Friday, November 15, 2019

Beaujolais Nouveau

 The first edition of "Gerald D Boyd On Wine" (posted July 12, 2019), was about the "Pleasures of Beaujolais."  There was only a passing mention in that blog of the unique style of Nouveau Beaujolais. 
So come with me now as we venture from the Beaujolais vineyards in east central France to the wine bars and dining rooms where the new wine of Beaujolais is enjoyed this month, and while it lasts, well into the new year.

The adventure begins on the third Thursday of November, the official release date of the 2019 Nouveau Beaujolais, a fete that is met every year in France and around the world with a mix of joy and derision. In the 1970s and early 1980s, shippers competed with races to Paris to see who would be first to place their Beaujolais Nouveau in the bistros and restaurants. 

By 1985, the craze had spread to the rest of the world, which meant that the release date of the new wine had to be backed up a few days so the wine would reach foreign markets on the "official" Thursday. The catch was, though, that local distributors had to agree to keep the wine under lock until 12:01 am local time on the third Thursday.

Understanding the Nouveau Style
The stage is set then for nouveau's big day. To understand and fully appreciate the nouveau variation of Beaujolais, it helps to first know a few things about Beaujolais itself.  Beaujolais the region is separated from the Burgundy by the Maconnais and the Cote Chalonnaise and lies just north of the Rhone Valley. Beaujolais rouge is made as Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and the ten cru Beaujolais. 

The nearness of the Beaujolais region to Burgundy allows Beaujolais wines to legally be called either Beaujolais or Burgundy, although it's doubtful whether few proud Beaujolais vintners would opt for the latter appellation. 

Nouveau (new) Beaujolais is the best known in a select group of wines that the French call vin de primeur, or young wine; in all, there are 19 wines in the primeur group. Made from Gamay noir a-jus-blanc, (simply known as Gamay), Nouveau Beaujolais is a deeply tinted grapy wine, with soft tannins, lots of strawberry-like fruit and moderate alcohol. Nouveau is a pleasant gulpable wine that won't age, so drink it now.

Gamay noir a-jus-blanc

A technique known as carbonic maceration is the key to Beaujolais Nouveau. The carbonic maceration process involves placing whole clusters of grapes in a fermenter, as carefully as possible, to avoid breaking the grape skins. Carbon dioxide is then added, thus creating an anaerobic atmosphere, causing the juice inside each grape to ferment without the benefit of yeast. During the process, grape sugars and harsh malic acid are lowered, while alcohol strength and glycerol are increased, all within each mini grape fermenter.

The practice of loading a tank with whole clusters means that 100 percent carbonic maceration is impossible. Dumping the clusters into the tank will break some of the grape skins, then as the mass piles up, the weight of the clusters cause the skins of those grapes on the bottom layers to burst allowing the juice to begin fermenting the normal way. The question is whether to sacrifice some of the juice to make nouveau wine?

Only the upper layer of grapes undergo 100 percent carbonic maceration, while the lower layers mostly ferment naturally. Thus, carbonic maceration is more semi-carbonic maceration. Carbonic maceration is not used with white grapes because it produces off flavors. 

Other regions in France use carbonic maceration with Gamay and other red varieties like Grenache. In Italy, nouveau wines are called vino novello, and in Spain, it's vino joven.  The main export market for Beaujolais Nouveau (40%) is Japan, followed by the United States. 

Select Beaujolais Nouveau producers include Georges Duboeuf, Domaine Rochette and Mommessin. (Check this)

In the 1990s. when Beaujolais Nouveau was all the rage in the United States, a handful of California wineries, like Sebastiani, cashed-in on the craze, but it only lasted a few years. The idea was to make a "new" wine in the style of Beaujolais Nouveau, using Gamay and other varieties. Today, a small number of West Coast wineries are making what they call "Nouveau-style" wines, meaning any red wine, including Cabernet Sauvignon, that is released soon after harvest.

(His socks were white when he left California. Years ago while living in Colorado, I was writing about wine for the "Rocky Mountain News," a newspaper that unfortunately no longer exists. Don Sebastiani, then head of Sebastiani Vineyards, was in town to show Sebastiani Nouveau, a fruity California alternative to French nouveau. 

Don checked into Denver's famous Brown Palace Hotel, then prepared for a tasting that evening. After welcoming the crowd, Don explained what his family's nouveau was all about, then pausing, he stepped to the edge of the riser and pulled up both of his pant legs to reveal a pair of purple-stained white socks. 

As Don told the smiling crowd, before boarding the plane in San Francisco, he discovered there were a few more bottles of wine then would fit into his checked baggage. So now, feeling a bit harried, he quickly stuffed them into his carry-on.  Then, as he entered the Brown, Don tripped, dropping his bag on the marble floor. And to add to his embarassment, he discovered that one of the bottles had broken in his bag, soaking the socks and other items. 

Still holding up his pant legs, Don looked out at the audience and noticed that many of the people were stifling laughter, so he dropped his pant legs, gave a good-humored shrug, then invited everyone to sample Sebastiani Nouveau.) 

Nouveau and Thanksgiving  

Marketing Beaujolais Nouveau in the United States usually means pairing the wine with the traditional Thanksgiving meal. For years, a range of red wines, as well as Chardonnay and dry Riesling, were suggested as a good matches with turkey and the side dishes that graced the Thanksgiving table. Problem is that no matter how good the intention, few of the wines, except maybe some Pinot Noir, worked. 
 Across America there are many variations and interpretations of what makes up a traditional Thanksgiving meal. Start with different wines that marry with white and dark turkey meat. Then there are the sides: mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes or candied yams, stuffing (dressing?) with poultry seasoning, and what do you do with cranberry sauce, whole or jellied?  Well, you get the point.

So, if you happen to be in a Paris bistro on November 21, or around a Thanksgiving table somewhere in America, make at least one of the wine choices Beaujolais Nouveau. 

Next Blog: A Zin Primer 

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