Like clockwork, on the third Thursday of November, Beaujolais nouveau arrives. And just as reliably, the snarking begins. The Beaujolais nouveau craze, which may have reached its frenzied acme in the 1980s, has long been considered more marketing razzle-dazzle than substance (nouveau = liquid Kardashian). 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.
"Most serious wine critics and writers poo-poo this wine as a gimmick, and not worth serious consideration by so-called aficionados," says Doug Salthouse, wine consultant for B-21 in Tarpon Springs. "But in fact it's really intended as a Thanksgiving wine and can be quite good with the myriad flavors of that meal."
Made entirely from the thin-skinned gamay grape from two appellations south of France's Burgundy region, the year's youngest wines are made via a process called carbonic maceration. Whole grapes are tossed into a tank and the process starts right there, each grape fermenting in its own skin. Because the grapes aren't crushed, tannins are minimized and fruit flavors maximized, the upshot being a light-bodied, fresh and fruity wine with flavors Salthouse describes as strawberry, bubblegum, kirsch and banana.
But don't count your bananas before they're peeled. The French public agricultural service has indicated that 2013 was one of the worst harvests in 40 years, the grape haul estimated at 43.5 million hectoliters (up slightly from 2012's dismal 41.4 million). The low harvest numbers stem from cool temperatures, heavy rains and severe hailstorms during the growing year.
Production is expected to be down about 10 percent from 2012, which in turn was down slightly from 2011 numbers, Salthouse says.
"Quality does vary somewhat vintage to vintage, but not as much as the traditionally fermented Beaujolais and Beaujolais Crus. Generally, Burgundy, of which Beaujolais is a part, is suffering from a difficult year in 2013 (as is much of France), but more because of midsummer hail damage and late summer rot than overall bad weather."
George Miliotes, master sommelier for Seasons 52, says that while hail damage certainly impacts the overall yield, it doesn't necessarily mean that what is harvested is of low quality. Prices on Beaujolais nouveau may be a bit higher this year (approaching $10), but, he says, "From what I've heard what is harvested is good-quality fruit."
That's coming from a man who is bullish on Beaujolais and the gamay grape in particular. He recently collaborated with Georges Duboeuf, the king of Beaujolais, on a special gamay blend for Seasons 52 called Jolie Saison gamay (notice Beaujolais isn't on the label — evidently bubblegummy nouveaus have turned some wine drinkers off wines from that region).
Miliotes runs down the overall impression of recent French vintages: 2005, tremendous; 2008 to 2011, pretty solid across the board and fairly compelling years in Beaujolais; 2012, a little less solid; 2013, shaping up to follow suit. Still, he notes, "Good winemakers make good wine year in and year out."
The king of Beaujolais' son, Franck Duboeuf, says that after rough summer weather, an "Indian summer" in September served to produce a harvest that is mature and rich in sugar, reaching the same standards as 2011 and 2012. With this year's flavor profile, Duboeuf waxes poetic.
"The aromas are sublime with wild strawberries, red currants and, in particular, exquisite scents of raspberries. On the palate, the wine is delicate and rich with a wonderful texture and a full-bodied appearance; they are dense, well structured, full of flavor and nice complexity somewhat reminiscent of the characteristics of the 2011 vintage."
All right, this is the guy whose name is on the label. Back on terra firma, Salthouse expects that even if prices are a bit higher, his allotment of this year's Beaujolais nouveau will sell out just the same.
Chris Prachar, assistant general manager and wine director of Rococo Steak in St. Petersburg, doesn't necessarily see the nouveaus as harbingers of what's to come in 2013 French wines.
"I'm not sure that any weather, severe or not, could really affect the quality of these wines. It is just a celebration wine that is barely fermented … and meant to be consumed immediately."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.