It was the third Thursday in November, the official day of release for the young, sprightly wine famed throughout the world as Beaujolais Nouveau.
We were on the wine's home turf -- roughly 55,000 acres of vineyards in the Saone-Rhone Valley, south of Macon and northwest of Lyon, France. We knew that wine lovers everywhere were popping corks in noisy, media-saturated events, celebrating the fact that this year's nouveau could at last be opened, sipped -- and judged.
But in the Beaujolais District, where the countryside hovered on that delicate cusp between autumn and winter, life was unruffled and quiet. Mornings were sharp, even cold: Nearly naked trees were lined with heavy frost, a faint dusting of snow covered the meadows and puffs of vine-scented smoke drifted lazily above the ancient stone farmhouses. The afternoons were invariably warm, however, forcing us to relegate jackets and sweaters to the rental car's trunk.
Unlike most wines, the light and flowery nouveau should be drunk while it's young. It thus comes to the market about six weeks after harvest, providing just enough time for it to be fermented, filtered and bottled. Until the middle of this century, most nouveau was consumed with great appreciation but little fuss in Lyonnaise bistros and cafes, but these days the annual release has become a worldwide event in which wine lovers and the just plain trendy clamor for those first precious sips.
Every year, hours before the stroke of midnight gives birth to November's third Thursday, cases of Beaujolais Nouveau begin arriving in the world's capitals. In recent years, crowds have gathered inside New York's Carnegie Hall to witness the city's first bottle being uncorked at 12:01 a.m. In Washington, the French Embassy celebrates release day with a tasting of various nouveau wines. In San Francisco, a case of nouveau was once taken from the airport, put on a balloon-laden cable car, and ceremoniously paraded up and down the hills past enthusiastic fans.
And in Oingt, a tiny 13th-century village in the heart of Beaujolais, my companion and I shared an earthenware pitcher of the new wine drawn straight from a barrel -- delivered, we were told, by the man who grew the grapes and made the wine not three miles from where we sat.
We were lunching at Le Vieux Auberge, a small and quiet place with a tidy, banked fire, dark and heavy beams across the ceiling, and a stone floor polished by more than 700 years of footsteps. The meal -- a crumbly terrine of andouillette sausages in a complex Beaujolais wine-and-shallot sauce and pears with a St. Felicien cheese -- couldn't have been better.
We'd come from Paris early that morning on the TGV -- a quick two-hour trip south to Lyon, where we'd reserved a car at the train station. Lyon, with its maze of one-way streets, can be difficult for strangers to maneuver, and it took us far longer to find our way out of town than to travel up the autoroute to Villefranche, the bustling commercial center of the Beaujolais District. Once there, we picked up a stack of brochures at the tourist office.
Of particular interest was a pamphlet containing a map of the district superimposed with a series of suggested itineraries. We rejected those with names like "Tourist Route" or "Quick Route," opting instead for a circuitous tour called "Road of the Golden Stones." Armed with the itinerary and a trusty Michelin map, we set out to explore the land southwest of Villefranche.
At 35 miles long and 9 1/2 miles wide, Beaujolais is a compact world. Sheltered, too: On the west, it's bounded by the Monts de Beaujolais, which eventually descend into the Loire Valley; to the east by the Saone River; to the north by the vineyards of Macon; and to the south by the Turdine and Azergues rivers.
But, while it's easy to delineate the district's boundaries, it's nearly impossible to define its interior. Beaujolais is a land of meandering, narrow roads, which constantly delight and surprise the traveler. Go right at a fork and perhaps you'll climb hills, marveling at the vineyards running up the angled slopes and the thick chestnut groves that crown them; turn left and you might find yourself descending into a broad valley of lush meadows, clusters of pine and fir, and herds of slow-moving Charolais. There are fields of rugged gorges, lively creeks, medieval castles, isolated villages, gold-stoned farmhouses. And everywhere, of course, are the famed vineyards.
Following the "Golden Stones" itinerary, we journeyed to Jarnioux, home to one of the most stunning castles in Southeastern France. Originally built in the 13th century, it was remodeled during the Renaissance. Surrounded by a moat (now dry) and guarded by a massive metal-studded door and six towers, the Jarnioux castle should not be missed.
From there, we took a narrow, winding road to the beautiful medieval village of Oingt, which stands perched atop a small hill. After a late and leisurely lunch at Le Vieux Auberge, we explored Oingt's 13th-century church with its many ancient sculptures and the 16th-century Village Hall.
Leaving Oingt, we decided to visit one of the local wine chateaux -- there are almost 200 in Beaujolais, many of which welcome visitors. In summer, the chateaux are popular with tourists, French and foreigners alike, who come to taste the wine and perhaps buy a few bottles. Many villages also contain cooperative cellars, where, for a price, you can sample a variety of local wines.
But in late fall, after the grapes are harvested and the tourists are gone, most chateaux are officially closed until spring. Unofficially, however, we found the chateaux owners surprised and happy to see us. With the year's work done and winter coming on, they seemed to welcome the opportunity for an hour's pleasant diversion.
Our experience after leaving Oingt was fairly typical. We backtracked to Jarnioux where, after traversing a narrow dirt road, we found Chateau de Boisfranc, a stately and impressive manor surrounded by acres of vineyards. Doors were open, but we saw no one. We wandered around the old stone outbuildings for about 10 minutes before the proprietor, Monsieur Doat, appeared --he'd been cleaning out a cellar, he said, and hadn't heard us. He was puzzled at first by our off-season appearance, but grew quickly enthusiastic when he learned we'd heard of his wine in California.
An hour later, after a tour of the ancient stone wine cellars and a generous sampling of the chateau's wines (which include a white Beaujolais and an organically grown red Beaujolais), we took our leave. The amiable Monsieur Doat continued to wave goodbye until we'd turned a corner and disappeared.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon wandering slowly north along narrow, little-traveled roads toward Pizay, where we'd booked a room in a 14th-century chateau. We stopped along the way at Vaux, made famous in the novels of Gabriel Chevallier; a 12th-century church here contains an exceptional 15th-century triptych. We also visited St.-Etienne-la-Varenne, a tiny stone hilltop village.
At Chateau de Pizay, we met our only disappointment of the day. While the hotel is, indeed, housed in a magnificent 14th-century building set amid elaborate gardens, the majority of guest rooms are contained in a modern two-story structure located in the rear. Our disappointment was short-lived, however, since our room -- modern though it was -- overlooked lovely gardens and was blissfully quiet.
That night we dined in nearby Belleville at Le Beaujolais, considered by many to be the district's best restaurant. Moderately priced, Le Beaujolais is rustic in both decor and jTC cuisine, offering excellent French country cooking and a superb wine list.
In late fall, when wooden barrels of nouveau rest behind the bar, the air is ripe with the aroma of earth, yeast and grapes. That night I devoured a cassoulet of snails, followed by saucisson in Beaujolais sauce. And -- need I say? -- on the table, from start to finish, was an earthenware jug of Beaujolais Nouveau.
IF YOU GO . . .
Getting there: You can get to Lyon from Paris by plane or on the TGV (the fast train). Be sure to reserve a rental car for your arrival. It's a quick hop from Lyon to Beaujolais: Take A43 north, and then A6 to Villefranche. You can also take a more leisurely train directly to Villefranche, renting a car there.
To drive from Paris, take the A6 autoroute toward Lyon, exiting at Villefranche.
For information: Contact the French Government Tourist Office, 610 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10020; call (212) 757-1125.