IN WINE-DRINKING circles, new wine is usually not held in much regard. Even the most ordinary of vintages seems to need, if not long aging time in vats or barrels, then at least a few months to settle down in the bottle and knit together a bit. There is one notable group of exceptions to this rule, though: The bright, fragrant, intensely flavorful, intensely fruity wine called Beaujolais Nouveau and its cousins, the Beaujolais Nouveau-style wines now being made in California and in other wine-making areas.
Beaujolais --the original--is a fresh, attractive, fruity red wine made from Gamay grapes in the Beaujolais region of France--south of Burgundy, just north of Lyon. And Beaujolais Nouveau is simply brand-new Beaujolais, usually produced through a process called carbonic maceration, by which grapes are sealed into tanks with carbon dioxide gas and, in effect, allowed to ferment within their skins before they burst under their own weight and release their juice. These wines receive no aging, either in barrels or in the bottle. In fact, they are meant to be drunk within a few months of their birth, and they frequently start fading and losing their charm by Christmas.
Beaujolais Nouveau and its cousins are never great wines and aren't supposed to be. But at their best, they are sheer sensual delight, an encapsulation of pure fruit flavor, a spirited incarnation of the grape.
Traditionally, Beaujolais Nouveau was strictly a local wine in France, drunk by wine makers and vineyard workers and not considered serious enough to ship to Paris, much less overseas. But 20 years ago or so, for whatever reasons, it started to become a fad. Every year, on Nov. 16--the day after the first day the wine could legally be sold--cafes all over France began to hang up banners in their windows announcing, " Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive !" Wine lovers would compete with one another to be the first to taste the wine each year.
Soon the craze spread beyond France, and restaurants and wine merchants in Tokyo, Copenhagen and New York started vying with one another to be the first to serve the wine. At times, the whole thing has gotten pretty silly. There has been Beaujolais Nouveau flown to Washington on the Concorde, dropped by parachute into London, Federal Expressed to Los Angeles. For all I know, at this very moment, somebody is probably trying to figure out a way to fax the stuff over here. (The wine is now released officially on the third Thursday of November instead of always on the 15th, and there is virtually no large city in the Western World where it isn't available by the following Monday.)
One of the best non-French versions of Beaujolais Nouveau is the Harvest Wine (subtitled Gamay Beaujolais Nouveau) made by the Charles Shaw Winery in the Napa Valley. Shaw is an expert on the Gamay grape and its relatives, and he travels frequently around the United States spreading the Gamay gospel. While on the road in the late fall, during nouveau season, he reports that he encounters numerous interesting dishes cooked with his Harvest Wine or with Beaujolais Nouveau from France. He particularly remembers a presentation of sea scallops in puff pastry with a sauce based on Harvest Wine (curiously enough, the wine seems to pair extremely well with seafood) and a salad of fresh sauteed duck liver dressed with vinaigrette made with raspberries and Beaujolais Nouveau.
"There isn't much of a tradition of cooking with Nouveau in France," he says, "because it used to be pretty rough, acidic wine. When it started getting an international reputation, though, and being sold around the world, I think most large-scale producers made a conscious decision to smooth it out somewhat and reduce the acidity. Old-fashioned Beaujolais Nouveau still shows up here occasionally, but it usually doesn't last more than one season. Shippers like Duboeuf, Drouhin and Fessy really make their wines in a more consistently pleasant style today so that they're more enjoyable to drink, and easier to cook with, and so do we."
Shaw says that, as an accompaniment to food, Beaujolais Nouveau-style wines are extremely versatile. In addition to matching up superbly with traditional winter holiday dishes, Shaw says, they go very well with such foods as salad Nicoise, pasta with pesto sauce, fried fish (virtually any variety with firm, white meat), fresh boiled crab or shrimp, Cobb salad, quiche Lorraine, barbecued chicken, and frog legs, even oysters on the half-shell (which this writer, for one, will frankly have to taste to believe). They also are superb, of course, with dishes cooked with them. Here are some suggestions for such dishes:
CALIFORNIA-BORN chef Jonathan Waxman, whose now-defunct Jams restaurant was widely credited with having introduced "California Cuisine" to New York, is now at work on a book about contemporary American food, to be published next year by Simon & Schuster. This is a recipe from that book.