by Jacqueline Feldman
On Thursday, with many others, I tried the Beaujolais Nouveau.
The red wine from gamay grapes comes out a minute after midnight on the third Thursday of November. Crowds gathered Wednesday night in Beaujeu, the city at the center of the Beaujolais region, to watch the barrel ceremonially tapped at midnight.
Beaujolais peasants festively consumed primeur wine — the region’s first of the season, bottled six to eight weeks after its harvest — long before producers fixed a November 15 release date in 1967, then the third-Thursday release date in 1985, the better to sell the wine.
People in one hundred and ten countries where it is exported celebrate the Beaujolais Nouveau, but I had never heard of it before coming to Paris. More people drink this wine in the Paris region than anywhere in France (1.3 million bottles in 2011). Each corner café and brasserie posts signs announcing its arrival in November. Nicholas, the wine-store chain, hangs multicolored posters: “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est Arrivé!” The multicolored letters of each word are scrambled, as are those on specially printed labels for Nicholas’ Beaujolais Nouveau, the joke presumably being the writer has had too much of the wine.
The Beaujolais Nouveau is fruity, famously unsophisticated, and consumed in great quantities upon its release. Young people in France eagerly await the day. By 6:15 p.m., a French friend of mine wrote online: “Je viens d’inventer une verbe : BEAUJOLER.”
Le Parisien reported experts say this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau tastes not of banana, as in years past, but of peach. But the server at La Favorite, a café on Rue de Rivoli where I tried the wine, said it tastes like banana, and served a plate of charcuterie with the bottle.
The man who runs the nice wine store near me arranged four bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau and plastic cups for tastings on the day, but was scornful when I asked him to evaluate this year’s Beaujolais. He said the wine is usually terrible, and this year’s is still worse.
The server at La Favorite said this year’s is fine.
Two French gourmands I know laughed at me when I asked whether they enjoyed this year’s Beaujolais. He called it “banana juice.” She used it to cook a fruit dessert, and said cooking is all the wine is good for.
The stir over Beaujolais Nouveau is widely interpreted by Beaujolais Nouveau pundits as a marketing ploy to sell bad wine fast. The campaign has centered for decades on a race to deliver the wine all over the world and immediately uncork it. Beginning in the Eighties, distributors sent the wine by plane, motorcycle, hot-air balloon, helicopter, relay runner, and sometimes elephant, but the spectacle seems to have slightly lapsed out of fashion. Producers of better wine in the Beaujolais region have always mourned the buzz, which makes consumers associate all Beaujolais with the bad Nouveau.
This year’s crop did poorly because of heavy rains and hail, and the economic crisis has uprooted acres and closed vineyards, though the article in Le Nouvel Observateur seems unclear whether these circumstances or a growing awareness of the mediocrity of Beaujolais Nouveau are responsible for its decline.
I didn’t mind what I drank at La Favorite. I served some to American friends the next day, explaining the custom surrounding the wine. We finished two bottles. I tasted banana, but they did not.