Wine Opinion: Beaujolais
Even wine regions aren't immune to a personality crisis - as Beaujolais knows only too well. Its annual release of young wine Beaujolais Nouveau accounts for about 30 per cent of the region's production, including 39 per cent of its sales in Hong Kong, earning millions in revenue. The wine of 100 per cent gamay grapes is allowed to be sold at one minute past midnight on the third Thursday of November each year. It now sells in 110 countries worldwide and can shift close to 40 million bottles in a few weeks.
So it's puzzling that gamay wine has been accused of ruining the reputation of the Beaujolais crus, or villages, longer-aged, better-structured wines that compete with the best wines of neighbouring Burgundy. The two sides of the region are often seen to be at odds with one another: fame competes with credibility.
Richard Bampfield, a Master of Wine based in Britain, says Beaujolais Nouveau has been unfairly maligned. "Many of the qualities that Beaujolais Nouveau possesses - vibrant, primary fruit characteristics, with low tannins - you could argue are exactly what many consumers look for today.
Cristobal Huneeus, owner of La Cabane on Hollywood Road, ran a Beaujolais Nouveau promotion last November, and is doing so again now. "Although our shop had only been opened for a year, we sold 50 per cent of our Beaujolais Nouveau in the week of its release. Often people think of Beaujolais Nouveau as one big producer with one flavour or taste, but Beaujolais, like most wine regions, offers various terroirs with different tastes and style depending on the winemaker."
This is key when hunting out good examples. Overproduction and chasing profits meant that much Beaujolais Nouveau ended up tasting like sugary fruit juice, but in the past five years, producers have been working on cleaner, low-temperature winemaking that preserves fruit flavours and lessens the "boiled sweet" flavours that can come out of careless carbonic maceration (the process that starts fermentation before crushing). Today, grapes are rigorously selected, handpicked and yields are lower to concentrate flavours.
Jean-Michel Dupre of Vignobles Dupre, says: "Finding the best Beaujolais Nouveau is about the provenance of the grapes and the honesty of the producers. It's usually better to look for single-vineyard examples because the producer has more control over the final product. The method of working is the same for all styles of Beaujolais. It is the last stages (mainly length of maceration) that will mean if a wine is Beaujolais or Beaujolais Nouveau. Normally the young vines will make the best Nouveau - while older vines with more concentration go into the cru wines that will be aged in oak. But there are special cuvées of Beaujolais Nouveau from old vines, and they are worth seeking out. I make one from vines planted in 1911, and they produce a Nouveau-style wine that is rich and complex."
Whether it makes an impact in Hong Kong remains to be seen. This year, things may be complicated by the fact that 2012 Beaujolais saw about half of the usual harvest after a challenging growing season. What is left is good quality, but there are sure to be supply issues.
Despite this, there is clear ambition for Beaujolais of all styles, from Nouveau to the more expensive crus. Laurent Piaton, who works with the producer group Terroirs Originels, says he expects the style to take off in China. "Beaujolais is so fresh, round and fruity, and is suitable for much Chinese food" - citing specifically lacquered duck, dim sum and Beijing duck for a fruity Beaujolais Nouveau, and Sichuan food, sweet and sour sauces and Chinese mushrooms with a full-bodied Beaujolais cru such as Morgon or Moulin a Vent. Imports to Hong Kong have risen threefold since 2007, and many producers see it as a gateway into the Chinese market, so you can expect an increase in visits from winemakers, meaning more tastings and opportunities to try the different styles on offer.
The annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau this year is next Thursday