The Good, The Bad and The Beaujolais
’Tis the season for this controversial holiday wine
Last week’s release of Beaujolais Nouveau arrived like clockwork, just as it does every third Thursday in November. Whether the harvest was good or bad—and whether the wine is good or bad—signs in bistro windows shout to passersby, “Le Beaujolais Nouveau Est Arrivé!” (“The Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived!”)
Beaujolais Nouveau (and straight-up Beaujolais) is a low-tannin wine made from Gamay grapes and fermented through a process called carbonic maceration. In carbonic maceration the grapes are fermented whole—except for the grapes at the bottom of the barrel. Crushed by the weight above, they ferment with the aid of naturally present yeasts. The intact grapes begin the winemaking process inside their skins, each grape fermenting individually on an intracellular level. This type of fermentation makes for a wildly fruity wine due to the numerous phenols created. (Phenols are chemical compounds often responsible for flavors like cherry and banana.) Combined with low tannins, it goes down smooth and can be pure drinking pleasure.
Beaujolais is an excellent companion to holiday fare. It plays well with a wide variety of foods including turkey, and it’s the perfect red wine for those who prefer whites.
But why all the excitement and fanfare surrounding Beaujolais Nouveau? Most Beaujolais Nouveau are simple, short-lived wines with all the complexity of a glass of Kool-Aid. The wines released as nouveau (the French word for “new”) are barely aged and hardly represent the Beaujolais region well. The excitement can largely be credited to Georges DuBoeuf, négociant extraordinaire. Négociants buy grapes from several producers to make their own wines. His marketing prowess convinced the world to celebrate the newly bottled Beaujolais arrival, once an admittedly minor French tradition. This now worldwide celebration caught on quickly, resulting in 1/3 of each vintage being bought between its late-November release and New Year’s.
Beaujolais Nouveau is as controversial as it is loved. From French wine critic François Mauss’ declaring it “vin de merde” (crap wine) to accusations of chaptalization (adding sugar) and blending vintages, this little wine knows strife as well as it knows success.
But we shouldn’t disparage Beaujolais as a region. Instead we should look to the wines released in March: Beaujolais-Villages and Cru Beaujolais. Without the “Nouveau”—and with a little aging—Beaujolais becomes a wine that stands on its own.
Beaujolais is an excellent companion to holiday fare. It plays well with a wide variety of foods including turkey, not to mention it appeals to inexperienced and demanding palates alike. Gorgeously aromatic, it’s less challenging than it is simply enjoyable. And it’s the perfect red wine for those who prefer whites—it can be served slightly chilled. Chilling the wine brings out the fruity flavors while muting the alcohol and tannins, making it rather user-friendly.
Of course, if you just adore Beaujolais Nouveau, you should drink Beaujolais Nouveau. Some of them are truly lovely, despite an overwhelming number of bad apples spoiling the whole damn barrel. But, if you want to move past that nouveau puppy love and invest in a more mature wine relationship, look for a label that shouts experience and commitment—one that says Villages or Cru.
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