French have a nose for the real thing

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A dozen or so people were huddled outside the Labour Ministry soon after midday yesterday, poring over a street map and newspaper to consider where they should lunch to sample this year's Beaujolais Nouveau.

The cognoscenti, however, had no need to consult either a map or a newspaper. The small neighbourhood bistros with special Beaujolais menus - pinned up invariably only that morning - were already full, and the enthusiasts had stayed up until midnight on Wednesday to see the barrels rolled out and the first bottles uncorked.

The third Thursday in November, the day the year's first Beaujolais is released for sale, has lost some of its early marketing sheen and settled into being a regular French feast-day - one among many, but still an unimpeachable excuse for a convivial get-together.

More was riding on the 55 million bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau released this year, half of which go for export, than France's wine-snobs - yes, they have them too - cared to admit.

Last year's Beaujolais Nouveau sales were the first to feel the effects of the boycott called in many countries to protest against France's resumption of nuclear testing. Sales of Beaujolais Nouveau, it is now admitted, fell by 17 per cent and set the trend for what was to be a very poor year for French wine exports generally.

Beaujolais was also deemed to have a quality problem. But some French wine writers are now describing the 1996 Beaujolais as the best for several years.