It has become a fall tradition, the one day when wine lovers from France to America to Asia all wait in anticipation to pop the cork on one particular wine. Beaujolais Nouveau has arrived, with all the pomp and ceremony that has turned this into an annual global wine party.
If only this year's wines were worth celebrating. The difficult 2006 vintage produced lackluster Nouveaus, sadly contrasting with the good wines of 2005. While insisting his wine was excellent, Franck Duboeuf, son of Beaujolais' biggest producer, Georges Duboeuf, admitted that the weather was merciless to growers who did not aggressively green harvest and lower yields.
The release of Nouveau has been a big marketing circus since France first legalized the early distribution of some Beaujolais in 1951. But the campaign still offers a welcome chance to celebrate a fresh vintage and get a first peek at the quality of France's upcoming wines.
"When the Beaujolais Nouveau was first launched, the idea was to show to the trade and the consumers the style of the coming vintage," said Frédéric Drouhin, CEO and president of Maison Joseph Drouhin. "The Nouveau could give some hints of how the Villages and the cru wines would taste in the future."
Beaujolais Nouveau is made from Gamay grapes grown in two appellations: Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages (the latter produces slightly weightier wines). The winemakers use a technique called carbonic maceration, in which grape clusters are thrown into a fermenting tank whole, piled on top of each other deep enough to crush some of the grapes on the bottom. The tank is then sealed, and carbon dioxide helps the grape juice ferment inside the skins. Because little juice comes in contact with the outside of the skins, the wine does not absorb much tannins. After three weeks in the tank, the free-run juice is collected and bottled. The resulting red wine, which is meant to be drunk as soon as possible, is light-bodied, with fresh cherry and berry flavors and a distinctive banana aroma.
Nouveau accounts for about a third of the region's red wine production. The other Beaujolais wines—Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and the cru Beaujolais from 10 villages—get to age longer and have a bit more heft. But even though Nouveau is a light wine, it often can be quite fresh and enjoyable.
In a blind tasting of 10 Nouveaus (plus one Nouveau-style bottling from Italy) in Wine Spectator's New York offices today, executive editor Thomas Matthews found the 2006 wines generally disappointing. Some showed typical bright berry and cherry fruit flavors, along with fresh, crisp textures, but not much energy or depth. Many were either lean and herbal, or broad and rather dull. As a group, they lacked consistency.
That reflects the brutal swings of the weather in 2006. After a cool spring, the vines wilted during the hottest July on record in the region. August brought cool weather and heavy rains. The sun returned with September, giving the grapes only a little more than a week to finish ripening.
Of the two top-scoring wines, Pascal Chatelus' Nouveau (83 points) had crisp cherry fruit, firm structure and a light herbal note. The Nouveau from Labouré-Roi (83 points) offered bright acidity and cherry flavors. Beaujolais fans might be better off checking stores for any Villages and cru wines left from the 2005 vintage—the best in several years.
Weather trouble aside, Inter Beaujolais, the union of producers, will spend $800,000 this year to aggressively market the Nouveaus. Last year, the region's producers sold more than 51 million bottles of Nouveau, with the French buying more than half. Japan was the largest foreign market, ordering 11.7 million bottles, while America came in third, buying 3 million. Drouhin said that Japan even had some 2005 Nouveau left in stock, and had ordered less this year. Georges Duboeuf echoed that, saying his orders from Japan were down 5 percent this year.
Now Inter Beaujolais is looking for even newer markets for the Nouveau hype. The organization made a big push in China for the first time last year, and sales shot up 64 percent, to about 27,000 bottles. The vignerons hope to keep that number growing.
|PASCAL CHATELUS Beaujolais Nouveau 2006||83||$12|
|Quite firm, with a lean tannic edge. The cherry and black cherry fruit is crisp, with a light herbal note. Has enough structure for food. Drink now. 500 cases imported.
|LABOURÉ-ROI Beaujolais Nouveau 2006||83||$11|
|Cherry and light herb flavors mingle in this fresh red, which has bright acidity and enough grip for food. Drink now. 3,600 cases imported.
|JEAN BERERD & FILS Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau Le Perréon Domaine de la Madone 2006||82||$15|
|Quite firm, this red offers ripe plum flavors. A bit candied, but with some richness. Drink now.
|BOUCHARD-AÎNÉ & FILS Beaujolais Nouveau 2006||82||$12|
|Crisp, with firm tannins framing the light berry fruit, which is slightly sweet and sour. Clean, fruity finish. Drink now. 3,500 cases imported.
|MIONETTO Marca Trevigiana Novello 2006||82||$10|
|Cherry candy and vanilla flavors mingle in this syrupy red. Appealing sweetness, but a bit heavy. Merlot and Corvina. Drink now. 1,700 cases imported.
|DOMAINE DE BEL-AIR Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2006||80||$15|
|Crisp and firm, this red offers cherry and herb flavors. A bit lean and short. Drink now.
|JOËL ROCHETTE Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau 2006||80||$13|
|Cola and coffee notes are atypical and mingle plum fruit in this straightforward red. Drink now. 200 cases imported.
|MOMMESSIN Beaujolais Nouveau 2006||79||$12|
|Round and soft, this red is a bit dilute, with simple cherry fruit. 5,000 cases imported.
|JOSEPH DROUHIN Beaujolais Nouveau Primeur 2006||78||$14|
|This light red is lean and tight, offering crisp berry and herb flavors. 6,214 cases imported.
|GEORGES DUBOEUF Beaujolais Nouveau 2006||78||$10|
|Has some heft and grip, but the cherry and herb flavors are blunt and lack freshness. 190,000 cases imported.
|CHÂTEAU DE LA RIGODIÈRE Beaujolais Nouveau Le Petit Coq 2006||78||$12 / 500ml|
|Cherry fruit gives way to tobacco and herb notes, with dry tannins. 5,000 cases made.
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