There's a certain cadre of wine drinkers who anxiously await the arrival of a very special Thursday in November for their chance to eat and drink (wine, natch) until they fall into a pleasure-induced stupor. If you're reading this and thinking to yourself, "Yeah, that's called Thanksgiving," then think again. The peeps I'm talking about are giddy for a day most of the world pays no attention to: the third Thursday of November, when "le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!" -- aka, the day the Beaujolais Nouveau arrives.
In the French region of Beaujolais, winemakers for centuries have traditionally celebrated each successful harvest by throwing a party and drinking the just weeks-old bottling of that year's gamay (the grape used to make Beaujolais wine) crop. As you might imagine, given that most red wines are aged in barrels, then bottled for as long as a few years before ever hitting liquor store shelves, these extremely, um...fresh, Beaujolais are not exactly robust. And in truth, most industry pros tend to pooh-pooh these young wines as pure novelty acts. Because the nouveau wine is barely finished fermenting before it's bottled and sold (to millions of global Beaujolais fans who clamor for it) most of them exhibit a distinctive flavor profile not unlike banana Bubble Yum that clearly one either loves or hates. While we've actually got no beef with the youthful versions -- as long as the wine is done well -- there's another style of Beaujolais wine we dig even more that gets virtually no love from anyone not in the know since the nouveau wines snag so much of the attention. Read on for all the juice on cru versus nouveau Beaujolais.
"Beginner" Beaujolais: That whole love/hate thing we were talking about? It's based on your particular wine preferences. There's a lot to be said for a fresh, bright, fruity wine that's easy to drink, right? If you tend to enjoy whites over reds, for example -- or if rosé wines set your heart aflutter -- then chances are good that you will absolutely adore nouveau Beaujolais. Because along with those potentially unappealing banana-ish flavors (a common result associated with the carbonic maceration techniques used by winemakers) there's also some pretty delightful cherry Sweet-Tart action involved in les nouveaux -- which is gonna clear your palate like a Zamboni between bites of everything from saucisson to salmon. There's also no need to make room in your cellar for these bottles; they're best consumed ASAP, as they're simply not built for aging like other red wines. And by ASAP, we mean there's no time like the present: Attend the Beaujolais & Beyond Wine Festival (any one of a handful of Beaujolais Nouveau celebrations taking place around town) tomorrow, or, better yet -- pour these extremely food-friendly reds on that other kind-of-a-big-deal Thursday this month, where the wine's tangy berry flavors are pure money with things like oh...turkey and cranberry sauce.
Join The Cru: If nouveau Beaujolais are designed to represent a youthful -- and more light-hearted -- style of winemaking, then cru (the word designating that production occurred in one of ten legally-designated villages in the region) wines are like their scholarly older brother. In fact, they've got a lot more in common with the Burgundian pinot noirs we shotgunned last month than the simpler Beaujolais AOC bottles. If you're wondering how what amounts to these cru vineyards being in a slightly different zip code results in such a vast stylistic departure, here's the deal. By now you know that the French have never met a winemaking law they didn't love. So it follows that in order to label wine as "cru" (FYI -- bottles from these regions almost never have the word "Beaujolais" printed on them, lest buyers confuse them with the nouveuax) there are all kinds of rules and regulations a winemaker must adhere to: Vineyard yields are kept low and wines may even be aged in oak barrels prior to release. The result? Elegant, intelligent wines that offer layered aromas (everything from floral to dusty herb to dried stone fruit) and distinctive terroir notes. To spot these hoard-worthy gems, look for cru village names like these displayed prominently on the label: Juliénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Morgon or Chènas.
Four stunning Beaujolais wines (new and cru) to try right now:
Domaine Dupeuble Pere et Fils Beaujolais Nouveau 2012 ($14) Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau 2012($11)
Louis Jadot Château des Jacques Moulin-à-Vent 2007 ($23) Maison Joseph Drouhin Juliénas 2000 ($20)