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.