Tuesday, March 11, 2014
By Joe Appel
You take a guy who seeks the obscure, frowns at the mass-produced and balks at obvious fruit. You throw this guy a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau. You know he's gonna hate it, you're just in the game to see whether his put-down will be entertaining.
Problem arises when the guy doesn't hate it. Because the thing is, guys like that – know-it-mosts, "connoisseurs" or, worst, geeks – most of 'em have a soft spot for Beaujolais. Ah yes, but then they're quick to emphasize that their soft spot is actually for "Cru Beaujolais," the northerly Most Favored Nation portions of this region just south of Burgundy such as Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Saint-Amour, Brouilly. Of course. It's never just any old Beaujolais – or any old anything – with these guys.
Well, despite the fact that some of these guys are my, um, friends, I personally am pretty good with almost any old Beaujolais. Sure, Georges Duboeuf's Disneyfication of Beaujolais Nouveau is ridiculous when it's not obscene. (This year, you blast the QR code on the label with your smartphone and "experience the magic of Beaujolais Nouveau in Augmented Reality!" Dude: No.) I still enjoy it. I'd rather have something ridiculous than boring.
Beaujolais Nouveau is the first wine available from the grapes crushed in the current year, and (by French law!) it comes out the third Thursday of every November. French rural culture created a whole joie de vivre thing out of this unpretentious, harvest-based tradition for decades; Duboeuf's Barnum-like genius was to build it into an international marketing phenomenon.
And sure, the stuff is barely wine. But it's fun, easy to drink, and frankly a lot better than a lot of $10 (or $15, or $25) wine out there that's unbalanced, overly alcoholic, battered with additives, sour and/or lipsticked with sugar.
Like all Beaujolais, Nouveau comes from Gamay, one of the great unheralded red-wine grapes of the world. Gamay is ravishing and fresh, with bright fruit, almost no tannins, and a palate-whetting raspy texture on the tongue that always excites.
All of one's desires to experience the most mature, complex, profound and contemplative wines go out the window when Gamay the Charmer enters the scene. You're just living, drinking, smiling.
And eating. Gamay is a terrific food grape, which is why Nouveau's timing with Thanksgiving is so fortunate. The ripe red fruit bounces off the happy cacophony of a Thanksgiving table. And a day-after sandwich with cranberry-chutney mayo alongside a chilled glass of Nouveau is sheer delight.
I drank the three Beaujolais listed below over the course of a few days, playing them off the meals I just happened to be eating: Sandwiches with tomatoes and cheese, spicy Thai red curry, pasta with creamy tomato sauce, Arctic char dolloped with kale-whipped cream and sweet potato fries. The wines – all of which, tellingly, clock in at a low 12 percent alcohol – sang duets with the food every time, or at least weren't out of key.
The Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2012 ($9 to $10, though some retailers just move it out the door at pennies above cost, for $8) is candy. It's a lollipop in liquid form, pretty like a pretty girl on the packaging for a children's toy is pretty. Not interesting-pretty, just "awwww, cuuuuute"-pretty.
Duboeuf claimed that the 2009 vintage was Beaujolais' "vintage of the century," but that's because it was overripe, plump and built to appeal to someone who favors California Pinot Noir so it was easier to sell. The 2012 vintage is better, because it's decidedly lighter in body, better balanced and expresses the unmistakable hallmarks of classic Gamay.
Duboef's main competitor is Joseph Drouhin, the great Burgundy house. Drouhin's Beaujolais Nouveau (same price as the Duboeuf) is definitely more serious. It's firmer, with the natural raspberry sweetness offset by tarter blueberry and cranberry notes. Fear not, it's still ticklish and immediately appealing.
But its savoriness brings it a lot closer to standing in for a low-priced French Pinot Noir (minus the earth). Because it lacks the easy sweetness of the Duboeuf, it might appeal to someone who (claims he/she) "only likes dry red wine".
What could be fun is for you to set one of those bottles alongside one of Pierre-Marie Chermette's Cuvee Traditionelle Beaujolais Vielles Vignes 2011 ($16, Wicked). This is not Nouveau. Nor is it Cru (though the Chermettes make Crus, too). It is, however, extraordinary. And no offense, Georges, but it stands opposed to everything Nouveau has become in the mass-production Era of Duboeuf.
The Chermettes employ assiduous pruning of their old Gamay vines to ensure low yields and high flavor concentration without funny business; hand-pick and vinify traditionally with the organically grown grapes' natural (not added) yeasts, barely filtered if at all, aged long in oak foudres. In most vintages, amazingly, they don't add sulfites.
The wine is perfumed like a flower pot, with fresh petals playing off the tantalizing funk of moist, mineral-rich fresh soil. Flavors of rich, ripe berries are driving yet controlled, and the medium-full body tests your ability to refrain from gulping. It will play peacekeeper between the fruit-loving and mineral-loving red-wine drinker at your table. Giving, communicative, generous and gracious, this wine expresses the essence of Thanksgiving. And for that reason, it ought to be by your side well after the festivities have died down.
Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog, soulofwine.com, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: email@example.com