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What's So Nouveau About Beaujolais?

Celebrate the harvest like the French

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You gotta love the French. No really, I mean it. Each November, they celebrate a holiday that's centered on drinking red wine! No religious stuff to hinder a good time, no stressful gift buying, no forced thankfulness -- just pure, hedonistic consumption of young, fruity red wine. Does it get any better?

OK, the Beaujolais Nouveau ("New Beaujolais") thing is more of a tradition than a holiday, but that's the premise all the same. It all started as a post-harvest festival in the villages of France's Beaujolais region. During these celebrations, people drank the first wines of the year, straight from the barrels. The custom soon spread to the bistros of Paris and on to the rest of Europe.

In 1951, the governing body of Beaujolais officially set the date for the wine's release as the third Thursday in November (November 15 this year). Thanks to the export savvy of famous Beaujolais producers like Louis Jadot and Georges Duboeuf and the miracle of overnight air shipping, we Yanks were soon able to join in the hoopla.

Not surprisingly, Beaujolais Nouveau comes from the region of Beaujolais, a southern subdivision of France's Burgundy region. About a third of the area's wine is sold as Beaujolais Nouveau; the rest is sold later in the year as Beaujolais Villages, Beaujolais or Beaujolais Cru, depending on which area the grapes are grown in. The red wines of the region are made exclusively from the Gamay grape (it's the only one French law will allow), which generally produces wines that are light, low in alcohol and very fruity.

Though similar in style to the French versions, the California wines labeled "Gamay Beaujolais" are actually made with Pinot Noir and Valdiguie grapes. (Due to the lobbying efforts of French purists, wineries will only be able to use the term on American products until 2007. After that, they'll have to come up with another name.)

Beaujolais Nouveau owes its easy drinkin' quality to a winemaking technique called carbonic maceration (or whole berry fermentation), which preserves the fresh, fruity quality of the wine without extracting bitterness from the grape skins. As the "nouveau" part of the name implies, the wine should be drunk while it's young, usually by the May after its release. (Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages wines can age up to a year; the Beaujolais Crus can be aged from one to five years.) To preserve its refreshing fruity quality, the wine should be served slightly chilled, around 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Contrary to what some may think, this isn't the wine of snobs and connoisseurs -- it is a wine for the common folk. It's cheap (usually under $10), fun and easy to drink, with or without food.

You don't have to be French, or even like the French, to celebrate the arrival of this year's Beaujolais Nouveau. Just head for the nearest wine shop or French bistro on November 15, hold out your glass and say "oui!"

The 2001 wines weren't to be available until this week (they're serious about that release date!), but Georges Duboeuf stated this will be "the year of fruit and aromas" and that the 2001 wines are "like a bouquet of flowers and a basket of berries, dominated by raspberries."

If you can't wait until November 15, try one of these tasty "non-nouveau" Beaujolais wines.

Louis Jadot Beaujolais 2000

Nice raspberry aroma. A tasty, lightish red with lots of berry fruit flavors. Smooth and easy to drink, but not at all wimpy. ($9.99)

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Villages 2000

Last year's vintage also smells like berries and flowers. A light bodied and uncomplicated wine with nice grapey flavors. ($7.99)

Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages 2000

Earthy, raspberry aromas and yummy, round berry flavors. ($7.99) 1/2

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