What's Nouveau? - The Obligatory Annual Article 2003
Copyright 2003 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed November 17, 2003. For more information go to wineloverspage.com
It's that time of year again, so we might as well get the obligatory annual topic out of the way: Here comes the Beaujolais Nouveau!
Traditionally the first wine of the new vintage in the Northern Hemisphere, this simple, grapey French wine will go on sale around the world on Thursday at midnight, the hour set by law for its release.
For some reason, this not-so-old tradition (which started in France only in the years after World War II and spread to the rest of the wine-loving world by the 1980s) has captured the interest of the general news media, which briefly turns its attention to the world of wine at this time every year to cover the story. And just about every self-respecting wine bar and wine shop will hawk the stuff on Thursday, putting up displays with banners announcing, in French, "Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive!"
Let's run down a few quick points about Beaujolais Nouveau, hoping to separate the hype from the reality:
*WHAT MAKES IT "NOUVEAU"? By rushing the grapes picked in September through an accelerated process, the Beaujolais producers can get the first wine of the new vintage to market as soon as two months after the grapes are picked. Most new wines aren't available until spring at the earliest, and some of the world's finest wines take much longer. The top labels of Bordeaux, for instance, won't reach world markets for almost two years after the vintage. Barolo Riserva takes five years!
*HOW DO THEY GET IT OUT SO FAST? In the early years of the tradition, the new wine could not legally leave Beaujolais until midnight on the appointed day, which was then Nov. 15 every year. (Business interests eventually prompted a move to the third Thursday of November to ensure that Nouveau day would fall at the end of the work week every year, catching revelers in a party mood). In the early days, trucks loaded with Nouveau would leave Beaujolais at midnight, racing the 250 miles to Paris in hope to be the first to slake the thirst of wine lovers who stayed up late to celebrate. The modern practice is much less romantic: The wine is finished and shipped to distributors around the world well in advance, so it's in place and ready to sell on the third Thursday.
*IS IT REALLY THE FIRST WINE OF THE YEAR? Well, no. In other parts of the world, from Italy to California and even in French regions not bound by the Beaujolais Nouveau laws, such as Provence and the Languedoc, similar wines are hurried to market well in advance of the Nouveau date. And in the Southern Hemisphere, where the seasons are reversed and grapes were harvested in March and April, they've been enjoying 2003 vintage wines for months.
*IS IT RARE? Not hardly. An estimated 60 million bottles will be produced, and virtually all of it will be sold by New Year's, about half of it in France and the other half around the world. Most of it will be drunk by New Year's, too, although the old warning that Beaujolais Nouveau turns bad by spring is no longer operative. With modern winery technology and sanitation, Nouveau most likely won't literally turn to vinegar; but even a year in the bottle may see it lose most of the fresh, grapey fruit that is its primary attraction.
*WELL, IS IT GOOD WINE AT LEAST? Define "good." By its nature, Beaujolais in general is rarely a "cult" or "collectible" wine worthy of contemplation, and that goes double for Nouveau, which essentially compromises depth in return for speed. When things go well and the fruit of the vintage is ripe, Nouveau can be fresh and light. In less favorable years, it may be thin, tart and sour.
There's been a lot of publicity about this year's record-breaking summer heat throughout Europe. It will be interesting to see how that plays out in the Nouveau, but don't count on a transcendent experience. Take it as a good excuse for a party, an opportunity to enjoy the first taste of the new vintage. But don't take it too seriously, because this quick-to-market wine isn't really meant for that.
*SAY, HOW DO YOU PRONOUNCE THAT, ANYWAY? Say it "Boe-zho-lay Noo-voe" and you'll be close enough. Avoid the temptation to call it "BOO-JOE-lay," and the chances are nobody will laugh.