By Celia Strong
Well, the Beaujolais Nouveau is another day older. Actually, it’s a month older and settled down in its bottle and getting better every day. Like the third bowl of porridge and the third chair and the third bed in the children’s tale, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Good things can take some time.
We have mentioned, kind of glossed over, Beaujolais Nouveau is the first wine of each year’s harvest, the new wine, literally translated. This is the wine that gets released, by French wine law, on the third Thursday of November. Just in time for our Thanksgiving dinner on the fourth Thursday of November. Every year, it is the celebratory new wine for the new vintage. Problem is so many of us have so many other favorite wines, many of us like more weight and body in our red wines, and many of us just don’t like all the hype and noise of getting to the store to buy the Nouveau. But, really, many of us probably drank our share of Nouveau before we knew as much about wines as we do now. And we had parties, or went to parties, and, a few of us, have actually been in France on the third Thursday of a November and loved the excitement of it all.
So what exactly is this wine? Beaujolais Nouveau? Well, Beaujolais is a sub-region of Burgundy, the southern end of the region. The city of Lyons is located at the southern end of Beaujolais. In case you haven’t heard, Lyons is considered to be one of the best culinary and gastronomic areas of all of France. (Something we’ll need to get back to when we talk about food with Beaujolais wine.)
Backing up a bit, though, Beaujolais was first cultivated by the Romans and the grape growing and winemaking was continued in this area, through the Middle Ages, by Benedictine monks. For a long time these wines were only readily available in and around the region, but the building of France’s railroad system made it available to the whole country. Paris especially. In the 1980’s, Beaujolais was hugely popular, particularly the Nouveau wines. One negoćiant in particular, Georges Dubœuf, spearheaded the movement. Unfortunately, a negative feeling toward both Beaujolais and Beaujolais Nouveau wines has developed since then. Partly because of the love many American wine drinkers have for bigger, heavier style red wines. After the 2001 vintage, more than one million cases of Nouveau had to be distilled or destroyed, owners’ choice, because producers made way too much and it didn’t sell. To be fair, part of the problem was that they had to make so much due to previous demand, and by making that quantity they had to sacrifice some of the quality. (Happens a lot when certain wines become way too popular. Then, things balance out, production is more controlled, and quality rises again.)
Beaujolais wine laws decree that all grapes are hand-harvested. Carbonic maceration, where whole berries (grapes) are fermented rather than crushed grapes is the best for Beaujolais wines. After harvest, the grapes are loaded into very large, 20,000 gallon, sealed containers. These containers are filled with carbon dioxide and the weight of the grapes themselves, slowly, starts to crush those on the bottom of the containers. Fermentation begins and gives off carbon dioxide all sealed in the containers. The carbon dioxide causes fermentation to take place inside the grapes. This process augments the fruit flavors and diminishes the tannin levels in the finished wines — a unique process that results in unique wines. Fruity reds, particularly strawberry and raspberry flavors, with low tannins and higher acidity levels.
Gamay is the grape variety used to make Beaujolais wines. This variety is thought to have first appeared, in a Burgundy village called Gamay, in the 1360’s. In 1395, Philippe the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, outlawed the cultivation of this grape. He wanted the land to be used for growing the more elegant Pinot Noir. Sixty years later, Philippe the Good explained the outlawing of Gamay by saying, “The Dukes of Burgundy are known as the lords of the best wines in Christendom. We will maintain our reputation.” Thank goodness we can now make our own choices.
The high acidity levels from the grape are softened by using the carbonic maceration process. In addition to the red berry flavors, Gamay wines have a lovely floral character (lilacs, violets, roses) also. Besides growing in the Beaujolais area of Burgundy, Gamay is also grown in the Loire Valley where it makes red and rosé wines, in the Niagara Peninsula in Canada, in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and in Australia.
There is an on-going, self-imposed urgency to drink Beaujolais Nouveau immediately. But, let’s look at that for a moment. Nouveaux wines are legally bottled 30 days after the grapes are picked. So, if harvest is mid-September, bottling is mid-October and release to the public is the third Thursday of November, these are really young wines. Yes, Nouveau Day is still fun, and a good day to taste the first bottle. But, in the United States, we’ve always been pushed to drink all our Nouveau by the end of that year. At least in France, they save it for Easter dinner, several months later. Like any other wine, freshly arrived at your table after a long trip, the first bottle may taste good, but let’s face it, a bit of time to settle down is better for it.
Now, the 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau are just starting to settle down from their trip. Maybe the best way to think about it is to compare a bottle of Nouveau to a baby. Young and fresh and a future in front of them. The baby has the same personality it will for its whole life, but that personality has to have a chance to develop and mature. A month or two isn’t much of a chance. Patience can be rewarded. Some Nouveau wines are actually best a year later!
When pairing Beaujolais wines with foods, some surprises are coming our way. Beef Burgundy is a beef and red wine stew; Coq au Vin is a chicken and red wine stew, from Burgundy also. Well, think of seafood braised with Beaujolais. Yum. Then, think of quiches, or frittatas as some of us now make. Egg-based dishes are perfect with the lightness and crispness of Beaujolais wines. Remember traditional holiday meals of turkeys and hams — both are well matched with Beaujolais wines. Cheeses are great with these wines — mild and aged. Burgundy is full of local choices that are cows’ milk double-cremes and goat cheeses — hard and soft. And, don’t forget the one friend every year who might be ready to try drinking red wines. Beaujolais Nouveau is perfect. They get a bit of wine history and tradition, they get to chill it because of its acid levels and they get to celebrate their new wine savvy. Lots of reasons to keep some Nouveau close.
So, bottom line, if you want to re-learn and re-commit to Beaujolais Nouveau, now’s the time. They’ve been waiting for us for a month now, settling down, developing, just like Goldilocks. We can work our way through some, find the best and be happy. For $11 or $12 dollars. Enjoy.