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WINE

The Shock of the Nouveau

November 17, 1994|DAN BERGER | TIMES WINE WRITER

Probably the silliest but most vigorous ritual in the wine world is the race to market with the first wine of the year, Beaujolais Nouveau.

The so-called vin de l'annee is the result of a swift harvest of the Gamay Noir grapes, a rapid fermentation, a hasty bottling and then a brief wait until the moment when it's legal to sell.

When the Union Interprofessional des Vins de Beaujolais (UIVB), governing body for the area, formally recognized Nouveau Beaujolais in 1951, it settled on midnight, Nov. 15 as the date on which it's legal to sell the young wine. In 1985 the date was changed to the third Thursday in November.

That, of course is today. And thanks to the difference in time zones, 12:01 a.m. Beaujolais time is 3:01 p.m. on Wednesday West Coast time. Therefore, the French Embassy here decreed that bottles could be opened then--about the same time some Paris cafes were pulling the corks on the 1994 wine.

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Before 1951, nouveau Beaujolais was just a local tradition--wine made fast to consume (often while still fermenting) while the more serious Cru Beaujolais was being made. The local popularity leaked out to cafes in Lyon, and by 1951 was being demanded by Parisians.

The burghers of Beaujolais, not about to miss a trick, began to deliver the wine to market in all manner of ways--horse-drawn carts, balloonists, helicopters, elephants, you name it.

When the New World got wind of the popularity of nouveau in the 1970s, the race to deliver nouveau went supersonic--some wine was even flown in on the Concorde. Wherever it went, importers had to agree in writing not to sell bottles before midnight preceding the third Thursday.

That such fuss should be accorded this simplest of wines is galling to some connoisseurs, who decry the entire ballyhooing scene of the third Thursday. But merchants and restaurateurs, on the European continent and here, love this day because it's the one day when wine, no matter how modest it is, grabs center stage worldwide.

The signs come out weeks before the Beaujolais actually arrives. In Paris wine bars, in suburban cafes, and in bar/brasseries, the signs blare, " Le Nouveau Est Arrive !"

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Actually, some shops keep the signs up year-around, implying that the nouveau is enjoyable any old time. The fact is, it's one of the most perishable of wines. Six months after release, it begins to tire. A year later only the best are still worth consuming.

The fad of nouveau has grown so great that today a third of all the wine of the Beaujolais region, some 3 1/2 million cases annually, is nouveau. And its fame is such that many consumers have the notion that this evanescent potable is the only Beaujolais.

Beaujolais producers, therefore, find it difficult to trumpet this wine and at the same time remind the buying public that they also make the more serious wine, the far grander Cru Beaujolais that will not be sold until the following March.

Meanwhile, this festive day annually attracts ever-newer promotional efforts. Dozens of restaurants and wine shops in every major city in the United States stage special tastings and dinners built around the young wine. Many of these promotional campaigns last for weeks or even months after the third Thursday.

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What makes the American enthusiasm for Beaujolais Nouveau unusual is that, unlike Europe, we consume little red wine the rest of the year. Not much more than 25% of the wine we buy is red; the rest is white or pink. By contrast, nine bottles out of 10 sold in France, Italy and the rest of southern Europe are red.

Since America is simply not a red wine-consuming nation, one might wonder why we go crazy for nouveau. (As we do.) The answer is only too simple--nouveau is really little more than white wine with color. The astringent tannins found in most red wine are not found in nouveau, which is made with very low tannins and intended to be quaffed, not sipped.

Another reason Beaujolais is a perfect wine for Americans is that we prefer our drinks served colder than do Europeans, and Beaujolais is one of the few red wines that is actually better when chilled.

In addition, Beaujolais has a flavor profile that should be perfect for those looking beyond White Zinfandel. The faint berry-ish component in White Zinfandel is delicately spicy. Good nouveau has that same flavor profile, but in spades.

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If there is a drawback to nouveau it is price. Nouveau Beaujolais should never be an expensive wine, but in the late 1980s the weakness of the U.S. dollar and the greed of some marketing people pushed prices for some nouveau wines close to and over $10 a bottle.

In France, such wines sell for the equivalent of 20 to 25 francs a bottle ($4 to $5), and even less. And since it costs no more than $1 per bottle to ship wine across the sea, it's clear that at $10 the wine is overpriced.

This year's prices for nouveau, posted by a number of Los Angeles wine shops in advance of delivery, are roughly $7, a fair price for the best.

Gamay Beaujolais is also made in California, and a number of producers make it in a nouveau style. Among the most consistent of these are from Beringer Vineyards, Sebastiani Vineyards, Preston Vineyards and Robert Pecota Winery. Prices range from $5 to $7.

Yes, the promotion of nouveau is artificial, but it is the fraternity of the day that appeals to wine lovers, who can imagine the same celebration going on not only at their own local cafe, but in pubs, bars and bistros around the world.

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