Too Young to Drink

A little over half a century ago, wine makers in the Beaujolais region of France came up with a great sales pitch: Rush a young wine to market and advertise it as a once-a year-treat. Lo, the Beaujolais Nouveau was born. Barely fermented and aged before it's bottled, the Nouveau is a fruity little wine, not much stronger than grape juice, with low acidity and low tannins, and a shelf life bordering on six months. It made a nice chilled harvest red, but it was always more about the hype than the grape.

Houstonians used to wait eagerly for that third Thursday in November when France shipped the Nouveau. Charities held black-tie wine tastings, and devotees lined up to buy cases of the stuff to get them through the holidays. But now, to hear Houston's major wine buyers tell it, the blush may be off the grape.

"You're not talking about a high-quality wine, it's more like vintage soda pop," says Bear Dalton, wine manager for Spec's 21 locations. "We've been flat on sales the last two years. In fact, Houstonians have gotten away from Beaujolais in general. And the hype has really died down on the Nouveau."

That's because France hasn't kept up the marketing campaign, says Fleming's Steakhouse and Wine Bar wine guru Marian Jensen Op De Haar. Fleming's, which offers more than 100 wines by the glass, doesn't even bother with the Nouveau. "We really kind of skip that," she says. "It's fun to drink -- it's like lemonade -- but it's not serious."

"It's basically just a marketing ploy," agrees The Wine Bucket Boutique & Bar's Eric Weidner. "I think most people have seen through that now. If you just want to throw something back, it's fine. But if I invested my money in a Beaujolais, it wouldn't be the Nouveau at all." Beaujolais Nouveau is made from the same grape, Gamay, as its sturdier cousins, the cru Beaujolais. As for the Nouveaus, he says, "Drink 'em now, have fun, but don't expect too much." The Wine Bucket ordered only four cases of Nouveau, compared to the 3,000 cases Spec's ordered this season.

Since 1951 the Beaujolais region has almost doubled to 55,000 acres of vineyards, and the Nouveau production topped out last year at 11.5 million gallons. But recently Spain, Italy and California have jumped on the instant-gratification bandwagon with Nouveaus of their own. Beringer does a decent version with a hint of orange for about $8. That's less than the French Louis Tête at $10 (of which only 50,000 cases were produced last year) and the gorilla of Nouveaus, Georges Duboeuf, at about $9.

"Our biggest seller far and away is the Georges Duboeuf," says Spec's Dalton. "It accounts for more than half our business." The Duboeuf, with its colorful label, can be found anywhere from wine boutiques to Randalls grocery stores. If Beaujolais Nouveau is "Britney Spears in a bottle," as the venerable Wine Spectator recently called it, than Georges Duboeuf is its "…Baby One More Time." Last year the United States imported almost 200,000 cases of the stuff.

But what if Britney grows up to be Cher? What if Beaujolais Nouveau does have legs into its second half-century?

Meet Monsterville Horton IV, beer and wine manager for HEB's yuppie mecca Central Market and defender of the Nouveau. "We had a big demand last year," he says, "and we expect to do almost 50 percent more this year." Horton says the super-grocer ordered "pallets upon pallets upon pallets" of Beaujolais Nouveau (each pallet contains 56 cases). And, even more surprising, it wasn't all the ubiquitous Georges Duboeuf.

"If there is such a thing as serious Beaujolais Nouveau, then that's what we're doing this year," Horton says. Central Market will stock eight different brands of the seasonal sip, and the no. 1 purchase was not Georges Duboeuf but the much lesser known Château du Basty. "It's the first time we've imported their Nouveau, and we've ordered more of it than the Duboeuf. It's a very, very old vineyard and very old vines, so it should be excellent."

Horton, one of only 120 certified wine educators in the world, knows his grapes. So if you still want to buy Nouveau for the holidays, it might be worth your while to pick up a bottle of du Basty just for grins. Who knows? The combination of old vines and rush-to-ferment technique may create a blend sweeter than a Cher-Britney duet.

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Marene Gustin