In Paris, on Nov. 15, the city's enormous number of bistros and cafes are filled with a special sense of joie de vivre. It is on this day that the new vintage of beaujolais, the thirst-quenching, grapy, sappy wine from southern Burgundy is legally permitted to be sold. Over the last several years, the day has taken on an increasingly party-like atmosphere in this country as well.
In fact, American wine enthusiasts have marched to their own favorite bistros for a taste of the new beaujolais wine in such numbers that the imported custom has become a media event, receiving extensive television, radio and print coverage.
In New York City this Nov. 15, Olympic gold-medal marathoner Joan Benoit symbolically hand carried the first bottle of 1984 beaujolais to the Parker Meriden Hotel after a helicopter had delivered the wine from John F. Kennedy International Airport to the Pan Am building in central Manhattan. Benoit refused to taste the new vintage, claiming that she was unable to do so because of her training program. However, her decision to abstain from drinking the newest vintage of beaujolais would certainly appear to have been the correct one.
While I hate to be a party buster, after attending what was billed as the biggest tasting of the 1984 beaujolais in the country, at the International Wine Center in New York on Nov. 16, I left with the firm conviction that 1984 is definitely a poor vintage for beaujolais.
The appeal of beaujolais wines, particularly the beaujolais nouveau wines that are released on Nov. 15, is their effusive, grapy, freshness and fruitiness. When the vintage has been a good one, the wines are true thirst-quenching products, with a wonderful pure grapy character, round, generous, supple flavors, and a deceptive alcoholic punch to them. The three preceding vintages for beaujolais, 1981, 1982 and 1983, were all quite successful, with many producers claiming that 1983 produced the best beaujolais in over a decade. However, in 1984, the grapes were harvested in the rain, the summer was miserable as well, and few vineyards in this vast wine producing region in southern Burgundy were able to achieve optimum ripeness.
Georges Duboeuf, the so-called King of Beaujolais, because of his domination of the beaujolais wine trade, said that the 1984 vintage would "separate the men from the boys." Assuming he meant that men would produce better wine, I can only say that after tasting over 30 different producers' 1984 beaujolais nouveau in New York, that all of the wines must have been made by boys. Not one of them was especially grapy, thirst quenching, or round and fruity. What I did find consistently in virtually all of the 1984 beaujolais nouveaua was a lean, tart, high-acid character, and green, rather sharp flavors, certainly not the type of wine I either want to party with, or wash down my escargots with.
However, you may want to try the 1984 Sylvain Fessy ($3.99), 1984 Jean Bedin ($4.49), 1984 A. Rodet ($4.49), and the 1984 Georges Duboeuf ($4.49). These showed at least some of the vivacious, exuberant fruitiness that a good beaujolais nouveau should have. Keep in mind though, that even these four producers made wines that are nowhere near the quality of the beaujolais nouveaus they produced in 1983 or 1981.
Beaujolais nouveau is a wine that is intentionally made to be drunk within 2 to 4 months of its release date. The meagerly endowed 1984s will hardly last any longer, so immediate consumption is clearly the rule.
If you are looking for a nouveau-styled wine made from the same grape that produces French beaujolais, the gamay, there are several domestic examples that are much better than anything produced in the Beaujolais region of France in 1984.
At the International Wine Center tasting, the Charles Shaw Winery of Napa Valley had pickets marching in front of the entrance to the beaujolais tasting. They were protesting the exclusion of Shaw's Nouveau Gamay. Shaw is a specialist in making wines of this type in California, and his 1984 Nouveau ($4.99) is his best yet. It is vastly superior to anything I tasted at the French beaujolais tasting, and I can fully understand why the Charles Shaw Winery was not permitted to offer its nouveau in a tasting with those from the French producers.
Another decliciously fruity, grapy nouveau is the 1984 Preston Gamay Beaujolais ($4.99) that, like the Shaw, has much more grapy fruit and personality than any of the French beaujolais.
When the new vintage of beaujolais nouveau is released, one usually expects to hear at cafes and bistros many a cheer to "Vive La France," but in 1984 the chant will certainly be "Vive Les Americans."