Uncorking the news from France Wine: The 1998 Beaujolais nouveau arrives tomorrow, much hyped but unpretentious, and a pleasure to drink - but don't delay.

November 18, 1998|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN WINE CRITIC

There will be French flags waving, accordions blaring and cancan dancers kicking tomorrow about 11:30 a.m. as a limousine carrying 15 eagerly awaited "passengers" draws up in front of Tersiguel's restaurant in Ellicott City.

The 15 will be cases of Beaujolais nouveau, loaded onto trucks a few minutes after midnight in tiny French villages and flown to American shores for the annual hype-fest celebrating the arrival of the supposed first wine of the vintage. Just hours after the first 1998 Beaujolais goes on sale in Paris on the third Thursday in November, happy crowds will be guzzling the light red wine in Maryland, too.

"Oh, my God, it's crazy!" says restaurateur Fernand Tersiguel, the Baltimore area's high priest of nouveau Beaujolais. Tersiguel, who has been staging such celebrations since 1982, expects a full house of 170 people for this year's party - half of them repeat revelers.

A similar gathering will occur at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore, which has a banner hanging outside counting off the days before the arrival of the Beaujolais. Baldwin's Station in Sykesville will pour two Beaujolais nouveaus and two American imitators at a $60 wine dinner Friday.

Altogether, about a dozen Baltimore-area restaurants are planning nouveau-related events, and another two dozen will be pouring the new wine by the glass, according to Joe Lertch, vice president of Reliable Liquors Inc.

The critic in me is compelled to warn readers that Beaujolais nouveau is not a serious wine, that its shelf life is not much longer than that of milk, and that the celebration is a triumph of promotion rather than tradition.

The Beaujolais lover in me must protest that nouveau gives consumers a distorted impression of the wines of an underrated region.

And the curmudgeon in me quibbles that the new Beaujolais is not the first wine of the vintage because nouveau knockoffs have been on the market for weeks.

But why fight it? The nouveau hype is an enjoyment - an opportunity, says Tersiguel, to "have a little fun, be a little kid for two or three hours."

And the wine? It might not be weighty, complex or durable, but it's usually a lot more pleasurable to drink than one more pretentious, oaky California chardonnay.

"To take the wine seriously would be missing the whole point of nouveau," says Rob Deford, who makes a worthy imitation of Beaujolais nouveau at Maryland's

Boordy Vineyards. The 1998 version, on the market since Nov. 2, is a fresh, fruity red that captures the spirit - if not the exact flavors - of the original.

The arrival of the first wine of the vintage has been an eagerly anticipated event in Paris for decades, but it was just over 25 years ago that the release of Beaujolais nouveau became a full-fledged international media event.

First, it was the British holding a race to see who could be the first to bring the wine to the lips of London. By the late 1970s, American importers and restaurateurs turned the race into a trans-Atlantic event. Eagerly stoking the media frenzy was Georges Duboeuf, the largest (and perhaps the best) producer of Beaujolais.

Success bred imitators, as winemakers from Italy to California to Maryland - attracted by the quick cash flow from barely aged wines - began producing light, fruity reds for quick consumption. Some, such as those from Boordy and California's Beringer, are consistently well-made.

Lertch said the Beaujolais celebrations had become a little "old hat" in recent years. But with reports of an excellent vintage in 1998, he said, orders are up and the market has sprung back.

"There seems to be a great deal more excitement this year," he said.

Lee Grandes, wine department manager at Wells Discount Liquors, said that for many of his customers the purchase of a case of the new Beaujolais is an annual event. He said the wine doesn't hold much appeal for "the hob-snobby guys who order the high-end stuff," but added that even some of them like to buy it for tradition's sake.

Grandes said that for many of his customers, Beaujolais nouveau is a mainstay of the Thanksgiving turkey feast - though he himself wouldn't recommend the pairing.

Consumers should not try to prolong the thrill, because nouveau wines are a fleeting pleasure. Deford said his nouveau must be consumed by March. Retailers say many consumers won't touch nouveaus after Jan. 2. Tersiguel said he thinks the wines begin to lose some of their charm within weeks of their arrival.

"It's not a wine for connoisseurs," said Tersiguel. "I'm going to have one or two glasses, and that's all."

Pub Date: 11/18/98

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