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Beaujolais days
Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivée

SINCE 1985, ON the third Thursday of November, a week before Thanksgiving, Beaujolais Nouveau has been released all over the world. This quaint little ritual has gone a long way toward making Beaujolais famous, but it does not reflect the true quality of wines produced in the 49,000 vineyards of Burgundyís southern reaches, an area known as Beaujolais (after the town of Beaujeu).

Nouveau, of course, is really a novelty: unlike most wine, red or white, which takes at least a year to be ready for purchase, Nouveau is released mere months after it is made. It has been described as closer to white wine than red, as it is best served chilled and has almost no tannins: itís all about the raw fruit. But “Beaujolais” writ large is a lot bigger than just its Nouveau. Some 70 million bottles of Nouveau are made each year (many of them consumed close to release, as itís not a wine meant to age), and another 70 million of all other Beaujolais combined. These other Beaujolais wines are well worth taking seriously, especially in the good years.

There is evidence of vineyards in Beaujolais dating back to the Roman conquest of the region in the first and second centuries AD. Its prominence as a wine region is pegged entirely to the grape known as gamay, which was outlawed in Burgundy proper, just to the north, in 1395 (Burgundy now focuses almost exclusively on pinot noir and chardonnay). In addition to Nouveau, which is a primeur wine (meaning it is made and released before a specific date the following spring), there are Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages, and the wines made from the regionís several crus ó smaller, geographically defined regions that produce better wines. These regions range from Saint-Amour in the north to JuliŹnas, Chenas, Moulin-ą-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly, and finally Brouilly in the south. Regular old Beaujolais must have a minimum alcohol content of nine percent; Beaujolais-Villages must have a minimum of 10 percent alcohol and must be made with grapes from two of the 39 approved communes in Haut Beaujolais. In good years, these can both be solid wines, and although neither is built to last, they can survive for a good five years in the bottle.

The 10 crus are where the true action is: I was introduced to these wines when I was living in Paris in the late í80s, and they were described to me as the preferred table wines of the bourgeoisie. These wines can last for 10 to 20 years, but they are definitely ready to drink upon release. Last year, by all accounts, was a very good one, and the wines I have been trying recently confirm these positive appraisals. Theyíre bright and bouncy, quite memorable and refreshing.

The dominant taste in all good Beaujolais is cherry. Sometimes black cherry, other times wild cherry, but if you donít like cherries, then I would stay away from Beaujolais ó or at least the Villages and cru wines. These wines feature, for the most part, firm acidity, meaning they can stand up to spicy foods. They would not be my first choice with red meats, but theyíre perfect for faster foods, like pizzas, chicken sandwiches, Asian cuisine, and seafood stews. Prices tend to be less than $20, except for the very best bottles. They like air, and they can take some chill. In general, the less you pay for Beaujolais, the colder you should serve it, because Beaujolais ó especially the less expensive bottles ó can be almost too flavorful; colder temperatures blunt some of the flavor. If itís not one of the finer cru wines, you want to treat it more like “wine beverage” ó it is literally wine (that is, itís made from fermented grapes), but you can chill it, add ice, put it in sangria, drink it from a jelly jar, etc.

Itís clear why savvy Parisians make the better Beaujolais their wines of choice: they are not expensive or pretentious, but they accompany food well. They have fruit and structure, but they are not collectorís items. Cru wines from Beaujolais are still rustic, and make you appear as though youíre not afraid to go off the beaten track. They do not trick you, nor are they overly complex: they just vibrate and refresh.

If you like good Beaujolais, now is a fine time to try the latest releases. But theyíll be on the shelves for a year, so donít despair if you donít get to them right away. And while youíre at it, donít judge the region by its most prominent product. The 2001 Nouveau may be just around the corner, but the recently released 2000s are here to stay.

2000 Côte de Brouilly ChČteau de Thivin. Importer Kermit Lynch knows his vino. This is rosy on the nose, with cherry and tea notes ó smoky, chunky in the middle, and then a smooth, round finish. Itíll give you a jolt when you drink it; I like it with grilled salmon, a spicy chicken dish, or a nice pad Thai.

2000 Moulin-ą-Vent Hubert Lapierre. Named for the mill near where the grapes grow, this is a more restrained wine ó round, with a nice, cheery core of light cherry. Maybe a hint of cinnamon in there. Itíll complement your basic Chinese dishes, like kung pao chicken, spare ribs, or spring rolls.

2000 Morgon Vielles Vignes Jean-Paul Thevenet. Raspberries, teakwood, and a touch of hibiscus tea. Maybe some chocolate in there, if you let it linger long enough. Sort of funky on the finish. Should be good with braised short ribs or oxtail ravioli ó heartier meat dishes. Definitely a plus for something stewy, but it would also wash down a ham sandwich (or a croque monsieur) with aplomb.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: November 1-8, 2001

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