In early August, France's Beaujolais region was hit by a severe hailstorm. Producers described hailstones the size of golf balls that stripped some vines of every leaf and berry while completely missing others.
But mere hail can't derail one of the wine world's biggest annual marketing campaigns, and thankfully, a warm, sunny September gave Beaujolais Nouveau producers something to crow about as their wines arrived by air, sea and even motorcycle on the traditional third Thursday in November.
"It's a vintage we can be proud of," said Franck Duboeuf, Georges' son, who arrived at a promotional lunch in New York today carrying a case of Nouveau on a motorcycle. But he added that it was a "winemaker's vintage" due to some of the challenges producers faced.
Overall, the 2008s have better balance and a bit more richness than recent vintages from Beaujolais. The crisp acidity that was found in 2006 and 2007 is still in place among the 2008s, but there's greater concentration of fruit flavor and ripeness. As a result, the wines included in our blind tasting showed better than last year, with a high score of 87 points for the Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2008 from Georges Duboeuf ($11), the region's largest producer. The Jean Bererd & Fils Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau Le Perréon Domaine de la Madone was close behind with a score of 86 points.
For years, Nouveau has arrived in November, and though sales have declined in recent years, it still provides wine drinkers with a first glimpse of the potential quality of the vintage for European wines. Beaujolais Nouveau is produced from two appellations located south of France's Burgundy region, the larger Beaujolais AOC and the smaller Beaujolais-Villages. The wine is usually a light-weight and fruity red, made from 100 percent Gamay.
This fruity style is accentuated by the use of carbonic maceration during production, in which whole, uncrushed grape clusters are fermented in a carbon dioxide atmosphere. Enzymes inside the grapes help convert sugar into alcohol while also producing aromatic compounds. The carbonic maceration adds more floral and fruit characteristics, including a signature banana note. The grapes are then crushed and normal fermentation commences. (Some Beaujolais producers use a partial form of the process where some grapes are left intact while others are crushed immediately.)
The 2008 growing season started out well, with warm and dry weather at the beginning of the year. But on August 7, hailstorms hit parts of the region, inflicting widespread damage.
The rest of the summer was marked by cool and rainy weather, and mildew was a problem for many producers. Fortunately, skies cleared in September. "There was glorious weather for the harvest," said Gregory Barbet of Château de la Terrière. Five weeks of fresh and sunny weather helped the grapes ripen and reach maturity, while a good wind helped dry out the vineyards and prevent the growth of any additional mildew.
Although overall quality seems good for 2008, there will be less Beaujolais available. Duboeuf estimates as much as 80 percent less for certain of Beaujolais' cru appellations and about 50 percent less for the Beaujolais-Villages appellation. The reduction in yields can be attributed to fruit lost to the hailstorm or to mildew, generally small berries and lower yields at harvest, combined with the need for stricter selection at harvest because of all of these factors. The best bet for consumers will be to supplement their 2008 Beaujolais with some of the 2007 cru Beaujolais that are just coming to the market right now.
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