THE MAGIC NUMBER for American wine lovers today, as I’m finishing this column, is 6.970. That’s how many French francs you can buy for a dollar this morning on the New York currency exchange. By the time you read what I’ve written, of course, this magic number will have changed. But it will most probably have changed in our favor – or at least not gone very far back in the other direction. There’s even talk of another official devaluation in France (there have already been two in the past year and a half), which some analysts think might mean as many as 10 francs to the dollar. That’s a 10-cent franc, a franc worth one thin dime -hardly good news for a monetary unit that was worth one fat quarter not much more than a year ago.
It is good news, though, for any wine lover who pays in dollars and who likes French wines. American importers buy French wines in francs. The more francs there are to the dollar, obviously, the fewer dollars they have to hand over in return for the merchandise.
Of course, the plummet of the franc doesn’t mean that every bottle of French wine in America is suddenly going to cost less. (When I discussed aspects of this column with one prominent Dallas retailer, he said, “For God’s sake, don’t tell people that French wines are all going to cost less tomorrow morning, or I’m going to have to disappoint an awful lot of people when they come stampeding in here.”) These things take time to affect the marketplace. importers and distributors are still sitting on a lot of French wine they bought or committed to buy back when the franc was worth two bits or so – and they’re going to have to unload that stuff before they can let any of the cheaper stuff escape. And some French producers and shippers raised their prices to offset potential exchange-rate losses before France’s current wage-price freeze took effect. (The freeze is scheduled to be lifted October 31.)
On the other hand, the fact is that today there is a reasonable amount of recent French wine for sale in Dallas (and elsewhere in the country) at prices either lower than last year’s or not much higher – while the effects of inflation, increased wine-making and handling costs, etc., might reasonably have been expected to raise prices as much as 20 or 30 percent. And there’s going to be more wine at such prices in the next year or so – even if the franc escalates. (Just as wine bought at earlier, higher prices is still being sold at those prices even though the franc has gone down in value, so wine bought at current lower prices will be sold at those prices – by reputable suppliers, anyway-even after, and if, the franc goes back up.) Considering the ever-more-elevated costs of good California wines these days – especially those from the newer “boutique” wineries – the favorable (to us) exchange rate means that, all of a sudden,French wines can actually be good buysagain and can often be the best buys in agiven category. Of course, French winevalue is tied to vintage years – more sothan California wine. For example, a $10French wine from a great year will almostcertainly be a much better value than thesame wine from a mediocre year at $8(though it is always worth remembering,of course, the late Andre Simon’s observation to the effect that there are no greatyears, only great bottles).
Fortunately, two of the three vintages that have been or will soon be affected at least partially by the faltering of the franc – 1979 and 1981 -are well above averagein quality in most areas; and the other -1980- produced at least a few very nicewines – particularly among Chablis andRhone wines (notably Chateauneuf-du-Pape and some C6tes-du Rhone),
Probably the best things to look for from the 1979 vintage are white Burgundies and red Bordeaux, though Alsatian and Rhone wines – which are nearly always good deals, no matter what the vintage and even without the help of a favorable exchange rate – were even better than usual in 1979, and are also well worth trying. Among the Burgundies, Macon Blancs might already be getting a little tired, but Chablis and Meursaults and wines on up from there are mostly in very good shape and figure to get even better for at least another year or two. (On the other hand, if you have the chance to buy 1978 Chablis for not much more than 1979 – which is just conceivable, though not likely – grab it; the ’78s are spectacular, the best in recent memory.)
As it looks right now, the ’79 Bordeaux probably don’t have a long life ahead of them (with the possible exception of the usual first-growths and a few other lower-rated big boys), but the crus bourgeoises and lower-rung classified growths are good drinking now and will probably re-main such for several more years. St. Emilions and Pomerols are particularly nice. And there are plenty of ’79s of all sorts to be had – that vintage produced the largest harvest Bordeaux had seen in almost 40 years.
It should be noted that a good many ’79s – Bordeaux, Burgundy and otherwise -came into the United States (or werebought for import) before the decline ofthe franc, and hence aren’t particularlyreasonably priced. Other ’79s, however,do show the results of the decline, andthere are plenty of nice ones, both Bordeaux and Burgundy, on Dallas wine shopshelves these days in the $10 to $15 pricerange-about what you’d pay for mostCalifornia cabernets and chardonnays, inother words.
The 1980 vintage is a bit more of a problem. The rule for that year’s red Bordeaux should be: Don’t waste your money on the big names (the ’81 s will be much better and probably even cheaper); at the same time, don’t buy complete unknowns (stick to good, familiar, medium-range wines); don’t pay more than $6 to $8 a bottle; and drink what you buy as fast as you can. As noted above, the ’80 Chablis aren’t bad (though, again, the ’81 s will be better), and most Rhone wines are actually very good – probably as good as the ’81s for Cha-teauneuf-du-Papes and Cotes-du-Rhonesand maybe even better for Hermitages, Cote Roties and other northern Rhones. The 1980 prices have frequently been affected by the exchange rate; the only problem is that some prominent Dallas retailers aren’t stocking them because they’ve still got plenty of ’79s and are anticipating the ’81s.
Not counting an ’81 Nicolas Beaujolais Noveau that I had in Los Angeles – thanks to the miracle of modern aeronautical technology, on November 16 of last year, the day after it had been released in France – the first ’81 s I tasted were in Paris in early December, at a presentation given by the Union Nationale des Oenologues. Either tank or barrel samples or bottled nouveau-style wines from virtually every major French wine-growing district were offered-except, of course, Champagne (whose wines, it might be said, hadn’t yet become Champagne). In general, I was most impressed by the Bordeaux and Loire wines, both red and white, and least impressed (among the major areas) by the red Burgundy (no white was poured). I also liked the one Alsatian white and the one Rhone red that were presented.
Tasting just one example from each region at such an early stage in development didn’t yield any definitive information about the true potential of the ’81s, of course, but it was a start – and subsequent tastings of other examples from the same regions have strengthened my first sketchy impressions: Bordeaux, the Loire, Alsace and the Rhone all produced very good wines in 1981.
I have another even stronger impression, though: Beaujolais, unlike its more distinguished Burgundian brethren to the north along the Cote d’Or, produced wines that were not only very good in 1981 – they were (and are) fantastic. The numerous Beaujolais Nouveaux I tasted in Paris and Los Angeles in November and December of last year suggested it, and the numerous regular Beaujolais of all categories that I’ve tasted since then, again in Paris and Los Angeles, prove it: 1981 was the best vintage for Beaujolais since, probably, 1961. The wines are fruitier and more complex than the agreeable ’78s; infinitely more elegant and even-handed than the massive ’76s; far more authentically Beaujolais-like than the very full-bodied ’71s; and at least slightly more substantial and also better-balanced than the ’69s (insofar as memory serves).
Beaujolais from the 1981 vintage are the red wines to buy in Dallas today, especially for current drinking – though some of the grands crus (the more serious Beaujolais, from the villages of Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Juliénas, Chénas, Morgon, St. Amour, Brouilly, Cote-de-Brouilly and Chiroubles) probably have at least a good three or four years of life in them. Regular Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages may be found all over town in the $5 to $7 price range, and the grands crus are mostly around $8 to $10. (Forget the ’81 Beaujolais Nouveaux, by the way; they were great while they lasted, but they didn’t last much past Easter.) And almost any of these wines, from any reputable shipper or producer, will be fruity, rich, well-balanced, alive – the kind of wine that’s a joy to drink. Stack that up against your $10 California zinfandels and $12 California pinot noirs.
One big-name Beaujolais to look out for is the Beaujolais-Villages from Louis Jadot, which is widely distributed in Dallas. At about $6 to $6.50 (prices vary from store to store), the Jadot is a good standard for ’81 Beaujolais – a solid, highly drinkable wine. Even better than Jadot, however, is Georges DuBoeuf – probably the most famous and respected shipper in the region. His ’81s have recently hit Dallas, and although they’re a bit harder to find than the Jadots, they’re more than worth the trouble. The DuBoeuf Beaujo-lais-Villages, in fact, is not only a bit better than the Jadot but even a bit cheaper – about $5.50 to $6. In general, the 1981 DuBoeuf Beaujolais are about as bright (and drinkable) an example as I can imagine of good, recent French wine available at happily devalued prices – real 6.970 stuff, in other words.
I’ve recently tasted 10 different DuBoeuf ’81s (which is almost all of the ones sold in the United States). There wasn’t one that I wouldn’t be happy to drink, but I did like some a bit better than others. Here are some brief notes on them.
In the $5.50 to $6.50 range:
Beaujolais-Villages. Loaded with fresh fruit; light in color and body but not frivolous; attractive, light overtones of acid; great fun; highly recommended.
Cote-de-Brouilly. Beautiful, almost luminescent purple-red color; light fruit; pleasant, but sort of blah.
Brouilly, Chateau de Nervers. The same lovely color as the Cote-de-Brouilly, more or less; reasonably substantial in body, but again light in fruit; a neither-here-nor-there wine, without the easygoing charm of the Beaujolais-Villages, but also lacking the quasi-Burgundian seriousness of some of the wines below.
In the $7.50 to $9 range:
Juliénas “Printemps.” Nice perfumy nose; lively and rich on the palate, with plenty of good fruit; simply delicious; highly recommended.
Chiroubles, Chateau de Javenard. Some good flavors, but not particularly outgoing; modest aroma, not showing too much fruit; perfectly good wine, but not up to some of its counterparts.
St. Amour “Printemps.” Brightly colored, with a lot of purple glowing through; uncharacteristically rich and full for a St. Amour; lots of complex flavors, reminding me somewhat of a good young Cdtes-du-Rh6ne; lacks some of the freshness that might be expected from a quality Beaujolais of this tender age, but excellent wine nonetheless; highly recommended.
Chénas, Domaine Combe Remont. Modest but honest fruit in the nose and on the palate; sort of an all-purpose mainstream Beaujolais; recommended.
Morgon, Jean Descombes. Nice enough aroma, but not particularly Beaujolais-like; interesting flavors, hard to pin down; may develop into something very pleasant, but seems to be going through an identity crisis at this point.
Fleurie, Chateau de Duits. Fresh, generous nose with loads of fruit; likewise, fresh and fruity on the palate; a classic Fleurie, full of vivid flavors; a wine to reanimate the most jaded of palates; a pure delight; highly recommended.
Moulin-à-Vent, La Tour de Bief. Lovely, sophisticated bouquet, with plenty of fruit but not only fruit; beautifully balanced; substantial, almost chewy, but at the same time elegant; long, lingering finish; highly recommended. (There is another DuBoeuf Moulin-à-Vent, called Clos du Moulin-à-Vent, which is one of the few DuBoeufs I haven’t tasted. I can’t recommend it untried, but, on the other hand, it’s probably a safe bet if you can’t find the La Tour de Bief.)
Just to confuse things slightly, there is also a California wine from Georges DuBoeuf currently available in Dallas. Also from the 1981 vintage, it’s labeled Georges DuBoeuf Gamay Beaujolais and sells for approximately $5. It was made at the Souverain of Alexander Valley winery in Sonoma County under the direct supervision of DuBoeuf and is his attempt to make a Beaujolais-style wine from California grapes. It is a remarkably successful attempt (more so in ’81, incidentally, than it was the year before, when he tried this for the first time). The wine is very light in both color and body and is rather sharp, but it has a pleasantly fruity aroma that is amazingly reminiscent of DuBoeuf’s real Beaujolais. It makes very enjoyable quaffing-especially if served slightly chilled.
Beaujolais-Villages, whether from DuBoeuf, Jadot or another producer, is also good when chilled somewhat. French aficionados, in fact, chill almost all Beaujolais-with the possible exception of Moulin-à-Vent. Chilling seems to put something of a hard edge on the bigger, more interesting ones, in my opinion, and robs them of at least a little of their fruit. But that’s a matter of personal preference – and there’s certainly nothing wrong with chilling any of them. They’re good autumn wines for that very reason: They can be thirst-quenchers when it’s hot out and room-temperature sipping wines when theair gets cooler. They’re the perfect wineswith which to toast the failing Frenchfranc, 6.970 or whatever the magic number happens to be right now.