The Boston Phoenix December 14 - 21, 2000


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The New New Thing

All that's Beaujolais isn't Nouveau

by Thor Iverson

Now that the yearly hype about Beaujolais Nouveau and Thanksgiving dinner has passed (and now that everyone else is cranking up the yearly hype about sparkling wine and New Year's Eve), it's time to answer this question: why is Beaujolais, of all French wines, subjected to the "Nouveau" treatment, and the worldwide marketing blitz that follows?

First, it's important to note that Beaujolais is not the beginning and end of "new" wine. Many other regions of France make a Nouveau style, as do some areas of Italy and Spain. The first new wine of the vintage has always been an occasion for celebration, much in the way that Thanksgiving is supposed to mark gratitude for the bounty of the year's harvest. The Beaujolais phenomenon is largely the result of one man's efforts. Originally produced for large-scale quaffing in the bistros of Lyon, a city very close to the vineyards of Beaujolais, the wine did not really take off until Georges Duboeuf conceived of and executed the clever plan that would bring Beaujolais to tables around the world at exactly the same day and time. And though Nouveau hype has receded somewhat in this country, Duboeuf's company still leads the world in Nouveau production (and Nouveau profit).

It's unfortunate, however, that Duboeuf's signature flowered bottle has become the worldwide standard by which Nouveau is measured. Duboeuf is not a bad producer, but he's most decidedly not a great producer. Many of his wines used to taste strongly of banana (thanks to a specific yeast, now abandoned), and even now the wines have an irritating sameness to them -- an example of what happens when the producer's signature overwhelms any site-specific characteristics.

But Beaujolais can be so much better. Gamay, essentially the only grape in red Beaujolais (some producers plant a little pinot noir), is a versatile grape that responds well to differences in soil, microclimate, and exposure. It can be made into light, low-alcohol, fruity quaffing wine, and this style -- essential as a counterpoint to the heavy pork- and fat-laden cuisine of Lyon -- is what most people associate with non-Nouveau Beaujolais. Wines of this style are usually labeled "Beaujolais" (which means the wine probably comes from the large southern area of the Beaujolais region, often from questionable sites), or sometimes "Beaujolais-Villages." The latter term is reserved for wines from one or more of 38 villages deemed to produce superior wine (producers are also allowed to add their village's name to the wine, as in Beaujolais-Villages Blacé).

But gamay really starts to get interesting in the ten crus (literally, "growths," or specific geographic areas) in northern Beaujolais that unquestionably produce most of the best wine. Here the soil is better, the hills are steeper, and the wines are more concentrated and longer-lasting. Consumers eager to explore the world beyond Nouveau should definitely look for these wines, which remain underappreciated and undervalued in this country.

Among the lightest of the crus is St-Amour, on the border of the Mâcon region (known for its chardonnay), which produces light and floral wines that can take a few years of aging. Juliénas, which comes from the hills above St-Amour, is allegedly named after Julius Caesar, and its youthful exuberance develops into a charming, silky maturity if it's left alone for around five years. Chénas is the smallest of the crus (the name comes from the French word for oak), but produces full-bodied wines that age well, and Chiroubles, from high up in the hills, are incredibly fragrant while young, although some are worth aging. Régnié is a recent addition to the list of crus; the appellation is still finding its signature, but some exciting wines are being produced that often reward a few years in the cellar. Brouilly is almost always for early drinking, and though the wines are light there's often a strongly earthy character to them. On the other hand, Côte de Brouilly, from the majestic hill rising from the center of Brouilly, is a different beast: full-bodied, intense, and long-aging.

The three most renowned crus, however, are also the most expensive. Fleurie, which lives up to its floral name, has a deceptive lightness that really expands with five to 10 years of aging, while vintages from Morgon are massive, thick, structured wines that age well even longer (and wines that carry the sub-designation Mont du Py are the cream of the Morgon crop; buy them if you see them). But the big gorilla is Moulin-à-Vent, named after the area's signature grain mill, a wine that, thanks to grapes grown in soil totally different from the rest of the region, is more akin to Burgundy than other Beaujolais -- in fact, it turns into something quite like pinot noir with 10 to 15 years (or more) of aging.

Some recommendations:

Ca'Vit "Terrazze della Luna" 2000 Novello di Teroldego ($7.99). Better than Beaujolais Nouveau because the teroldego grape is better suited to the "new" wine treatment. Featuring anise, blueberry, and walnut tastes, it's full and fruity but entirely refreshing. Terrific stuff.

Jean-Paul Brun "Terres Dorées" 1998 Beaujolais Chardonnay ($9.99). Beaujolais also makes white wine from chardonnay, and this inexpensive little beauty is almost unbelievably good. It offers a blizzard of aromas and flavors -- tulip, peach, loam, pecan, cashew, pear, orange peel, pine nut -- in a complex wine that nevertheless seems to speak of pure terroir. This is unquestionably Great Wine. (And if you must have Nouveau, seek out the firm's "Cuvée à l'Ancienne" for $8.99, the best of the bunch.)

M. Lapierre 1997 Morgon ($19.99). The best way to buy Beaujolais is to avoid Duboeuf, and sort out the rest by importer. Look for wines from Kermit Lynch, Louis/Dressner, Ideal, Arborway, and other specialty firms that seek out authentic, artisanal wines. This monster, supplied by Lynch, tastes of concentrated black cherry and caramel apple, with an explosive finish of dried maitake mushrooms, rose hips, and blackberry jam. With its strong earthy character, this balanced but huge wine definitely deserves at least five years in the cellar.

Thor Iverson can be reached at wine[a]

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