- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Forget nouveau. At least forget it at dinnertime. Nouveau or new Beaujolais, released in mid-November, a scant two months after the harvest, is a marketing gimmick. A successful one to be sure, but a gimmick nonetheless, since the wine never tastes very good with food.

By contrast, a good cru or village Beaujolais tastes wonderfully refreshing and can be extremely food-friendly. It needs no publicity stunt.

Beaujolais nouveau was invented back in the 1960s, when a group of producers came up with the idea of a race to market. They wanted to be sure theirs was the first French wine released every year after the harvest. It became wildly popular in Parisian cafes and bistros, and today constitutes half of all the wine made in the region.

As a before-dinner drink, there’s nothing wrong with nouveau. Fruity and frivolous, it tastes fine on its own. However, being the product of a very brief fermentation, it lacks the backbone to effectively complement a meal.

Many consumers, however, only know Beaujolais as nouveau, and so mistakenly think that all wine from the region must be equally simple and light. More substantial Beaujolais, however, has plenty of stuffing. It can be a great dinner partner.

Beaujolais is a fairly large wine area, encompassing nearly 50,000 acres of vineyards. It extends south from the Maconnais region of Burgundy to within a few miles of the city of Lyons, France’s gastronomic capital. In restaurants there, a carafe or bottle of Beaujolais sits on virtually every table. The locals wash down everything from seafood to salad to steak with it, providing ample evidence that it can be a very good meal partner.

Except for a small amount of chardonnay (which tends to taste tart and acidic), Beaujolais produces only red wine from only one variety — gamay. This grape grows in a few other places (Switzerland, for one, where it often is blended with pinot noir), but Beaujolais is its true homeland. Nowhere else is it taken as seriously and treated with as much respect.

Gamay makes paradoxical wines. They are fairly deeply colored and full of red and berry flavors, but they have a relatively light body, being low in both tannin and acidity. As a result, they are easy to drink but can complement even hearty fare.

The finest Beaujolais wines come from the northern part of the region, where the soils are especially dense and the wines sturdy.

Some of these carry the designation “Beaujolais-Villages” on the label, indicating that they come from grapes grown in and around about 40 small villages known for their wines. However, the very best Beaujolais comes from 10 specific northern zones known as “crus.” These carry the name of the individual zone on the label, and, confusingly enough, often are not even identified as Beaujolais.

The 10 Beaujolais crus, from north to south, are: St.-Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Cote de Brouilly, and Brouilly.

Generalizations about them are not very helpful. Although Morgon, for instance, tends to produce more powerful wines than Fleurie, an individual producer there may well opt for a lighter, more perfumed style. As in so many wine regions, the reliability of the vintner proves just as important as the “terroir.”

When it comes to making and selling wine, Beaujolais is dominated by large companies that buy grapes and wines from private growers and then blend and bottle them under their own labels. The best known of these is Georges Duboeuf’s. He sells about 15 percent of the region’s total production.

At the same time, many individual growers and vintners in Beaujolais make and sell wine under their own labels. These are not as widely available as the big companies’ wines, but they often rank among the region’s best.

One of the great attractions of Beaujolais is value. The finest cru Beaujolais wines rarely cost more than $20, with most Villages wines coming in between $10 and $15. Even with today’s weak dollar, no wine-producing region in France gives you more bang for the proverbial buck.

So open a bottle of nouveau to toast the season if you wish, but be sure to stock up on some more substantial, real Beaujolais to enjoy with supper. I recently sampled about 50 cru and Villages wines now available in the Washington area. My favorites, in a rough order of preference, with importers identified to assist retailers and restaurateurs, are listed below.

Savoye Pierre, Morgon, Cote du Py, 2001 ($16). A substantial but delightfully nuanced wine, with bright fruit and all sorts of spicy undertones. The finish lingers on and on. (Imported by Country Vintner)

Domaine du Vissoux, Fleurie, Poncie, 2001 ($22). Full of subtleties, with an almost sweet perfume, this is a delicate but not at all fragile wine. It would be a great match for roast chicken. (Weygandt-Metzler)

Domaine des Nugues, Beaujolais-Villages, 2002 ($11). The best Beaujolais-Villages I tasted, this surprisingly deep, rich wine is jampacked with ripe, rich fruit flavor. It’s a great buy. (Robert Kacher Selections)

Domaine de Leyre-Loup, Morgon, 1999 ($13). Who says Beaujolais can’t age? This four-year-old Morgon augments its sweet, fresh fruit flavor with hints of spice and leather. I wouldn’t hold onto it much longer, but it’s delicious right now. (Country Vintner)

Louis Jadot, Moulin-a-Vent, Chateau des Jacques, 2001 ($20). Rich, ripe and substantial, this is a sumptuous but atypical Beaujolais that tastes more like pinot noir or tempranillo than gamay. From one of the region’s most prestigious estate vineyards. (Kobrand)

Trenel, Cote de Brouilly, 2002 ($19). Very light and smooth, but full of fruit and flavor. Drink it with light fare. (Robert Chadderon Selections)

Domaine Rouet, Brouilly, Vielles Vignes, 2001 ($16). An elegant, fairly light wine, marked by bright strawberry and red raspberry flavors. (Louis Dressner Selections)

Georges DuBoeuf, Regnie, 2002 ($12). Fresh and lively, with the telltale sweetness characteristic of DuBoeuf Beaujolais, here rendered especially appealing by a lingering, lush finish. (W.J. Deutsch)

Trenel, Domaine de la Tour du Bief, Moulin-a-Vent, 2001 ($19). Almost brawny, with less subtlety than some others, but still full of ripe berry flavor. (Robert Chadderon Selections)

Nicolas Potel, Morgon, Chateau Gaillard, Vielles Vignes, 2000 ($17). Tight and almost crisp, so very much a food (as opposed to an aperitif) wine, this is a Beaujolais to drink over the next few months, before the fruit fades away. (Frederick Wildman)

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