Oregon Nouveau Wine

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By Viki Eierdam

WINE IS ABOUT MANY THINGS —awards, notoriety, even its fair share of pretention—but it is most firmly rooted in tradition. Vintners inherit their passion, reverence for the land and time-honored techniques from their mentors, add their perspective to the barrel, pass the wine thief and on it goes.

In Oregon, a group of winemakers who like to cap off a hard-earned harvest with a well-deserved party have no problem borrowing a local tradition from a country more than 5,000 miles away.

Beaujolais nouveau (literally new wine from the Beaujolais wine region) has been made in France for generations and gained international recognition with some smooth marketing in the early ‘80s. It is a wine meant to be drunk young which gives way to celebration after a long season that begins with bud break, ends with harvest and, shortly thereafter, starts all over again.

When Tom Monroe and Kate Norris spent a year in Southern France, they came back with nouveau fever and began making it for their winery, Division Winemaking Company, which led to a celebration at their Portland urban winemaker’s co-op—SE Wine Collective. The Nouveau Division Crawl features tastings of Oregon-made nouveau as well as traditional Beaujolais nouveau while attendees visit select, nearby restaurants to pair the offered small bites with this light and fruity wine.

In Beaujolais, gamay is king. Although a handful of producers use Oregon-grown gamay, in the Willamette Valley, pinot noir reigns supreme. Others put their own spin on nouveau with varietals such as grenache, cabernet franc, maréchal foch and even a blend of gamay and dolcetto (as in the case of Holden Wines’ Nuovo).

The single most important distinction of Beaujolais nouveau is carbonic maceration—simplified, a winemaking technique using whole grape clusters and no oxygen during the fermentation process. This results in wines that are fruity; low in acid and tannins; and best drunk young.

Tradition dictates that nouveau be released on the third Thursday in November, creating a potential logistical nightmare. Aside from the careful handling of the grape clusters to minimize the extraction of tannin, there’s an important timing element. Second fermentation, the ordering of bottles and labels and the nuances of making a dry and relatively finished wine must all come together within approximately six weeks after harvest and, thus, the approachable beverage is sometimes bottled mere days before.

But, fans of the new wine say it’s all about coming together in the end.

“We’re not doing it to try to win an award but to keep the spirit of the history of this style of wine alive,” Monroe said. “When I lived in the Beaujolais region, we attended Fête du Nouveau. It’s just this giant, revelrous party, and all the wine people and the community are there, and it’s so much fun. We want to capture that spirit in our own community.”

With a younger generation of wine drinkers who seem to possess a greater appreciation for a party, nouveau gatherings are increasing in popularity.

Here’s a rundown on some other notable Oregon nouveau events:

• The 15th Annual Beaujolais Nouveau Festival is held at the Heathman Hotel in downtown Portland and presented by the French-American Chamber of Commerce and the Alliance Française of Portland. Nearly 500 guests enjoy Beaujolais nouveau, Oregon nouveau, a bountiful buffet and live entertainment. For more information, go to afportland.org/beaujolais-nouveau-2016.

• The 9th Annual Beaujolais Nouveau Celebration at Bar Avignon highlights French nouveau and pours two Oregon nouveaux. The event is complemented by bottle sales, cassoulet and other nouveau-inspired dishes. For more information, go to baravignon.com.

• The Beaujolais Nouveau Block Party at Portland’s Restaurant St. Jack is an outdoor venue with tents and heat lamps, Oregon nouveau is showcased alongside traditional nouveau for comparison. Local, chef-prepared small plates complement the wines. For more information, go to stjackpdx.com.

• The 3rd Annual Nouveau Division Crawl is hosted by the SE Wine Collective and dubbed a beauj cruise along Portland’s Restaurant Row. For more information, go to nouveaupdx.com.

• At the Brandborg Winery Harvest Dinner, representing Southern Oregon, this Elkton AVA winery serves up their Elkton Villages nouveau-style pinot noir for 50 lucky guests who enjoy a five-course dinner in the wine cellar along with other pinot noir tastings. For more information, go to brandborgwine.com.