Just Say “No” to Beaujolais Nouveau!
Its the third Thursday in November. That means that , when you walk into any wine store over the next week or two, you are likely to be greeted by a big, colorful sign surrounded by boxes full of colorfully labeled wine alerting you to the wonderful release of this years Beaujolais Nouveau. Do yourself a favor. Keep on walking.
Beaujolais is the home to some fantastic wines. It is one of those rare places on earth where the combination of the climate, the granite soil, and the Gamay grape work in perfect harmony to produce a wonderful, fruity, relatively light, but thoroughly complex and enjoyable wine. Beaujolais Nouveau is not one of them.
Most red wines are not released for another year or two until after the grapes have been harvested. The wine making process involves letting the juice mascerate on the skins for several weeks, then ageing in wooden barrels for a year or two, followed by clarifying and bottling, all of which takes quite a bit of time an patience. With Beaujolais Nouveau, however, the grapes are harvested in September and the wine is on the store shelves in November.
“Nouveau” is French for “new”, and Beaujolas Nouveau was initially intended to provide the wine trade with an early window into the quality of that year’s vintage. However, due to fantastic marketing promotions by Georges Doubeouf, Beaujolais Nouveau took on a life of its own and outgrew its originally intended purpose. The official release date was set for the third Thursday in November, which conveniently coincided often with Thanksgiving in the United States. The Nouveau craze reached its peak in the 1970’, along with Disco (coincidence?), when wine merchants would literally put the wine on a plane and fly it to its local destination in order to be the first one in town to have the prized possession. It became a spectacle unto itself and the wine media ate it up. Hugh Johnson spoofs the rush in one of his old videos you can find on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BvkHmbcR-6U&feature=relmfu. By the late 1980s, over 60% of the wine produced in Beaujolais was destined to be sold as Nouveau. Unfortunately, the quality of the wine does not live up to the hype.
“Cru Beaujolais” are wonderful, complex wines from the 10 towns within the region which are recognized as producing the highest quality wine. Some can age for 10+ years and develop like a well aged Pinot Noir from Burgundy. I fully encourage you to seek these wines out. The 2009 and 2010 vintages were fantastic, so the pickings should be good. These are also great values, with the very top end wines going for $20-$25/bottle.
Beaujolais Nouveau, however, can be very thin, one dimensional and often has a strong aroma of bananas, a byproduct of the carbonic masceration process used during fermentation. I’m convinced that one of the reasons they serve the wine chilled is to try to mask the flavors with the colder temperature. While Beaujolais Nouveau is inexpensive and the marketing hype can be fun, the fun ends once you open the bottle and are confronted with the prospect of having to actually drink the stuff. Do yourself a favor. Spend an extra $10 and buy a Cru Beaujolais from one of the prior year’s vintages. You’ll be glad you did.