Beaujolais Nouveau: fruity fun but uncertain future

From the heart of France to the foothills of Mount Fuji, wine-themed fun was the order of the day Thursday as a new vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau was uncorked.

As ever, the reviews were mixed for the purply-pink "primeur" wine that the vignerons of the Beaujolais country in eastern France rush to market within a few weeks of harvest, often having been fermented in only a few days.

With many of them facing an uncertain future against a backdrop of declining demand, Beaujolais producers had promised a particularly fruity drop this year.

And French intellectual Bernard Pivot, who tapped the first barrel of the new vintage on the stroke of midnight in the region's capital Beaujeu, was willing to back their claims.

"I must admit I was a little afraid because the harvest was late but in the end it is very precocious," Pivot told AFP after enjoying his fist few gulps.

"Robust -- with notes of blackberries and raspberries. There is maybe even a little bit of cherry in there."

In reality, Beaujolais Nouveau is a love-it-or-hate-it sort of drink. With its bananas-to-bubblegum range of flavours and its sharp (fans say crisp) acidity, the variations in quality between different years are unlikely to change opinions too drastically.

"More of an event than a drink," is the sniffy view of Hugh Johnson, the veteran British writer whose annual pocket guide is the world's biggest-selling wine book.

This year's promotional stunts ranged from the cerebral -- a Beaujolais-themed poetry competition at Moscow wine store Otdokhni -- to the surreal: Brussels' most famous statue, the Manneken Pis, was peeing the wine instead of water.

In Hakone, a spa town to the west of Tokyo, Nouveau enthusiasts enjoyed the now established ritual of bathing in a mix of spring water and the tipple.

A waste of good (or bad) wine? "It may shock some people but there is no reason why it should," said Thibault Garin, a vice president of French merchants Laboure-Roi.

"The bath is not actually filled with wine (only a few symbolic bottles are put in and colouring is added to make the water a vivid purple). The point is the show - we should not forget that Dionysus was not only the god of wine, he was also the god of theatre."

Appreciated in Asia

Japan is the young wine's biggest export market, having knocked back 8.8 million bottles of the stuff last year and the idea that a bit of Beaujolais in the bathwater is good for the skin has helped its popularity with a key market: young, single women.

"Sales here are three times as big as to the United States," said Garin.

"This wine still exists thanks to Japan. Here nobody makes a face when they open a bottle and that doesn't mean they don't appreciate other wines -- 80 percent of Burgundy sold to Asia comes to Japan."

With the Japanese market already a mature one and sales in Europe stagnating or falling, Beaujolais producers are now looking to the rest of Asia to pick up the slack.

In China, where the booming wine represents Beaujolais's sixth-biggest export market, one Beijing bar offered "Revolutionary Songs" along with its wine tasting.

Even in Muslim-majority Indonesia, where only a small proportion drink alcohol, a little piece of France came to a Jakarta mall, with an area of La Piazza decked out like a French street cafe in honour of the new vintage.

Although the production of a young wine before the end of the year is a long-established tradition in Beaujolais and many other wine areas, Nouveau and its associate hype only took off in the 1970s. It now accounts for around 30 percent of the region's annual output of around 100 million bottles.

But there are some in the industry who feel it has created confusion about the Beaujolais brand, to the detriment of the region's long-term interests.

Despite increasingly positive critical reviews, producers of regular Beaujolais are now struggling, with many vineyards in and around celebrated villages like Brouilly or Moulin a Vent being ripped up as their elderly owners reach retirement age.

"Beaujolais is in a dire situation," says wine marketing guru Robert Joseph. "It is neither fun enough or serious enough."