Monday, November 10, 2008

Beaujolais-fest '08!

It's November, despite the 80 degree heat, and nothing says November like the annual retreading of the mind-numbing topic of "what wine to drink with Thanksgiving dinner."

The three wines most often written about are:

1. Beaujolais Nouveau
2. Rose (of all kinds)
3. Pinot Noir

I don't disagree with the three recommendations above, though I think that the Beaujolais Nouveau response is more a matter of gimmicky coincidence than any real quality inherent in the wine. In fact, Beaujolais Nouveau is pretty much garbage and always has been.

A bit about Beaujolais. It's a region in France adjacent to Burgundy (some actually consider Beaujolais to be a part of Burgundy). Unlike Burgundy's pinot noir, Beaujolais produces the grape gamay noir. True gamay is produced very little outside of Beaujolais and most domestic wine that is billed as "gamay" is actually one of a few mediocre late-ripening pinot noir clones used primarily in jug wine. There are a few acres of authentic gamay in California and there's starting to be some remarkable domestic gamay in a Beaujolais style.

The gamay grape shares something of a similar flavor profile as pinot noir, with nice plush fruit, good acidity, and soft earthiness. Gamay tends to ripen more, presenting more fleshy berry fruit and doesn't take to the minerality that pinot noir can. Beaujolais will never produce wine as elegant as top Burgundies, but wines from Beaujolais-Villages or one of the Cru Beaujolais villages present fabulously complex wines for a fraction of the price of a comparable Burgundy.

But what of Beaujolais Nouveau? It's what's called a "vin de primeur," a harvest wine that's quickly fermented and consumed within a matter of weeks with virtually no aging. It's a vin ordinaire from the crappiest grapes in the region (you're not going to subject your top vineyards to such treatment). Something simple and quick to celebrate the end of the harvest while you wait for the good wine to be released the next year. Until after World War II it was only ever consumed locally. Seeing an increasing number of tourists from Paris and London coming out to Beaujolais to take part in the harvest festivities, a few savvy negociants came up with the marketing ploy of the "freshness race" for Beaujolais, codifying the worldwide release date for the third Thursday in November. The wine saw a massive surge in popularity in the 1970's and 1980's, particularly in Germany, Japan, and the United States, where light fruity wines were particularly popular. And where people love a good gimmick.

It should be noted that environmentalists are calling on a boycott of the Beaujolais Nouveau, and not just on taste grounds. It reaches world markets on the same day because of costly air shipping, producing a much higher carbon footprint than the more conventional transit method of container ship. I support this.

If you do insist on drinking the Beaujolais Nouveau, then chill it a bit and guzzle with turkey and stuffing. Hell, pour it on your freaking plate. It's like cranberry sauce and gravy in one!

I would recommend highly foregoing the nouveau and get a nice Beaujolais AOC or Villages wine which will also be stellar with your Thanksgiving dinner.

I will be having an 06 Wild Hog Pinot Noir, which I've deliberately held onto from last year's release. Should be good.

Other good nouveau alternatives? Roses are always nice, particularly something in a more lean Old World style in the manner of a Bandol. Crisp aromatic whites in the vein of a southern Rhone or sweetly minerally wines from Germany and Austria. Non-fruit bomb zinfandels from the Russian River or a well-made plush merlot from pretty much anywhere will also be good fits.

Drink up, eat well, boycott Beaujolais Nouveau.

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