Napa Valley is alive and well.

Napa Valley is alive and well.

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Red Wine With No Pretenses

Nouveau Beaujolais is a red wine that has no pretenses. It does not require contemplative sips. It’s light, fruity and aromatic, with hints of strawberries, raspberries, and other red fruits, and except for haute cuisine, it can accompany a wide variety of food. Because it has such a fresh, succulent mouth feel, some have quipped, “It’s a white wine pretending to be red.” Much of this is due to its underlying Gamay grape, but it also owes a great deal of its personality to a very short and unique fermentation method—carbonic maceration, also known as whole berry fermentation.

Every year on the third Thursday of November wine shop posters trumpet its arrival in bold, exclamatory letters. And on that day, giddy fans around the world anxiously await its jet plane arrival so they can participate in the annual ritual quaffing of this ethereal, “first wine of the vintage.” Repeating an historic custom of countless vineyard harvests, this annual promotional extravaganza and finance manager’s cash flow dream, is made possible because of its fast-track trip from vines to lips. That express route creates a wine that is tannin and oak free, and, therefore, is best consumed within the first six months of its bottled life. Bottle aging is a waste of time and wine, and like a light-bodied white, it is best enjoyed when chilled to about 55 degrees.

Notwithstanding the above, Nouveau Beaujolais is that unique, “love it, or hate it” wine which rocketed from a local quaff to an international vinous super star many years ago. Originally, it was served directly from barrels whether at the hundreds of Beaujolais-based festivals or regional bistros, and, because of that, many old timers remember it as “a wine that was never made to be bottled.”

However, because of its underlying qualities, many disparage it as not being a “serious” wine. Like all good ideas pushed to excess, Nouveau had its own set of production, winemaking and marketing blunders, and it became déclassé in the eyes of some critics and wine journalists. But it is on its way back, and it seems that the entire Beaujolais appellation, through the 2011 vintage, seems to be enjoying its third consecutive top quality vintage.

I recently checked on Nouveau’s interest at the Wine Spectator’s wine forums. Postings varied from the negative “Over marketed . . . overly hyped . . . Kool-aide,” to the more upbeat “I've always enjoyed the wine and the hoopla. I think people that denigrate Nouveau should lighten up.” On balance, the postings were evenly split, with many abstaining.

This year’s release will be on Thursday, November the 17th, and it might be worth exploring if you 1) are an emerging wine enthusiast or, 2) want to segue from your routine white to something with a little more aroma, color and flavor, or 3) want to give your palate a break from high octane reds, or 4) are interested in discovering the partying state of mind its originators enjoyed. (But do keep in mind: Nouveau is not a pre-dinner "sipping" wine or an aperitif.  It is a basic vinous beverage to accompany hearty bistro-type food.)

With Thanksgiving but a few weeks away, you might consider trying a bottle. Depending on producer and what your local wine store stocks, prices should cluster around $12 per bottle. Additionally, to get a feel for the entire appellation, you might also sample one or more of Nouveau’s heftier brethren from the ascending levels of quality within the appellation: Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages, or the ten Crus (Crews) of Beaujolais. Click here for more information on the appellation, the ten, high quality Crus and the exceptional 2009 vintage.

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