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‘Tis the season for Beaujolais Nouveau

By Dave Buchanan

If you were standing in a liquor store late Wednesday night, you might have noticed a curious sight. As the clock struck midnight, seemingly out of nowhere, cases and cases of brightly labeled bottles of wine would have appeared, as if some much-awaited celebration were about to occur. And you would have been right on all counts.

At one minute after midnight on the third Thursday of November, as dictated by French law, comes the annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine meant to be drunk while it's young, fruity and fresh. Young? Barely six weeks from harvest to bottle, thanks to a quick harvest and crush, fast carbonic maceration and even quicker bottling. No time for aging here.

Initially, Beaujolais Nouveau (by law containing only Gamay grapes) was meant to bide time and satisfy thirsts while more age-worthy Beaujolais were maturing in cask and bottle. But some fancy marketing and a developing mystique over this luscious, easy drinking wine found a worldwide market. It's estimated more than 35 million bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau will be consumed over the next six months. And that's just the French version. Today you can find nouveau wines from nearly every wine producing country. Italy has Vino Novello, Spain its Vino Nuevo and, of course, California (nouveau Zinfandel, anyone?).

Probably no one person did more to popularize Beaujolais Nouveau than the amazing Georges Duboeuf, a French wine marketer, producer and negociant of unmatched genius. It was Duboeuf who not only saw and promoted the potential of making and selling an inexpensive, drinkable wine while making a decent profit but also how much it would mean to have that cash flow so soon after harvest.

In recent years Beaujolais Nouveau became a victim of less-than-stellar vintages and its own popularity, which isn't surprising since similar stories can be told about other vatrietals (Merlot, Pinot Noir). It's estimated today's consumption is about half of what it was at the peak, when 70 million bottles were being consumed annually.

Because of the rush to market, some vintages aren't as noteworthy as other but according to DuBoeuf, the 2010 vintage rivals the 2000 vintage, which eventually produced an elegant, lush wine. This year's wine shows the typical aromas of bright red fruit (raspberries, strawberries) and flavors of red currants, ripe strawberries and dark cherries. And the low alcohol (12.5 percent) means you won't be weighed down by the wine during your Thanksgiving feast.

Not everyone is enamored with Beaujolais Nouveau, preferring instead the developed flavors of age-worthy Beaujolais Villages and Beaujolais Cru. But maybe they miss the point.

I've always found it curious that people would criticize Beaujolais Nouveau as being a non-serious wine. Of course it's not a serious wine. It's a light-hearted, fun-drinking wine meant to enliven the holidays and the dreary days of winter.The bright labels (this year's features a circus motif), affordable price ($11) and fruit-forward flavors are perfect complements to the holiday season.

Ten things to know about Beaujolais Nouveau (courtesy of Georges Duboeuf):

1. French law dictates that Beaujolais Nouveau must always be released on the third Thursday in November all over the world.

2. Beaujolais is located in the region of Burgundy, France, where winemaking traces back to the Roman times. There are 2,500 Beaujolais growers in the region.

3. Beaujolais Nouveau is made from 100% Gamay grapes, which have thinner skins than most grapes, causing a lower tannin level.

4. By law, Beaujolais grapes must be harvested by hand (only the French region of Champagne has similar regulations) and grown on individual, free standing vines. In 2010 the harvest started on September 13, with 35,000 grape pickers hard at work across the 3,000 vineyards.

5. Beaujolais Nouveau owes its easy drinkability to a winemaking process called carbonic maceration, or whole-berry fermentation. This technique preserves the fresh, fruity quality of the wine, without extracting bitter tannins from the grape skins.

6. Approximately 1/3 of the entire crop of the Beaujolais region is sold as Beaujolais Nouveau.

7. Although many Beaujolais wines are made to be drunk young, within 12 months of bottling, some of the Crus have excellent ageing potential, such as Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent.

8. Traditionally, Beaujolais Nouveau is meant to be served slightly cool (about 55°F) which makes it even more refreshing and fruit forward than room temperature.

9. Beaujolais Nouveau pairs beautifully with a range of foods, from casual dishes to holiday dishes such as turkey and ham. Because of the timing of its release, Beaujolais Nouveau is promoted as the ideal wine to serve at Thanksgiving.

10. More than 35 million bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau are expected to be consumed in the months following the wine’s release.
 

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