What's so nouveau about Beaujolais?

The harvest is in, so let the Gamays begin

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You gotta love the French.

No really, I mean it. Each November, they celebrate a holiday that's centered on drinking red wine. No religious stuff to hinder a good time, no stressful gift buying, no forced thankfulness — just pure, hedonistic consumption of young, fruity red wine.

OK, the Beaujolais Nouveau thing is more of a tradition than a holiday, but that's the premise all the same. It all started as a post-harvest festival in the villages of France's Beaujolais region. During the harvest celebrations, people drank the first wines of the year, straight from the barrels. The custom soon spread to the bistros of Paris and on to the rest of Europe.

In 1951, the governing body of Beaujolais officially set the date for the wine's release as the third Thursday in November (Nov. 15 this year). Thanks to the export savvy of famous Beaujolais producers like Louis Jadot and Georges Duboeuf and the miracle of overnight air shipping, we Yanks soon were able to join in the hoopla.

Not surprisingly, Beaujolais Nouveau comes from the region of Beaujolais, a southern subdivision of France's Burgundy region. About a third of the area's wine is sold as Beaujolais Nouveau; the rest is sold later in the year as Beaujolais Villages, Beaujolais or Beaujolais Cru, depending on which area the grapes are grown in. The red wines of the region are made exclusively from the Gamay grape (it's the only one French law will allow), which generally produces wines that are light, low in alcohol and very fruity.

Though similar in style to the French versions, the California wines labeled "Gamay Beaujolais" are actually made with Pinot Noir and Valdiguie grapes. (Due to the lobbying efforts of French purists, wineries will only be able to use the term on American products until 2007. After that, they'll have to come up with another name.)

Beaujolais Nouveau owes its easy drinking quality to a winemaking technique called carbonic maceration (or whole berry fermentation), which preserves the fresh, fruity quality of the wine without extracting bitterness from the grape skins. As the "nouveau" part of the name implies, the wine should be drunk while it's young, usually by the May after its release. (Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages wines can age up to a year; the Beaujolais Crus can be aged from one to 5 years). To preserve its refreshing fruity quality, the wine should be served slightly chilled, around 55 degrees Fahrenheit.

Contrary to what some may think, this is not the wine of snobs and connoisseurs, it is a wine for the common folk. It's cheap (usually under $10), fun and easy to drink, with or without food.

You don't have to be French, or even like the French, to celebrate the arrival of this year's Beaujolais Nouveau. Just head for the nearest wine shop or French bistro Nov. 15, hold out your glass and say "oui!"

The 2001 wines weren't available at the time of publication (they're serious about that release date!), but Georges Duboeuf says this will be "the year of fruit and aromas" and that the 2001 wines are "like a bouquet of flowers and a basket of berries, dominated by raspberries."

If you can't wait until the 15th, try one of these tasty "non-nouveau" Beaujolais wines:

Louis Jadot Beaujolais 2000 ($9.99) : Nice raspberry aroma. A tasty, light-ish red with lots of berry fruit flavors. Smooth and easy to drink, but not at all wimpy.

Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Villages 2000 ($7.99) : Last year's vintage also smells like berries and flowers. A light-bodied and uncomplicated wine with nice grapey flavors.

Louis Jadot Beaujolais Villages 2000 ($7.99) 1/2: Earthy, raspberry aromas and yummy, round berry flavors.

Tina Caputo is a San Francisco-based wino who supports her nasty habit by writing for several wine publications. Comments? Questions? Great wine experience to share? Talk to us! We'll feature your comments in our Mailbag. E-mail [email protected], mail to Corkscrew, 1310 E. Ninth Ave., Tampa, FL 33605 or call 1-800-341-LOAF.

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