Paul Bocuse, the most famous chef in France, came to Washington last week on a difficult mission. He was trying to sell a tine of 1977 Beaujolais bearing his name to a skeptical wine trade here. The problem Bocuse and others have had in drawing attention to last year's vintage is the result of a strange paradox: Beaujolais is being blamed for not being Burgundy, a wine made farther to the north from a totally different grape.
For some years now, there have been accusations that the French have been making a heavy style of Beaujolais for the American market by (legally) adding quantities of sugar to the pressed juice to raise the alcohol content of the wine. The Burgundy-like 1976s are probably the most obvious example of this trend. Winemakers were given a head start when nature provided the most favorable growing and harvest conditions in this decade. They are, as one wine lover put it, "very good wines but not very good (typical) Beaujolais."
Exceptionally rich, deeply colored and high in alcohol, the "76s came on the scene after a very unsatisfactory vintage, 1975, and were snapped up by merchants and the public. They have been recommended for use at formal dinner parties, a role once reserved for Burgundies and Bordeaux. Experts argue about how long these wines should be laid away.
So they please wine lovers who find red burgundy to be unpredictable in quality and very expensive. Beaujolais is hardly the bargain it once was, but much of the best of it may still be purchased in the $3 to $5 range.
In traditional terms, the 1977 Beaujolais that Bocuse presented here last Friday were excellent: Cherry-red in color, light and fruity in the mouth and agreeable to swallow, they were very close to the descriptions of Beaujolais one finds in wine books. But they don't pack the wallop of the "76s and they are more expensive. Furthermore, reports on the vintage at harvest time were disparaging and little has been written since.
Whether Bocuse's visit will encourage wholesalers and retailers to give the 1977s a boost remains to be seen. The nouveau or "premier" Beaujolais did not sell well when it arrived. Yet those who love to drink their Beaujolais young and lightly chilled as a companion to light foods at home or on picnics should find some delightful drinking in this most recent vintage.
Despite a disappointing turnout at the Washington preview tasting and expert judgments that the offerings were very uneven in quality, Heublein's 10th annual auction of rare wines set a record. Bids at the auction in Atlanta last week totalled $482,335, nearly $150,000 more than the previous high of $337,962, achieved in 1974 at Chicago.
Another record was the highest single-bottle price yet paid: $18,000 for a jeroboam of 1864 Chateau Lafite. (A jeroboam contains the equivalent, roughly, of six fifth-size bottles.) The purchaser was John A. Grisanti, a restaurant owner from Memphis, Tenn. He said it would be served at a hospital fund-raising banquet.
The offering this year was larger than it has been in the past, which helped swell the bidding total. In addition, California wines have been attracting increasingly higher sums in recent auctions.