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Fresh Wine?

Don't wait for it to age -- drink it now!


In the morning mist of harvest, a fictional family gathers "round, peels off their work boots and hops into a vat of freshly picked grapes to begin the ritualistic stomping. Weeks later, these same grapes become transformed into yummy fermented juice, and eager drinkers salivate as the wine flows sweetly from barrel into glass. This brand new wine is called primeur, meaning early fruit, and it's the symbol of each year's grape harvest. Every year, France celebrates their newbie with a fruity red wine called Beaujolais Nouveau. Grown in Beaujolais, a southern Burgundy sub-region, the burgeoning Gamay grapes are picked, fermented, bottled and distributed within ten to twelve weeks. This year, the release fell on November 20th.

The hoopla surrounding Beaujolais Nouveau started as a post-harvest festival in the villages of Beaujolais. In 1951, with the party's popularity growing, the governing body of Beaujolais declared the wine would be released the third Thursday of November, no matter when the vineyards are picked. Thanks to the export savvy of rich, behemoth producers, and the miracle of overnight air shipping, Americans were soon invited to the Thursday night party.

And California really wanted to join in. To celebrate their way, Napa's Beringer Vineyards began making Beringer Nouveau, using weightier Pinot Noir and Valdiguie grapes. At the same time, Italy joined the crew. Producer Mionetto fittingly calls their new wine Novello, using Merlot and Corvino grapes. They're both released at the same time as Beaujolais Nouveau, riding the hugely successful marketing wave.

But no matter where the wine originates, the attraction lies in its fruit-forward simplicity. There's no oak aging, no ego and no fuss. Most producers of new wines preserve the grapes' freshness and drinkability by employing a wine- making technique called carbonic maceration, or whole berry fermentation, which limits the contact with the skins' bitter tannins. Basically, new wine is as close to a white wine as you can get. You even chill this red.

New wine is made for drinking. And drinking now. Don't let anyone sell you a "deliciously aged" 2001 Beaujolais Nouveau . . . more than likely it's lost its freshness and fruitiness -- the two reasons why we drink the stuff.

Although recent years have delivered acidic, green-tasting Beaujolais Nouveau, the 2003 French harvest was different. Remember the heat wave in France last summer? Well, think about all those grapes ripening in the hot sun. Like you would in the same circumstance, the fruit lost plenty of water weight, concentrating their sugars and hardening the skins really fast. This resulted in a record-breaking early harvest -- in mid August -- so this Beaujolais Nouveau vintage has had a little more time to "mature" in the bottle. And, it promises to be more concentrated in flavor, highly aromatic and jam-like. Not mention a whopping 12%-13% alcohol.

Contrary to what you may think about French wines, Beaujolais Nouveau and other new wines aren't for the wine snobs -- they're for the masses. Costing under $10, this wine quaffs well with food, especially Thanksgiving leftovers, or just to drink cleaning up after the relatives. For this price, what have you got to lose?

Recommended Wines

Joseph Drouhin 2003 Beaujolais Nouveau This one's got some oomph to it, singing with bright cherry and even a dash of dirt. Unlike so many others this year, Drouhin balanced the acids so you don't notice a tang, only fruit. $10. 1/2

Mommessin 2003 Beaujolais Nouveau My favorite of the tasting, this light-bodied, simple wine has everything a new wine should have: strawberry when you sniff, and the aromas flow into the mouth. It's not complicated and you don't have to think about it -- nose and tongue candy. $10

Mionetto 2003 Novello Fun! Cherry, tobacco and even fresh herbs float around in your mouth like a wacky chef's dish. It has different flavors than the other new wines since the grapes are different, and it's cool to taste them side by side. $10.

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