A Great Beginner Wine, And Nice On Thanksgiving
The Annual Beaujolais
A wine that is a nice match for most of what’s on the Thanksgiving table makes its showy premiere today. All over the world, celebrations of Beaujolais Nouveau grab an enormous amount of attention for what is, really, a minor player in the world of wine.
But why not? The story about how restaurants in France race with one another to be the first to serve the new vintage of Beaujolais are true and exciting. The French government’s rule that the wine can’t be opened officially before the third Thursday in November made it alluring.
At its best, Beaujolais Nouveau is fruity, crisp, very food-friendly, low in alcohol, sometimes even a touch fizzy. It has the color of a red wine, but neither the depth nor the tannin–so it can be served cold. It’s one of the few red wines that turkey can actually stand up to. (Some detractors say this is because it tastes like sour cranberry sauce.)
And it was a great boost to the winemakers of Beaujolais, who had an identity problem. The best of their wines are wonderful, but they don’t fit on wine lists well. Sometimes they show up under the Burgundies, but they’re not Burgundies. The grape is Gamay, not Pinot Noir.
Gamay makes a pleasant wine, though. I find it has a great finish that lingers like raspberries on the palate. The way it’s turned into wine is also distinctive. The grapes used to make Beaujolais ferment inside their skins, without even being crushed. In a process called carbonic maceration, the fermentation does most of the job of the crush, extracting the red color from the skin without picking up any of the bitter qualities that most red wines have. (The color and the bitterness usually come in together.)
The wine that results lacks the complexity of a conventionally fermented wine. But it has a great fruity quality and an almost alarming purple color. The alcohol is on the low end of the standard range, which also adds to the appeal.
To me, the most interesting fact about Beaujolais Nouveau in recent years is that a majority of the grapes grown in the Beaujolais region now are used to make Beaujolais Nouveau. The winegrowers are no doubt ecstatic about this. While their colleagues are waiting months or even years for their wines to age in barrels or tanks, the Beaujolais Nouveau is rushed through fermentation (the grapes were picked only a few weeks ago), bottled, sold, and paid for.
The downside of this is that it’s lessened the quality of not-so-nouveau Beaujolais, such that I’m hesitant to buy a bottle of it unless it’s one of the grand cru Beaujolais. (Which are much more expensive.)
In recent years, the antipodean wineries (Chile, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, etc.) have beaten the Beaujolais to our market with the first vintage of the year. (They have a six-month advantage.) But despite that, and despite what you think about the intrinsic merit of the wine, starting off the European vintage with a bottle or two of Beaujolais Nouveau is a nice fall tradition.