Wine Notes – Beaujolais for the Holidays
As soon as the nights begin to cool in late August, we begin thinking about the holiday season. This means different things to different people, but my association starts with the Staples commercial that uses the song “The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” For many years, it was the first Christmas song of the season I would hear. Of course, the real holidays don’t start until November, when we all prepare for the overeating frenzy we refer to as Thanksgiving. But there is another holiday wine lovers around the world celebrate on the third Thursday of November each year that should not be overlooked: Beaujolais Nouveau Day.
At the stroke of midnight on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, the Beaujolais grapes harvested in September will have been transformed into wine and will be released into the world for everyone to enjoy. In Beaujolais, France, they literally roll barrels directly out of vineyard cellars and begin the celebration.
In Japan, which imports between 4.5 and 8 million bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau a year, compared with 1.8 million bottles imported by the U.S., they bathe in it. I assume they drink plenty of it, as well, but at Hakone Kowakien Yunessun hot spring resort in Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture they pour bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau into a pool for guests to bathe in.
Here in the U.S., we celebrate Beaujolais Nouveau Day with cardboard displays covered with celebratory confetti in just about every liquor store: Graphics tell us it’s time to celebrate and buy lots of cheap wine that has had no time to age in a bottle and is barely ready for drinking.
Each vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau is very different. On Nov. 18, we will learn if the 2021 wine is worth all the hype or is actually “vin de merde,” as French wine critic François Mauss wrote in the Lyon Mag magazine when referring to the 2001 vintage. (That description brought on a lawsuit that resulted in a $375,000 fine based on a French law that makes the denigration of French products illegal, almost putting the family publication out of business. Finally, in 2005 a French judge overturned that ruling.)
I encourage all wine lovers to try Beaujolais’ bargain wine (usually $12 to $16 a bottle) and decide if it is worth bringing to your holiday gatherings, or if something more sophisticated than a pretty bottle is in order.
Wines from Beaujolais have three classifications. Beaujolais AOC is the most generalized as it covers the entire region, which is located in the southern part of Burgundy north of the Rhone River. Nearly all of the grapes planted in this region are gamay noir, commonly referred to as gamay. Most Beaujolais Nouveau comes from this region.
The next classification includes wines from 39 communes referred to as Beaujolais-Villages AOC. Here, the terroir allows for the potential of higher quality wines, but it is really hit or miss. Cru Beaujolais is the classification you should be looking for if you are interested in the best Beaujolais has to offer.
Cru Beaujolais wines are made only from grapes grown in 10 communes located in the foothills of Beaujolais’ mountains. (From north to south, these are Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly.) It is here that we find the best expression of gamay noir grapes. Like pinot noir, its cousin grown in Burgundy to the north, gamay noir grapes are thin skinned, low in tannins, high in acid, and generally make a lighter bodied red wine. What sets gamay apart are the silky-smooth tannins and the incredible fruity flavors that jump right out of the glass to excite your palate.
When pairing wines with holiday meals that include rich, creamy and buttery sauces, and fruity accompaniments, wine with a high acid content complements the food and cuts through the fat. A wine that is low in tannins doesn’t interfere with sweeter side dishes. If you are serving beef or lamb, the tannins from malbec, cabernet sauvignon and tannat are welcome, but for all other cases, gamay is a fantastic choice.
Look for a Cru Beaujolais wine that has one of the 10 communes proudly displayed on its label. I always recommend a tasting first, but it is generally a low risk if the wine is from one of these communes. If you are going for the Beaujolais bargain, be sure to taste it first to avoid the risk of bringing “vin de merde” to a holiday gathering.
Cru Beaujolais wines aren’t always easy to find. New Hampshire Liquor & Wine Outlets and Total Wine & More have good selections of wine in general, but you might have to ask your favorite wine manager to help you find Cru Beaujolais. These wines will cost you about $20 to $25 a bottle.
Andrea Lewis of Andover Classic Wines has a Chateau de Fleurie on order that I was not able to taste in advance of writing this article, but I trust her expertise and will be stopping by as soon as it arrives.