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Live Fast, Drink Young

By Debra Meiburg MW

Other than the clever folks marketing Champagne brands, the PR teams in Beaujolais must be the finest in the wine world. Each November, press releases announce that a wine soon will race by helicopter, motorcycle and even by elephant to be the first to hit the international markets—Beaujolais Nouveau. And each November, wine journalists around the world enthusiastically tell the story again and again. How does this little known region producing simple wine (at best) from a little known grape called Gamay garner such attention? Beaujolais Nouveau, which means new Beaujolais, is the first French red wine of the season to be released into the market. A mere toddler in wine terms, the exuberant red drink is bottled almost immediately after fermentation is complete.

Japan is especially mad about Beaujolais Nouveau, consuming more than fifty percent of the world’s supply. Enthusiasts throw outrageous parties to welcome its arrival with one fan club pouring bottle after bottle into teeming Jacuzzis to celebrate. No wonder they import tubs of the stuff.

What makes Beaujolais unique, other than its excellent marketing programs, is a fermentation technique called carbonic maceration. Most wine producing regions crush and de-stem the season’s grapes before setting them on the path to fermentation, but in Beaujolais whole grape clusters are chucked into fermentation tanks intact. Once full, the tanks are quickly dosed with carbon dioxide to protect the grapes from the ravages of oxygen. The tanks’ hefty lids are then battened down tightly to keep the microbial underworld from entering the club.

The weight of the grape clusters at the top of the heap gently squeezes the fruit on the bottom, liberating sweet juice. The hunky door guards prevent dodgy yeasts from entering the tank, but a few hoi polloi will have slipped past the guards earlier and soon will sleaze their way through the juice, converting the grape sugars to alcohol.

Meanwhile, another transformation is taking place within the uncrushed grapes. Being the socialites in the tank, they are unaffected by the melee at the bottom of the heap and they begin to ferment within themselves, sort of like an exclusive private dining club. Eventually the grapes burst open to the masses, but not before ensuring the wine has a softened acidity, bright red color, very little tannin and a boisterous fruitiness.

There is nothing subtle about Beaujolais, so don’t look for soft vanilla nuances or spicy clove accents from aging in oak barrels. This wine is about the bloom of youth. Beaujolais Nouveau’s youthful exuberance is so integral to the enjoyment of this wine that suppliers treat it like a perishable product. Most experts argue that Beaujolais should be consumed within a few weeks of bottling and it is rarely allowed on retail shelves beyond six months, let alone one year. Omnipresent Georges du Beoeuf is by far the region’s dominant producer, but there are also smaller producers on our shelves, such as Paul Beaudet.

Another reason for Beaujolais Nouveau’s popularity is that it dances remarkably well with the cacophony of dishes found on December holiday tables: roasted turkey, cranberry sauce and candied yams. Just be sure to drink those bottles before the party’s over.

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