Le beaujolais nouveau est arrivé. (It's big in Japan)

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The Independent Online

Beaujolais Nouveau, hurried into bottles from grapes still growing on the vine 10 weeks ago, arrives in shops and restaurants in Britain and across the world today.

Does anyone care any more? Well, yes, the Japanese and Chinese do, unlike the British, or even the French.

One of the most successful marketing gimmicks of all time - the creation of a taste for "instant" or "fast" wine - seems to have run its course, in Europe at least.

Sales of Beaujolais nouveau in France have fallen by half in the past 10 years. Sales in Britain, once a key Beaujolais market, fell by 30 per cent in 2004 and have floundered ever since.

"Beaujolais Nouveau Day", the third Thursday in November, once generated stunts and excitable headlines. There were car or balloon races, even elephant and rickshaw races, to bring the first bottles to Paris, Britain, Belgium and Germany. No more.

Is Nouveau old hat? Even at the height of the Beaujolais boom in the 1970s and 1980s, old hats were among the politer suggestions made by critics for the possible contents of some (not all) of the gaily coloured "same year" bottles from the hills north-west of Lyons.

Beaujolais Nouveau remains popular in Japan. It is booming in China, where sales increased by 60 per cent, from a relatively small base, last year. It is even doing reasonably well again in the United States, after collapsing in 2003 when France declined to support the invasion of Iraq.

In France and in Britain - and in its other great European markets, Germany, Switzerland and Belgium - Nouveau will still be drunk in reasonably large quantities in the next few days but the great craze is clearly over.

In France, Nouveau was always something to share with friends. Bar owners in Paris complain that the French are just not in a convivial mood these days.

Some Beaujolais Nouveau vintages (not all) have been, frankly, bad. There has also been a series of scandals, including the conviction last summer of the biggest Beaujolais trading house, Georges Duboeuf, for illegally mixing wine from different Beaujolais appellations or labels. This appears to have been an unfortunate one-off lapse.

The end of the Beaujolais boom has left a bitter after-taste in the Beaujolais hills in southern Burgundy. Many producers complain that the creation of the Nouveau brand name - officially from 1951, but with worldwide success from the early 1970s - has finally rebounded against them.

Others complain that the uneven quality of Beaujolais Nouveau has tarnished the reputation of "older" forms of Beaujolais. "Beaujolais Nouveau has made our wine something ephemeral, sold for a fortnight at derisory prices and then forgotten," said one producer.

About half of all Beaujolais, two million bottles, is sold as primeur, or Nouveau. While that remains the case and while Asian sales are booming, the local wine industry finds it hard to wean itself off the third Thursday in November.