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November 22, 2013

Grazing: Why Hatin' on Beaujolais Nouveau Is So Wrong

DrouhinLast night, I dropped in on what was probably one of Vermont's only Beaujolais Nouveau release parties. And though I planned to write about some raw-milk cheeses today, a bee has landed in my bonnet: The snark that many wine industry people (writers, retailers, distributors, etc.) reserve for this wine.

If you're unfamiliar with BN, it's a very young, Gamay-based wine that ferments only for only a few weeks before it's bottled. Released each year on the third Thursday of November, it's the first taste of the year's harvest; bars and wine shops in Paris and elsewhere will pop open bottles at midnight to jumpstart a wine-centric party. Yesterday, I received a late invite to a release party that the New England Culinary Institute was throwing at Chef's Table In Montpelier. 

Balloons marked the entrance and, on the inside, NECI students (some clad in berets) roamed the cozy red rooms pouring Joseph Drouhin's Beaujolais Nouveau and serving up French morsels such as coq au vin. About two dozen people sipped and discussed the wine —  some had never tried Beaujolais of any stripe before. They chatted about everything from its flavors (lots of red fruit, of course, but grippier than in past years), to the year's weather in France, to beer (this being Vermont). It was a mellow, low-key celebration of wine and food and fall and all things French.

The BN itself — which can vary from forgettable to quaffable, depending on year — was better than I expected, and made me excited to taste some of the cru Beaujolais that will emerge in a few months. I was eager to share my thoughts with others. Instead, I hit a brick wall of eye-rolling. Over email and on Facebook and Twitter, the snark about BN flowed swift and strong; for most industry wine people, it seems, BN is perhaps little better than another BN: Blue Nun. A gimmicky thing best enjoyed by novices. Plonk that gives the other wines of Beaujolais a bad name.

I get some of that, but it's mostly perplexing to me. Many moons ago, the wine I first really enjoyed was .... Clos du Bois Merlot, a mass-produced, silky-smooth wine that was a financial and sensual splurge at age 22, but one that also oriented me toward my lifelong education about wine.

My first taste of Beaujolais Nouveau came not long after, a step on that ladder, a wine from an unfamiliar region that compelled me to ask questions: Where is Beaujolais? Is it a grape or a place? Why does it only come out in November? And so on. I even bought a bottle to bring to Thanksgiving, because it was around 10 bucks (as it always is) and that's what I could afford back then. Years later, I bought my first bottle of cru Beaujolais.

I've since come to learn that, though it began as a bona-fide harvest festival, the worldwide BN phenomenon largely grew out of a marketing campaign orchestrated by Georges Duboeuf, the largest producer of BN. More BN is exported from France than is actually drunk there. Because of this, many wine people dismiss it with cool remarks or gestures that shut down meaningful discussion with anyone, learned or not, who might want to talk about it.

I certainly didn't bust out of the womb drinking Châteauneuf, and I still get a rise out of popping open a BN in late November. I'm bummed that some wine writers, marketers and sellers hew to a vision of the wine-drinking public that dismisses earnest curiosity and excitement, even for simple wines. These are wines that eventually lead to even more unfamiliar wines with "odd" names such as Zweigelt and Marquette.

NECI will soon be selling the Drouhin BN inside La Brioche, the bakery-café the school runs on Main Street. Bottles will retail for $11.99. I'd love to buy a few, uncork them on the street, and get the conversation flowing. I'm pretty sure that's not legal, but it's tempting.

Thanks to NECI staff and students for a wonderful party. See you again next year, I hope.

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