Beaujolais Nouveau est Arrive!
Every year around this time the wine world is turned on its ear by the yearly reemergence of Beaujolais Nouveau. Touted as the "first wine of the vintage," brightly labeled and (this year) proudly emblazoned with a big "2007," you find ostentatious case stacks of this fruity brew all over the place clear through December, promising a delicious quaff of banana and bubble gum. Though the hook that they dangle is so, so shiny, I implore you, do not bite!
When you look through the hype and fanfare, there really isn't much substance to Beaujolais Nouveau: it's fine for a night of drunken revelry (though beware the next morning!), but its lack of character leaves its popularity unjustified. In a sense, Beaujolais Nouveau is to wine what Bud Light is to beer—the analogy works on several levels.
1) Both are churned out by huge firms for maximum profit
Bud Light is the hardest working Clydesdale in Anheuser- Busch's ample stable. As the best selling beer in the United States, Bud Light is easily AB's biggest money maker—that profit margin made all the greater thanks to the massive amount of rice used in its formula, which is both less costly and less tasty than barley. Also, with an IBU ("International Bitterness Unit"—essentially a measure of hops) of 6.4, Bud Light is one of the least flavored beers in the world.
Similarly, most of the grapes that give us Beaujolais Nouveau come from the subregion of Bas Beaujolais, a late addition to the appellation whose soils, while more fertile, are less suitable for growing quality grapes. Also, to get the product on the market as fast as possible, expensive and flavor-imparting practices such as aging are left by the wayside. This is all done at the behest of the negociants, huge bottlers and blenders of wine who have all but complete control of wine production in the Beaujolais region.
2) Both are overpriced!
In order to get Beaujolais Nouveau to market by the annual release date (the third Thursday in November), the first batch is shipped by air, a laughably expensive treatment for a wine whose pedigree is no better than your average table wine. Just as Bud Light's near-beer flavor doesn't merit the six-dollars-a-sixer price tag earned by its marketing, neither does Beaujolais Nouveau's speedy transatlantic voyage make it taste anything like a $12 bottle of wine.
3) Both leave one wanting in the food matching department
While I wouldn't make the claim that Bud Light is really going to overpower your meal (unsalted rice cakes, anyone?), it doesn't bring much to the conversation, either. Here Beaujolais Nouveau is actually the greater offender—its lack of body or tannin make it unsuitable with hearty fare, while its flamboyant bouquet and flavor will render lighter cuisine inert.
4) Both are poor bastardizations of a noteworthy product
This last point is the biggest shame of all. Bud Light bears little or no resemblance to the Czech lagers of yore from which it was spawned, the quality of which might be seen in such beers as Czechvar (nee "Budvar" prior to a legal scrape with the domestic giant) or Czech Rebel. Likewise, compared to the quality wines coming out under the more illustrious Beaujolais labels, Beaujolais Nouveau is under performing dreck, giving its brothers a bad name.
Like Bud Light, Beaujolais Nouveau is a populist and exploitative version of what is in fact a fine and respectable product—but rest assured, the real thing is out there, and it is great! Proper Beaujolais, like all good wine, is expression of both grape and soil. In the southernmost part of Burgundy (the greater area being home to the most prestigious Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays in the world), the Gamay grape is cultivated on granite hillsides. Like its more recognized, under-aged cousin, proper Beaujolais is often possessed of that same banana/cherry character, but it Is more restrained and there are other characteristics to speak to it, including a brisk mineral component and ample acidity.
Part of the image problem results from the fact that the better Beaujolais doesn't even bear the moniker! Indeed, the best of the best, like most fine French wine, shun their regional recognition altogether in favor of more specific vineyard ID. While this may serve to separate them from the herd in the eyes of the connoisseur, most casual drinkers are left deterred from lack of a familiar touchstone. In the interest of education, here listed are the names of the ten Beaujolais Crus—i.e., those villages in the region whose local wines have been deemed of such quality as to merit their own designation:
Cote de Brouilly
Keep an eye out—while several are hard to find the States (particularly Saint Amour and Chiroubles), several of these Cru wines are in good supply, and due to their unfashionable status, most are very good values indeed. As for some readily available examples, I suggest:
Chateau La Chaize Brouilly 2005 (about $13)—Hard to miss with its distinctive bottle shape, this wine has a wonderful red cherry nose, a medium body with just the hint of mineral on its respectable finish. The big fruit and moderate tannins make this a great pair with poultry with fruit sauce (duck l'orange and the like).
J.P. Champagnon Fleurie 2004 (about $18)—Light strawberry and grainy nose with a gamey, meat-like hint. Light bodied, with a classic granite presence on the palate along with persistent red fruit. The finish is long and pleasant; try this one with a milder aged cheese such as gouda, or with a pork based main course.
Louis Jadot Chateau des Jacques Moulin-a-Vent 2005 (about $25)—Moulin-a-Vents are the big boys of Beaujolais, often yielding wines with aging potential up to a decade! This particular offering from one of the region's biggest producers offers up darker fruit flavors and fuller tannins while still making clear its origins with that vibrant acidity and mineral element on the finish. A really versatile wine, this one is big enough for a sheep's milk cheese, but not so bulky as to overpower an oily fish like salmon or eel. Incidentally, this producer makes a fine Beaujolais-Village (the second highest regional designation, after the crus), which is widely available for about $10 and makes for a great introduction to the real flavors of Beaujolais.
So I urge you to resist the dazzling colors and the ubiquitous hype of Beaujolais Nouveau and instead try a wine made in the true spirit of the drink: to create a quality beverage which proudly bear's its origins in the tasting, and will add flair and spirit to your meal. There are myriad great wines out there, Beaujolais and otherwise, which are more deserving and will be more rewarding of your hard earned cash.