Nov 19 2008

Why the buzz over Beaujolais?

Grocery store circulars everywhere are touting the release tomorrow of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau. Granted, most people don’t expect to find fine wine in the same store stocking Twinkies and Chef Boyardee, but Beaujolais Nouveau has garnered a disrespect in some corners perhaps beyond proportion, considering it doesn’t aspire to much. What is it about this unique quaff, which some celebrate while others denigrate?

Beaujolais is a region in France, a district of Burgundy, south of Paris. It produces Gamay grapes almost exclusively. Gamay is a light, thin-skinned red grape. It can be very, very good or very, very bad, depending on how it is handled.

About half of the wine produced in Beaujolais is labeled simply and basically Beaujolais AOC (Appellation d’Origine Controlee—a system of laws regulating grape varietals, viticulture methods, harvest and yield restrictions, minimal alcohol content and winemaking techniques for each area in France).

About half of this Beaujolais AOC wine is sold as Beaujolais Nouveau or Beaujolais Primeur. It is always released the third Thursday of November, made from that same year’s harvest just weeks earlier. Designed to be fresh, fun and fruity, it tends to suffer off-aromas and flavors because of its intensive production using carbonic maceration. It is intended to be drunk immediately; to be informal; to be inexpensive; and to invite non-wine drinkers to give it a go. It might make a bad first impression—most wine lovers don’t take it seriously, and many even despise it after tasting too much hastily made swill.

And wine labeled Beaujolais Superior AOC might not be superior to Beaujolais AOC at all. Sometimes sold as Beaujolais Nouveau as well, this wine simply has 1 percent more alcohol than the basic Beaujolais.

Beaujolais Villages AOC means the wine is a blend from two or more of the villages in Beaujolais. Here, you may find good quality Gamays, depending on the producer … or you may find Beaujolais Nouveau.

The next step up, theoretically, is Beaujolais labeled with a single village name. This may be Nouveau or it may be some of the best in the world, in which case the producers in that village would eschew the village name for the privilege of bearing the “cru” designation.

There are 10 of these Cru Beaujolais villages. Beaujolais labeled such will be a far different drink than Nouveau. Just Grapes carries an example that does the Gamay grape justice, the Joseph Drouhin, Moulin-a-Vent, 2005, Beaujolais. Moulin-a-Vent is a village in Beaujolais with a concentration of manganese in its soil that gives the Gamay intensity and power here. The Joseph Drouhin is described as deep purple, with a nose of intense fruit and spicy, ripe aromas. It has noticeable but elegant tannins and a long finish.

Whether you give the Nouveau a whirl or choose a Cru that’s more true to Gamay and good winemaking practices, the third Thursday in November is as good a day as any to show Beaujolais a little love. Maybe a cru that’s nouveau to you for the best of both worlds, at any time of the year?

Reference: The Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia, Fourth Edition, by Tom Stevenson

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