Berger: History behind the rare and frivolous Beaujolais Nouveau

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Thirty years ago, mid-November was the beginning of the wine season that culminated on Dec. 31 with bubbly, and it all started with a silly promotional campaign called “the race to market.”

Beaujolais Nouveau was the beverage, and the entire game, with every player winking just a bit, revolved around becoming the first producer to get this frivolous red wine to consumers.

French law prohibited its sale before Nov. 15 of each year, but Beaujolais Nouveau was not a serious beverage at all, sold cheaply and primarily in French cafés by the glass to mark the end of the recently completed harvest. This year, Beaujolais Nouveau lands on Thursday, Nov. 17.

Made from the Gamay noir à jus blanc grape, or simply Gamay, it is remarkably fruity, has very little depth and often is served cold. Cynics would call it alcoholic soda pop.

And it doesn’t keep. If you have a year-old bottle, it’s best to throw it away and buy a new one.

By the early 1980s, the race to market became an absurd carnival on wheels. One wine company delivered the first bottle into Paris with a tuxedoed waiter parachuting to the base of the Eiffel Tower, with another waiter standing by with a tray of glasses.

The time was usually 12:01 a.m.

One merchant delivered his cache to a New York locale using an elephant to haul boxes of the stuff. Bottles were flown on the Concorde; bottles were opened at midnight on board cruise ships.

The odd thing, of course, is that the quality of the wine has almost always been immaterial.

The Intercontinental Hotel in San Diego asked me to assess the quality of the 1985 Nouveau that had arrived moments earlier from the airport via a motorcycle brigade.

As if anyone really cared about the quality! Regular Beaujolais can be a fine wine, but the nouveau stuff rarely is.

In fact, once the fanfare of the Nouveau race to market was forgotten each year, the real stuff would show up in the spring with a lot less buzz.

“Real” in this case means Cru Beaujolais, wines that come from one of the 10 prestige regions of the Beaujolais district, which commanded prices two and three times that of the November surprise.

Among the names that are prized are Morgon, Fleurie, Julienas, the so-called top-of-the-category Moulin-a-Vent, and the most romantic, St.-Amour.

Some years ago, the French changed the legal date on which it was illegal to release Le Beaujolais Nouveau to the third Thursday of November. That allowed the Beaujolais district to begin staging dozens of festivals dedicated to the young wine.

Nouveau had such a following back in the 1980s that many California wineries began to make a similar wine, some of them using Gamay and others using other grape varieties. One winery gained more fame for its nouveau than any other — Napa Valley’s original Charles Shaw.

Even the Italians got into the act, some making a wine called nouvelle.

But since the wine almost never represented anything special, the Nouveau promotions eventually were seen as trivial and were abandoned.

You can still find French Beaujolais Nouveau in U.S. stores in late November each year, even though the artificial race to market has long since ceased to be a big deal.

And because of the decline in interest, so has all Beaujolais become far less important than it once was.

The Cru wines (which we will not see until March or April) represent Gamay at its best. They still have a small following on the East Coast. California wine merchants still carry a small amount of a few Cru wines, and even that market is declining.

Because no bottles of French nouveau have yet been released, I can make no recommendations for the best of them. But the most recognizable Beaujolais house, Georges Duboeuf, is often the worldwide leader in quality, with the wines rarely selling for more than $10 a bottle.

A final thought: I doubt the French created Nouveau Beaujolais to work wonderfully on Americans’ Thanksgiving day table, but that is certainly the wine’s greatest raison d’etre.

Wine of the Week: 2015 Alamos Torrontes, Salta, Argentina ($13): Even dedicated wine collectors should be given a mulligan if they identify this wine as Gewurztraminer, so spicy and alluring is its aroma. The grape variety, which originated in Argentina, typically makes a slightly richer, sweeter wine in the Salta District. This wine has all the flavor profiles associated with tropical fruit and the expected sweetness and aftertaste. Best with very spicy foods. Serve well chilled.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County and publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter.

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