January 23, 2013
We Enter Malaria Country The desert gave way to the muggy climes of the tropics, at last, in the northernmost 50-mile stretch of Peruvian coastline south of Ecuador. We had been pedaling past cacti in the morning and hadn’t seen a sign of a mosquito in Peru—until that afternoon, when we passed a billboard reminding travelers to defend themselves against malaria. We noted the warning—but anyone who has toured on a bicycle knows that stopping to dig through panniers is a chore best deferred until a later time. “We’ll take our malaria pills tonight,” I shouted to Andrew. Thirty feet ahead of me, he answered with a thumbs up.
Near dusk, we turned toward the coast to stay the night at Puerto Pizarro. We headed down the side road and noted signs for mangrove swamp tours. We realized that malaria country had sneaked up on us—bad news when preventative pills are to be taken daily beginning 24 hours before arrival in the malaria region. Entering town, we encountered a pair of cops who waved us to the side of the road and warned us to get inside quickly, before it got dark. “Ah, yes—mosquitoes,” I said. “No—people here will see the gringos and try to rob you,” one of the men answered. They directed us to a hotel. After paying, we hurried across the courtyard to our room—a separated cabin with three beds and a bathroom for $20. Andrew fumbled with the key. “Quick, there are mosquitoes,” I said. He dropped the keys as he slapped one on his arm. “Bug spray!” he yelped and unzipped his pannier. I went into my own saddlebag for my malaria pills. I shook out two of the shiny red tablets and handed one to Andrew along with some bubbly water. He said, ”I don’t think this is textbook malaria prevention,” but took the medicine anyway. We opened the door, shoved in and slammed it behind us.
We were in the tropics. A brief warm rain fell that night, and in our bungalow beds, sweating in the humidity, we studied our map. We had just 20 kilometers to the border. We would be in Ecuador by noon.
We Enter Ecuador The next day, after passport control, the landscape transformed dramatically and rapidly. Large trees with splayed out trunks like buttresses stood grandly in fields, outliers of the rainforest. Other trees, with huge and voluminous canopies, grew on one side of the Pan-American Highway while their long, graceful branches dropped fruit pods on the other side. Banana orchards began, and continued for miles. Scattered among them were cacao trees, with large football-shaped red pods hanging from the branches, and vast sugar cane fields. Breadfruits dangled from elegant but wildly prehistoric-looking trees 70 feet tall with leaves like fan palms. Large green iguanas skittered across the road. Road-killed animals the size of sea otters with shiny black tails lay on the shoulder—some sort of jungle beast we couldn’t recognize. And while plant life fought for elbow room on almost every square foot of soil, that supreme conquistador of invasive species grew in groves—the eucalyptus tree. The people looked and behaved differently than in Peru, too. There was an obvious African origin in many of the locals we greeted as we rode. They honked their horns less—much less—as well. We also encountered more and more men and women carrying machetes, pocketknives of the jungle. Several miles to the east, across the banana plantations, the Andes began as an abrupt bluff blanketed with forest and disappearing into the rain clouds. Roadside households offered direct sales of fruits grown in the backyard. Avocados, watermelons, mangoes and pineapples lay in piles outside front doors, as did Pepsi bottles full of sugar cane juice. We needed money, and in a town called Pasaje we approached an ATM by the main square. I entered and removed my card, typed in my pin and waited for what riches would emerge. The machine sputtered and rumbled and emitted a smashing surprise—American dollars.
We found beautiful bunches of bananas for sale at roadside fruit shacks—and they were hilariously cheap. A cluster of 25 red bananas—the specialty sort that fancy groceries in the States sell for $1.80 per pound—cost us 50 cents. The same shack was also offering traga, cane sugar-based alcohol infused with different fruits, like grape, apple, watermelon and cacao. We bought a bottle of banana traga and moved onward. We stopped for lunch under a bus shelter, and a local man named Antonio came out of a home with his two kids to meet us. We asked him about local fauna—especially bears and jaguars. Long ago these animals occurred here, he said, but people have shot them all. “But up there, jaguars and bears still live,” Antonio said, pointing toward the mountains.
We Enter the Andes Our destination was Quito in five days, and after 200 miles of pedaling through Ecuador’s muggy, hot lowlands, our road led into the Andes. Our spirits rose with the altitude, and we realized we’d been sorely missing the mountains for two weeks. But cycling in the Andes is not quite like cycling in other ranges. In the Pyrenees, the Alps, the Rockies, the Sierras, the Toros—in nearly any range of large mountains in the world, a cyclist can say with certainty after several hours of hard climbing that the top of the pass is near. Not so in the Andes, where even the lower of the many mountain passes are higher than the highest summits of other ranges. Climbing from La Troncal over the mountains and eventually into the so-called Avenue of the Volcanoes, we saw an amazing transformation of the land. Whereas the lowlands teemed with bananas, iguanas, mangoes and malaria, two miles above we saw country with a strong resemblance to Mediterranean Europe. Cows grazed on green mountainsides among scattered pines. Trout streams flowed out of the canyons. Plum and apple trees grew in yards. The clouds broke occasionally, offering staggering views of the land’s vertical relief. Vast chasms plummeted into V-shaped stream valleys, towns and shacks clinging to the slopes, while the peaks vanished above into the fog. At several points we were able to see what lay ahead—miles and miles more of steady ascent, with no switchbacks in sight.
Descending trucks spewed the smell of burning brake pads. Motorcyclists dropping out of the high country were bundled up like Ernest Shackleton. The summit, obviously, was still hours away. But the monotony, the gasping for air, the slow, slow pedaling, our aching necks—it all finally ended as we crested out on the top of the pass. Trucks, buses and cars honked their congratulations. We believe the elevation there was about 12,700 feet. On the north side were checkerboard farms and villages scattered over rolling hills and looking like Ireland. Beyond, the titans of the Andes loomed, snow-covered volcanoes three miles high and more. The summit of Chimborazo, the highest mountain in Ecuador at 20,500-something feet (sources give varying heights), hid behind a veil of clouds. Due to the shape of the Earth and its equatorial bulge, Chimborazo’s peak is the Earth’s closest point to the sun.
Speaking of the sun, it does amazing things in Ecuador’s highlands. Its path leads it high overhead every day of the year, coaxing plant life into bloom that could never live at such altitudes elsewhere. We saw fig and avocado trees sagging with fruit at almost 10,000 feet—an elevation at which even pine trees struggle to grow in the middle latitudes. And whereas grapevines go dormant each winter in most places, farmers in Ecuador—and winemakers—may harvest two crops per year. The sun is so powerful here that it even burned us through our T-shirts.
Up Next: We Enter the City of Quito
January 17, 2013
Symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea usually kick in an hour after the victim gets on the bus, I told my brother Andrew. He was eagerly attacking his first cooked meal in a week—a fillet of fish and fried potatoes from a small seaside restaurant in Tortugas. “It does’t matter when you get on the bus,” I elaborated. ”It’s an hour after you get on the bus.”
But he never got sick. In spite of numerous warnings from experienced travelers and stodgy medical doctors that street food, cooked food or any items that have been exposed to tap water, dirt or insects should not be eaten in Peru, we have both retained stalwart health since we began expanding our diet after a week of eating mostly fresh fruit. We started with chicha—Andean corn beer, which comes in several colors—and enjoyed its tart, fizzy bite in the town square of Huarmey. In the northern town of Tumbes we bought a hunk of local cow cheese. It was hard and aged, and it frankly left us hankering for a piece of cheese fresher and creamier, yet the fat and protein were a welcomed change. We look forward to buying more. We eyed the street vendors selling hard-boiled quail eggs for days, and now we have incorporated them into our diet. We have begun eating, as well, fresh corn—lumpy, stocky cobs sold for a few cents by street vendors working gas-powered grills. Andrew, thinking big again in the town of Puerto Pizarro, bought a whole rotisserie chicken with a three-pound bag of cooked rice and monestra (stewed beans) for 20 soles—about $8—and devoured most of the bird in less than 30 minutes. We haven’t gotten to Peru’s famous ceviche yet, though we will.
And while so much savory, hot food, heavy in oils and protein, has been a happy change for us, I have to admit I’d still rather hold out for fresh and exotic fruits. I told this to a French woman we recently met on a beach near Tumbes. She flatly said I was not experiencing Peru. “Like heck I’m not! I’m riding a bike through Peru and eating locally grown specialties,” I said. “How Peruvian is that? I was in France last year cycling. I never ate foie gras or escargots but I shopped at markets and made my own meals and got a great taste of the country.” I just don’t believe that one must have a restaurant staff tiptoe around you every day at feeding time to truly experience place and culture.
Rather, I find the outdoor markets of Peru to be endlessly entertaining galas of color, smells and flavors. Foreigners can expect to find new and unusual items at almost each visit—some variety of passion fruit, avocados the size of footballs, sapotes, mameys, guaba fruits like giant bean pods or sugar cane juice. Notably, Andrew has overdosed on cherimoyas and now grows nauseous every time I start talking about them. He even observed quite astutely during his final cherimoya meal—won’t touch them now—that the fruits smell sweetly like our chain grease. Yum.
But if cherimoyas turn a man’s stomach, the markets themselves are still a joy to browse. Aside from the food we take away, I also enjoy interacting with the vendors—asking names of fruits, exaggerating my surprise at the size of an avocado, asking for prices and holding out for the next stall, where the lucumas just might be ripe (most are sold three days before ripeness). Perhaps especially, I relish the power of leaving no long-awaited meal to chance—because a burning appetite for calories is nothing to waste at the end of each day. I ride my bicycle with potent visions of tropical fruit heaps luring me forward, and though a few hard-boiled eggs might tide me over until the marketplace, I will let no street vendor on the edge of town spoil my glorious meal of victory. The roving ceviche carts and meat grills are colorful pieces of street scenery, and we are enjoying some hot, savory food each day—as several readers advised we do—but eating a creamy cherimoya, a sweet and starchy lucuma or a pineapple with flesh as white and sweet as sugar could be the truest taste of Peru.
I’m usually forgiving of harsh wine while traveling. After all, just about anything from a bottle that gives a bite is appreciated late at night in a tent. But we are losing our patience with Peruvian wine. We had a bottle our first night at the Sol de Santa Rosa campground, on the bumpy road to Canta. It was a Miranda Cahuayo Semi Dry. I set aside my cherimoya to pop the cork—and the smell attacked me instantly. We had already been warned that Peruvian wine was bad, but we had disregarded the advice as the nonsense of a wine snob. But the wine was truly intolerable, smelling and tasting like rancid grease and spoiled raspberries slurried into a bucket of muddy charcoal dust. We tried again the next night with a Peruvian red whose name I neglected to record. Another disappointment—a wine so sweet and pungent that we couldn’t drink it. We vowed then to buy only wines from Chile, Argentina or other reputable producers. But the next night we got duped by a bottle with “Santiago” printed prominently on the label. A closer look during dinner revealed it was a Peruvian wine made of Concord grapes. We crossed our fingers and pulled the cork. It was a sweet, oily-tasting juice, like antifreeze. I’ve made wine in a plastic jug strapped to the back of my bike that was better. Grumbling, we poured it down the drain. A valid critic gives his subject many chances before making a conclusive statement—but how many chances must we give Peruvian wine? If someone could direct me straight to the good stuff—heck, just drinkable would be a start—I’d be grateful and would try again. But for now, we are afraid to buy another bottle.
What else can one drink in Peru? Cheap lagers are available at most grocery stores, but the main national brands taste like the cheap beer from anywhere else. There is also pisco, if you like distilled spirits. Pisco is Peru’s rendition of brandy and is often marketed by grape variety and frequently carries a nice scent of the starting grape itself—surprising for a liquid that has traveled through the tubes and chambers of a commercial still. But in a hot desert after a long day of cycling, sometimes the best drink is water.
We have both gotten sick. We should have known. Book-smart medical doctors and experienced travelers warned us that eating street food or nearly anything out of a kitchen here was liable to make us run for the bathroom. Shows what they know—the bus had no bathroom. We’re going back to cherimoyas.
January 7, 2013
That there could be anything in the world but dust, rubble, traffic, burning trash heaps, mangy dogs and slums seemed impossible as we rolled northward through Lima. Andrew and I had just unpacked and assembled our bicycles in the airport terminal after 13 hours in the air. We were dehydrated, hungry, sleepy and, now, trying to steel ourselves against this grimy ugliness. We found a two-gallon jug of purified water at a gas station, the tap water being off-limits to foreigners preferring not to risk getting sick, and moved north along the Pan-American Highway. Through the polluted hazy air we saw the brown ghosts of mountain peaks towering just east of the city—the abrupt beginning to the Andes. But here, we were all but blinded by traffic, noise and ugliness. I assured myself that the city would soon give way to countryside—it always does, whether leaving Madrid, or Athens, or Milan, or Istanbul—but the sprawling slums seemed endless. Dust plumed into our faces, cars honked, dogs barked. We grew sticky and filthy with sweat, sunscreen and dirt. For several miles we followed a bicycle path—a heartening gesture by this monster of a city—but trash heaps blocked the way in places.
At some point we saw a patch of green grass. Later, we sat on a grassy road median to eat a cluster of bananas. I recall hearing a bird chirp farther down the road. A farm appeared, and trees. We both took notice at once of a soccer field in a green river valley. Trees by the road sagged with mangoes, while others were studded with ripening figs. We found ourselves riding side by side—for the traffic had thinned. The transition was complete. We were, finally, in the countryside, with Lima a horror we hoped not to see again soon. By evening we were crawling uphill, well on our way to a mountain town called Canta—though it was still a vertical mile above and 50 miles ahead. Near dusk, with fruit and canned tuna and wine for dinner, we rolled through the gate of a campground, called Sol de Santa Rosa. “Showers and bathrooms are back toward the orchard,” our host said in Spanish. “Camp anywhere you like on the green grass.”
Cherimoya season is on here in the mountains, true to our hopes. The big, green, heart-shaped, alligator-skinned creatures are heaped on tables at roadside fruit shacks, with painted signs telling passersby that the fruits are ripe. When Andrew and I first saw a sign reading “Chirimoya madura,” we pulled over in a hurry. Five soles per kilo, the man inside the shack told us. About $1 per pound. I told the vendor that this was very exciting for us, that cherimoyas are an exotic fruit in California, where most are imported and sold for at least $8 each. “Here,” the man said, “we are in the center of production.” We each bought a three-pounder for dinner, and that evening in camp sliced them in two. A ripe cherimoya is pliable, like a ripe avocado. Inside, the flesh is snow-white and studded with raisin-size black seeds. The flesh is intensely sweet, fibrous near the stem and otherwise seamless and creamy throughout. It tastes like pineapple, banana and bubble gum. Cherimoyas are native to the Andes, and the season here runs December through April. We’ve landed in a bed of roses.
We’ve also taken a liking to a new fruit called lucuma, a round, greenish-brown tree fruit with a smooth, plastic-like hide and starchy, sticky pumpkin-colored flesh, somewhat like a hard-boiled egg yolk. The fruit is a Peruvian specialty, made into sweets and ice cream and virtually unknown in America. Mangoes, too, are superb, here—with brilliant aroma and a fresh, tangy, concentrated flavor. We’ve found avocados cheap and abundant, and heaps of grapes, which we won’t touch, guessing they’ve been washed with local tap water. As we move through each small village, we ignore the smells of cooking meat and vegetables from restaurants, and we pass by the offers from sidewalk vendors selling tamales and hot drinks. One vendor sliced us a piece of cheese as we looked over his fruits—and we all but ran from the place. Ceviche, too, is another local food we won’t touch—not yet, anyway, as we’ve been advised repeatedly not to eat anything potentially contaminated by dirty water or sloppy handling. But the cherimoyas almost make up for our losses.
The season here has us confused. We are in the Southern Hemisphere by about ten degrees of latitude, and so we would expect this to be summer. But folks are telling us we have come in the winter, that July in the Andes is summer and that when it is summer on the coast it is winter in the mountains. We got hit by a thunderstorm as we crawled uphill toward Canta, and as we wrapped tarps around our bikes we saw that we may need to work out a better rain gear system. Locals say the rain is heavy this time of year. Dense fog enveloped us at about the 9,000 foot level as we crawled onward, and we are feeling the altitude—gasping to recover our breath each time we speak or have a drink of water. We have each taken a dose of altitude pills, and we hope not to get sick, as the only certain cure for altitude sickness is to turn around—and we don’t wish just yet to see Lima again.
We finally made our arrival in the much anticipated town of Canta, and to our alarm there is almost nothing here—nothing, after 80 miles of following road signs and mile markers and believing we were on our way to a mountain hub of activity and recreation and great outdoor markets and vegetarian yoga communes with food to share and Internet cafés and shops offering wireless 3G plans. Nothing, that is, except for fruit shacks, tamale vendors, a cheap hotel and the high Andes surrounding us. Now, considering the many dismal shades of Lima, nothing doesn’t seem bad at all.
Further Into the Andes
Ahead we see on our map Lago Junín, a large high-altitude mountain lake, the sizable towns of Cerro de Pasco and Huanaco and the great mountain pass of Ticlio, or Anticona.
January 3, 2013
For those who grow dreamy-eyed at thoughts of high mountains, vacant wilderness, quinoa on the camp stove and the ever-present chance of seeing a puma, Peru is gold country. The nation encompasses a substantial portion of the low-lying Amazon rainforest as well as a balmy coastline 1,400 miles long—the destinations of jungle explorers, bird watchers, river adventurers and surfers. But it’s the Andes that constitute the nation’s heart. This longest of the world’s mountain ranges runs thousands of miles north to south and largely defines the landscape and the spirit of Peru. In these high Peruvian elevations are sites like Machu Picchu and Cusco, almost endless wilderness, wild cats, guanacos (the wild relatives of alpacas and llamas) and a species of unusual bear and dozens of peaks higher than 18,000 feet. But—good news for travelers—these mountains are not inaccessible. Navigable roads crisscross the spine of the Andes, providing access to some of the planet’s most tremendous and inspiring scenery.
One of the very highest paved passes in the world is just 80 miles from Lima—Ticlio, or Anticona. Now, as I make final arrangements for a trip to Peru with my bicycle, the temptation to ride directly to Anticona is strong—but my brother Andrew, also on this trip, and I have thought better of the idea. The overall climb and the final altitude of almost 16,000 feet on day one just might kill us. Altitude sickness is a very real concern in places like Peru for people like us, who have spent our lives mostly at sea level. To treat this ailment we are packing pills. “Take 1 tablet orally 2 times a day starting 1 day before reaching high altitude, then continue for at least 3 days,” the bottle of Acetazolamide directs us. Yet the best cure may be preventative—becoming acclimated over time. For we would prefer not to subsist on a diverse diet of pills—we also have pills to treat our water, pills to fight stomach bugs, pills for typhoid, anti-inflammatory pills and malaria pills. By remaining high enough—5,000 feet up seems to be the magic number—we can avoid disease-bearing mosquitoes, but that brings us back to those altitude pills. We may just have to take our medicine.
Andrew returns to the States from Quito, Ecuador, three weeks from now, which gives us something of an objective—a 1,100-mile trip to this lofty city (altitude 9,350 feet), arriving by no later than January 19. En route, we’ll have many opportunities to climb two-mile-high passes—and we may try and grab a glance of Mount Huascarán. If we were climbers, this might be our target conquest. Huascarán is the highest mountain in Peru, the highest in the tropics and the fifth highest in all the Andes. It stands 22,205 feet (6,768 meters) above sea level and is preserved within a national park of the same name. The energy costs of cycling on loaded bikes across this sort of terrain may amount to about 4,000 calories per day (we will probably consume about 60 calories per mile of pedaling), which has us already thinking about food. Peru is tropical, and we anticipate a fantastic selection of fruits at outdoor markets. We hope to go especially heavy on cherimoyas, an Andean native that is too costly (often $6 per fruit or so) to buy more than a few times per year in the States. But food, especially fresh produce and the stuff of street vendors, must be treated with caution in Peru. It’s a tall order for travelers fighting a constant calorie deficit—but it is, in fact, our doctors’ orders. Anything with a thick peel should be safe, they have advised us, but raw vegetable salads will wait until we’re home again. We’re not to drink the water, either, and have been advised by experienced travelers to only drink purified water from sealed plastic bottles.
In Turkey about 15 months ago, I had the pleasure of a meeting a brown bear at midnight just outside my tent and then enjoyed a rousing slapstick time of ducking under the bullets of poachers who began firing at the animal. But bears are abundant in Eurasia, while in South American they are not. The spectacled bear lives in much of the northern Andes, but its population consists of just several thousand animals between Bolivia and Venezuela. The spectacled bear is the last living descendant of the enormous short-faced bear, which vanished from North America 12,500 years ago. The odds of seeing a wild bear in Peru are tiny, but the fact that it’s possible elevates this land into a realm of wildness that places like England, Holland, Kansas and Portugal lost long ago, sacrificed for agriculture and towns. Bears, like no other creatures, embody the spirit of wildness (never mind the trash-fat black bears of America’s suburbs and national parks). The world is a richer place just for having these big-muscled carnivores at large—even if we may never see them. Other Peruvian wildlife viewing possibilities include tapirs, anacondas, caimans, jaguars and an incredible wealth of river fishes—including the giant arapaima—in the Amazon basin. In the highlands live guanacos. Tiptoeing through the mountains are also pumas (same species as the cougar or mountain lion), and condors fly overhead. I once read somewhere that hikers in the Andes can be tipped off to the presence of a puma by the sudden appearance of one or more condors ascending into the sky—presumably chased off a half-eaten kill by the returning cat. I’ll be bird watching if it may help me see a cat.
We’ve kept our gear as basic as can be without unnecessarily sacrificing simple comforts. We are packing a bug-proof and waterproof two-person tent, powerful sunscreen, a camping stove, sleeping bags, books, basic bike repair gear and our decadent pill rations. We’re rolling on essentially flat-proof Armadillo tires—and I’ll be writing about our travels from cozy mountain campsites. I’m a Luddite in many ways, but 3G Internet access is a modern miracle I welcome, from the fringes of the civilized world.
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.