The '99 wine

UP FRONT

Beaujolais: The release each November of the new wine from France has become a worldwide event. The first bottling is sped overnight to wine-lovers around the globe. So what if the wine usually isn't all that good?

November 11, 1999|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Sun Staff

France is the country that sets the standard in the world of wine. Its language is the one used in the industry -- it's not a barrel, it's a barrique. Its grapes are the ones everyone wants to grow and perfect -- cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. And an annual event on its calendar makes the entire wine world pause for a bit of a celebration.

That would be the day that the Beaujolais Nouveau is released. It happens every November -- the actual date, set by France's strict wine authorities, varies depending on when the grapes were picked -- as the first wine produced from that year's harvest is made available for public consumption.

While most of the fermented juice from the grapes harvested this year goes into tanks or barrels to gain the complexity that comes with age -- even just a few months -- a portion of the harvest from the Beaujolais region in eastern France goes almost directly into bottles. On the designated day -- this year, it's next Thursday, Nov. 18 -- these are released to customers.

That means trucks full of cases of this wine speed through the night to deliver it to Paris restaurants for their festivities. The same is true across Europe. In England, the first bottle of nouveau is often delivered by inventive means meant to attract publicity -- a parachutist was employed one year.

And for much of the rest of the world, cases are loaded onto airplanes for a first-class flight to the palates of wine connoisseurs eager to join in the fun.

Fernand Tersiguel says they take that release date very seriously in his native France.

"Last year, someone opened a bottle a day early," Tersiguel said from his eponymous Ellicott City restaurant that has been celebrating the nouveau release since 1981. "They put him in jail for that, so they say."

In many ways, this is all a bit ridiculous. For one, with top-class winemaking now commonplace in the Southern Hemisphere, these are not the first wines of 1999. Those were bottled in Australia, South America and South Africa in their fall last April and May. Many are now out on the shelves.

For another, the wine, frankly, is usually not all that good. Oh, it's kind of fun and fruity and fresh and all the things that you would hope for from a wine that just a few weeks ago was hanging on a vine as a grape. But it usually has a distinctive bubble-gum like flavor that hardly qualifies it for serious consideration in the wine hall of fame.

Some even contend that in making the wine stable enough to send around the world, whatever charming freshness a nouveau wine might have is lost.

Those might contend that the better way to have the nouveau experience is to focus on local wines that have not had to travel long distances. Boordy Vineyards in Baltimore County has been making a nouveau for 20 years, and many other local wineries have followed suit. Those wines will be the centerpiece of the monthly wine dinner at Corks that was already scheduled for Nov. 18.

"We might have a bottle of Beaujolais as a benchmark, but we will mainly be pouring nouveaus from Maryland and Virginia," said Jerry Pellegrino of Corks. The price is $60 for the meal and wines. "Plus there's a California winery called Alexander Valley Vineyards that's putting out a nouveau Gewurztraminer. We'll get some of that."

Even if you demand the nouveau from Beaujolais, there is little doubt that it is not worth the price paid for the air-freighted version that will be available at this year's opening day festivities. Better to wait for the shipped-by-sea versions that arrive in a few weeks.

And some think that all the focus on nouveau takes away from the fact that many better wines comes out of Beaujolais.

"Nouveau is probably the lowest quality wine that is made there," says Patrick Boucolet of Mills Wine & Spirits in Annapolis that is putting on a $75 a plate dinner at Les Folies restaurant.

Nouveau will be served with the hors d'oeuvres, but subsequent courses feature older Beaujolais wines of higher quality, including bottlings from the villages of Fleurie and Morgon.

"We want to highlight the fact that the Beaujolais region produces many fine wines that are available year round," says Boucolet.

In some ways, the quality of the wine is beside the point. The nouveau release is an excuse for the wine world's version of a harvest celebration, to pause and toast the wonderful transformation from grapes into wine that takes place every year. And only by paying the air freight price can you know that you are raising your glass on the same day the French are raising theirs.

"It is the first wine of the year, and by tasting it you know what sort of year it is going to be," says Tersiguel. "But it is not a big wine. Myself, I have one or two glasses, that is all. It is just an excuse to act like a kid for a night."

For $52, patrons at Tersiguel's get a four-course meal, French music and can-can dancers. The wine will be about another $20 a bottle.

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