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Nouveau, and no apologies (It's good)

A devastating frost, a blast of wind, a killer heat wave and a shock: They made one of the best new Beaujolais in memory.

November 26, 2003|Leslie Brenner | Times Staff Writer

Last Thursday, the 2003 Beaujolais Nouveaux were released. That is to say, the first shipments of the famously overhyped, fruity, juicy wine en primeur arrived by air from France and landed in supermarket displays and wine shop setups across the country.

It's very fashionable to dislike Beaujolais Nouveau, and usually for good reason: It tends to taste like alcoholic Kool-Aid. The French call it "Beaujolpif," a slightly derogatory term that incorporates (perhaps coincidentally) "pif," French slang for "nose."

I usually don't mind Beaujolais Nouveau, as long as I think of it as more akin to fruit punch than wine. But this time, when a dinner guest showed up with a cold-off-the-press bottle of Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, I braced myself, gave it a swirl, took a sip and

As it turns out, vintners are saying that the 2003 Beaujolais vintage is indeed superlative, largely because of last summer's heat wave. "It's the best I've seen in my entire career," Georges Duboeuf, 70, the leading producer of Beaujolais Nouveau, said.

A frost in early April, Duboeuf said, reduced crop size by about 20%, and strong winds in May led to further reductions (small yields are a good thing when it comes to winemaking; they result in more concentrated flavor). "And after that, we had such extreme heat, as you know, in August. The grapes achieved very, very good maturity, and the harvest began very early -- on Aug. 12." In a typical year, he said, the Gamay harvest would be in early September.

Intrigued, we put together a small, blind tasting of 2003 Beaujolais Nouveaux at The Times. The panelists -- restaurant critic S. Irene Virbila, and columnists Russ Parsons and David Shaw -- found four glasses of red wine on the table. Parsons lifted his nose and sniffed. "Smells like Beaujolais," he announced.

That's Beaujolais Nouveau for you -- instantly recognizable -- and especially this year. Its aromas positively scream fresh, bright-red fruit -- plums and tart cherries and berries.

Uncharacteristically, all the tasters agreed without a note of dissention: These were much better than the wine usually is. And they were even unanimous in ranking the four. These are "happy, uncomplicated wines," said Parsons. "Like cranberry Kool-Aid, but in a good way." "Zippy," said Shaw. "They're more for drinking with food," Virbila added.

Everyone concurred that for 9 or 10 bucks, these were very likable wines, wines that you'd be happy to grab at the checkout stand, quaff in a bistro or even drink with Thanksgiving dinner.

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Testing an unusually good vintage

The just-arrived 2003 Beaujolais Nouveaux is an unusually good vintage, more concentrated and yet more pleasantly restrained than in recent years. Here, in order of our preference, are the four we tasted. The Joseph Drouhin and the Georges Duboeuf were clearly superior. Prices will drop by a dollar or two a bottle when the next shipment, by the usual water route rather than rushed in by air, arrives in about a week. The wines are widely available at markets and wine shops.

2003 Joseph Drouhin Beaujolais Nouveau, about $10. Everyone's favorite, with attractive red plum and sweet berry aromas and the smoothest, roundest texture. It begs for a thick slice of smoky, salty, fatty saucisson sec.

2003 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, about $12. A close second. Cherry and berry and gentle herbal notes; lots of juicy fruit. This one wants a sandwich jambon.

2003 Domaines Piron Beaujolais Nouveau, about $10. Tart red stone fruit and cranberries, with bright acid that would marry well with, say, a turkey leg. More one-dimensional than the first two.

2003 P. Ferraud et Fils Domaine Meunier Beaujolais Nouveau, about $12. A bit tart, with more reticent aromas. Grilled Italian sausages might smooth it out.

-- Leslie Brenner

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