Nov 19, 200912:00 AM
All there is to sip and savor in New Orleans
2009 is supposed to be an excellent vintage.
There is only one event in the wine year calendar that is tied to time. Think about it: Here is a product that is absolutely driven by the efforts of the sun and the phases of the moon, and nowhere, except once, is there a moment when we honor “the moment.”
Heck, every bit of produce and fruit is available only at certain times of the year, and seafood is at least better –– if not available only –– at particular seasons. But wine, a product that is made from a fruit that provides only one harvest each 12 months, does not define itself by the passage of time.
Except one time, on the third Thursday of every November.
To the phrase, “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé,” at one minute past midnight on that day, the bottles are opened, and the first wine of the current vintage from anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere is enjoyed. Such a day is the day this column will first appear.
The history of Beaujolais Nouveau is pretty straightforward. Beaujolais is located in the eastern sector of France, a bit north of the culinary capital, Lyon, and a bit south of the Burgundy region. The prime red grape of Beaujolais is Gamay, a relatively thin-skinned, quite fruity grape that is now known to be a cross between the red pinot noir grape and an ancient white grape brought to the region by the Romans, Gouais.
Gamay has the advantage of early ripening and not being as fickle in the vineyard as the pinot noir grape. When the Beaujolais AOC was established in 1937, one of the regulations stated that no wine from the current vintage could be released before Dec. 15.
Point of explanation: an AOC, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, is a local governing body for each wine-producing area throughout every wine region in France. The AOC defines all manner of circumstances, such as where vineyards can be placed, what grapes can be grown, how much tonnage is allowed, when harvest can take place, and even whether the final wine is suitable and representative of the area. In short, these bureaucracies rule over the wine industry in their respective regions.
So with the establishment of the AOC in Beaujolais, the producers were told, even with an early-ripening grape that lent itself to immediate release and no barrel aging, that until the middle of December, the wine must rest in the warehouse in the bottle.
In 1951, under pressure from winemakers, the rules were relaxed. The date was moved to Nov. 15, and the wine was to be called “Beaujolais Nouveau.” The producers seized this opportunity to send a lot of not-so-great wine to market in a hurry, allowing them to recoup monies invested in the harvest at an early time.
In France, this wine release became an event to be celebrated, and eventually, thanks to air travel, the release of the Beaujolais Nouveau spread worldwide. In 1985, the date was moved to its current place in the calendar, the third Thursday of November, which allowed the producers to always take advantage of an upcoming weekend marketing situation. If you set a specific calendar date that can fall on a Monday, you don’t have the impact because early-week wine sales are anemic. Weekends are best for sales.
I think it is safe to state that Beaujolais producers are not a respected lot among wine aficionados. There have been scandals, mostly involving water and sugar additions to the wines, and there were shortcuts taken with the wines as regards quality and aging. It seems like the producers have cleaned up their act over the past few years, and the last scandal occurred in 2007, not so long ago. But in New Orleans and Louisiana, if we had gone since 2007 without a scandal, we would be celebrating in the streets. So we don’t have much room to judge others in this regard.
Anyway, the wines of Beaujolais Nouveau are fun. They are approachable, fruity, fresh and present an excellent opportunity to see what the 2009 crop is like, only weeks after its harvest.
There are those in the wine world who turn their nose up at these wines, but that is not the proper response. These wines do not pretend to be great or age-worthy or even complicated. They are just there, and they are there at this moment, so let’s relax, sit back and have a glass of wine.
During the holiday season, including Thanksgiving, Beaujolais Nouveau makes an excellent accompaniment to turkey and cranberry sauce, the fruit qualities of the wine blending nicely with all manner of typical holiday cuisines.
The wines, by the way, are cheap, usually under $11, so you can pick up a few bottles, take them over to your mom’s and make a lot of people think you are pretty special.
This year the Beaujolais Nouveau wines from Georges DuBoeuf come in two styles –– one is the usual Beaujolais Nouveau, and the other is a Beaujolais Nouveau Villages, which indicates the grapes have come from a specific area and are likely of higher caliber.
DuBoeuf has also indicated that 2009 was an excellent vintage, calling it one of the best in the past 50 years. A caveat: French wine producers declaring a great vintage is not a rare occurrence. They do this with the same regularity as the streetcars turning off Canal onto St. Charles.
But the point is when else in a wine calendar year is there a precise time when a wine can be enjoyed? This is it, the third Thursday in November, and the Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived.
Enjoy. Toast. Live in the moment.