At the stroke of midnight on Thursday, November 19, from the little villages in Southeastern France, over 1 million cases of Beaujolais Nouveau will begin their trek to Paris for immediate shipment to all corners of our world. Banners will herald the inevitable news: “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive!,” marking the beginning of one of the most celebrated rituals (and hangovers) in the wine world. By spring, more than 65 million bottles (nearly half of the Beaujolais region’s total annual production), will have been distributed and drunk around the world. In a race against the clock, the Gamay grapes are harvested, fermented and bottled at record speed (usually within six weeks), all in time for this third Thursday in November deadline. And, in an effort to be among the first to receive the new wine of the harvest, buyers summon the Nouveau by motorcycle, balloon, helicopter, Concorde jet, runner, rickshaw and even elephant to their international destinations.
Another example of a grape with little respect, Gamay (or Gamay Noir de Jus Blanc, to be pedantic) was rejected by the neighboring Burgundy region in 1395, thus rooting itself due south in the Beaujolais region between the cities of Maçon and Lyon. Regulation of Beaujolais Nouveau dates back to 1938 and even today, Beaujolais is the only region other than Champagne where French law mandates that all grapes be handpicked. The Nouveau goes through carbonic maceration, where whole grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks at temperatures reaching 77-86 degrees for five to 20 days before the grapes are crushed and then fermented in the usual process (juice plus yeasts). The exact procedure varies slightly from one winemaker to the next, but the result is always a tannin-free wine with the bursting fruit flavor of a piece of grape Bubblicious.
The wine isn’t nearly as exciting as the hoopla surrounding it, but I find it rather endearing to see the typically stern and stoic French giddy about something. Besides, a one-night stand with a glass of chugable, unmemorable, slightly chilled, alcoholic grape juice isn’t a bad thing.
What’s better though, is a glass of wine from the other half of Beaujolais’ production. Also made from Gamay grapes, Beaujolais (wine coming from anywhere in the region), Beaujolais-Villages (wine from any of the 30 or so designated villages), or Crû Beaujolais (wine from one of these 10 villages: Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Régnié, Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Moulin-à-Vent, Chénas, Juliénas, and Saint-Amour) are wines to imbibe and relish year round with everything from a summer picnic of barbecue ribs to a cozy winter meal of roast chicken. Bright red fruits like muddled raspberries and cranberries are still in the forefront as they are with the Nouveau, but with the more serious examples of Beaujolais, you also get baking spices, black pepper, pinesap, violets, peonies and other earthly delights.
One ought to make it a mission to enjoy these true treasures of Beaujolais, but on the 19th, just join the fun and pick up a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau. You won’t have a transcendental moment, but you will feel a sense of camaraderie knowing that in restaurants, bistros, pubs, bars and homes all over the world, others are raising the same glass of virgin plonk. Besides, nobody likes a party pooper.
TWO WAYS TO DRINK ANEW:
Domaine Vissoux “Pierre Chermette” Beaujolais Nouveau 2009. Special order from your favorite local retailer. About $18.
Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2009. Harris Teeter. about $12.
THREE WAYS TO DRINK THE TRIED AND TRUE:
Domaine Durdilly Beaujolais 2008. Market Street Wineshop Uptown. $12.99
Domaine Piron Beaujolais 2007. Tastings of Charlottesville. $13.95
Domaine Desvignes Fleurie 2006. Foods of All Nations. $20.99