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This Holiday Season, Put a Cork in It: Wine lovers around the world are celebrating Beaujolais Nouveau Day.

Noir Holiday

There's a place called France where they don't celebrate Thanksgiving. But what they do celebrate at this time every year should make American wine lovers take notice.

By Steve Billings

This week I am trying to give you, dear reader, an excuse to party. It's not my fault if you have a problem with the French or are strictly dedicated to huge, jam sandwich, oak-choked wines that cost too much money. These are your own issues to sort out, and for them, I cannot assume responsibility or blame.

The third Thursday of November in France is Beaujolais Nouveau Day and is the official date of release for a very young, bright, fruity wine made exclusively from the region's gamay noir grapes picked just weeks ago during harvest.

Initially, the wine was produced as a reward for harvest workers, but over time its popularity grew, becoming a source of regional, then national and subsequently international celebration. According to the magazine Decanter, more than a million cases--or one-third of the annual production of Beaujolais--are sent round the world in the annual Beaujolais Nouveau release. In France, the release parties became so popular and frenetic that the government intervened, imposing restrictions and limits, which have since softened and turned the whole affair into a quasi-national holiday.

Despite the current fashion for rich wines that are high in alcohol and oak exposure, the appeal of a nouveau is based on an entirely different winemaking approach that is very particular to the region. The grapes are still hand-picked as whole clusters and are not crushed before being dumped into the fermentation tank. This process, known as carbonic maceration, allows the grapes at the bottom to be crushed by the weight above them and to begin fermenting in the normal way while the carbon dioxide gas released upward contributes to an intercellular fermentation in the still whole clusters. After a very short period (3-4 days for nouveau) the whole lot is pressed and all of the pressed wine is used in the final blend. The main benefits to this process are a very minimal amount of tannin extraction and maximized aromatic potential.

The result is very light red wine (of varying quality) that can be consumed rapidly, which is why some people go as far as to deride it as a Kool-Aid-like beverage. The French refer to it as gouleyant, or gulpable, and if you open a bottle you'll see why. This stuff is the perfect quaffing wine; don't talk about it, just drink it. It's the background, not the centerpiece. If the wine's not pretentious, why should you be?

I picked up a selection of these wines the other day with some friends to see what the hell is going on. I ended up purchasing four bottles from the selection at Shopper's Corner, as Soif did not have any in their shop. Of the four, three carried the name of major French negociants (or grape buyers): Joseph Drouhin, Dominique Piron and Georges DuBoeuf, who is almost single-handedly responsible for the prominence of nouveau wines in our lives; the last was produced by Domaine Ruet.

I put the bottles on my shaded front porch when I got home in the late afternoon, and let them get cool into the evening before opening them. I didn't make any real fuss about the food, either; we all just sampled and picked from a board of pâtés and cheeses, olives and smoked salmon.

Of the four wines, three were enjoyable and entirely drinkable, expressing many more similarities than differences. For the most part, you got ripe strawberry and raspberry and some banana-style fruit with bright acidity and a slight pepperiness on the finish. Only the Piron seemed to be lacking balance. There wasn't that attractive fruit you want and it just felt flat on your mouth with only a slightly peppery finish trying to hold it all together.

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From the December 1-8, 2004 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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