Declining demand for love-it-or-hate-it drink.
FROM the heart of France to the foothills of Mount Fuji and the streets of Washington DC, wine-themed fun was the order of the day on Nov 21 as a new vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau was uncorked.
As ever, the reviews were mixed for the purply-pink “primeur” wine that the vignerons of the Beaujolais country in eastern France rush to market within a few weeks of harvest, often having been fermented in only a few days.
With many of them facing an uncertain future against a backdrop of declining demand, Beaujolais producers had promised a particularly fruity drop this year.
And French intellectual Bernard Pivot, who tapped the first barrel of the new vintage on the stroke of midnight in the region’s capital Beaujeu, was willing to back their claims.
“I must admit I was a little afraid because the harvest was late but in the end it is very precocious,” Pivot said after enjoying his first few gulps.
“Robust – with notes of blackberries and raspberries. There is maybe even a little bit of cherry in there.”
In reality, Beaujolais Nouveau is a love-it-or-hate-it sort of drink. With its bananas-to-bubblegum range of flavours and its sharp (fans say crisp) acidity, the variations in quality between different years are unlikely to change opinions too drastically.
“More of an event than a drink,” is the sniffy view of Hugh Johnson, the veteran British writer whose annual pocket guide is the world’s biggest-selling wine book.
This year’s promotional stunts ranged from the cerebral – a Beaujolais-themed poetry competition at Moscow wine store Otdokhni – to the surreal – Brussels’ most famous statue, the Manneken Pis, was peeing the wine instead of water.
In its home market, Beaujolais Nouveau has suffered in recent years from the wider decline in wine drinking, tighter controls on drink driving and its association with hard-to-forget hangovers.
But Cedric Vallance, manager of the Louis D’Or bar in central Paris, does not feel it has fallen out of fashion.
“Maybe the 50-plus crowd are a bit fed up with it but the young still appreciate the festive side of Beaujolais Nouveau. All the tables we have booked tonight are by people in their 30s. It is a party wine.”
In the United States, Beaujolais Nouveau – which hits the market in time for the Thanksgiving holiday – is a reason for the Alliance Française, which promotes French language and culture abroad and has 114 chapters in the US, to throw soirées from coast to coast.
Its Washington DC branch is hosting a “Beaujolais and Beyond Celebration” at the French embassy on Nov 22 that will also include “light fare from DC restaurants”.
On Nov 20, the Local Vine Cellar, a wine shop off Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol Hill, threw an “Anti-Beaujolais Nouveau Celebration” to spotlight what it called “the complex side of Beaujolais”, with tastings of such crus as Morgon, Fleurie, Julienas and Chenas.
In the Japanese spa town of Hakone, west of Tokyo, Nouveau enthusiasts enjoyed the now established ritual of bathing in a mix of spring water and the tipple.
“It may shock some people but there is no reason why it should,” said Thibault Garin, a vice president of French merchants Laboure-Roi.
“The bath is not actually filled with wine (only a few symbolic bottles are put in and colouring is added to make the water a vivid purple). The point is the show.”
Japan is the young wine’s biggest export market, having knocked back 8.8 million bottles of the stuff last year.
With the Japanese market already a mature one and sales in Europe stagnating or falling, Beaujolais producers are looking to the rest of Asia to pick up the slack.
In China, which is Beaujolais’s sixth-biggest export market, one Beijing bar offered “Revolutionary Songs” along with its wine tasting.
Even in Muslim-majority Indonesia, where only a small proportion drink alcohol, a little piece of France came to a Jakarta mall, with an area of La Piazza decked out like a French street cafe in honour of the new vintage.
Although the production of a young wine before the end of the year is a long-established tradition in Beaujolais and many other wine areas, Nouveau and its associate hype only took off in the 1970s. It now accounts for about 30% of the region’s annual output of around 100 million bottles.
But there are some in the industry who feel it has created confusion about the Beaujolais brand, to the detriment of the region’s long-term interests.
Despite increasingly positive critical reviews, producers of regular Beaujolais are now struggling, with many vineyards in and around celebrated villages like Brouilly or Moulin a Vent being ripped up as their elderly owners reach retirement age.
“Beaujolais is in a dire situation,” says wine marketing guru Robert Joseph. “It is neither fun enough nor serious enough.” – AFP Relaxnews