March 15, 2013
Few people anywhere begin the day without a hot drink. Chocolate and tea are popular morning jump-starters. Yerba maté, famously Argentinean, is gaining a reputation globally. Some people contrive creative blends of apple cider vinegar, herbs and honey. But coffee dominates the morning hour in every time zone. While the plant that produces the beans is native to tropical east Africa, two main species of coffee—Coffea arabica and C. canephora, or C. robusta—are now grown in nearly every tropical region. Brazil and Vietnam lead production, which amounts globally to more than 150 million 132-pound bags per year (PDF). Consumption is rising, and though coffee is far from being the world’s largest crop, it is now the second most demanded commodity after oil.
But for its simplicity in its raw state and its ubiquity in almost every culture, coffee takes a wide and unpredictable range of forms throughout the world. Here is a sampling, both bitter and sweet, of some of the regional renditions of the world’s favorite hot drink.
Italy. Perhaps nobody does coffee better than Italy. Though located many lines of latitude north of muggy coffee country, Italy has somehow attained the position of coffee lord and master. It’s here that the espresso machine had its birth, and it’s here that a coffee lover can enter nearly any establishment, whether a slick Neapolitan bar or a small nameless café in the remote Abruggio, and expect no less than the brown-black best. Never fear of instant coffee, for “cafe” in Italy is synonymous with “espresso.” Add milk, and the door to the frothy, creamy world of Italian coffee drinks opens wide. No doubt, we all owe our finest a.m. pleasures to Italy. Trivia: Espresso is big business and espresso machines serious investments—costing as much as $40,000.
Ethiopia. This is where it all began. Ethiopia is the heart of coffee country, native homeland to the Coffea genus, and people here have been drinking coffee for more then 1,000 years. Today, coffee—called buna—is still made and served in a traditional table-side ritual that transforms the beans from raw red cherries into toasty, steaming drink, often all before the guest’s eyes. The process can last more than an hour, as the host toasts, grinds and boils the coffee before serving.
Spain. The wayfarer in Spain, rising from his bedroll on a frosty September morning and eager for warmth and company, must look no farther than the nearest church steeple. For that cross indicates that a café dwells at ground level in the plaza. There, the old men are already gathering, whether Monday or Sunday, and the silvery, steel machine is already hissing away. Go! The establishment, almost always, is called “Cafe Bar” and by 6 a.m. is buzzing with caffeine and activity. Many take their their coffee standing at the bar with a hand in their pocket. If you want milk, please don’t order a latte. Cafe con leche is your ticket. Be warned: Long sit-ins at coffee bars may still be a foreign idea in parts of rural Spain. Several years ago, in the Picos de Europa, I ordered a second coffee while letting my camera battery charge in a small café. The place was nearly empty, yet the barkeeper decided she’d had enough of me after 40 minutes. She unplugged my device, slid it across the table and pointed to the door. She all but kicked me in the rear as I hobbled out. I didn’t even have time to leave a tip.
United States. America has gained an irrepressible taste for the inky black juice of the espresso machine. But “gas station coffee,” the type that one may spot in the roadside diner by the register, ominously tea-colored and brewed hours before, is still a symbol of Americana and proudly drips from Mr. Coffee lookalikes everywhere. At the other end of the spectrum are the massive high-calorie coffee drinks innovated by Starbucks, containing varying mixes of espresso, caramel, whipped cream, chocolate, eggnog and other ingredients. The presence of such milkshake-like drinks seems to have even spurred a reaction in places. So we see, in the occasional bakery café, a note on the menu reading, “Just good, old-fashioned drip coffee,” as though we ought to be relieved.
Turkey. Turkey’s favorite drink is tea, called “chai,” yet coffee is available here. In Istanbul, espresso and the associated lattes and cappuccinos are commonplace, while in the countryside, Nescafé rules—usually poured from 3 in 1 packets of instant coffee, sugar and artificial dried milk. True Turkish coffee, served in espresso-like cups, can be surprisingly hard to find. Note that what the Turks call “Turkish coffee,” the Greeks call “Greek coffee” and the Georgians “Georgian coffee.” But it’s all the same stuff—thick, gritty, tar-black juice like the emissions of a malfunctioning espresso machine. It is almost always served sweet.
Greece. The favorite coffee drink in Greece is the frappe. Made using Nescafé, a frappe is a frothed-up blend of milk, sugar and Nescafé, served over ice. The drink can be had with or without sugar, but on a warm summer day in the islands, the ice is the essence of a frappe. This is at least one instant coffee rendition that’s easy to love.
Baja California. In Baja, “coffee” seems almost to mean “hello.” Nearly every other day, during my years of Baja wandering with spear and backpack a decade ago, some strange man or woman would appear out of a shack on the dirt road ahead, wave to me and call out, “Cafe?!” Thus, I often found myself seated on a broken plastic chair or an upturned fishing bucket under a tree while my host boiled water on a mesquite fire and spooned out the Nescafé. That’s right: The drink is almost always instant coffee granules, and while the coffee itself is nothing to write home about, it’s the gesture that counts in the sparsely peopled cowboy country of Baja.
Ireland. It’s little surprise that Ireland, land of cheery pubs and frosty nights, is where coffee first got really fun. The Irish coffee was invented in the 1940s and is now a cocktail served in bars worldwide. It contains hot coffee, whiskey, sugar and whipped cream, and, while traditionally an after-dinner drink, Irish coffee may be hard to argue with on a chilly morning. But Irish coffee may not suit all tastes. Years ago, a friend of the San Francisco Chronicle‘s former travel writer Stanton Delaplane reportedly said that Irish coffee ruins three good drinks—whiskey, coffee and cream.
Vietnam. Many of us aren’t fans of sweet coffee, but Vietnamese iced coffee is delicious. Coffee drinking arrived in Vietnam with the French in the 1800s, and the local palates quickly shaped their own interpretation of the drink. Fresh milk in Vietnam was not as available as it is in the pasture lands of France, and so the cafe au lait took a sharp evolutionary turn: The Vietnamese poured their coffee over sweetened condensed milk—from a can—and served the drink over ice.
Ecuador. All bets are off when ordering coffee in Ecuador. Unless you request otherwise, they may pre-sweeten the drink for you. And if you ask for a cafe con leche, what you’ll get is a mug filled entirely with steaming hot milk, served beside a jar of instant coffee granules. And if you ask your host whether they’re serving Nescafé, they may say no—but not because they’re making coffee in a French press but simply because they are serving some other brand of instant coffee, like Buendia or PresCafe. And even in a swanky countryside bed and breakfast fitted with a dazzling espresso machine, if you order a cappuccino, they might reach for the sweetened mocha packets in the cupboard. Stay vigilant. Still other times, real coffee is available in Ecuador (they grow the stuff; why shouldn’t they serve it?) offered as cafe filtrado. Pounce on it while you can!
February 4, 2013
At the Inca Lounge and Bistro, dozens of gringos–tourists and resident expats both–have squeezed into this popular watering hole just off Calle Larga and overlooking the river. It is Super Bowl Sunday in Cuenca, Ecuador–and though the kickoff is still three hours away, owner Mike Sena must usher in his customers early and shut the doors. The sale of alcohol is highly restricted in Ecuador on Sundays, and so Sena, an American who moved here four years ago from New Mexico, is keeping a low profile this Super Bowl and designating the evening a “private party.”
Only a few Ecuadorians have shown. One, a 37-year-old gold mining engineer named Pablo Crespo, was a soccer fan all his life but learned to love (American) football–and the Ravens–during the eight years he lived in Baltimore. “American football is more interesting than soccer,” Crespo concedes. “Every play is different. The players have to be smart, too, and need to read the plays and know what the other team is going to do.”
Soccer, he adds, “can be a little boring.”
London travelers Solomon Slade and his girlfriend Rebecca Wyatt, who have spent the past eight months cycling through Trinidad, Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador, are soccer fans and aren’t quite sure what to make of American football.
“Why do they need all the armor?” says Wyatt, 25. “Rugby players don’t wear protection.”
The two have claimed a table inside the bar and are prepared to spend the evening here, though they dread the prospect of a 60-minute game spread thin across more than three hours through timeouts and commercial breaks.
“American sports in general are hard to watch because they’re so stop-start,” Slade, 26, says.
Sena, pouring beers and mixing drinks behind the bar, says that football season generates a spike in his business here–largely from expat Americans but also among native Ecuadorians. He says interest in football among native Ecuadorians is growing in large part because many citizens here who worked in the United States before the economic crash have since returned home–and many of them as football fans.
But Pedro Molina, brewmaster at the nearby La Compañía Microcervecería, at the corner of Borrero and Vazquez streets, told me on Saturday evening that he sees virtually no interest in football among locals. His brewpub is closed on Sundays, and he said he had no plans to watch the game elsewhere–for, like most locals as well as hundreds of millions of people worldwide, Molina prefers the other kind of football.
“Soccer is the king of sports,” Morena said. “It’s a better game. It requires more technique and skill, because you can’t make physical contact.” It’s like a dance, he said–an almost nonstop, 45-minute dance–requiring agility, balance and fancy footwork. “How long is a game of American football?” Molina asked me.
Sixty minutes, I said, plus a couple of hours of breaks. Molina nodded, satisfied that he’d adequately assessed the two games–one a nimble sport of lithe, quick athletes, the other a brutish but slow battle of bellowing muscle-heads and lumbering jocks.
Earlier that same day I questioned three young men working out on the chin-up bars at the popular Parque Paraiso, on the north side of town. They said they knew about the Super Bowl but didn’t seem to think much of it and had no plans to watch the game. I asked which of the two sports–soccer or football–they thought was more challenging.
“American football,” Juan Merchan, 28, said. “It’s tougher on the body.”
But Merchan added that “futbol real” is more interesting to play and to watch since “it involves more improvisation and less plans.”
In the Inca bar, perhaps 200 people of every age category and many nations have crammed into the private party. Still, the Super Bowl has yet to begin. Elizabeth Eckholt, a San Francisco Bay Area native who has been in Ecuador for the past two weeks, says she is routing for the 49ers–though not passionately.
“I’m really here to see the commercials,” she says.
The game begins but plods forward slowly. Every few minutes, a break arrives and we are subjected to another series of ads for cars, beer and junk food.
“I can’t believe the unhealthy junk they advertise on this game,” says Wyatt, voice raised to be heard.
I have never spent six hours in a bar and I don’t plan to tonight. Last May, the Wall Street Journal‘s Bruce Orwall recognized the virtues of what he called “real football”, including soccer’s “subtle athletic grace, fierce national and regional rivalries and mercifully efficient, commercial-free matches.”
I, like him, I assume, am not entertained by Doritos and Calvin Klein ads. Okay–let Beyonce sing if she must, but this game should really be done by 8. I leave before half-time. In the United States, virtually every sports bar must now be crammed with football fans. But in Cuenca, beyond the Inca Lounge and Bistro, the Super Bowl may be happening but this world is not watching. The Sunday evening air of Cuenca is calm and still, the nation quiet on a day without drinks. In this land, soccer is the king of sports and athletes–not advertisers–kings of the airwaves. And for fans of futbol real, even after they watch a televised afternoon match, there may remain enough daylight to go play a game.
February 1, 2013
“Faces From Afar” is an ongoing series in which Off the Road profiles adventurous travelers exploring unique places or pursuing exotic passions. Know a globetrotter we should hear about? E-mail us at email@example.com.
Give a man a glass of water, and you may quench his thirst. But teach him to build a biosand water filter using local materials and the simplest technology, and he’ll have clean water for life at a cost of just $30.
Even better, Rod and Ingrid McCarroll, two retired Canadians, will pay half the cost or more if the 30 bucks is too steep. Sometimes it is. The McCarrolls, of Calgary, Alberta, have been traveling the world for 12 years in some of the most impoverished communities with the goal of bringing clean water to millions. They have worked through their own nonprofit organization, Friends Who Care International, in rural India, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala. Last year, they spent six months in Nicaragua alone. Just two weeks ago, they arrived in Ecuador.
“We hope to provide clean water for 20 million people,” Rod told me at the Hostal El Taxo in Quito, where we met by chance in the dining room. “It’s estimated that 1.2 billion people now don’t have clean water for drinking or cooking. The problem is, the world is growing faster than we’re able to help.”
The biosand water filter that is the main feature of the McCarrolls’ work is a relatively simple thing. Invented in the 1990s by David Manz, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Calgary, the contraption is composed of carefully selected and treated sand and gravel, as well as a layer of iron nails, strategically layered in a four-foot-tall concrete casing. The setup weighs more than 200 pounds, making it too heavy to steal. Maintenance is easy, requiring simply scooping the mucky top water from the gravel layer every few months. Being too simple to experience serious mechanical breakdowns, the water filter all but guarantees a family clean water for life. Tap, pond or river water is poured into the gravel, and at a rate of one liter per 80 seconds, pure water emerges from the spout. The filter removes 99.5 percent of bacteria, viruses and protozoa, according to Rod, as well as 100 percent of parasites and 100 percent of arsenic—which bonds to the iron oxide molecules of the rusting nails and becomes unable to travel through the filter. Currently, the McCarrolls are in the rural mountainous regions surrounding Cuenca—Ecuador’s third-largest city—working with local contacts and community leaders to teach them how to build the filters. Arsenic, Rod says, contaminates much of the region’s water—a serious problem that could be solved as easily as the filter is simple.
Rod stresses that he and Ingrid are not just delivering clean water to one family at a time. Rather, they are teaching others—especially community leaders—to build biosand water filters and to teach the trick to others. By this means, the snowball effect seems already to have kicked in. While the McCarrolls have worked in just half a dozen countries, Rod says that clean water now trickles from half a million biosand water filters in 75 countries.
Apart from clean water, the McCarrolls have also worked to bring sustainable, off-the-grid electricity to the needy through another Canadian nonprofit called Light Up the World. Living in literal darkness, Rod says, means living in intellectual and spiritual darkness, too—as people cannot educate themselves if they return from work to a home too dim to read in.
But the McCarrolls have another objective, too, which leads them through more figurative realms of light and darkness: They are Christian missionaries. This is a more latent, secondary element of their work. Clean water and electricity come first, and religion follows. It may take 30 minutes of chatting with the pair even to discover their spiritual concerns, yet along with biosand water filters, they are indeed missionaries, encouraging those who accept their help to also adopt Christianity.
“If you go around the world and tell starving people that God loves them, it’s hogwash,” Ingrid said. “It means nothing. But if you give them something, then they see that they really do have friends.”
Rod says the interest in dispensing Christian ideals goes hand in hand with having clean water, electricity and basic sanitary conditions. He says, too, that religious conversion is not a main objective—but that it doesn’t hurt to make Hindus into Christians. The caste system, outlawed in India yet persisting through tradition, plagues much of the Hindu world—especially India. It relegates people born as untouchables to a life of poverty and filth—and with contaminated drinking water to boot, Rod points out.
“We’re just trying to help remove them from this darkness,” he explains. “But there are 600,000 villages in India, and many of them don’t want anything to do with missionaries. So how do we get in?”
The biosand water filter. Given to the needy and bearing with it the heavy scent of Christianity (the McCarrolls may prompt prayer circles with families before they depart), “the water filter,” Rod says, “serves as a 24/7 missionary.”
Rod is 71 years old. Ingrid is 70. When she was a child, she barely escaped from East Germany before the Berlin Wall went up. Her family had been torn apart during the turmoil of war, but they managed to reconvene with the help of the Red Cross in Austria in 1945. Ingrid and Rod met and married 46 years ago. Upon retiring, they determined not to kick up their feet between rounds of golf and luxury vacation cruises.
“We decided that we’d done well, and we wanted to give back,” Ingrid said.
After learning about Manz’s biosand water filter in the late 1990s and growing efforts to dispense the invention around the world, the McCarrolls saw their opportunity to help the world’s unfortunate. They worked at first with the organization CAWST (Centre for Affordable Water and Sanitation Technology), which was led by Camille Dow Baker, a former oil development executive striving to reform her career. Once the McCarrolls had learned the ropes, they established Friends Who Care International in 2001, and they have divided their time between Calgary and the wider world ever since.
December 3, 2012
It took explorers centuries of great effort to make the first crude sketches of the world and centuries more to polish and perfect them.
But in just ten years, sales demand for paper maps appears to have dipped markedly, and it seems these formerly essential tools of travel could be going the way of the sextant and chronometer as travelers rely increasingly on electronic navigation devices to get them where they want to go. In Pennsylvania, printers who once produced three million road maps a year now make just 750,000. AAA, too, has observed a decline in customer use of maps. And even print-out directions that lead from point A to point B—which I always thought was cheating, anyway—seem now to be a figment more of memory than of practice as that robot voice from the dashboard becomes an increasingly ubiquitous component of driving anywhere.
If we are, in fact, ditching the map for flashier gear, will we be better off? Maybe not. A study conducted in Tokyo found that pedestrians exploring a city with the help of a GPS device took longer to get places, made more errors, stopped more frequently and walked farther than those relying on paper maps. And in England, map sales dropped by 25 percent for at least one major printer between 2005 and 2011. Correlation doesn’t prove causation—but it’s interesting to note that the number of wilderness rescues increased by more than 50 percent over the same time period. This could be partly because paper maps offer those who use them a grasp of geography and an understanding of their environment that most electronic devices don’t. In 2008, the president of the British Cartographic Society, Mary Spence, warned that travelers—especially drivers—reliant on electronic navigation gadgets were focusing mainly on reaching a destination without understanding quite how they got there. And Tom Harrison, a cartographer in California, told me recently in an interview that he feels digital technology usually does a clean job of directing travelers where they want to go—but without quite showing them where they are.
“Trying to see and understand the big picture on your phone or laptop usually isn’t possible,” said Harrison (who also noted that he has not observed a decline in sales of waterproof topographic maps via his website). “There’s too much zooming in, scrolling down, losing your bearings.” At best, hand-size GPS screens show one “the here and the now,” he said, while only paper maps can reliably “show us where we are and also what’s around us.”
Using real printed maps also demands—and can help users develop—critical thinking skills.
“You look at the map for a minute,” Harrison said. “Then you say, ‘I’m here, and I’m going there. What’s the easiest way?’ But with GPS in the car you don’t even have to think about it anymore.”
The shift to full reliance on navigational technology is happening at sea, too. Grant Headifen, the founder of the online sailing academy NauticEd, says sailors are increasingly relying on GPS systems while neglecting to learn what he calls “the fundamentals”—the basic skills of navigating only by charts, compass, sky and the mighty strengths of the human brain.
“You need to be able to say, ‘If north is straight ahead of me, then east is to my right,’ and ‘If point A is 50 miles ahead and we’re moving this fast, then this will be our estimated time of arrival,’” said Headifen.
Reliance on electronics, which operate under the guise of flawlessness, is “very dangerous,” Headifen says—mainly because navigation charts may themselves be drawn incorrectly. For instance, a GPS system may guide you with perfect accuracy past a treacherous seamount—but if that reef was originally mapped incorrectly, the GPS system could actually be guiding you into a million-dollar accident. Headifen cites a time that he was sailing off the coast of Croatia. Because of incorrectly drawn charts, his GPS system placed his location at roughly 300 meters inland among the coastal olive orchards. Another time, a sailing companion with his eyes glued to his iPhone muttered directions to Headifen. “In 50 meters we want to veer left,” the man said. Headifen replied, “Um, look away from your phone for a minute, and look ahead of us.” A rock stood precisely in the course the iPhone recommended.
Harrison, too, has noted previously to reporters an important difference between being “precise” and being “accurate,” both of which a GPS device can be at once by pointing a tech-tuned traveler straight to the wrong place.
In spite of the growing prevalence today of navigation technology, enough people remain interested in traditional navigation that Headifen offers a course on celestial navigation. This brilliant science has its roots in ancient Arabian cultures of the desert, where travelers long ago determined their location on Earth by watching the heavenly bodies above. For travelers in the Northern Hemisphere, the North Star, or Polaris, made determining latitude a piece of cake: The star’s distance above the horizon in degrees equals the viewer’s degree distance north of the Equator. Thus, when sailors left port in the old days, they often remained at a given latitude by watching Polaris and appropriately adjusting their course. They knew that by following that line, they would reach home again. (Determining longitude was a much more difficult endeavor, and would only become relatively easy with the invention of the chronometer in the late 1700s.)
Still, navigation remained challenging. Sailing expeditions often had a crew member whose specific job was to navigate—and these were among the most skilled people on the seas. They were familiar with the stars, the ecliptic of the Sun and also the orbital path of the Moon. They carried a variety of beautiful and ingenious tools over the years, like the astrolabe, octant and quadrant. But the sextant has remained the most used. It’s actually based on rather simple geometry, allowing one to sight a point in the sky—usually the Sun or a star—and measure its distance from the horizon. Combined with the chronometer and basic star charts, a good navigator could track a vessel’s location exactly—though this was a very difficult task. In fact, if executed correctly and accurately, celestial navigation is flawless—for our place on Earth is written in the stars; one must simply have the tools and skills to read the sky.
Celestial navigation made easy: Even if we’re too lazy to read maps anymore, reading the stars can be fun. Measuring latitude is a basic calculation and an engaging way to track your progress should you decide to tackle a long-distance north-to-south hiking or cycling route. Before your next trip, try this: Fix a sturdy plastic straw to the straight edge of a protractor. This device, familiar, I hope, from high-school geometry classes, should have a pinhole at the center of the baseline. To this point, tie off 12 inches of string and fix a heavy nut or bolt to the other end. Pack the contraption along. On your first night out, hold the device with the protractor facing down, look through the straw and aim it at Polaris. When you are able to see this conveniently located star, pinch the string to the side of the protractor. If the string is crossing, say, the 53-degree mark, subtract that number from 90. The answer, 37, is your latitude. If the next night you get a reading of 54, meaning 36 degrees latitude, that means you have traveled 69 miles (the distance between latitude lines) toward the Equator. In the Southern Hemisphere, there is no equivalent of Polaris, and celestial navigators may need to rely on a measurement of the Sun at its zenith to determine latitude. This website describes how.
Navigation of tomorrow: While no-brainer navigation systems currently dictate directions to drivers, tech companies are busy designing the next step in the road to laziness: automated vehicles. Nevada, Florida and California have already legalized driverless cars. While these marvels of technology aren’t yet publicly available, they do exist. Google has been testing one that reportedly had gone 300,000 miles, and counting, without an accident. What’s astonishing is that the machines seem to work perfectly well. What’s scary is the thought of them failing—of missing an offramp by ten feet, of not recognizing a pedestrian, of misinterpreting an obstacle in the road, or otherwise failing where a human mind might not.
November 15, 2012
The unlikely rise to fame of a tepid and unimposing wine could be one of the most heartening stories in the world of noble French vines, stodgy oenophiles and glittering stemware. For Beaujolais Nouveau, the fruity pinkish-red wine of eastern France’s Beaujolais region, has gone from cheap plonk to superstar (though still cheap) and, every third Thursday in November, drives millions of French into revelry the very second the new vintage is released.
In fact, the French have been partying with their glasses full of Beaujolais Nouveau since exactly 12:01 a.m. local time, the moment at which it becomes legal each year to release the wine. As the name implies, Beaujolais Nouveau is “new”—young, that is—and goes to the bottle not even two months after the crush. Lacking some in maturity and finesse, the wine was traditionally just a guzzler for the table and something with which to celebrate the end of the exhausting harvest season, but over time the wine’s release became an anticipated event, and the wine itself—though still not considered a stunner—the cause for celebration. In the 1950s, distributors began competing each year in a race to deliver the first bottles to Paris. In the 1970s, winemaker and businessman Georges Duboeuf, a major producer of Beaujolais Nouveau, pushed and publicized the wine and the associated festivities. Banners proclaiming “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” became commonplace, and the race from Beaujolais to Paris attracted increasing media coverage each year. People around the world soon would acquire a taste for the wine and anticipate the day of arrival each fall, and spotlight-seeking wine merchants have made deliveries by elephant and rickshaw and motorcycle. Today, Beaujolais Nouveau is a star and the day of its release one of the biggest parties of the year.
So how did such a tale of success and triumph happen to carry a moderately good red wine, at best—and a close neighbor to the fine wines of Burgundy—into the heights of world fame? First of all, people like to drink—and surely the opportunity to suck down a wine that carries symbolic value of the finished season while also demanding no tiresome critical analysis was refreshing for the French. But Beaujolais Nouveau Day is also a product of heavy and unabashed marketing. For 34 years starting in 1951, November 15 was the official release date, but it seems to have been a calculated decision in 1985 when the Beaujolais regional government decided that the big day, always, would be a Thursday—a day when party-prone people are more likely to jumpstart their weekend. And though it may be just coincidence, Beaujolais Nouveau’s arrival just a week prior to Thanksgiving has given American marketers something to bang over the heads of their consumers—specifically, that Beaujolais Nouveau is a superb match for turkey. Perhaps—but it’s just as probable that, with millions of bottles of the wine abruptly available right as 45 million American turkeys meet their maker, producers saw a perfect and timely marketing marriage.
Now, with third-Thursday parties underway (120 public celebrations take place each year in Beaujolais alone), turkeys filling out in their last days, and millions of Nouveau bottles exchanging hands throughout the world, the time to taste the first wine of 2012 has arrived. Beaujolais Nouveau is generally cheap—10 bucks and less—and is available from scores of companies, including Domaine Dupeuble, Jean Foillard and, most famous of all, Georges Duboeuf, which sends almost two million bottles to America bearing the colorful confetti-esque label familiar to many wine drinkers and as cheerful as the third Thursday itself.
But cheery bottle labels and the festivities of Beaujolais Nouveau Day may belie recent drops in sales of the wine and the lagging spirits in the Beaujolais region. By many reports, people have lost some interest in the wine’s release. Some shops are seeing a longer turnover in inventory, and many restaurants are throwing scaled-down Beaujolais bashes. In the United Kingdom, Beaujolais Nouveau consumption peaked in 1999 at about 740,000 bottles. That figure has since slid dramatically, to just 100,000 bottles in 2011. This season, after some rough weather and a damaged crop, low sales are just as likely. In the producing region, in fact, declining returns seem to be attracting few young winemakers to invest in a future here. The winemakers of the region are collectively aging—and, after all the years of fanfare and comedic races to bring the wine to market, Beaujolais Nouveau itself may be growing old.
Many people have never cared for it, anyway, and although more than half of Beaujolais Nouveau is consumed in France, the wine has a relatively cool reputation in its home country. Wine snobs may snicker at Beaujolais Nouveau, and many otherwise enthused wine drinkers see little to be gained from consuming it. The wine, indeed, is very low in tannins, which makes it largely unsuitable for long-term aging, while also leaving it top-heavy with fruit flavors, delicious to some palates, cloying to others. The wine, as a general rule, is simple—but its this very simplicity, and the rapidity of production, that is so attractive. The wine is fresh, youthful, vibrant, cheerful—and except for several weeks of fermentation and handling, Beaujolais Nouveau is as close as you can get to drinking wine straight from a vine.
A few Beaujolais Nouveau factoids to spice up the conversation at Thanksgiving dinner:
The region of Beaujolais is a swath of fertile hills 34 miles north to south and between seven and nine miles wide. The area’s 2,300 farmers produce several grape varieties, but only one—the Gamay grape—is permitted in Beaujolais Nouveau.
Japan is the world’s largest importer of Beaujolais Nouveau. Germany is second. The United States is third.
Using the word “Beaujolais” is illegal for winemakers in America, but “nouveau” is up for grabs, and many American winemakers produce their own renditions of nouveau wines. Many use the Gamay grape and strive to replicate the new wines of Beaujolais, even releasing the wine on Beaujolais Nouveau Day to absorb some of the excitement. Others use different grapes. New Clairvaux, a winery in the northern end of the Sacramento Valley, makes a Nouveau Tempranillo, while River Road Family Vineyards and Winery, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, makes a Pinot Noir Nouveau.
“New” wines are also made in the Czech Republic, Italy and Spain.
A poor harvest in 2012 could force hundreds of Beaujolais grape growers into bankruptcy.
Banana scents, commonly cited as a fault of Beaujolais Nouveaus, are the aromatic results of isoamyl acetate, a fermentation byproduct.