Stay away from that Beaujolais Nouveau, sucker.

Nov. 21 2002 11:45 AM

Red Scare

Stay away from that Beaujolais Nouveau, sucker.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Pass any wine shop today and you are apt to see several big posters in the window announcing "Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé" ("the Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived"). Step inside and you will likely find more such posters, along with balloons, bunting, and dozens upon dozens of colorfully labeled bottles of Beaujolais, all prominently displayed. It is that time of year again: Come the third Thursday of November, the release date chosen by the French government, wine stores, wine bars, and restaurants around the world fete the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau, wine made of grapes that were still on the vine only three months earlier (thus the "nouveau"). Given that no other wine region enjoys anything like this one-day marketing frenzy, you might think the long-running promo has been a godsend for the wine pooh-bahs of Beaujolais. It has been a bonanza for one of them; for the rest, it has been pretty much a disaster.

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That one is Georges Duboeuf, the so-called King of Beaujolais. His empire reaches just about every corner of Beaujolais, a picturesque region just north of Lyons, and accounts for roughly 10 percent of the wine flowing out of its cellars. It is Duboeuf who is chiefly credited with turning the release of Beaujolais Nouveau—derived, like all Beaujolais wines, from the gamay grape—into a global rite of autumn.

Why it was decided to make the region's humblest juice—a wine mainly borne of its worst vineyards, a wine barely removed from the fermentation vat, a wine that is nothing more than pleasantly tart barroom swill—its international standard bearer is a question that will undoubtedly puzzle marketing students for generations to come. Sure, it generated quick and abundant cash flow for the négociants, like Duboeuf, who dominate Beaujolais. (A négociant is a wine producer and shipper that owns few if any vineyards of its own; instead, it purchases grapes or unfinished wines from small producers—Duboeuf has over 400 suppliers—then ages, bottles, and sells under its own label.) But the easy money came at a hell of a price.

For a time, the Nouveau campaign, which was launched in 1985, seemed like a masterstroke. From Tokyo to Paris to New York, it became a competition to see who would be the first to uncork the year's Nouveau. In some places, the wine was delivered by hot-air balloon; elephants, motorcycles, helicopters, relay runners, dour French waiters, and even the Concorde were also drafted into service. As popular as this annual bacchanalia proved to be with restaurants and watering holes, it was an even bigger hit at the retail level, particularly here in the United States. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when the wine was available, bottles of Duboeuf's Beaujolais Nouveau would fly off the shelves, more than a few of the bottles landing on holiday dinner tables.

Although the wines still sell briskly, and the party goes on, the Nouveau mania has plainly ebbed, and it is fair to say the campaign has done the Beaujolais brand more harm than good, especially in the United States. Unlike the French, who know that Beaujolais is more than just Nouveau and for whom the wines have always been a favorite year-round tipple, Americans had little familiarity with Beaujolais prior to the Nouveau phenomenon. The frenzy led many consumers to assume that Beaujolais was meant only to be drunk in the late autumn; that Nouveau, the cheapest Beaujolais there is, was the only one worth drinking; and that Duboeuf was the only name that mattered. The truth—that Nouveau is the lowest wine in the Beaujolais hierarchy; that Beaujolais has 10 premier growths of far superior quality; and that the region boasts a number of artisanal winemakers crafting first-rate wines—never really seeped into the marketplace.

True, there were lots of savvy wine drinkers in the Unites States who understood that Beaujolais wasn't limited to Duboeuf's Nouveau. But, of course, snobbery is one of the engines driving the wine market, and the Nouveau craze, with its populist appeal, had the effect of making Beaujolais an object of disdain among the sophisticates, ever determined to stay two steps ahead of the riffraff. So, instead of doing their bargain-hunting in the Beaujolais section, they increasingly turned to Italy, Spain, and other parts of France. It didn't help that even the finest Beaujolais wines have never received a lot of love from the wine press. The good ones win respectable marks, but being relatively light, acidic wines, they don't stand much chance against the richer, plusher wines that tend to excite the critics.

The Nouveau fad has had other undesired consequences. To cash in on the craze, growers naturally planted as many vines as they could and pushed crop yields into the stratosphere. Massive yields generally result in lousy wines; but in the case of Beaujolais Nouveau, a wine with modest prospects under the best of circumstances, what was the harm in cramming as many grapes into as many bottles as possible? Now that the region is drowning in an ocean of plonk, the harm is readily apparent. Over a third of the region's output is bottled early (over 20 percent of Duboeuf's is Nouveau), and at present, the supply of mass-produced Beaujolais, Nouveau and otherwise, far outstrips demand. In part, that is because the public has been conditioned to think of Beaujolais as a seasonal drink, sort of like eggnog. But it is mostly due to the fact that the wines are insipid and can't compete against bargains from other regions that pack significantly more flavor and character. As a result, a lot of Beaujolais never sees the inside of a glass. Indeed, on the eve of this year's harvest, the local wine bureaucrats were forced to order the destruction of some 13 million unsold bottles, 7 percent of last year's total production.

Illustration by Nina Frenkel

Indicative of the damage that has been done to Beaujolais: Al Hotchkin, the owner of the Burgundy Wine Co., a superb Manhattan wine shop, says it is often the case that in recommending a bottle of Beaujolais, he will initially refrain from mentioning the dreaded "B" word and will instead tell the customer that it's a Moulin-a-Vent or Fleurie or Morgon. If he says right off the bat that the wine is a Beaujolais, the response is likely to be the dreaded "N" word—no.

Duboeuf, of course, is sitting pretty. The Nouveau rage ultimately didn't do Beaujolais many favors, but it certainly paid off for Duboeuf, strengthening his firm's already tight grip on the market. To be sure, he did help put the region on the map, and though he is most respected for his business acumen, he does turn out fairly decent wines, at least at the high end. His cheaper offerings have been the subject of scorn in recent years because they have been fermented using a type of yeast that imparts an off-putting banana smell (call it the Chiquita strain). In response to the carping, he has now apparently changed ingredients. If there is a flaw with his better wines, it is simply the homogeneity; too many of them taste too much alike.

Should you find yourself succumbing to the hype over the next few days, here's a suggestion: Skip the Nouveau, bypass the Duboeuf (the king does not need your money), and instead look for a Cru Beaujolais. They generally run between $10 and $20, and the best are brought in by the following importers: Louis/Dressner, Alain Junguenet, and Kermit Lynch. Some wines to look for: Chateau Thivin (from the Côte de Brouilly appellation), Jacky Janodet (Moulin-à-Vent, the most esteemed appellation in Beaujolais), Marcel Lapierre (Morgon), Domaine Diochon (Moulin-à-Vent), Jean-Paul Thevenet(Morgon), and Michel Tete (Juliénas).