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Nouveau Beaujolais Time: Close to a Miracle

November 19, 1989|DAN BERGER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

One of the silliest and most fun times of the year for real wine lovers is mid-November, when the first wine of the harvest--Beaujolais Nouveau--is released.

The release of this wine in France, which occurred last Thursday, annually coincides with the American Thanksgiving. And it's pure coincidence that Nouveau Beaujolais is the perfect wine for the traditional turkey dinner.

That's because tradition calls for the dinner plate to have on it such things as yams and cranberry sauce, and outside of a few sparkling wines (which are pretty expensive), I can think of no better wine than the newest Beaujolais to accompany it. (It also goes great with ham.)

And this is a time when you'll hear a lot about the Nouveau Beaujolais. In restaurants and wine shops

across the land, promotions are staged in which the just-released Beaujolais Nouveau is served by the glass. The wine that just a few weeks ago was still juice inside the grape now is being poured with gusto.

I say this is a silly time of year because of all the fuss that's made over this quaffing wine. It's a little much to consider: people are shipping quaffing wine by air-freight around the globe.

But it's a lot more fun than those scenes of wine that we see in the Foster's beer commercial, where Paul Hogan looks back over his shoulder at a bunch of puffed-up snobs doing a wine tasting.

And it's true that a lot of the formal wine tasting experience is pure nonsense. "Experts" hold their glasses aloft to ponder the color of the wine until the blood has drained from their arms. They take ever-so-little sips of the precious nectar and close their eyes, rolling the stuff around in their mouths and sucking in air in a disgusting manner.

Then they smack their lips like 5-year- olds with Jujubes. And spit.

It's enough to put one off one's breakfast.

What wine really ought to be about is drinking it with a meal. Enjoying a pleasant beverage and then getting on with the rest of your life. It is rarely worth pontificating over. Never have I had a bottle of wine that exceeded the other more obvious ecstasies of life and love.

Ah, but mid-November is when the real wine lovers' wine comes to market. This Beaujolais is intended not to be spoken of only in hushed tones; it is wine not to be placed on an ivory pedestal, or crystal, and worried over. It is wine not to be reverentially blessed by the nearest person of the cloth and then stashed in a cellar until the buyer is moldering.

Nouveau Beaujolais time is a time of merry-making and joyous appreciation of what the recent exhausting harvest has brought. And true wine lovers enjoy this wine not because it is great or special, but because it is the closest thing we have to a miracle.

Beaujolais Nouveau (the terms are transposed in French) has long been a staple in the French culture. For decades it was served without fanfare in cafes in the Beaujolais district and often was called merely vin de table. This is the house wine. (In France, there is no such thing, for all practical purposes, as a "house white wine." Some 90% of the wine consumed in France is red.)

Unlike the inexpensive "Burgundy" wines we make in this country that are often heavy in color and indistinct in fruit aroma, the vin de table of France is usually light in color and light in body. And when the aroma is heady with strawberry, cherry and pomegranate, likely as not it is Beaujolais.

For the longest time, there was rarely any ritual attached to this table wine. It was brought to the table in a cheap (often not sterilely clean) carafe. The name of the producer usually wasn't emblazoned in gold; in fact, it was nowhere to be seen. This is because the French don't take their wine "seriously"; they merely drink it often.

To the French, this wine is a beverage, not an "experience." They drink it at lunch time, and before dinner, and with dinner, and as a late-night snack accompaniment and on picnics; and they make excuses to drink it at other times too. It is just as happy in a water glass as a Waterford.

(Which is one reason why France's per capita wine consumption rate is roughly 10 times what it is in the United States.)

By French decree, the wine called Beaujolais Nouveau or Beaujolais Primeur may not be sold before midnight before the third Thursday of November. (The date used to be Nov. 15, but sometimes this didn't coincide with the best public relations efforts, so it was changed to a day when the weekend frivolity could be counted on.)

As the first wine of the new vintage, this wine is made to be quaffed fresh and young. It may not be

the absolute prototype of what the French region of Beaujolais offers with its better wines, but it gets wine on the market and it sets the tone for what is to come.

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