It is in essence a pastoral fantasy for wine loving city slickers who crowd into hip wine bars and restaurants to re-enact a faux version of what peasants have celebrated throughout the ages: their harvest.
NOUVEAU, A NEW NEW COPIES THE OLD NEW
Tomorrow, Friday, November 18th, Wine Wizard’s, our regular Friday night haunt, will be packed with a festive crowd. It happens every November, for today, the third Thursday of the month, is when this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau is released and the party begins.
For those unfamiliar with the phenomenon, Beaujolais is a region in central France, immediately south of Burgundy, that produces light red wines made of the Gamay grape. It has ten different appellations, so called Cru Beaujolais, each with their own names. They are considered serious wines, despite being eclipsed by Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from Burgundy, the region’s more famous neighbor.
The word Nouveausimply means new. Beaujolais Nouveau is the first wine from grapes harvested only weeks earlier and rushed to the market. The fast forwarded winemaking process does away with any aging and bypasses time consuming yeast fermentation. Instead a process known as carbonic maceration is used, in which uncrushed grape clusters are sealed in containers pumped with carbon dioxide gas. This results in brightly fruity wines that lack tannin, complexity or depth. Carbonic maceration produces characteristic flavors of bubble gum, cotton candy and banana. These wines lack any staying power. They are to be consumed immediately.
Invented in the 1980s by Georges Duboeuf, well known producer in the region, the Beaujolais Nouveau release party has become a wildly successful marketing event, celebrating as it does, the annual fall harvest.
Beaujolais Nouveau has become so successful that it has obscured the more serious Cru Beaujolais produced in the region that remains scarcely known or purchased. As a result, Beaujolais remains a region that pops into our minds one frenzied weekend a year and retreats into obscurity for the rest of the time.
Success invites copycats. Now we have a new wave of California Nouveau, Oregon Nouveau, Long Island Nouveau and more. Winemakers in various regions of the U.S. are coming up with their own versions of fast-wine from fresh harvest. Esther Mobley, a San Francisco wine writer, in a recent article she penned in the Chronicle, reported that these winemakers are approaching the task with characteristic New World inventiveness, trying to branch away from those inevitable carbonic flavors and into some idiosyncratic diversity. So far their success is limited.
Financially however, the new domestic nouveau phenomenon is a hit, reports of rapid sellouts common. Winemakers like the idea of recouping their harvest costs immediately rather than waiting two or more years before properly aged wines are released to the market.
Lucrative for producers and popular with consumers. It is a winning equation. You can safely expect the new new to become as popular as the old new.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to a dinner party on Friday November 18th. I will miss the festivities at Wine Wizard’s and I won’t shed any tears over it. Clumsily crafted, simple wine is not my thing, nor is bubble gum. And when it comes to the budding California Nouveau craze, I will observe it from the sidelines as I have with Beaujolais for years.