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Wednesday, December 5,2012

The most wonderful wine of the year

Annual unveiling of seasonal Beaujolais varietal is an event for wine fans

by Michael Brenton
Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrive! Translation: The new Beaujolais has arrived. What began as a local French tradition for efficiently creating and consuming wine from the current year harvest gradually morphed into a worldwide tradition and celebration. 

Beaujolais Nouveau wine, created exclusively from handpicked Gamay grapes grown in the Beaujolais region of Burgundy, France, goes through a unique winemaking process such that it can be released for consumption only weeks after the juice was resting inside berries on the vine. Moments after harvest, the grapes are dumped into stainless steel tanks where they go through a process of carbonic maceration. Instead of being crushed, then fermented, the berries are allowed to ferment while still in the skins, resting in an enclosed oxygen deficient/carbon dioxide rich environment. This process inhibits the extraction of drying tannins from the skins, while emphasizing bright, fresh, fruit. Total time from harvest to bottle may be as little as six to eight weeks. The volume of wine produced is huge.

From a marketing perspective, the evolution of Beaujolais Nouveau is a phenomenon developed in large part by noted French wine négociant Georges DuBoeuf. A négociant contracts with small growers to produce grapes, or even finished wine, frequently to the négociant’s specifications, then blends the wine and sells it behind his label. DuBoeuf contracts with hundreds of local vineyards and produces millions of bottles which, by French law, cannot be released before 12:01 a.m. on the third Thursday of November. Beaujolais Nouveau is transported around the world where traditions of midnight parties, dinners and wine tastings have added to the eager anticipation for each year’s new release. 

The 2012 harvest yield was light, lending itself to small and intensely concentrated berries. This carries over into the finished wine. Traditionally marketed in bottles with brightly colored labels, this year’s production shows particular appeal. 

The standard bottling of Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais Nouveau seems deeper and more concentrated than is typical, with a bit more tannic structure, almost like a conventional aged wine. Emphasizing tart cherry and bright acidity, it is still just a bit rough around the edges. I wouldn’t be surprised if it improves in bottle for a few months. But, like all Beaujolais Nouveau, it is meant to be consumed immediately and certainly within its first year of life. 

A version of Beaujolais Nouveau from Mommessin is much softer, rounder and delicate than the basic DuBoeuf bottling. It, too, shows berry fruit, plus just a hint of banana overtone frequently found in Beaujolais Nouveau wines, but much less so this year. I suspect some consumers will prefer the Mommessin because of its smoother mouthfeel, although I go for the gutsier DuBoeuf basic Nouveau.

Another Nouveau, this one under the Albert Bichot label, is a fruit bomb with red raspberry and cherry aromas, again tinged with just a touch of banana. A huge fruit bouquet is somewhat counterbalanced by a rather short “finish,” or aftertaste.

A higher end DuBoeuf is represented by the Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau Cuvée Spéciale. A step up in quality, it has a silkier mouth feel and more integrated tannins than the base DuBoeuf Nouveau, but more concentration and depth of flavor than the somewhat more economically priced Mommessin. The fruit takes center stage.

These wines are not only good values (priced between $8.50 and $12), they have widespread appeal when served at holiday events. For fanciers of dry white wine, Beaujolais Nouveau can be a great “gateway” to move into appreciation of red wine. The soft, approachable berry character of these wines makes them ideal accompaniments to holiday meals such as turkey or ham. They can also be used as a very reasonably priced alternative to lighter styles of Pinot Noir.

To sample the Gamay grape produced in a more conventional format, consider the Mommessin Saint-Amour Les Pechers 2010. This has a bit darker fruit in the nose, plus more concentration, structure and depth of flavor, but it continues to be an easy drinking wine. With aeration the flavor profile becomes softer and broader. This would be another good Pinot Noir alternative, at a price point around $17. 

DuBoeuf Jean Descombes, a 2010 Cru Beaujolais from the Morgon region of Beaujolais, showed even greater depth of color, structure, and blackberry/dark berry/dark cherry flavors, accompanied by mild tannins in the back palate giving delineation to the wine. This is a much beefier wine, demonstrating the differences between Nouveau and wines created with conventional winemaking techniques. At a $17 price point, it is a good value.

Finally, a 2010 Georges DuBoeuf Beaujolais-Villages (not Nouveau) highlights bright berry nose, spicy overtones bordering on cinnamon, smooth mouth feel and a soft very mild tannic edge, which kicks in on the finish. Look to spend around $10.

These can be refreshing, easy drinking, great value wines to serve at holiday parties and with holiday meals. Happy holidays, all!

In Vino Veritas

(Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)

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