Le Beaujolais Nouveau est Arrive!
By Mark Stock
Beaujolais Nouveau is at once un-French and yet entirely French. Released officially the third Thursday of every November, this wine is made in an astonishingly brief period of just eight to 10 weeks. Nothing like what we’ve grown to expect from our European wine pioneers, who continually draw stunning 40-year-old bottles from cellars one hundred times as old.
Essentially a snack wine, the sweet and floral, barely fermented Gamay Noir juice is drunk while the other reds are maturing in the barrel. Winemakers and vineyard crews in wintertime France sip it at breakfast to warm themselves before a cold day pruning. It’s rumored that when the Beaujolais Nouveau was released, a race occurred, the winner being the first to sell his wine to thirsty patron in Paris or abroad. They’d transport the young wine by car, horseback — even hot air balloon — to reach the public as quickly and triumphantly as possible.
Portland recently celebrated Beaujolais Nouveau on Friday, Nov. 19 at The Heathman Hotel. Technically a day late, the ninth annual Beaujolais Nouveau Wine Festival was an impressive spectacle nonetheless, incorporating Francophone culture in a decadent — albeit stuffy — setting.
Sponsored by the Alliance Francese de Portland, the evening was hosted by KGW’s Russ Lewis and featured a silent auction, music by the Bobby Torres Ensemble and endless tables topped with crab legs, oysters on the half-shell, European cheeses and whole roasted pig. Naturally, freshly bottled Beaujolais Nouveau was poured, from well-known French names like Joseph Drouhin and Georges DeBoeuf to local Gamay producers like Amity Vineyards and Willamette Valley Vineyards.
The low-alcohol, violet- and lilac-scented wine is soft and sweet, providing the ideal balance to stinky cheeses or slow roasted meats. The Beaujolais region is dominated by this varietal, now accounting for 90 percent of what’s planted in this small, Burgundian province. But it didn’t get that way without considerable controversy.
In the late 14th Century, Phillipe the Bold demanded that Gamay be dug up and replaced with a more complex wine, like Pinot Noir. That began a centuries old split between those for and against that continues today. Many still believe Beaujolais Nouveau to be to thin and characterless, to the point of being labeled vin de merde, “crude wine.” Undoubtedly, it lacks the personality of many noble French wines. Yet, there’s something illuminating and refreshing about the wine. After all, it’s purpose is to celebrate the newest vintage, even if a bit prematurely.
Vintners use carbonic maceration, or whole berry fermentation, to achieve Beaujolais. This keeps the tannins low and the fruit flavors and acidity high. Chaptalization is often restricted in order to keep the wines trim, with alcohol levels between 10 and 10.5 percent. Fermentation lasts only a few days before the wine is released and there is often little to no barrel aging.
Portland’s batch flew in early, but as is always the case with exporting Beaujolais Nouveau, the Heathman had to agree not to open the wine until Nov. 18, the third Thursday of the month. Drenched in excitement and sport coats, festival-goers savored chef Philippe Boulot’s French-inspired Northwest cuisine and rubbed elbows with the likes of Portland Trail Blazers defensive specialist — and Frenchman — Nicolas Batum.
After a welcome from Jacques de Noray, Consulate of France in San Francisco, Boulot proudly proclaimed what everyone was waiting to hear: “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive!” Glasses clanked, the French and English languages mingled and the bright beginnings of harvest 2010 could finally be tasted.
• Roasted Pig
• Endive Leaf with Goat Cheese Parfait
• Salmon Tartare on a Crispy Wonton
• Fourme d’ambert and Tome de Chevre
• Chocolate Soup with Brioche Toast, Candied Caramel and Cocoa Nougatine Seasoning
Mark Stock, a Gonzaga grad, is a Portland-based freelance writer and photographer with a knack for all things Oregon.