Beaujolais Nouveau

Bottles have a longer shelf life than believed

Early in my wine-writing career, I wrote a story in which I managed to overstate beaujolais’ lack of aging potential, especially that of the beaujolais nouveau, the new release that always appears around Thanksgiving.

After the column appeared, Chip Delsener, of AHD Vintners, one of metro Detroit’s really good wine-importing companies, politely but correctly got on my case.

That’s not true, Delsener said; you’re generalizing. To prove his point, he invited me to taste some older beaujolais nouveau that he had kept around for a few years, as well as assorted others from châteaux and high-end estates with vintages going back five to 10 years.

All were terrific. Each was distinct and, in many cases, vastly different from the next. Each had aged somewhat, and the older ones were vibrant with plenty of life remaining. My eyes were opened to the embarrassment of making sweeping generalizations. Lesson learned.

This year’s beaujolais nouveau (officially called “en primeur” in France) will begin to appear on store shelves this month, and, by next summer, a lot of people will be following the overstated mantra that these wines have passed their prime.

Too bad. With very few exceptions, they’ll continue to be very drinkable and by the time of next year’s release, they will have changed so much that they’ll be rather like many beaujolais-villages, the basic non-nouveau of the region that’s commonly available.

In the 20 years since my lesson on nouveau, I’ve rarely seen a beaujolais nouveau that failed before at least three years. Most can go longer. Although, a few years ago, one brand coming from France started refermenting in the bottle because the winery clearly had rushed it to bottling too soon. In a few cases, corks actually blew out of the bottle. But that happens extremely rarely.

Nouveau stems from a long tradition that dates to early in the last century, maybe even earlier, when the wines from beaujolais became a red-wine mainstay in the cafés and brasseries of Paris, where they’re served by the glass or in small carafes at lunch or as a refreshment. It became popular to send barrels of the wine immediately after pressing — en primeur — to Paris, where an annual sport developed of evaluating the “real” beaujolais, which were still at least a year away from their official release.

The new wines tend to be noticeable for their pinky-purple color, and the cotton-candy and banana aromas that are characteristic of many newly pressed reds. It tastes fruity and somewhat sugared, and with very low alcohol. If you’re going to drink a wine this young, you can’t do much better than beaujolais. Most grape varieties don’t do as well this early. A lot of U.S. wineries tried for a few years to do their own versions, but most gave up.

In some ways, it’s unfortunate that the nouveau rush each year paints the wide range of beaujolais into a corner, because there are wonderful older, far more complex and mature wines from the region that share a lot of characteristics with very good burgundies.

So, as the nouveau hits the shelves and then disappears, consider these “better,” more distinguished older cousins:

2008 Château de La Chaize Brouilly ($16): From a château that has been going since the 1600s comes this balanced medium-bodied red that has great structure and aging potential.

2006 Domaine des Buyats Régnié ($13): From Georges Duboeuf, the king of beaujolais exporting, comes this rich and elegant wine with structure and grape characteristics typical of what the region can produce at the high end. Showing nice maturity.

2007 Henry Fessy Moulin-á-Vent ($18): Plummy, big, rainy, with great structure and nice long finish. Complexity and aromas hinting of burgundy. Showing potential for many more years in the bottle.