Every November it's the same old story: I preach against getting caught up in the excitement of Beaujolais Nouveau ... and then when the third Thursday rolls around, I rush out to the nearest open tasting, eager to try a taste.
In my head I know this stuff isn't great wine. It's a brilliant, not-so-ancient tradition that's much more about marketing and cash flow than about excellence in wine. But in my heart, I always dream that this might be the year when the Nouveau really is good.
Some genius in Beaujolais came up with the idea as recently as the post-World War II years: Take the grapes of the new vintage, and use wine-making tricks to create a fresh, fruity and simple little wine that can be rushed to market within weeks of the vintage. Promote it for its freshness, and create a little extra hype by summoning the news media to cover the event as you load the wine onto trucks and rush it to the city where throngs await, eager to take advantage of any excuse for a party.
Beaujolais is uniquely suited for this trick: Traditionally a light, early-drinking wine anyway, the regional grape variety - Gamay - lends itself to the vinification method (technically, carbonic maceration) that yields a short-lived but quaffable wine that can be drunk within a couple of months after the harvest. And it didn't hurt that Beaujolais is just far enough from Paris - about 400 kilometers, maybe a four-hour drive for a fast truck - to make for an exciting road trip when the new wine comes to town.
It wasn't long before wine enthusiasts around the world, not just Parisians; wanted a taste of the new wine, and the vignerons of Beaujolais eagerly complied. Regulatory authorities permitted the wine to be shipped to international destinations well in advance of the release date, so it would be in place and ready to sell on Nouveau Day. And just to kick cash flow up another notch, a few years ago the rules changed again, setting the official release date on the third Thursday of November (previously it had been fixed on Nov. 15), to ensure that the celebratory events would always fall late in the work week, when restaurant business booms and a party atmosphere prevails.
Party atmosphere? Hold that thought. I said it at the start, and I'll say it again: Beaujolais Noveau is not about wine-geek tasting notes or point ratings or "connoisseurship." It's about fun. Get into the celebration, and enjoy a glass as a last remembrance of the summer just past. But don't expect a transcendent wine-tasting experience.
Last year, the searing summer of 2003 in Europe fostered unusual ripeness in the grapes, resulting in some exceptionally fruity and full-bodied Nouveau. The summer of 2004 returned to something more like normal, and so, it seems, did the wine. I ventured across the Ohio to a tasting at an excellent local wine shop last night (Old Mill Wines in New Albany, Ind.) and tried samples of four popular Nouveaus. The surprisingly large crowd was amiable, and the distributors doing the pouring were hospitable and knowledgeable. The wines? Ummm ... They were about what I expected.
Joseph Drouhin 2004 Beaujolais Nouveau Primeur ($11.99)
Domaine Dupeuble Pere et Fils 2004 Beaujolais Nouveau ($11.99)
Georges Duboeuf 2004 Beaujolais Nouveau ($10.99)
Michel Picard 2004 Beaujolais Nouveau ($8.99)
On the way home (after a stop for a restorative pizza and, all right, a couple of beers at New Albanian Brewing Co., as long as we were in Indiana), we dropped by the L&N Wine Bar in Louisville to see if they were pouring Nouveau. Sure enough, a tasting flight of three was available (for $6.50) or single tastes of the Drouhin, the Duboeuf and the Picard ($2.50 each)
I gave the Drouhin another try and liked it a little better this time, mostly because Len Stevens, co-owner and wine guru, was wisely serving it chilled, which knocked off some of the rough edges and seemed to mute its vinegary quality.
Joseph Drouhin 2004 Beaujolais Nouveau Primeur ($2.50/2-ounce tasting glass)
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Friday, Nov. 19, 2004