Last week, millions of bottles of 2012 Beaujolais Nouveau were uncorked all over the world, from Villefranche to Lyon, from Tokyo wine bars to New York cafés and Los Angeles bistros. Beaujolais Nouveau Day is held the third Thursday of November each year, a juggernaut of marketing that vaults the region into the public consciousness for a brief, intense period of dedicated Bacchanalia. In fact, outside of Champagne on New Year's Eve, it's probably one of the most coordinated acts of annual public drinking in the world.
For most of those who imbibe this young, happy, fruity stuff, Nouveau is more frivolous drinking than serious drinking. The wine is not much to contemplate beyond a few chilled glasses. But the business of Nouveau is hardly frivolous: It represents one-third to one-half of the region's total production.
In a year like 2012, that's a heavy burden. The vintage was a difficult one: Spring rains, then drought, gave way to punishing hailstorms, the evidence of which can be found on the hood of nearly every car in the region in the form of golf ball-sized dings and dents. It's easy to imagine the havoc wreaked among the vines. As much as one-third of the harvest was lost.
After such a natural disaster, a number of decisions must be made: how to manage the surviving crop, and how to gauge one's resources. The rest of Beaujolais production goes into village wines that are grown and made differently, with longer macerations to yield less fruity, more structured wines.
So a producer is faced with an odd dilemma: Should I devote a short crop to a young, lesser wine that serves as a symbol to the world, or should I save my resources for a more serious effort? It's a decision that must be made quickly, since there is a looming deadline for Nouveau production -- for all intents and purposes, the middle of October, after which the wine is quickly bottled and dispatched by plane and boat around the world.
Making wine on a deadline is no picnic. Grapes macerate on their stems, and then are pressed off and fed quick-acting yeasts to speed along the conversion to alcohol. "It is the hardest wine I make," one wine grower told me, "because I have no time to work." The finished wine is barely a wine when it reaches the bottle.
For all that, the quality of Nouveau bottlings has improved dramatically over the last decade -- just as the world's wines are better, so too are the world's newest wines.
The best Nouveau this year will possess exuberant fruitiness, but also a vinous bottom note that grounds the wine and reminds you of its origin. There will just be far less of it.
If you're looking for something more substantial, consider the 2011 village wines (Beaujolais-Villages) or wines from one of the crus of the region: Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly and Morgon, among others. With their added weight and polish, their ethereal weave of luscious fruit and haunting earth and spice, cru-Beaujolais wines are, in my opinion, some of the most buoyant, joyous wines on earth.
One more thing: Each year wine writers beseech their readers to drink Beaujolais on Thanksgiving. It's not an accident. There's simply not a better red for affordability, for crowd pleasing and for all-around deliciousness.
Five producers of 2012 Beaujolais Nouveau wines for your holiday table (around $12-$15): Trenel; Georges Duboeuf; Joseph Drouhin; Domaine Dupeuble; Domaine Chasselay
Five cru-Beaujolais wines for your holiday table (around $18-$25): Jean-Paul Brun Beaujolais l'Ancien (old vines); Jean-Paul Thevenet Morgon Vieilles Vignes (old vines); Chateau des Jacques Morgon; Domaine Pascal Aufranc Fleurie Vieilles Vignes (old vines); Clos de la Roilette Fleurie.
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