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Inside France’s Beaujolais Nouveau Festival

And How It’s Coming to Pensacola
by Ashley Hardaway

The Brazilian group in their massive carnival outfits was exiting the stage, and the band began playing again. Two servers walked by, each carrying the end of a pole upon which a massive wooden barrel hung; it was filled with wine.

The tent we were under, if the word “tent” does it justice, was a maze of tables and chairs, covered with wine glasses, full bottles and the remnants of the five-course dinner that just concluded. One thousand people milled beneath it, dancing, singing and resembling glowing creatures as they hovered in and out of the neon lights that illuminated the place.

Suddenly, the group began moving toward the door and we were picked up with them, the cold, French air popping us in the face with gusto. Lit torches were handed to us, along with everyone else, and suddenly a whole town full of slightly inebriated people were marching through its center, headed to God knows where. All were wielding 2-foot flames, all very tipsy, and all quite certain that nothing bad could ever come of this moment—ever. This is the Sarmentelles Festival in Beaujeu, France, an hour north of Lyon—an event held yearly on the third Thursday in November that celebrates that year’s release of their beloved Beaujolais Nouveau wine.

Rob Theriot, the executive chef at Portofino Island Resort, was there with me that night. I was there because I’m a writer who appreciates wine. Rob was there for actual work.

On Dec. 8 at 7 p.m., Portofino Island Resort will be hosting a six-course wine dinner to celebrate the release of this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau. Chef Theriot gladly spent a portion of his vacation attending the festival and gathering “research”—this type of research being every chef’s dream: talking with artisans about their crafts.

In the Alsace Wine Region, he conversed with winemakers such as Marcel Deiss, who is on the cutting edge of combining old world and new world techniques to create fabulous wines that are complex and balanced.

In Beaujeu, he toured Jean Marc’s Huilerie, which is responsible for making some of the best oils and vinegars in the world, with their most popular being their Mango Vinegar and Pistachio Oil. All of their products are made in-house, in small batches by one of two men using only the best local nuts and fruits France has to offer. Chef Theriot uses their Citron Vinegar for finishing anything from a salad to a sauce at Terracotta Restaurant.

There may only be one main Beaujolais Nouveau Festival, but every vineyard and every farm hosts their own smaller version of the main affair. While in Poule-les-Écharmeaux, we were invited to attend one such event, held in a cave: the building where that year’s harvest of grapes are pressed and fermented. Martin Trichard, one of the few female vignerons in the area, was the host of this small, family-style event for the local winemakers.

Tables were propped up wherever they could stand in this building that was previously used as a farmhouse, and on the second floor rafters a band had set up—she paid them in wine—strumming on banjos, and at one time ingeniously implementing a kazoo. Martin gave us a quick tour of the place, handed us a glass and left us to spend the evening talking with the craftsmen who made the very wine we were drinking.

The dinners held throughout the villages of the Beaujeu Region are a superb mix of rustic charm and opulence. The food is rich and the wine is fantastic, but it’s all served with a laissez-faire attitude and a shrug of the shoulder as if to say: “This is grand and all, but let’s not take ourselves too seriously and mess it up with all that formality.”

It’s this mélange that Chef Theriot is hoping to capture during his twelfth wine dinner. The six-course dinner will be served around the candlelit indoor pool at Portofino while silent French films play in the background on a 160-inch projector screen. Each of the six courses will be paired with wines researched during Chef Theriot’s travels from the regions of Alsace, Burgundy and Beaujolais.

Chef Theriot can promise amazing food and abundant wine, but alas—no parading around Pensacola Beach with torches at the end of the meal—as much as he may want to. You’ll just have to go to Beaujeu, France for that.
info@inweekly.net

SARMENTELLES BEAUJOLAIS NOUVEAU WINE DINNER
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 8
WHERE: Portofino Island Resort, 10 Portofino Drive, Pensacola Beach
COST: $120
DETAILS: RSVP by Dec. 3 by calling 916-5355