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Sunday, Nov. 9, 2003

In with le new!

It may not be the stuff of a sommelier's dreams -- but the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau is still one of the year's best excuses for a party!

Staff writer

It's Beaujolais Nouveau time again, and Japan -- despite its piffling per capita consumption of just three bottles of wine a year -- will suddenly become a nation of tipplers and quaffers (if not connoisseurs) of this fresh-from-the-vine red wine from France.

News photo
A poster hails the arrival of the new Beaujolais wines.

One of the most famous names in the vast galaxy of wines, this year's Beaujolais Nouveau will be uncorked in wine bars and restaurants around the world on Nov. 20. And now, as the day nears, oenophiles and ordinary guzzlers alike are growing daily more impatient to savor the flavor of what was once considered -- as late as the 1960s -- merely cheap plonk for the French working man.

As the first fruit of the vine each year, Beaujolais Nouveau has steadily grown in popularity to become one of the best-selling wines of all. This is especially so in Japan, where -- despite the fact that the first imports were not until 1975 -- the frenzy surrounding its arrival has become as seasonal a staple as baseball's Japan Series or cherry blossom viewing in spring.

However, it wasn't until the late '80s that the popularity of Beaujolais Nouveau really soared, as the "miracle" of the bubble economy filtered down to consumers.

"At that time, extensive advertising and promotional campaigns surrounding the wine's release on the third Thursday of November were carried out and the media was stoking the frenzy," recalled Norimichi Yamasaka, president of Izumi Trading Co., the first company to introduce Beaujolais Nouveau into Japan.

As hotels and restaurants picked up on the trend, each year from then on more and more Beaujolais Nouveau fairs began spreading a festive spirit on that special day. Soon, as Japanese people began to use the wine as an excuse for a party -- planning events with typical Japanese enthusiasm -- the appearance of Beaujolais Nouveau was turned into a national obsession.

"People were so concerned about timing that they just rushed to be the first to drink the wine, without enjoying its taste," Yamasaka said.

Then the bubble burst, the recession set in . . . and the new red wine from France lost its sparkle. The Beaujolais Nouveau boom was over and the wine's sales in Japan nosedived. From a sales peak in 1989 of 450,000 cases (with a dozen 750 ml bottles in a case), demand fell by double-digit percentages for the next six years from 1990. Finally, sales hit rock bottom in 1995, at just 40,000 cases, due also in part to a boycott of French products triggered by France's resumption of nuclear tests in the Pacific.

Reds on a roll

But all was not lost, and the young wine's star began to rise again the very next year, when Japan's big beverage firms started marketing less expensive imported and domestic wines priced around 500 yen per bottle. Soon a big new wine craze was sweeping the nation -- a craze fueled by media reports at the time hailing the health benefits of the polyphenolic component of red wine. Up until then, sales of red and white wines had been neck and neck in Japan, but afterward red started to win out with ease.

News photo
The lush, rolling landscape of southern Burgundy, whose vineyards and chateaux are the source of Beaujolais wines.

"People began to choose red," said Yamasaka, "and among red wines, Beaujolais Nouveau regained popularity because it was seen as more accessible than Bordeaux, which was traditionally regarded as an elite beverage."

The wine boom triggered by these cheaper wines had all but petered out by the turn of the century -- but Beaujolais Nouveau alone bucked the trend. Since 1996, consumption of the nouveau French wine has steadily climbed, and last year domestic sales hit a record high, at 580,000 cases.

With such a huge volume flooding in, Japan has now overtaken Germany as the world's leading importer, and this year's Beaujolais Nouveau imports are expected to total 600,000 cases -- 3 percent up on the record of the year before.

Now, in fact, Japanese people drink around one-fourth as much Beaujolais Nouveau as the French -- even though overall, their wine consumption is less than one-twentieth of the French, despite the enormous variety of wines now being imported here.

So, why is Beaujolais Nouveau so popular in this land of sake and beer?

Ostensibly, the reason for Tokyo's nouveau mania seems to be rooted in time-zone differences. Regulations decree that not a drop of Beaujolais Nouveau can be drunk before the third Thursday in November. So when Tokyo revelers down their first glass of the season on Thursday, it is still late Wednesday afternoon in Lyon -- a point that nearly everyone in the trade here notes with satisfaction.

"We can drink the new Beaujolais before the French, before the Americans," said a young worker at Suntory, Ltd., one of the giants of Japan's beer and liquor industry. "And Japanese like being first."

In addition, many wine experts explain the wine mania as a variant of hatsumono, the celebration of seasonal foods -- like bonito in May or matsutake mushrooms and new rice in autumn. "Japanese people like to sample the first product of each season," said Yamasaka.

News photo
Celebrations under way in a village restaurant in Beaujolais as the new wine arrived there last year.

But it's not just cultural reasons that explain the intensity of Japan's love affair with Beaujolais Nouveau. According to Setsuko Yoshida, editor-in-chief of the wine magazine Vinotheque, careful marketing is mainly to thank for the sales increase.

Yoshida highlights importers' effort to promote the wine for home consumption. After the bubble burst, people started to buy wine at supermarkets or discount stores for drinking at home, rather than ordering it at expensive restaurants, Yoshida said. Picking up on that trend, importers launched promotion campaigns targeting liquor shops, department stores and retail stores, aiming to reach out to housewives, students and female workers who had previously not been wine buyers.

The importers have also boosted demand in the restaurant sector as well, Yoshida said. "It's not just Western-style eateries, but Japanese pubs and Chinese restaurants that are adding wine to their drink menus to attract more women," she said.

But back to Beaujolais Nouveau -- and the question of just what makes this wine so unique.

The wine takes its name from the area of Beaujolais -- an expanse of hilly terrain running parallel to the Saone River in the southern part of Burgundy, a region near the border with Switzerland to the east. Located about 400 km south of Paris and 25 km north of Lyon, Beaujolais produces about 1.5 million hectoliters (around 190 million bottles) of wine annually from its 22,700 hectares of vineyards. Of this, the nouveau bottling accounts for about one third.

Thanks to the area's mild climate, plentiful sunshine and well-drained soil, the quality of grapes harvested in Beaujolais is high, and the wine that results is light and refreshing with a fruity aroma.

Rich pickings

Local residents call the new season's first wine "Beaujolais Primeur," and the term is used in the official regulations of the Institute National d' Appellation d'Origine. However, primeur wine is divided into two groups: Beaujolais Nouveau, which accounts for about 75 percent of the total; and Beaujolais Villages.

Most years, red-wine producers throughout the whole of Burgundy start picking their grapes in the middle of September. They are then put in an airtight container and left for five to 15 days to start fermenting naturally and emitting carbon dioxide, which they do as the grapes at the bottom are crushed by the weight of those above. Next, the grapes are pressed and the juice is put into barrels to begin maturing. Finally, the wine is bottled and shipped from the wineries around the middle of December.

The whole Beaujolais Nouveau process, however, is completed within 50 days, because there is no need to let the wine mature fully. The fermenting period is only four days for Beaujolais Nouveau and about six to 10 days for Beaujolais Villages, which makes both wines velvety and fruity as there is less tannic acid and astringency in the juice. Known as "the wine of the season," and invariably made from the Gamay grape varietal, it is characterized by a particularly intense red-purple color and (unsurprisingly) a strong aroma of grapes.

The annual custom of drinking the season's new wine first became popular in Paris about 50 years ago. At that time, though, Beaujolais Nouveau's reach extended no further than Lyon, and it wasn't until journalists and celebrities who fled there from Paris during World War II acquired a taste for it that the custom eventually reached the capital when they returned after the war.

This fashion caught the attention of sommeliers and restaurateurs, who helped promote it all over the world. Consequently, many classy eateries adopted Beaujolais Nouveau as their house wine.

However, the wine's reputation didn't take off until the advent of nouvelle cuisine, a cooking style whose emphasis on the freshest ingredients, attractive presentation and a light, clean palate is ideally suited to this young wine's qualities.

In September 1951, though, the French government decided to prohibit wineries from shipping the new wine until December. The decision was strongly opposed by producers, and the government finally conceded that Beaujolais Nouveau could be shipped earlier, on Nov. 15. Finally, in 1985, that date was changed to the third Thursday of November, because it had proved difficult to ensure the necessary transport to ship the wine from France when Nov. 15 fell on a weekend.

Slurping Parisians

"There are no hard and fast rules for drinking Beaujolais Nouveau," said Kazuyoshi Kogai, chief sommelier of the Prince Hotel group in Japan. Although red wine is usually drunk at room temperature, Kogai explained that there is nothing wrong with enjoying Beaujolais Nouveau chilled, at about 10 to 13 degrees -- or even keeping an opened bottle for several days stored in a dark place.

"Normally, red wine accompanies meat dishes and white wine, fish. But Beaujolais Nouveau complements any kind of food -- even sushi, sashimi or yakitori," he said.

In France, oysters are in season in November, and it has become fashionable for Parisians to slurp their mollusks with Beaujolais Nouveau as soon as they see the posters outside bistros and restaurants announcing "Le Nouveau est arrive."

"This is a wine that does not have to be drunk at formal dinners," said Kogai. "It adapts to any occasion, including the most relaxed and casual parties."

Good wines usually require proper storage in order to maintain their refined flavor, aroma and bouquet, which are vulnerable to environmental factors such as temperature, humidity, light and vibration. But as Kogai pointed out, "Since Beaujolais Nouveau is a kind of wine which is not matured for long, it is easily handled -- even by Japanese housewives at home."

Meanwhile, reasonably enough, some people wonder if a wine like this that is cheaper than most is also of lower quality. That is not necessarily the case, and indeed Beaujolais Nouveau varieties normally carry an Appellation d'Origine Controlee (AOC) ensuring their quality.

Although many factors affect a wine's quality, one of the most important is weather. So, after this year's extraordinarily hot summer in Europe, wine expert are predicting that this year's vintage will be of rare quality. Further fueling this hope are the repeated hail and thunderstorms that hit the Beaujolais region in spring, drenching the soil and helping to improve the color, acidity and sugar content of the grapes.

Last year's Beaujolais Nouveau was lauded by the UIVB Beaujolais Wine Union in the following words: "The wine's robe is lively and glossy with shimmering purple nuances in the strong, deep peony red. The aromas are discreet but very present in retro-olfaction. They, of course, recall small red fruit, the traditional fragrances of Beaujolais Nouveau. In the month they are full, lip-smacking, you could even say 'winey.' "

Even more beguiling, though, is their prediction for the 2003 vintage: "This year's wine is expected to be an exceptionally good one due to fine, hot weather in summer, although the production will be 40 percent less than usual due to stormy weather in spring. The 2003 vintage will be a deep garnet color and its aroma will be a subtle blend of strawberry and raspberry. It will have an unusual aroma of violet in Beaujolais Nouveau and an aroma of iris in Villages."

There's not long to wait now to put this tantalizing prediction to the test . . .


Why not check out the following Beaujolais events in Tokyo: Sakura Tower, opposite Shinagawa Station in Tokyo, offers all-you-can-drink Beaujolais Nouveau for 2,500 yen a head in its Vendange wine lounge from 11 a.m. till 10 p.m. from Nov. 20 through Dec. 7. Takanawa Prince Hotel, in the same location, offers a full-course dinner menu at 10,000 yen, including all the Beaujolais Villages and Macon Villages you care to drink, in its French restaurant Le Trianon, from Nov. 20 through Dec. 7. In Nihonbashi, the Royal Park Hotel will hold a fair on Nov. 20, when it's all you can drink at 7,000 yen a head in its Sky Lounge Orpheus from midnight to 2 a.m.

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