Time for a wine fight. Let's talk about Beaujolais.
No wine is more simultaneously beloved and berated. If you’ve set foot in a wine shop any time even close to November, specifically the third Thursday in November, you’ve seen the power these populist wines from somewhere in Burgundy's deep south hold over the casual consumer.
More than likely, they were the product of major French grape buyer Georges Duboeuf, who has climbed on the throne as the undisputed king of Beaujolais.
Duboeuf’s crowning achievement has been the rise of Beaujolais nouveau, the annual production of wine from gamay noir grapes so fresh they're practically still on the vine. To wine retailers and many casual drinkers, nouveau is a godsend — a cheap, easy-drinking bottle that flies off store displays by the case and makes more than occasional appearances on the Thanksgiving table.
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“It's wine created for the sake of pleasure. That's very important,” says Franck Duboeuf, Georges’ son. “It's wine you can quaff just to quench the thirst.”
Many a wine lover would disagree, for no wine — not even chardonnay that tastes like a lumberyard — raises ire like Beaujolais.
Fruity fun or folly?
Its detractors, including a good number of wine writers, have profound contempt for what they often describe as a Kool-Aid wine. They deride its one-dimensional character, to say nothing of Duboeuf’s masterful marketing blitz, which has become an annual tradition, or the fact that it’s so appealing to casual drinkers who just want a bottle for their table.
People who, it should be noted, happily fork over $7 to $10 a bottle. “What a lot of people in the press forget is people like to have fun drinking wine,” says Michael Aaron, chairman of New York wine retailer Sherry-Lehmann. “Beaujolais nouveau is just a great fun wine.”
Defenders simply want nouveau enjoyed as intended: a simple, gulpable, dry wine the post-war French enjoyed as an apertif or with a simple meal in the months after harvest. That was the appeal as it caught hold among U.S. drinkers in the early 1970s, though American drinkers craving French wine on the cheap often misinterpreted its true purpose.
Even the dismissive drinker should be impressed by Beaujolais’ sheer logistical wizardry. The region produces over 26 million gallons of wine per year, of which one-third is nouveau. Duboeuf alone produces 7 million bottles of nouveau from the grapes of 400 different growers. “If we put all the bottles side by side,” Duboeuf says, “from Paris we could reach Moscow.”
Into the bottle — quick
Beaujolais relies on a process called carbonic maceration. Forget bare feet in the wine vat. Thousands of bushels of gamay grapes are dumped into large steel or cement fermentation tanks. Grapes on the bottom are slowly crushed by those above them, and as their juice ferments, it releases carbon dioxide, which helps ferment grapes on top. Almost as soon as the fresh wine is stabilized, it goes into the bottle and out the door — no long stay in the cellar.
How fast is this process? This year the grape harvest began Sept. 11, bottling began Oct. 18 and the finished bottles began shipping around the globe last week, booked on nearly 300 flights to the United States and about the same to Japan. Even more is sent off to cargo ships, due to arrive in U.S. ports around Dec. 1.
This is why stores will tout Duboeuf’s “air nouveau” beginning Thursday for $8.99-$9.99, and “boat nouveau” for about $2 less, starting next month. Impatient buyers can grab up cases now; the rest of us can stock up a bit later. (This rush to buy is an extra pebble in the shoe of wine connoisseurs who like their wine well-aged.)
There is a method to the madness. Importer Bill Deutsch, whose White Plains, N.Y., company, W.J. Deutsch & Sons Ltd., has become Duboeuf’s exclusive importer, meets with Georges Duboeuf each August in Orlando, Fla. They assess the quality of the vintage and hatch a battle plan. Back in France, Georges samples the grapes just before September harvest and the two men set prices.
They are aided by a small army of sales reps and wine retailers, and a colorful array of point-of-sale displays to ensure no wine shopper can miss the nouveau's arrival. "I've been doing it for 24 years, so I pretty much have it down to a science," Deutsch says.
The high end
Not all Beaujolais is subject to this flurry of activity. The Beaujolais-Villages, made from better grapes and given extra time before bottling, offers more fruit and balance.
So-called “cru Beaujolais” (those from specific vineyards or villages) gets several months or longer to age, far more like a traditional wine. The best are put in oak casks to age, and finer crus, like Brouilly or Moulin-a-Vent, can be laid in the cellar to age for years, in good years approaching the quality of nearby Burgundies.
A recent tasting reaffirmed huge differences in quality levels. There is a very direct price-value curve: More expensive Beaujolais clearly tastes like well-crafted wine. Cheap Beaujolais is just that — cheap and one-dimensional — though it is far more palatable than the average table merlot. Fans should drink it unabashedly.
This high-low dichotomy is the real source of strife. While retailers like Michael Aaron successfully convert customers up the value chain from nouveau to the crus, the nouveau craze remains a sore point among some who traffic in the high-end stuff.
“First Beaujolais nouveau, and then Duboeuf goes in and ruins the Beaujolais market,” says John Winthrop of Veritas, which imports Beaujolais from several small producers. “People just won't take it seriously in a restaurant. Sommeliers won't put it on a list.”
But if sales signal drinkers’ preferences, nouveau is holding its own. Orders from retailers are up 7 percent this year, despite competition in an overheated market against lower-priced competition from new favorites like Yellow Tail (another Deutsch import). To say nothing of the backlash French wine still faces from many Americans, and of course the perennial disdain from high-end collectors.
“You've got these egotistical monsters, and I've learned to live with all of them,” says Deutsch. “Two-point-four million bottles of nouveau going to every single state in the union? A lot of people must like nouveau.”
So if Beaujolais is your bag, drink it with pride — at least for the next couple months. If you can’t stand the stuff, rest assured you’re not alone. If you’ve never tried it, buy a bottle and join the debate.
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