By Michael Nagrant
I started drinking in elementary school, but unlike most young drinkers, I was lucky enough to avoid the Wild Irish Rose, Mad Dog 20/20 and Boone’s Farm. Though I would revisit these malted fruity classics in college, my tipple of choice was a Beaujolais Nouveau.
It is not that I was a sullen young drunkard, but that my father, an amateur wine buff, allowed my brother and I a small sampling, usually during Thanksgiving dinner. We would trade our taste impressions across the table. At the ripe age of 10, unaware of phrases like “tannic,” “leathery” or “hint of cassis,” I would usually declare the wine to be “bad grape juice.”
To be fair, most of the French and the wine snobs don’t think too differently. Beaujolais Nouveau is released, according to French law, a few minutes after midnight on the third Thursday in November. Since the mid eighties, the release became an international marketing campaign, generally credited to Georges Duboeuf, the largest producer. Ridiculous gimmickry abounds, with relay runners, hot-air balloons, elephants and the Concorde employed to deliver the appellation.
Harvest, fermentation and final bottling of the Nouveau take no more than six weeks. Generally, because of the popularity of the wine, vineyards do not control the yield and often overgrow the Gamay vines, from which the wine is derived. In wine-speak, controlling the yield means that the concentration of flavor in the grape is higher, because it is not spread out over too many buds. Less is more.
The economically minded wine-making practices may also be the reason for the popularity of the wine in the United States. Acidic components don’t have a lot of time to develop, and the dustiness found in big Bourdeauxs doesn’t exist. There are no oak vats of Beaujolais Nouveau in the back of forgotten dank caves.
As a result, you either have a tart thin-bodied wine or, at its best, a super-fruity drinkable concoction. Except for Riunite, (On ice! So Nice!), it’s as close to a white a red can get. Despite the movie “Sideways” and the Pinot Noir invasion, Americans still like their whites—and the Beaujolais Nouveau, served lightly chilled, is a white disguised as a red.
That being said, snobs are snobs. The proof is in the bottle. Drink it and make your own decisions. The 2003 was considered one of the best harvests in years. Even Robert Parker, the famous Bordeaux evangelist, gave the vintage 95 points out of 100. Unfortunately, the wine is expected to be drunk within a year, and probably best in the first few months, so the 2003 won’t be found anywhere.
The 2006 was released about six weeks ago, and it’s a bit late to be writing this column, but I just broke open a bottle last night as an afterthought and got my first taste. It’s not the best I have had in nineteen years, but it’s nowhere near some tart harsh Beaujolais dogs I’ve had over time. It’s thin and bubbly with a lot of fruit, especially strawberries, but not a lot of substance, kind of Lindsay Lohanesque.
There’s still a balance that separates the Nouveau from Boone’s Farm, so consider grabbing a few bottles and think of it as a cheap daily wine ($9.99) for fun and friends. There were still many bottles left at Sam’s and Trader Joe’s a few weeks ago, and you could do worse with some of the two-buck swill mucking up shelves in local wine stores. Either way, for me it’s more about tradition, and each November, with a trip to the wine store, I get one more chance to conjure up 1986, our circular oak-laminate dining table, glistening Butterball turkey, and amber goblets filled with Beaujolais Nouveau.