If you’re a wine fan and a party animal, you probably stayed up until 12:01 a.m. last Nov. 21 and drove to your favorite wine shop to buy a bottle of the 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau on its official release date.
Maybe you partied that early morning, maybe you drank it for breakfast. Either way, you were in on the popular, albeit fading, tradition of celebrating the arrival of the very first wine from the year’s vintage.
In Miami one year, they flew it in on the Concorde and shuttled it by helicopter to the five-star Grand Bay hotel where oh-so-elegant partiers waited with all the anticipation of a Michael Jackson concert.
And the wine was fun: simple, fresh, fruity, lively, light, tasting of ripe strawberries, raspberries, cherries.
Alas, the fun was fleeting. It turns out Beaujolais Nouveau should be drunk for Thanksgiving and Christmas, or early in the new year. It fades quickly.
The good news is that after Beaujolais Nouveau comes the good stuff. Regular Beaujolais, Beaujolais-Villages and Cru Beaujolais. These are more powerful, more complex, fruitier versions of the same wine.
Here’s how it works.
Beaujolais is a wine region 34 miles long and 8 miles wide, just south of France’s feted Burgundy region, a four-hour drive southeast of Paris. Its northern half has granite soil, prime stuff for grapes. Its southern half has clay, which makes lesser wines.
Beaujolais Nouveau can come from anywhere in the region and makes up about half of all Beaujolais production. The grapes, mostly gamay, are picked in September and vinified for only a few days, then bottled and released quickly, on the third Thursday of November, to catch that weekend’s partygoers.
Decades ago it became a cult wine in Paris bistros, and winemakers used motorcycles, racing cars, even hot-air balloons to get their bottles to Paris first. In the 1960s U.S. wine fans caught the party bug and used equally zany methods to get it to their parties right away.
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Still, it’s a simple wine — a red wine that’s not up to red meat — and it fades quickly because its fast fermentation doesn’t produce much tannin.
So as soon as the nouveau is made, French winemakers turn to making Beaujolais’ better versions.
First comes Beaujolais-Villages, using grapes from 38 growers’ villages in the superior northern half of the Beaujolais region. These better-quality grapes are soaked longer on their skins, given a longer fermentation and released early in the new year.
This makes more powerful, more complex, fruitier, more tannic wines that can age for a couple of years or more. They go well with white meats, tuna salads, cheese dishes and such, though still not red meat.
Finally comes the best wine — “Cru” Beaujolais, sometimes called “classified growth” Beaujolais. The grapes come from 10 small subzones called crus in the northern half of the Beaujolais region, with its superior soils. Brouilly and Morgon are two of them.
The grapes are fermented much like red pinot noir grapes in neighboring Burgundy, given oak-barrel aging and released mostly on March 15. Sturdier, more complex and more tannic, they can age for 10 to 15 years.
Cru Beaujolais wines, still lighter than merlots, cabernet sauvignons and such, go with a wide array of foods. Some call them “crossover” wines for fans seeking to switch from whites to reds but wanting to take it slowly.
They fall in the popular “red-wine-with-fish” category, especially for salmon or tuna. They go well with ham, baby lamb, pork and cheese dishes. Still, they’re not up to a big New York strip steak.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that.