Though the clock wasn't counting down to a new millennium last night, people around the world eagerly awaited the stroke of midnight as if it were the start of a new year. And in a sense, it is -- at least for wine lovers. Every year, on the third Thursday of November, Beaujolais Nouveau -- traditionally the first wine from the new vintage -- is released.
Restaurants mark the occasion with special parties and promotions, and stores across the United States stock cases and cases of this light, fruity red wine that is at its best in the weeks and months just after the harvest. The wine comes from the Beaujolais region of France and is made from the Gamay grape, using a vinification technique known as carbonic maceration, which creates a soft style, allowing the wine to be drunk young.
Though not a wine of great depth or complexity, Beaujolais Nouveau is enjoyable and easy to drink, often smelling and tasting of bananas and cherries. Even more appealing to many, its prices have stayed fairly consistent in recent years at about $6 to $9 per bottle.
Due to the way it is made, Nouveau's quality is fairly consistent from year to year, but it can give some indication of what to expect from each year's Beaujolais-Villages and the 10 Beaujolais crus -- the specially delimited regions that make bigger wines. Georges Duboeuf, the Beaujolais-based negociant whose Nouveau is the biggest seller in the United States, said, "The vintage was practically a miracle. On August 15, we were very anxious about the quality of the crop," after experiencing a wet, cool summer like much of France. But then several weeks of sunshine and heat caused the grapes to ripen quickly, developing high natural sugars. "When we started picking on Sept. 7, the temperature was 35 degrees C [95 degrees F]," said Duboeuf.
Duboeuf said he tasted 11,000 different samples of Nouveau in his search for the perfect blends (he makes many, including special cuves for certain retailers). The vintner described his 1999 Nouveau as having a ruby color with dominant aromas of very ripe cherry, going almost to kirsch. He added that this year's wine has more body and structure than usual, indicating the potential for a wine that can keep. He concluded, "It will make very good wine in the crus."
Beaujolais Nouveau first emerged after World War II and was primarily a local drink served in the bars of Lyons. But over the decades, it gained popularity in Paris and then spread around the world, prompting demand for its delivery as soon as French wine law allowed. At the height of Nouveau, vintners and retailers staged races in vintage cars and dirigibles in a rush to be the first to get the new wine to the public. It also spawned copycats -- Nouveau-style wines from California, Italy and other regions -- that may be released earlier than the Nouveau itself.
Today, though much of the past hoopla has subsided, a quick survey of French bistros in New York found plenty of signs proclaiming: "Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arriv!"
Many eateries around the country began their celebrations on Wednesday night as they awaited the official midnight hour. At Les Halles in New York, the festivities went to 4:00 a.m., as patrons consumed nine cases of Georges Duboeuf and an accordian-armed musician serenaded the crowd with French music. In Boston, at Brasserie Jo, "Marie Antoinette" arrived at midnight, declaring "Let them drink wine!" as she uncorked the new vintage. The wine was served, of course, with cake.
At many other restaurants, the revelry will hit full stride tonight. At New York's Chez Bernard, which is serving a special prix fixe menu with Bouchard's Nouveau, owner and chef Bernard Eloy will induct several regular customers into the College des Chevaliers de la Vigne ("Knights of the Vine"), a group of wine and food lovers that will hold a yearly meeting at Nouveau time.
"It's a big night," said Max Bernard, owner of Park Bistro, which is pouring Bouchard's bottling and serving a special Lyonnais appetizer, saucisson en brioche, to accompany its regular French menu. "Along with the fourteenth of July, it's one of the two biggest nights of the year."