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Saturday, September 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  Overcast
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Not-so-fine wine
Beaujolais nouveau is little more than a novelty

"Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!" proclaims a brightly colored banner on the door of my neighborhood wine shop. Suddenly, what had been a gray and blustery November day seems gay and festive. I feel I should be wearing a beret and have a baguette strapped to the back of my bicycle. At the very least, I should buy a few bottles and invite some friends over, sing a French chanson or two, raise a glass to celebrate the labor of the humble vigneron and the fruit of the vine, non?

Well...non. Or as we say in America - back away from the Beaujolais nouveau, chump. Okay, maybe that's a bit harsh. Actually, a glass of Beaujolais nouveau makes a charming, easily drinkable aperitif.

Take a bottle of Georges Duboeuf's Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2007 ($11) and pair it with a fine cheese from one of Wisconsin's artisanal cheesemakers. I was lucky enough the other night to have friends bring over some of Carr Valley's award-winning Mobay, cheesemaker Sid Cook's riff on the famous French cheese, Morbier. A glass of Beaujolais nouveau worked beautifully with it - fresh fruit and raspberry aromas in the wine up front, lots of tart acidity in the mouth, and then the rustic punch of the Mobay, with its two delicately pungent layers of goat and sheep's milk cheeses separated by a layer of grape vine ash.

A perfect beginning to a fall meal, we agreed. Too bad we didn't stop there.

The annual release of Beaujolais nouveau on the third Thursday in November, coupled with several decades of aggressive marketing, has made the wine a Thanksgiving tradition in the U.S. And that's a shame, because although it has some value as a novelty, it's a thin and insubstantial sort of drink - pleasant enough at the outset, but without the oomph to make it past a first course, let alone one of the most eagerly anticipated meals of the year.

Nor was it ever intended to. As Rudolph Chelminski describes, in his highly readable new book I'll Drink to That: Beaujolais and the French Peasant Who Made It the World's Most Popular Wine, the tradition of drinking Beaujolais nouveau - or primeur - was for nearly three centuries nothing more than an obscure regional custom.

Because Beaujolais, which is made exclusively from the gamay grape, is unique among wines in being drinkable when it's extremely young, the thirsty citizens of Lyon, France - the center of the Beaujolais wine region - developed a friendly ritual of tasting the year's new wine when it arrived in November. This was a kind of preview of what it would be like when properly aged, 6 months or more later.

After World War II, the ritual began to spread through France. And then, in the mid-'70s, a small-time négociant and marketing genius named Georges Duboeuf spied its possibilities. By the '80s, the famous Beaujolais race was on: Who would be the first to serve the year's new wine?

Beaujolais nouveau was carried by motorcycle, balloon, truck, helicopter, Concorde jet, elephants, runners and rickshaws. British teams enlisted a 1927 Bugatti Grand Prix racer, an armored car and a red double-decker London bus. Madison wine drinkers remember it arriving at midnight, across the lake, by canoe. Sales skyrocketed, from a million bottles a year to more than 70 million.

Predictably, once the Americans and Japanese adopted Beaujolais nouveau, the French themselves began to vilify it. In 2002, a grumpy Parisian wine critic was quoted (inaccurately, he later claimed) referring to Beaujolais as a vin de merde: shit wine. The magazine headline screamed: "Beaujolais: It's Not Wine."

This was a cause célèbre in France, and it happened right around the same time George Bush and Jacques Chirac began a pissing match that ultimately led to one of the more ignoble moments in American diplomacy: Freedom Fries.

Sadly, what got lost in the hoopla over nouveau is the real Beaujolais, the serious, properly aged, well-made wines that constitute the majority of the region's production. Many American wine consumers aren't even aware they exist. Chelminski claims some Beaujolais wines are every bit as good as all but the very finest and most expensive Burgundies.

Taste is subjective, of course, but when you consider that he's comparing bottles that sell for $300 and $400 to some that go for less than $15, that's a statement worth investigating personally.

Since I didn't want to dismiss Beaujolais nouveau without giving it a fair shot, I did actually try four bottles: the Georges Duboeuf, a Manoir du Carre ($15), an Anne-Marie Perret ($16) and, for a change of pace, Wollersheim Winery's Ruby Nouveau ($10). I found them all equally underwhelming, though of the four, I thought the Duboeuf was the pleasantest.

And so, having struck out on nouveau, I have a new game plan. This Thanksgiving weekend, you will find me browsing the aisles in the liquor store, looking for the some of the other great names of Beaujolais: Cte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon and so on.

In fact, now that the Christmas shopping season has arrived, there's a song I plan to begin humming around the house soon: "On the 12th day of Christmas, my true love brought to me, 1 bottle of Brouilly, 2 bottles of Fleurie, 3 bottles of Julienas..."

Honey? Are you listening?

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