Reviled Beaujolais Nouveau is still worth a fling 

Little Rascal

Beaujolais Nouveau release
Thurs. Nov. 20

La Fourchette
432 King St., Downtown
(843) 722-6261

Will present three or four Beaujolais Nouveaux and a la carte menu specials featuring traditional French country mainstays, charcuterie, even escargot. Price varies.

Mistral
99 S. Market St., Downtown
(843) 722-5708

Mistral and the Alliance Française of Charleston welcome the Beaujolais Nouveau with five selected wines for tastings, and a la carte menu specials. Starting at 6 p.m.

G & M Fast and French
98 Broad St., Downtown
(843) 577-9797

Beaujolais Nouveau will be the featured wine of the evening. A la carte menu.

Avondale Wine and Cheese
813-B Savannah Hwy., West Ashley
(843) 769-5444

Will have free samples of Beaujolais Nouveau all day Thursday. On Monday, Nov. 24, sample various Cru Beaujolais along with French cheeses. 5-8 p.m., $5

It's young, unpolished, and hasty. It has all the reckless charm of a holiday romance. Cooler heads do not give in to such things.

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In fact, it seems like every year serious wine lovers rush to dismiss Beaujolais Nouveau as little more than grape juice.

"Forget about Nouveau," warn Wall Street Journal wine columnists Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher. "For now, let's just pretend it doesn't exist."

At La Fourchette, Kevin Kelly understands their sentiment even as he searches out bottles worthy of his guests. Usually, he says, there will be among the year's Nouveau offerings, "some that are passable."

Manoli Davani, owner of Avondale Wine and Cheese, agrees. "Beaujolais Nouveau doesn't really give the grape the credit it's earned."

The grape she's talking about is the Gamay. (More romantically, we may call it by its full name: Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc.)

This grape has been cultivated in the same region of France — Burgundy — that produces some of the world's most esteemed, sought after, and outrageously expensive wines: the Grand Crus.

And there's the rub.

Despite the fact that fully a third of the Gamay harvest each year is given over to the Nouveau, the Gamay — and by extension Beaujolais — remains a black sheep in the region's noble wine-making heritage.

In 1395, the Duke of Burgundy, struggling to maintain the high standards of his region's brand, effectively called Gamay out as the vinicultural equivalent of kudzu: prolific, invasive, unrepentant, and yes, even unpatriotic. "Disloyal Gamay," he sniffed. The Gamay would not be allowed to overtake and displace the distinguished Pinot Noir or Chardonnay.

Six decades later, Philippe the Good issued another, similarly frustrated proclamation, banning Gamay again, for good measure. Which is evidence perhaps, that Gamay may have been down but it was not out.

Officially branded an outlaw, Gamay went into a reclusive, low-profile period. But at the end of each year's harvest, the brazen grape was pressed into service as a quick, quaffable little toast to the season's efforts and forthcoming success. This became the Beaujolais Nouveau: born of enduring subversion and questionable heritage. No wonder it remains, even as the Good Duke would have it, one of the region's sore subjects.

Fast forward to the years following World War II, and enter, in the early '50s, the enterprising Georges Duboeuf. Widely regarded as a marketing wiz, he oversaw much of what would later spill across the globe as an international thirst for the Nouveau. These days, more than 70 million bottles of the stuff annually migrate by planes, trains, and container ships.

But it began as a race to Paris. Hauling the first bottles of the season's production, vineyards competed against one another to reach the capital and be the first to reap the cash flow generated by the buzz. Two decades later, the race encompassed the whole of France, again sprinting that first flush-in-the-cheeks wine to eager revelers. In short order, the Beaujolais Nouveau became an international phenomenon largely on the strength of its compelling zest and joie de vivre more than any oenological merit.

Start to finish, vine to bottle, the Nouveau is an exercise in haste. French law prohibits the Gamay grapes from being harvested in any way except by hand. This is the only lengthy part of production. After harvest, the grapes skid toward the finish line via an uncomplicated fermentation called carbonic maceration.

To put this process in context, we'll dig out Galileo's definition of wine: "Sunlight, held together by water." By these lights, the Nouveau's production is to more complex winemaking what lightning is to solar power generation. It's less poetic illumination in a glass and more "Yikes! It's wine! — Sort of." And this winemaking lightning stroke yields the Nouveau's characteristic fruity, slender-bodied nature.

The wine is one of those meant to be drunk "young" which is to say, it does not age well. In excellent years, the Nouveau may still be drinkable up to a year later. But drinkable is not a terrific endorsement.

Partly to offset all the rotten press that the Nouveau seems to get, more wine merchants and sommeliers are getting on board with the Gamay rehabilitation effort. Their mandate: don't judge the Gamay by the Nouveau. Everything that is reckless and thin in the early wine is more defined, interesting, and worth investigating in the "real" Beaujolais that hits the shelves nearly a year after the Nouveau.

That said, Beaujolais Nouveau endures: the first wine of the new year, always carrying with it some of that New Year glow. Early reports say this year's Nouveau is a little heartier than years past. And even if it is an unruly rascal, if you can embrace it with joy and little abandon, it's worth a fling.


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