Beaujolais Nouveau is one wine that’s drunk fresh

The fat man said to sell no wine before it’s time, but sometimes a wine’s time is much earlier than you’d think. A whole category takes just a few weeks from harvest to bottle. This 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 called Beaujolais Nouveau. Grown in Beaujolais, a southern Burgundy sub-region, the burgeoning gamay grapes are picked, fermented, bottled and distributed within 10-12 weeks. This year, the release fell on Nov. 20.

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 wine police declared the bottles would be released the third Thursday of November, no matter when the vineyards are picked. Americans tried to get in on things from the get-go, but ended up waiting weeks after the official release each year for the new wines to show up on our shelves. Since we’re now blessed with faster shipping, and thanks to the export savvy of rich, behemoth producers, Americans are invited to the same Thursday night party.

More than a decade ago, California got into the act. To celebrate its 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 its new wine Novello, using merlot and corvino grapes. Beringer Nouveau and Novello are 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 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 now. Don’t let anyone sell you a “deliciously aged” 2001 Beaujolais Nouveau — more than likely it’s lost freshness and fruitiness, the two reasons 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. Just like people in the heat, the fruit lost plenty of water weight, concentrating its 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 to mention the whopping 12-13 percent alcohol content it will have.

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, and is the perfect stuff to drink while cleaning up after relatives.

At these prices, what have you got to lose?

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