Nouveau wines have been celebrated in France since the 1800s, but every November, Americans clamor for the recently bottled Grape Drank, whose popularity skyrocketed with the 1985 ad slogan, "Le Beaujolais nouveau est arrivé!" The phrase seemed to say, "It's here, but NOT FOR LONG, so buy a shitload while you still can!" And even though the young wine is considered flat and lifeless compared to its robust older siblings, we've guzzled it unconditionally, creating yet another tradition based on our devotion to all things purchasable.
It's safe to say that while Americans go crazy for Beaujolais Nouveau, many are unaware of the existence of older vintages. Or maybe they've tried cru Beaujolais, but it's just harder to commit to the complicated, yet ultimately more thoughtful, wine, so they settle for the sexy, easy one with shiny hair. Well, that's how it usually goes in life: Beaujolais Nouveau is the perky cheerleader of the wine world, and Cru Beaujolais is her frumpy older sister.
During a summer tasting at City Winery, a group of old-school vintners called Expressions d'Origine brought a different kind of Beaujolais all the way from the foothills of France. The Beaujolais region is divided into ten crus (which basically means growing areas) that produce the wine's distinct flavors, and the members of Expressions d'Origine have complicated relationships with each year's vintage. At the tasting, the winemakers fretted over every wine as they would their children during parent-teacher conferences.
"Oh, the 2007 Morgon Javerniere is very acidic," one vintner said. "But it will be better in three years! Don't worry, the 2004 and 2005 vintages are perfect right now."
It's understandable that the winemakers would be worried about the American interpretation of older Beaujolais. For anyone used to the flavor of Beaujolais Nouveau, tasting a traditional cru Beaujolais for the first time can be a shock. The flavor is more tart than many other wines, and it cannot be chugged the way that Beaujolais Nouveau (or Franzia) can. It tastes almost like unsweetened cranberry juice. I was hot and hungover at the tasting, and found myself longing for a burrito. But many of the other guests at the tasting were loving the complexities of the wine. They were also all speaking French.
Each vintner greeted tasters with a hearty "Bonjour!" And, every time, they looked crestfallen when I responded, "Hi." Throughout the hall, even the other American tasters had adopted a nasal, "Oh-hoh-hoh-hoh," instead of normal laughter. People were screaming things like, "enchante!" and "fromage." It was madness.
There was one winemaker, however, who was happy to speak in any language. During a long lesson in the virtues of Beaujolais, Gillaume de Castelnau of Chateau des Jacques winery explained, "Wine is like music. You have one composer, one interpreter. Everyone tastes differently, just as everyone hears music differently." Mr. Castelnau has been working with wine since 1994 and is hopeful about the future of Beaujolais. "Beaujolais nouveau was a marketing gimmick that's almost run its course," he told me. "But traditional Beaujolais winemakers are coming back with more serious wines." Castelnau believes that the time has come for Cru Beaujolais.
From the turnout at the tasting, that certainly seemed to be true. Everywhere I turned, there were bespectacled scholars and flax-swaddled earth children spewing crimson fountains into steel spittoons. It will become clear in November whether or not Cru Beaujolais is ready for a comeback. Last year, sales of Beaujolais Nouveau fell 21 percent from 2007, and they are expected to keep falling.
Really, Cru Beaujolais and Beaujolais Nouveau should be able to coexist. In actuality, the siblings are more like second cousins. The Expressions d'Origine wines are all produced by hand—they use no chemical pesticides, add no sulfites, and each vineyard only produces 5,000-10,000 cases of wine per year. Castelnau also explained the importance of aging the wines in Oak barrels. "New oak barrels hold a proportion of tannins," he said, and went on to tell me that 30 percent of the tannins in Beaujolais wines come from a year of maturation in oak. Beaujolais Nouveau is ready to be drunk less than two months after its harvest, so it doesn't ever develop the complexity of an older vintage. Jabbing at "lifeless" nouveau wines, Castelnau also made it clear that, "the barrel gives life to the wine." Apparently, everyone's tastes should be respected, unless they enjoy drinking Beaujolais Nouveau.
Even within the realm of cru Beaujolais, however, flavors vary immensely. Most of the red wines are made with Gamay grapes grown in granite-rich soil, although each vineyard's location in the hills has an effect on the eventual flavor of the wine. Some of the wines at the tasting were spicy, some were fresh tasting, some had a burnt quality, some were slightly carbonated, and some were toasted like popcorn. One taster remarked that a 2007 Morgon from Domaine Marcel Lapierre tasted, "like dirt." Domaine des Terres Dorres even offered an unusual white Beaujolais made with Chardonnay grapes.
There's no denying that the vintners care as much for their product as they do about their own family. At Domaine Paul Janin et Fils, each of the winery's 25 acres is harvested and processed only by a husband and wife and their son. The Clos de Haute Combe winery has been in the same family since 1835, and produces grapes with vines that are 50-80 years old. Gillaume de Castelnau even described his 2007 Morgon as, "A boy! Strong and hearty with large tannins," and his 2007 Moulin-a-Vent as, "a charming girl."
It was impossible to ignore the immense pride bursting from each winemaker, an intensity of feeling comparable to fierce patriotism: indeed, they also seemed like they couldn't care less about a wine that wasn't produced in France, or even French wines that jeopardized longstanding traditions. The Beaujolais family may be eccentric, but they're not going to take shit from anyone. Maybe this year, the public will finally go nuts for the more complicated Beaujolais.