Thursday, November 8, 2007

Don't Age Your Beaujolais*

(or: “Just Because It’s Red Doesn’t Mean It Will Age”)
I’m sure there are still a dozen or so wine drinkers in the world who aren’t aware of the long tradition of consumption of wine so fresh from the vine that there are practically stems floating in the bottle.  With a cousin in the wine industry I consider myself somewhat more conversant on the subject than John Q. Public but far from an expert in any respect.  I know when I like a wine and can describe flavors and aromas in a respectable manner, and, just as importantly I can tell the difference between a wine I don’t like and bad wine.  I’ve had corked wine, old wine, wine that wasn’t stored properly and I’ve had commercial wines that tasted like a chemistry experiment gone wrong.
I first received a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau as a gift from a guest at our Christmas party in 1996.  At the time I didn’t have much of a taste for red wines and the bottle went in the rack along with an assortment of wines that included a couple of gems such as 1994 Chehalem Pinot Gris Reserve and a 1992 Chehalem Pinot Noir as well as the remnants of a case of delightfully fruity and crisp 1994 Riesling.  Not knowing any better I assumed that it wouldn’t hurt to age the Beaujolais just like any other red, and since reds weren’t high on my list I didn’t put much more thought in to the subject.
My second bottle of Nouveau arrived on the same occasion as the first, but a year later.  It found a spot on the rack next to the first and I began to have thoughts of how it would be to allow them to both mature a bit and then open them up with some friends and have a go at a little side-by-side vintage tasting comparison.  Once in a while, when friends were coming over for dinner, I’d consider if it were the right time to conclude my experiment.  Having gained just enough knowledge to be dangerous I always seemed to arrive at the conclusion that perhaps I should “wait a little longer” and leave them in the rack.  After all, if this isgood red wine it ought to just get better, right?
If you have to think for more than a nanosecond about the circumstances surrounding the arrival of bottle number three in the series then you are obviously more deficient in deductive reasoning than I was in knowledge of the care and feeding of Nouveau.  Of course I saw this as a perfect  complement to the two bottles already residing in the rack and started to make plans for how I would have a grand wine party the following fall, naturally featuring these three bottles as the centerpiece.  As fate would have it I moved to California in the interim and the plans were quickly forgotten.  In 2001 I moved back from California with all three bottles still in my collection and started having thoughts of my grand wine debut that would certainly impress everyone fortunate enough to be invited.
It never happened.  Fast forward through 2002 and most of 2003.  I found myself relocating to Maryland for an opportunity to help shape a startup.  In the fall of 2003 my wife and I went out to dinner and strolled through an outdoor mall afterwards.  We found a wine shop and dropped in for a visit.  They had just received their shipment of Beaujolais Nouveau and offered a taste as they told us about the tradition and how people all across the world were opening bottles at virtually the same time in celebration of the new vintage.  I started to think about the three bottles that I had at home “aging” in the rack.
We purchased a bottle and drank it the following weekend for dinner.  Not my favorite wine, but I’ve since learned that it’s acceptable (and fairly common) to treat it more as a white than a red.  Next time I’ll chill it a bit and see what happens. 
A few weeks later I finally got around to concluding my well planned, ill-conceived “experiment.”  Not being one to simply toss in the towel I boldly opened the 1996 and poured a bit into a glass.  Milky, stale on the nose, lots of sediment and crystallization; obviously not anything that was going to be appealing, but intellectual curiosity demanded that I had to at least give it a taste.  Nasty is as charitable as I can muster.  The 1997 wasn’t as milky, nor as stale and didn’t inspire the gag reflex that the 1996 produced, but there was ample sediment and crystallization.  Still, it was several continents away from drinkable.  With the discovery that things were getting better without age, I opened the 1998 with borderline enthusiasm, thinking that perhaps there was a magical five year limit that may have kept this one safe.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
With the exception of color the 1998 was every bit as wretched as the 1996.  It was just starting to cloud up a bit, but it didn’t have the milky look of the others.  But it was thoroughly disgusting.
All three bottles were then ceremoniously poured down the drain and I set out to write this little dissertation with the hope that I might redeem myself by being repentant and perhaps help someone else from making such an elementary error.

*Before you send me hate mail pointing out that Beaujolais covers more than just Nouveau, hence this isn’t an accurate statement, please realize that “Beaujolais” rolls of the tongue better in the title than “Nouveau.”

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