Cigar Aficionado

A Cigar With Beaujolais Star Franck Duboeuf

Winemaker Franck Duboeuf sits in the passenger seat of a tank-sized 1976 Cadillac Calais with a case of Beaujolais wine on his lap. Almost every inch of the car has been mercilessly covered in graffiti and it idles on 11th Avenue in a desolate area of New York City’s industrial West Side. He clutches the case close to his chest and sits as still as a hostage in the car on this rainy afternoon. He’s a long way from eastern France. Two large warehouse doors open up to a loading dock and the silent driver rolls the Cadillac at a hearse’s pace into the building. The doors shut behind him. When he gets out of the car, Duboeuf is greeted with a standing ovation.

It’s the third Thursday in November, and the audience has come to this converted warehouse space on Manhattan’s West Side for the annual celebratory release of Duboeuf’s Beaujolais Nouveau, a Burgundy wine that is harvested in September, bottled in October and rushed to market for immediate consumption with great fanfare. By tradition, it is not sold before the third Thursday of November, and the ceremonious uncorking is often quite festive.

Music thuds over the loudspeakers and Duboeuf gets on stage to introduce this year’s release. This is his wine and his party.

“C’est incroyable,” said Duboeuf, still in awe of such a reception. “You know, the official release date of Beaujolais used to be November 15, but once we moved it only one week ahead so close to Thanksgiving, things changed a lot. People were associating it with the holiday and the response became incredible.”

Franck Duboeuf at Beaujolais Nouveau event.

Photo by Philip Greenberg

Franck Duboeuf hustles a case of Beaujolais from a 1976 Cadillac to the stage.

He takes a seat and looks around the room as the catering staff pours the Beaujolais. The space is dressed up to be something that is part art gallery, part studio and part graffiti-sprayed alley. Of course, we’re not surrounded by real graffiti. It’s more of a less aggressive interpretation—a caricature. Contained and safe. Graffiti, in this case, does not represent urban decay, nor is it whining for artistic legitimacy. This graffiti is simply self-expression—quick, colorful, stylistic—and such is the theme scoring the Georges Duboeuf 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau.

Before I take a sip of the wine, I offer Duboeuf a cigar: a Cohiba 1966 Edición Limitada 2011. Like the Beaujolais, it has just been released this November.

“Oh!” he says as he unfolds his glasses for a closer look. Duboeuf is a consummate cigar smoker and has been for 20 years. After a normal workday of tasting anywhere from 60 to 80 batches of fermented juice back at his winery in Romanèche-Thorins, he likes to have a cigar, usually Cuban, and not necessarily any particular brand.

“I very much enjoy the Montecristo Edmundos,” he says. “And the Sublimes. I also like the Hoyo de Monterrey Petit Robustos and the flavor of the Romeo Short Churchills, but the Short Churchills I get always have a firm draw. I don’t know why.”

He tends to choose his cigars according to size, a lonsdale for one occasion, a short robusto for another mood or time of day. Sadly, we can’t light up at today’s uncorking, so we put the cigars aside, smell the wine and take a sip.

“The nose is something we really don’t develop enough,” Duboeuf says, though he seems a bit hesitant, careful about choosing his words and not wanting to say the wrong thing. “It’s really a shame. You have to start young, from childhood, concentrate on heavy aromas first.” He dismissed the notion that the sense of smell diminishes with age. “You can forget many things, but not the sense of smell. It takes practice. If you’ve developed it your whole life, your nose may be the only thing you keep.”

Started in 1964 by Duboeuf’s father, Georges, Le Vins Georges Duboeuf has become the largest négociant of Beaujolais in the world, according to Wine Spectator, Cigar Aficionado’s sister publication. Its portfolio includes Beaujolais, which is a wine made from a blend of gamay grapes grown in Burgundy, and 10 different Beaujolais Crus, which are village-specific wines using only gamay grapes from a certain area of the Burgundy region. The Beaujolais Nouveau is almost a different animal, celebrated every November for its ability to go from grape to glass in a matter of months. Franck entered the family business when he was 22, working on the production end. Now his official title is managing director.

“This year, we produced 165,000 cases of Beaujolais Nouveau,” says Duboeuf, explaining how the wine is bottled in late October after undergoing carbonic maceration, a process where the grape is fermented before being crushed rather than after, resulting in a less tannic, fruity wine that’s meant to drink young.

Franck Duboeuf at Beaujolais Nouveau event.

Photo by Philip Greenberg

Franck Duboeuf, center, uncorking the first bottle of the 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau at the NYC event. He stands with artist, Kaves, left, and Peter Deutsch, CEO, W.J. Deutsch & Sons, distributor for the Georges Duboeuf brand.

“My father has defined a style, a taste which is his signature Duboeuf wine,” says Duboeuf. The “signature” taste, however, varies from wine to wine, Cru to Cru. He characterizes this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau as fleshy and fruity, but describes other Beaujolais Crus like the Morgon using more specific tasting descriptors such as cherry jam, kirsch and fox fur (yes, fox fur). Rarified nuances aside, all Crus have a core palate of fruit. Because the company brings in grapes from all over the Burgundy region, Duboeuf spends most of the day sampling, drinking wines, taking notes and validating blends.

What he’s looking for is a balance of aromas and fresh fruit, but at the same time needs a flavor profile that is, to his interpretation, the perfect expression of the gamay grape and the terroir of the area. It requires a sharp nose, trained palate and an elemental understanding of the soil. “You need an entire lifetime to fully understand a wine region,” he says humbly.

Duboeuf is not as exacting as one might expect when analyzing cigars. He seems to turn off the analysis part of his brain and settle into more of a relaxation mode. “There’s a beginning, a middle and the end when you smoke a cigar and each combine to deepen the experience.”

And although he doesn’t usually pair wines with cigars, he certainly allows parallels between the two. “You have the vine and the plant, the weather and the soil. And both tobacco and grapes are subject to a variety of influences. The terroir has an impact on the look, the smell and the taste of each. There is an element of fermentation and aging—each of which bring both cigars and wines to their best. Then there are similarities with packaging: the ring, the box, the label.”

Duboeuf has been to Cuba and believes that cigars taste better when smoked on their home turf, as they tend to suffer a bit of travel shock after being shipped to retailers across the world. The same theory goes for wine. “The Beaujolais never tastes quite the same,” says Duboeuf.

When asked if he ever smokes non-Cuban cigars, he replied: “You know, one time I was in a shop in Paris, and the manager said to me, ‘Try this, it is the closest thing to a Cuban cigar.’ Impossible, I thought. But he was right. Very close to some of the thicker Cuban cigars.” It was an El Credito Serie R, a brand made by General Cigar in the Dominican Republic primarily for the European market, and Duboeuf carries around its 50 ring gauge Grand Robustos in his pocket right along with any number of Cuban Edición Limitadas. He hands me one and we take another sip.

The aroma from the glass is coming up at me with surprising enthusiasm. It’s a vivid magenta and the esters are stronger on this Beaujolais Nouveau than I remember. Or maybe my nose is just sharper than usual this particular afternoon. I look up to ask him if the wine is bolder this year, but he is suddenly called away, ushered at the elbow by an events planner.

As his father attends fewer events, Franck’s presence is in higher demand and he’s becoming more visible as Duboeuf’s brand ambassador. Today’s party is actually the second event he’s done within nine hours. Last night, as the clock struck 12, there was a midnight uncorking celebration that went until nearly 3 a.m.

Before Duboeuf disappears into the crowd, he manages to thank me once again for the cigar.

“Cigars in Paris are so expensive,” he says in French-accented English. He holds up the smoke. “This is superb.”

A canvas hangs on display with some more amoebic-looking mock graffiti. I think of the old spray-painted subway cars of 30 years ago that you don’t see anymore. I think of President Jimmy Carter’s media visit to the South Bronx in 1977 and Reagan’s in ’80 and the backdrop of crumbling, spray-painted buildings.

Behind the artwork here on the fringes of the party set, a chalkboard wall invites guests of this celebration to further participate by etching in a graffiti message of their own. Beaujolais Nouveau was here.

"" —December 21, 2011 07:24 AM
"Wonderful read. I can taste the ripe fruit now. Drinking at that time with him is as close to freshness you can get outside of France. I can't wait to see next years set up." —November 22, 2011 22:56 PM