Airplanes had been chartered months in advance, scheduled to fly their cargo out of France no earlier than 8 am on Thursday, Nov 8. As usual, the challenge was to get the shipments through customs and distributions channels worldwide, so that every hotel or restaurant planning a celebration on Nov 15 would get their’s on time.
In Phnom Penh, the cargo arrived with hours to spare. The city’s wine lovers were able to cheer the arrival of France’s Beaujolais Nouveau and taste the first red wine made from this year’s grapes.
For the first time, Phnom Penh also got a shipment of the first white wine of 2001 vintage, the Muscadet Primeur. Jean-Ernest Sauvion, whose vineyard’s fine Muscadet often tops the list of wine critics, dropped by Topaz restaurant to introduce it on Nov 15.
Welcoming the first wines of the year with parties and events is “a nice tradition that has been kept up,” said Thomas Meier, Hotel Le Royal manager. People celebrate the new arrival from Japan to Sweden, Ireland to Poland, Canada to Fiji. “I lived in Rio de Janeiro two years, and there were parties in French restaurants to greet the Beaujolais Nouveau there,” said Yannick Clolus, a native of France who came to Topaz to taste the two new wines.
Since 1951, the Beaujolais Nouveau, or new Beaujolais, has come out each year. The winemakers of Muscadet Primeur only release it if it’s a good vintage.
Every step of their production is regulated. This year harvesting could not start before Sept 6, which left exactly 10 weeks to collect the grapes, make the wine, bottle, ship and distribute it in time for people to drink on Nov 15. “Everything is done night and day,” said Sauvion.
Shipments outside of France could not leave the country before Nov 8. No matter what happened, suppliers had to get the wines to hotels and restaurants who had scheduled events around them. “We can’t afford not to deliver to a customer who has already issued invitations,” Sauvion said.
This happened one year in Phnom Penh in the late 1990s, causing no end of difficulties, said Dominique Frecenon, director of marketing for Les Celliers d’Asie, a wine wholesale and retail company. The Beaujolais Nouveau arrived one day late due to problems with the airplane that carried the wine.
The annual first wines were not always such complicated ventures, said Eric Simard, a wine steward by training. “At first, [tasting the new wine] was just a regional event, for neighborhood bistros,” he said. Only later, through clever marketing, did it turn into a worldwide affair.
In large cities, some establishments don’t just want to get the Beaujolais Nouveau on time—they want to get it first. They will negotiate with distributors to receive the wine a few hours before their competitors. Hotel or restaurant managers meet planes with limousines to get the first bottles in town, in an attempt to attract maximum media coverage.
This year, due to September’s terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, air freight was more expensive and airline companies were not guaranteeing delivery, said Frecenon. But even in the best of circumstances, the process is difficult, he said.
The short time available to produce and ship the Beaujolais Nouveau by air freight makes the end product very expensive, said Robert Maurer-Loeffler, director of Food & Beverage at Hotel Cambodiana. “You can get an extremely good wine for that price,” he said, but added, “one has to have [the Beaujolais Nouveau].”
Jean-Michel Martinez agreed. “It’s not a great wine; it’s a tradition that enables people to revel,” he said. He described the 2001 vintage as “ fruity, very red, red currant and cherry [flavors].”
Both red and white new wines must be consumed soon after bottling, said Simard.
But unlike Beaujolais Nouveau producers, winemakers of Muscadet Primeur are not locked into the tradition of having to release it every year, said Simard. This year’s wine is a superior vintage, rich and fairly complex, he said.
“[At Topaz] people had come for Beaujolais Nouveau, then they tasted the Muscadet Primeur and stayed with it,” said Arnaud Darc, co-owner of the restaurant. The Muscadet Primeur nearly sold out, he said.
Sauvion, whose family vineyard, Chateau du Cleray-Sauvion, is located in the Loire Valley, has visited Phnom Penh numerous times on trips to client countries such as Thailand. He wanted to make Muscadet known to Cambodia because it goes well with Asian food. Darc agreed, saying that it would complement Cambodia’s amok curry, for example.
Earlier this year, Wine & Spirit International magazine described Sauvion as the driving force behind the production of quality Muscadet. His company, Sauvion & Fils, distributes Muscadet and other white wines in 87 countries including the US, Japan and Germany. His next goal is to enter the Nepalese market, he said.
Cambodia was one of 35 countries in addition to France to get Muscadet Primeur for the Nov 15 uncorking, Sauvion said. It was greeted with such an enthusiasm that Topaz is already planning next year’s event, Darc said.
The official launching of the Beaujolais Nouveau took place this year in Thailand, with a reception and city-wide events. It has previously been held in South Korea and Russia.