Despite the best efforts of its producers to overmilk the cash cow, beaujolais nouveau may be down, but it's not quite out. Supermarkets and off-licences will still be doing their best to drum up business this year, although quantities, not to mention profit margins, will be little more than token. Even with only about a quarter of the volume sold four years ago, most retailers will be desperately hoping to clear the decks for Christmas by the end of next weekend.
Despite the strongish franc and continuing demand from less sophisticated overseas markets, the average basic supermarket price of pounds 2.99-pounds 3.49 reflects a general apathy towards nouveau. Ironically, it looks as though an unusually hot July and August this year have contributed to one of the better recent vintages for the early-ripening gamay grape. With uncharacteristic reserve, however, Georges Duboeuf, master of the reliable painted bottle, concedes that "because of the rain, we have missed out on an exceptional vintage".
It is hard to believe that beaujolais nouveau started out as a genuinely spontaneous phenomenon, whose irresistibly nubile qualities caught on in the bistros of Lyons and Paris as the perfect excuse for a knees-up. By the Seventies, beaujolais nouveau, or primeur, had become the jolly standard-bearer for France's new vintage.
Loss of patience with the hype and mediocrity of beaujolais nouveau has led to a scrabbling around for substitute novelties. In the Loire and Midi, nouveau this and primeur that have never quite caught on. Part of the problem is that with only a short time in which to prepare young wines for bottling and drinking, few producers, least of all those using the classic grape varieties, can match the gushingly soft and juicy delight of beaujolais as we used to know and glug it. Italian novellos can be delightfully cherryish and juicy with a lively nip, but the Italians keep the best for themselves.
For the first time, however, the New World is having a serious stab at it, as much perhaps from necessity as virtue. Due to a shortage of wines in the 1995 vintage, particularly in Australia and South Africa, New World nouveau is forcing its way on to the market. A few years back, Hardy's Early Bird from Australia was the only harbinger of New World nouveau. But it tried a little too hard to catch the worm. This year, New World producers seem to have grasped that, since southern hemisphere sunshine serves up naturally ripened grapes on a plate, there is no need to rush things.
With a six-month start on beaujolais, southern hemisphere producers, principally in Chile, South Africa, Australia and Argentina, are now making some lusciously approachable reds. Benefiting from softening and blending techniques on suitable grape varieties, mostly in unoaked or lightly oaked styles, the wines have silkiness of texture and softness of fruity tannins that beaujolais growers can only dream of.
Safeway and Waitrose are in the van, as it were, of the new 1995 reds. Safeway had already pioneered the so-called "young-vatted" style of red from eastern Europe, replacing the old-fashioned style with some delightfully fruity youngsters. "There is still a feeling that wine must be old to be good," says Liz Robertson, quality & selection controller of Safeway, whose experience of the eastern European wines convinced her of the potential of young New World reds too.
After a recent trip to South Africa, Neil Sommerfelt, buyer at Waitrose, was bowled over by the "fruit-driven" quality of the 1995 reds. He believes that some of the New World 1995s have started to mount a serious challenge to the first wines of the 1995 vintage in Europe. "South Africa and Australia may be under the cosh in terms of what's available," he admits. "But a large part of the appeal of these young 1995s is their precocious fruit. Why hold back?" Why indeed
Best of the new bunch
1995 Cabernet Malbec, Mendoza, Argentina pounds 3.49, Marks & Spencer. Made by the improbably named Angel Mendoza, this youthful, herby, cherryish blend is delightfully fresh and fruity
1995 HG Brown Bin 60 Shiraz/Ruby Cabernet, southeast Australia pounds 3.79, Safeway. This sweetly ripe, strawberry fruity drink with its snappy acidity is Australia's response to good beaujolais nouveau
1995 Mendoza Red, Argentina pounds 3.99, Safeway. Light, cherryish, lively and mouthwateringly crisp, this unusual blend of bonarda and tempranillo grapes is made by the flying Frenchman, Jacques Lurton
1995 Concha y Toro Merlot pounds 3.99, Waitrose. Dark, fragrant and full of blackcurrant-sweet fruit, a delicate spiciness adds complexity to this affordable Chilean red
1995 Landskroon Cinsault/Shiraz, Paarl, South Africa pounds 3.99, Safeway. A vivid South African blend of Rhone grapes from Paul de Villiers, this is a succulently ripe, strawberryish red cut by a clean twist of light astringency
1995 Kleindal Pinotage, Robertson pounds 3.99, Safeway. Another South African stunner, this inky, crimson-hued young red is powerfully aromatic with a sweet taste of ripe strawberry and banana. Substantial tannins cry out for food
1995 Winelands Cinsault/Tinta Barocca pounds 3.99, Thresher, Wine Rack, Bottoms Up. A deep-hued, aromatically fresh, strawberry fruity South African blend with a touch of oak character made under the supervision of Australian winemaker, Kym Milne
1995 Rosenview Cabernet Sauvignon, Stellenbosch pounds 4.49, Safeway. This mocha-scented South African red, with its pure, bell pepper and blackcurrant fruit, also from Kym Milne, needs a month or two for the tannins to meld
1995 Avontuur Pinotage, Stellenbosch pounds 4.99, Waitrose. A powerfully raspberry- scented red with the youthful dash and exuberance of South Africa's native pinotage grape. Still on the young side, it should soften down nicely in the next two to three months
1995 Beyerskloof Pinotage pounds 5.49, Oddbins. Deep purple, vibrant, concentrated blackberry fruit richness and spicy oak with a snappy, astringent bite. Feast of Stephen stuffReuse content