) Perhaps Beaujolais has gotten caught in a kind of no man's land between the festive Nouveau and more serious wines like cabernet sauvignon. But the fact that the French have drunk copious amounts of regular Beaujolais at home and cafes for decades (along with Sancerre, another underappreciated wine in the United States) should tell us something.

The Beaujolais region, a 45-mile expanse, which stretches south from town of Macon to just north of the city of Lyon, is divided into two areas of production. From the southern end comes the basic Beaujolais AC (Appellation Contrôlée, the government regulations governing the designation of place and winemaking practices). Beaujolais Supérieur should be better wine because it is made from lower yields--the Gamay grape is prone to produce too generously--and higher alcohol, about 10 percent, one percent higher than Beaujolais AC.

The next step up the quality ladder is Beaujolais-Villages, wine from 39 designated villages in the region. These villages have been deemed to have superior sites, which enables them to produce higher quality wines (in theory, anyway).

The best Beaujolais is produced further north. Top Beaujolais wines are called Beaujolais Crus or growths, each with its own appellation contrôlée: Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgan, Moulin-à-Vent, Régnié, and Saint-Amour. Theoretically these represent not only the best wines but wines which can demonstrate more individual character, such that the name Beaujolais doesn't even appear on the label. Chiroubles and Fleurie, for example, are noted for their bright fruit and brilliant color.

Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon, and Chénas are considered to be the most full bodied wines and the ones with the longest aging potential. A few years ago at a Beaujolais Nouveau luncheon, I sampled a two-year old, oak-aged Moulin-à-Vent that had great structure and was thick with jammy fruit. One of my tablemates, a wine merchant, remarked, "If you put a Burgundy appellation on the label, you could charge twice as much." Something to think about when those high Burgundy prices make your head spin.

Incidentally, 2003 was considered an exceptional year for Beaujolais. As for 2004, the official Beaujolais web site, www.beaujolais.net, states that this year’s Nouveau is “lip-smacking, pleasure provoking wine.” We’ll see.

Georges Duboeuf is the undisputed "king of Beaujolais" because his name is on as much as 15 percent of the region's wine. But there are many other good Beaujolais producers or, like Georges Duboeuf, negociants (shippers who buy wines from small producers). They include: Mommessin, Maison Thorin, Robert Sarrau, Michel Tete, Jean Foillard, Domaine Diochon, Louis Jadot (which also owns Chateau des Jacques), Chateau de la Chaize, and Jacky Janodet.

Beaujolais' compatibility with food makes it as attractive as its price and easy drinkability. As author Willie Gluckstern notes in The Wine Avenger (Fireside) “Beaujolais is that elusive, sought after prize: a red wine food partner that behaves like a white. The most versatile red wine in France, and perhaps the world."

Three things make Beaujolais flexible with food. First, the wine's acidity constantly refreshes the palate and allows it to be equally at home with fish as well as light meats. Second, Beaujolais' low alcohol enables one to drink it with spicy foods without fanning the flames. Both of these qualities are accentuated by a light chill, about 30 minutes in the fridge. Finally, that exuberant Beaujolais fruit matches nicely with sweet and fruity meals, which is why few wines are better with Thanksgiving dinner. And what could be more festive than that?

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