Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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TODAY

Friday, September 24

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Airbags

"Would Monsieur care for another bottle of Chateau Latour?"
"Yes, but no more 1966. Lets splurge! Bring us some fresh wine. The freshest you've got. This year. No more of this old stuff."

While Steve Martin's character in The Jerk was a bit unclear on the concept, most folks get the fact that good wine takes some time to make and the really fancy stuff gets better with some age. In the 1970s, even Ernest and Julio Gallo proclaimed, "We will sell no wine before its time." So why on earth do people get so excited about Beaujolais Nouveau? It's a wine made in a matter of weeks and most of it gets slurped up before New Year's. What's the fuss? It's the original party wine.

Here's the deal. Burgundy is a prestigious wine region in central France, covering a magical strip of land between the towns of Dijon (known for fancy mustard) and Lyon (known for fancy restaurants). People have been farming grapes there since the First Century BC and the French have been issuing rules and edicts for a very long time to ensure the region's wine quality. Plus, they really like to issue rules and edicts. In July of 1395, a particularly bold fellow named "Phillip the Bold" issued a decree that banished the Gamay grape from the officially sanctioned area of Burgundy. Pinot Noir was the hometown noble red grape here and he decided that wines made from Gamay sullied Burgundy's good name. The region of Beaujolais, just to the south of Burgundy proper, had always been considered part of the generic Burgundy area, but now it was the inferior southern stepchild. No matter, really. Beaujolais grows tons and tons of Gamay and ships its most famous wine, Beaujolais Nouveau, all over the world. People throw parties to celebrate its release. It's a huge cash cow for wine growers, importers and retailers alike. Burgundy wishes it had that kind of popular appeal. Descendants of Phillip the Bold are probably still pissed off.

Most red wines, even really simple ones, take a year or two to make. The fancier, drier-style reds from Beaujolais (Yes, they exist! More on that another time.) are usually released two years or so after they are harvested. Beaujolais Nouveau, or "new Beaujolais" is made from Gamay grapes harvested in early September and vinified using a technique called "carbonic maceration." Basically they toss whole clusters of grapes in a tank, throw in some souped-up yeast and let the weight of the grapes crush themselves and start fermenting. This makes for a quick process that keeps lots of grapey flavors in the wine and eliminates most of the tannins or bitter elements. Within a period of five weeks or so, they have a light and fruity red bottled and ready for shipping.

Farmers in Beaujolais historically made these quick batches of wine, merely for a celebration of the harvest. It was designed to be quaffed at a big party to reward folks for all the hard work they put in over the year. The French love a good party, particularly one that pays tribute to food or wine, so as word got out, more folks wanted in on the fresh juice. Winemakers churned out more Nouveau every year to ship up to Paris, where folks ran through the streets announcing, "Le Nouveau est arrivee!" on the first day the new wine arrived. Since the date varied with each producer and each vintage, the French decided they needed another rule. The wine must not be released before November 15th. But even that wasn't good enough. In 1985, a new law stated that the official Beaujolais Nouveau release date is the third Thursday in November and no one may sell it anywhere in the world before that day. Now retailers across the globe pay extra to have their Nouveau shipped by air, so that they may have the wine on their shelves on the official release date. Some big producers even throw parties on the Wednesday night before and pop corks on the Nouveau at midnight to celebrate at the first legal minute.

So for all this hoopla, the wine must be really awesome, right? Not so much. Don't get me wrong. I love to throw back a few goblets of Beaujolais Nouveau at a holiday party, but it was never meant to be fancy. It's a cheap quaff that smells a lot like strawberry-banana yogurt and is best slightly chilled. It's fun for a night, but nothing worth keeping around long term. Much like many of the men I dated in my early 20s. If you are a looking for something different to take to party, it's a great pick. Most have colorful fun labels that look great in gift baskets, and you can talk a little smack about its history to boot. Those looking to wean a spouse or significant other off of White Zin and low rent Chardonnays might have luck here too. This wine is terrific for folks that generally don't like red, as it is very light in body and almost a touch sweet. And the wine police won't come after you if Uncle Earl drinks it out of a jelly jar with an ice cube or two. It's fun, festive and uncomplicated. Much like me in my early 20s.

Displays of Beaujolais Nouveau are prominent in wine and grocery stores alike throughout December. If it's a giant stack of wine with flowery labels in circus colors, it's probably Nouveau. The most famous producer is Georges Dubouef and he puts out consistently good wine highlighted by spectacular marketing. Other solid producers include Louis Jadot, Joseph Drouhin and Mommessin. Other countries, eager to get in on the quick cash return of Nouveau, produce a similar style wine with equally tarty labels and low prices. California producers will make "Gamay Beaujolais" which is not made from the same grape or region at all. The Italians have made stuff called "Novello" and I'm sure Australia isn't far behind with their own version. In my opinion, the true French stuff is only about $10, so just buy the real deal. Make sure the label says "Beaujolais Nouveau" somewhere and you'll be fine. Buy a bottle. Party on.

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About the Author(s)

Christine Blumer is the owner of Winediva Enterprises, a private wine education and events company. She writes for several culinary and wine magazines and produces a monthly e-newsletter, Diva Dish. Subscribe via email to winedivaentmsncom or visit www.winedivaent.com.

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