Every year, there are bad things we can count on: Taxes and death. And good things: Thanksgiving Day on the fourth Thursday of November and on the Thursday before, the Beaujolais nouveau arrives. What is less predictable is just how this vin de l'année ("this year's wine") stacks up.
In 2009, the young gamay from the Beaujolais region of France knocked the wine world's socks off. Less than six weeks old, it presaged that the region would have one of its best years in the last 50 (well, Bordeaux had a great year, too). Lush, ripe fruit but not too jammy, with good structure and fresh acidity, it briefly silenced the smirkers. I know a couple who called the young wine "cherry Pez" or "fake banana Circus Peanuts."
In fact, the Beaujolais nouveau craze, which may have reached its frenzied acme in the 1980s, has long been considered more marketing razzle-dazzle than substance. There are boat races, helicopter airlifts and a host of more romantic conveyances each year to disseminate nearly 70 million bottles of deep-purple wine across the globe (much of it tippled in Japan, the United States and Germany). It's not an age-old phenomenon — until World War II, it was a wine only for local consumption.
So, 2009, good. Then 2010 was not too shabby, either. The question: Can this wine-growing region north of Lyon pull a hat trick? If you listen to one of France's best-known wine merchants about the 2011 vintage, it looks that way.
"Divine! Dazzling! Voluptuous! Generous!" extols Georges Duboeuf in a press release, before calming down to explain that warm temperatures in April and May brought early blossoms, then June and July were sunny, with rains in late July and early August, "offset by dry, sunny skies and warm temperatures for the remainder of August. September was slightly cooler which helped balance and complete the ripening process."
This year's harvest began Aug. 22 and ended Sept. 15, less than a year after the end of the 2010 harvest. Duboeuf actually represents more than 400 winegrowers in the Beaujolais region and is the largest exporter of Beaujolais nouveau, so his "Dazzling!" might merit a dash of skepticism.
Rhett Beiletti, French wine specialist at B-21 in Tarpon Springs had no "!" to impart, but he did say that vintners and importers are excited about the 2011 vintage, comparing it to 2009 in quality and style.
"Big, rich and having tannin and structure to deserve cellaring," he explains, qualifying with, "Of course, this is for Cru wines. Nouveau, though, never shows so very much to me about the vintage, partly because almost only large shippers make them, and partly because they are not really made wines — not a criticism, nouveau Cabernet or Bordeaux would be the same. They are not finished wines. Because they are sourced compositely, it makes it more difficult to sense anything specific."
George Miliotes, master sommelier and director of beverage and hospitality for the Capital Grille and Seasons 52, seems equally excited about the 2011 vintage, which he describes as "rock solid," likely to yield intense, black, inky wines.
"While gamay will always have its signature strawberry and red cherry flavor going on, this intensity of color should bring a noticeable blueberry/blackberry flavor to the wines. This (darker fruit flavors and aromas) should be the hallmark of the vintage," he predicts. He says comparisons with the 2009s are inevitable and that tasting the two vintages against each other will be fun.
Still, Miliotes holds the early-drinking nouveaus personally responsible for making gamay "the Rodney Dangerfield of French red wines."
Yann Bourigault, export director for Georges Duboeuf, thinks it's precisely the nouveaus' fun-loving simplicity that makes them a natural at this time of year, whether paired with Thanksgiving turkey or a juicy burger.
"It's a celebration of the harvest," Bourigault said by phone from Chicago, one of many stops on his annual nouveau-hyping tour. "The first wine of the vintage that people will have a chance to try, it's a party. What I like about it is that it's not the type of wine you need an encyclopedia to appreciate."
Reference books sold separately, this year's Beaujolais nouveaus should be in stores after tomorrow at an anticipated price of $9.99 to $10.99. Also, a number of local restaurants (often French) host Beaujolais nouveau release parties.
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293.