Monday, November 15, 2010

Top Ten Things You Need To Know About Beaujolais Nouveau

Le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrive!!! Translation: Everyone run, the French are releasing that crappy purple-pink fruit juice again!!!

Each year on the third Thursday of November, the flood gates open and a river of mediocre to below-average red wine pours into the streets. What am I talking about? Beaujolais Nouveau. France's answer to the German Oktoberfest. Don't get me wrong, there is a time, a place and, more importantly, a dish for Beaujolais Nouveau. But let's be straight; it's just not good.

The hype and marketing behind this slightly-sweet, no-character, nail-polish-smelling, bubblegum-tasting "red wine" is brilliant. Believe it or not, over 1 million cases of this lollipop wine are sold each year. But before you go dashing through the snow to pick up a bottle, here are the top ten things you need to know about Beaujolais Nouveau.

1. Beaujolais is...
Beaujolais is a sub-region in the greater Burgundy region of France. The area is located just south of the Maconnais. The region is predominantly located in the Rhone department, and is actually closer in climate and proximity to the Rhone region than it is to the rest of Burgundy. In some years the Beaujolais sub-region makes more wine than the rest of Burgundy, with over half of it being sold as Nouveau. The grape used to make the wines of Beaujolais is Gamay, a thin-skinned varietal low in tannins. In addition to the climate, grape, and proximity to the Rhone, what sets Beaujolais apart from the rest of Burgundy, is the way the wines are fermented.

Beaujolais is produced in a process known as Carbonic Maceration. The grapes are placed in a vat, and as more are piled on, the weight gently crushes the fruit, sparking fermentation. The grapes almost ferment from the inside out. This results in a pear-drop smelling wine that is juicy and low in tannin. This practice is often viewed as a lower-quality production method. Anthony Hanson, in his book Burgundy, quotes Jean-Marie Guffens describing this fermentation process as "Carbonic Masturbation." In other words, even the French don't much care for the process.

2. Nouveau is...
Like Cru Beaujolais, Beaujolais Village, Beaujolais Superieur, or even basic Beaujolais, Beaujolais Nouveau is made using the Gamay grape. The difference between Nouveau, also called vin de primeur, and the others is the time Nouveau ages, or should I say, the lack of time it ages. Beaujolais Nouveau grapes are picked, fermented, bottled, aged, and consumed all within six to eight weeks.

3. Drink young, very young
Because of the method used to produce these wines, Carbonic Maceration, the young, fruity Nouveau wines of Beaujolais are meant to be consumed young. You see, for a wine to age it requires presence and balance in three of four important categories: sugar, acid, tannin, and alcohol. Nouveau misses the boat in all four categories.

Because the wine is fermented using Carbonic Maceration the tannin, that mouth-drying sensation found in red wines, is low to almost non-existent. That's why many non-wine drinkers enjoy the young, fresh, and fruity Nouveau. It doesn't have the same grippy astringency as, say, a Cabernet Sauvignon from California.Although this wine tastes juicy and fruity, it usually bears little to no residual sugar. When sugar is a factor in aging, it's usually apparent, like in the wines of Sauternes, France or the Trockenbeerenauslese style produced in Germany. Beaujolais Nouveau usually has a mediumish acidity, not quite high enough to bear ageable qualities. It often softens quickly, making these young wines flabby rather than crisp. When it comes to alcohol, Beaujolais Nouveau usually comes in around 12% abv. But because they lack the other three ageable characteristics, what you're left with is faded fruit flavors in a flabby red with burning alcohol.

The majority of Nouveau is best if consumed before the first of the year. Hence the reason you usually find a big sale on the juice that's not sold before Thanksgiving.

4. Beaujolais Nouveau is the celebration of the new harvest
I always say, "Beaujolais Nouveau is not meant to be sipped in enjoyment, it's meant to be chugged in celebration." I mentioned before that Nouveau is France's answer to Oktoberfest. In Germany, Oktoberfest is used as an excuse to consume the beer from the previous year. The festival helps the country get ready for the new beers being produced. So while the two are both celebrations of new products, the French don't celebrate by drinking the old stuff, they celebrate the with their new wines...really new.

Beaujolais has always made a vin de l'annee to celebrate the harvest. Prior to World War II, the vin de primeurs of Beaujolais couldn't be sold until the middle of December. But in 1951 the Union Interprofessional des Vins de Beaujolais (UIVB) relaxed the laws, allowing the wine to be released a month earlier in the middle of November. Seeing a marketing opportunity, the country slapped the Nouveau label on these young wines and shipped them around the globe so the rest of the world could join in the celebration.

5. Beaujolais Nouveau is a mass marketing campaign
When the laws regarding the release date of vin de primeur changed from December 15th to November 15th in 1951, producers realized there was an opportunity to sell their wines around the world in huge quantities and at great margins. Beaujolais Nouveau is vin ordanaire, which simply means it's just ordinary red table wine. The margins on this generic juice are pretty high, especially since only a specific amount of Nouveau is made and distributed, making it slightly (very slightly) rare. Producers realized this was a great way to sell an ocean of mediocre, juicy wine to consumers around the world, and make really good money along the way.

The real pageantry began in the '70's when producers created a race from Beaujolais to Paris. People would run through the streets screaming "Les Beaujolais Nouveau est Arrive!" This gained media attention, and before you know it, a world-wide race began to see who could get it and serve it fastest. People traveled by motorcycle, helicopter, elephant, balloon, jet, car and foot, racing to get these young wines to their destination. In 1985 the date of release was changed from November 15th to the third Thursday in November creating a world-wide day of celebration. The region has certainly succeeded, because when all is said and done, over 65 million bottles of Nouveau are sold around the world.

If France can figure out a way to encourage people to drink plonk, maybe Greece just needs to stage a celebration to put Retsina back on the world wine map! Just a thought. Or, I know, call Gallo; we'll use Boone's Farm to celebrate the new harvest in the US!

6. Beaujolais Nouveau pairs well with Thanksgiving Dinner
Beaujolais Nouveau conveniently makes it to most retail end caps just before Thanksgiving, and many wine store attendants push Nouveau as a pairing for Thanksgiving. This leaves people wondering if it's because the wine pairs well or because it won't last much into the new year. The answer is...well...both.

Beaujolais Nouveau has a fruity flavor with decent acidity and a lowish alcohol content. This makes it incredibly food-friendly. And if your Thanksgiving dinner table looks anything like my family's, you need something versatile.

At my family's Thanksgiving, we always have the traditional turkey, stuffing, and yams. And you can't forget the cranberry sauce...from the can of course. They don't bother mixing it up; just slide the jiggly red cylinder out of the can and eat, rib marks and all. We also have our "under the sea salad," which isn't a salad at all. It's usually made from green or orange Jell-o, and topped with marshmallows. A table like this requires a lot of patience from a wine. And not everyone in my family appreciates wine. So something fruity and easy going not only pairs well with the many flavors and textures on the table, but it's also an easy quaffer for non-wine drinking guests.

7. Beaujolais Nouveau pairs beyond Thanksgiving
As you can imagine, if Beaujolais Nouveau can pair with the smorgasbord of flavors and textures present at the Thanksgiving dinner table, it also pairs well with a variety of other foods.

Because of its fruity flavors, soft texture, and decent young acidity, it is a great pairing for fresh goat cheese. It can also pair well with cured meat platters, often referred to as charcuterie. It has the weight to stand up to these cured meats, with a refreshing acidity. You can also pair Nouveau with chicken, gilled meat, lighter pastas, pork, salmon, and veal. But these pairings work best with young Nouveau, as in consumed before the first of the year.

8. Beaujolais Nouveau producers
There are a handful of Beaujolais Nouveau producers present on the retail shelf. One of my favorites is Georges Duboeuf. His wines are available in most markets, and at a competitive price. Duboeuf is considered the most American French producer in Beaujolais because his wines tend to cater to the likings of US wine drinkers. His Beaujolais Nouveau is consistently good, and is generally a good representation of the region.

You may also find success with Mommessin. They usually have a fun label, and each year they focus on a different place in the world Nouveau is celebrated. You'll also see Bouchard Aine & Fils on your retail shelf, but this is one of my least favorite of those available in the US. Then again, that's not saying much since I don't really like any of them. Some retailers carry the Beaujolais Nouveau wines of Joseph Drouhin, Labour- Roi, Jean Bererd & Fils, Pascal Chatelus, Joel Rochette, and a couple others. While one may be better than another, it's like lipstick on a's still a Nouveau.

9. Plastic bottles?
One of the largest expenses for producers is shipping. Because Nouveau is harvested, fermented, bottled, and aged within six to eight weeks, they must ship it around the globe on planes. And when it comes to air shipping, weight is everything.

Producers like Mommessin and Bouchard Aine & Fils have gone to plastic bottles with a screw top closure to reduce the ship weight of their Nouveau. While I appreciate the effort to save a buck on low grade juice, I didn't notice a price decrease at the counter. Supposedly producers of Beaujolais Nouveau ate a price increase the year prior, but come on, the wine already sucks, and now you send it over in a plastic bottle? At least dress it up a little for the consumer. Retailers and wine bars are trying to sell the stuff to promote wine and celebration, and you send it in a plastic bottle? It's like getting kicked when you're down. Send these producers a message, steer clear of the plastic bottle, buy glass or nothing at all.

10. Beaujolais Nouveau Village is...
Beaujolais Nouveau Village in theory is more respected than standard Beaujolais Nouveau because the fruit selected comes from better sites within the Beaujolais region. While the Village wines may be slightly better, showcasing just a touch more depth and structure, I say save the $2 and just go for the standard Nouveau. Again, even with lipstick, it's still a pig.

Well, there you go, everything you need to know about Beaujolais Nouveau. Some people justify their Nouveau purchase by saying it is an early indication of the year's crop. While that may be true, the wines don't showcase enough character to tell how the vintage will fend. I guess you could make the argument it either really sucks, or just kind of sucks. If it just kind of sucks then perhaps the vintage is going to be good throughout the country. But then again, last year was one of the best Nouveau's I have ever tasted, and it was a 2009, supposedly an instant classic in France. But saying '09 was the best Beaujolais Nouveau vintage I have ever had is like leaving your dentist's office saying, "That was the best root canal ever!" In both cases it was still a painful experience.

In most of my posts this is the part where I qualify my argument or apologize for my rant. But not today. The Nouveau wines of Beaujolais are a disgrace to the region, a mass marketing campaign disguised as a celebration. Drink them or don't, but if you do, know that you're supporting bad behavior.

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As always if there's something that you think should have made this top ten list, feel free to contact me via email, on Facebook, or simply leave a comment here on the blog. Thanks again for reading.

Nicholas Barth
Certified Sommelier
Wine Director
Cru Wine Online

1 comment:

Blogger C said...

Quite an entertaining "critique."