Vibrant Beaujolais Nouveau in Chennai

V. Sanjay Kumar says, in his wine world, the hunt for something new is a great joy

In early December 2022, I was at Alliance Francaise for the inauguration of their new art gallery. It was around five in the evening in Chennai and a saxophonist was serenading the local squirrels and crows. A few tables were set in the large balcony, they were laden with bottles of wine. There was an air of good cheer as they were opened, many at a time, poured generously into glasses and the mostly French-speaking community glugged down what was introduced as Beaujolais Nouveau.

“Harvested and bottled just a month earlier in France,” said a happy chugger. “Can you believe it?”

That was impressive, I was drinking the fastest wine in the farm-to-table race.

“No aging, no oak?” I asked.

“Hello!” said my fellow chugger. “You will ask for tasting notes next?”

It was a fresh fruity wine, it was uncomplicated. Three glasses down and I stopped looking for structure or tannins. We drank our merry way to happiness. That night I posted a picture of the bottle in my connoisseur group, and it met with a cold reception.

“You drank Beaujolais Nouveau?” asked a senior member. “Any side-effects?”

Among wine people this kind of rudeness was passé. Among connoisseurs, snobbery was the local currency. Nouveau and its ilk did not measure up in their world. To be fair, Nouveau was a fad for a while, thanks to Americans, till they tired of it. Not surprisingly because it was a table wine. A table wine was literally something that you plonked on the dinner table and drank without fuss with your meal.

“Have you had Dolcetto, the table wine from Italy?” asked the senior member.

“Yes, I had it in Piedmont,” I said.

It was made in bulk there, shipped unlabelled after harvest to people’s homes where it was served in jugs along with meals.

If Beaujolais has Nouveau, the Piedmont region of Italy has the Novello version of Dolcetto. The Dolcetto grape is soft, fruity and approachable. The winemaking is often similar to Beaujolais with
whole clusters undergoing carbonic maceration. Look out for superiore expressions, or wine from reputable makers, that seek to elevate the grape.

“We don’t drink table wine in India,” said the member.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because in India wine is too precious.”

“So, I should not drink Gamay?”

The member sniffed. Clearly, I was testing his patience. “Gamay is a more versatile grape than Dolcetto. Please do some research.”

The Beaujolais region is below Burgundy, that is what people will tell you. And then they will tell you that that’s where it belongs. The Gamay grape, it seems, lives in the shadow of Pinot Noir. If it had a voice, it would be indignant.

Pawing at the periphery of the famed regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy are a couple of interesting dominions in France that are making a mark among wine aficionados; the ones who are more adventurous and frankly have a more open worldview.

“Like who?”

Me, and one or two people I know? I also know friends who will heartily disagree. They are generous souls; they serve fabulous vintages of left-bank and right-bank blends and Pinots and Chards from small domiciles that have consorted with precious oak and cost a ransom. Delicious stuff, but I am tired by now of vanilla and tobacco. The mention of cigar box and umami gives me a rash, and the mere hint of mocha and forest floor gives me a migraine.

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“So, what are you looking for in a wine?” asks my better half.

Beaujolais Nouveau – Fresh, fruity and uncomplicated

I am looking for freshness, I am looking for personalities, not personable people, I am looking for new reputations. Above all, I am looking for purity of fruit, minimal oak, and a single varietal. Is that too much to ask? I mean Bordeaux and Burgundy slave over casks, the former slaves over blending, and then there is the interminable and shaky aging period. We sit and wait for a drinking window, and after all that waiting there are times when a great and expensive bottle is either closed or is over the hill.

Yes, there is magic in Burgundian complexity, in how Bordeaux wine travels in the palate, how both serenade the nose with flower and fruit, but the burst of freshness that regions like Jura and
Beaujolais can provide and the sheer surprise they bring with their idiosyncratic creations can knock you off your feet.

“All this makes sense only to someone like you,” said my better half. “Why am I different?”

“You have time for art, you visit museums and galleries. You collect wine labels that you like. You listen to slow music that puts people to sleep. You walk barefoot on the beach sand; you stand bareheaded in the rain. You do strange things.”

“Like what?” I ask. “Like buying a whisky called Writer’s Block and a gin called Short Story.”

Am I an outlier? I would like to think I have empathy with a kind of person, people like Stephane Tissot of Jura for instance. Or Julie Balagny of Beaujolais. Yes, these are not storied names in a world used to châteaux with hyphens and domaines with ‘de la’ whatever, that are famous in auction rooms.

“This is sounding like a rant,” said better half. “And I am sorry to say, like sour grapes.”

It is easier today to acquire Bordeaux and Burgundy. It is so much easier to satisfy your taste buds with these wines. These are crafted emotions, these are extracted decoctions served to you in, Oh so careful portions. They come with long history and lineage, from well-recorded vintages. They have market reputations. And they have bragging rights.

The Chinese love Latour. Do you know why? Petrus, that most expensive of Bordeaux clarets, isn’t a First Growth. Did you know that? Do you know the last auction price of a DRC bottle? Oh,
you are proudly serving Burgundy? How far is the vineyard from Domaine de la Romanee-Conti? Did you know that the question, ‘Do you know the name of Chateau Palmer’s alter ego?’ is a trick

Such knowledge delights the seasoned wine drinker, but it can also trump experience. You enter the hallowed portals of Bordeaux and Burgundy aware of history and geography. The beauty of Jura and Cru Beaujolais is that not much is known and very little is expected. And like in any good sufi song both regions produce wines with discordant notes. Can there be beauty in imperfection? Can there be pleasure in surprise?

My better half isn’t impressed, she is used to my restlessness. The hunt for something new is a great joy in my wine world. There is a wild side to wine and it has some small-time people with willful personalities tilling land with horses, pressing juice by hand, allowing strange soils and grapes to have their say.