Every year on the third Thursday of November it happens: the release of Beaujolais Nouveau. Much hoopla and fanfare is given to this event, especially here in New York City, where the wine receives its unofficial U.S. welcome party. What is all the fuss about, you ask?
Good question. Even those in the wine industry don’t really understand exactly why everyone is so incredibly excited by this often mediocre (and occasionally downright terrible) juice. To be fair, Beaujolais wines tend to be good predictors of that year’s vintage, especially for wines from the Burgundy area. But that doesn’t exactly excuse the over-hyping of this middle-of-the-road product.
For the uninitiated, Beaujolais Nouveau is the first wine released from France for the current vintage, or year. That means that the juice used to make this wine was in grape form only a handful of weeks prior. It is quickly fermented, bottled and air-shipped to the United States in order to make the third Thursday deadline.
While freshness is a good thing for produce, it can be a bad thing for vino. The wine has to ferment, of course, but fermentation is time-consuming. Working against the clock, winemakers oftentimes add what have come to be known as “designer yeasts” to speed up the process. Most of the time when wine is made, the natural ambient yeasts (those occurring in the air and on the skins of the grapes) do the work of fermentation. The designer yeasts work fast, but often impart odd flavors to the finished product. A specific flavor to look for to tell if outside yeast was added to Beaujolais Nouveau is notes of banana.
The Beaujolais region itself is actually a subregion of the Burgundy area. While almost all red wine that comes from every other region of Burgundy is made up of Pinot Noir, the red wines from Beaujolais are made of the lighter, less complex Gamay grape. The simplicity of this grape’s flavor profile makes it a perfect candidate for the quick fermentation and early consumption of the wine it produces.
Only a small percentage of Beaujolais wines were originally intended to be bottled Nouveau. The idea was capitalized upon by winemaker Georges deBouef. His company single-handedly made Beaujolais Nouveau a household name through the 1970s and 1980s. By 1992, half of all wines produced in Beaujolais were classified as “Nouveau.”
All of this notwithstanding, there are actually some very good, thoroughly delicious Beaujolais Nouveau wines out there. The Antonin Rodet Beaujolais Nouveau 2009 ($11 @ Best Cellars, 1291 Lexington Ave. betw. 86th and 87th streets, 212-426-4200) comes from a storied producer who has been making wine since 1875. The grapes are allowed to ferment whole in tanks filled with carbon dioxide. This process is called carbonic maceration, and it achieves a softer red wine with less tannin and an emphasis on light, bright fruit. On the less serious side of Nouveau, this is a great red wine to drink just slightly chilled.
For a more serious Beaujolais Nouveau, look no further than Domaine de la Madone Beaujolais Nouveau 2009 ($12 @ Bottle Rocket Wine & Spirit, 5 W. 19th St. betw. Fifth and Sixth avenues, 212-929-2323). Madone is a tiny producer that makes Beaujolais the old-fashioned way. Carbonic maceration is also used, but producers do not add yeasts to the fermenting wine. The result is a more complex, but still light and quaffable drink. This is a Nouveau that is great on its own, but could even go toe-to-toe with a hanger steak.
Whatever your opinion on this decidedly American phenomenon, there are plenty of good bottles of Beaujolais to try this year.
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