'A very bad and disloyal plant'

Outlawed in one region, Gamay grapes produce stunning Beaujolais wine


Once grown in abundance in France's Burgundy region, the Gamay grape's reputation suffered a blow when it was outlawed from the region by a 14th century duke. He called it "a very bad and disloyal plant," and relegated it to the southern Burgundy outpost of Beaujolais. Happily for us, the grape thrives in this land, making wines that range from simply fun to age-worthy stunners.

I'm not sure why, but Beaujolais has always seemed like a celebratory wine to me. Maybe because I associate it with Thanksgiving. Not only is it a great pairing for turkey with all the trimmings (I reaffirmed this theory again this year at my own Thanksgiving table), but the third Thursday of November is Beaujolais Nouveau day - the day on which the new vintage of Beaujolais is released, so young it's practically still fermenting in the bottle. Beaujolais Nouveau often arrives in shops dressed in extravagantly colored packaging, and just looks like a party.

This year's offering from Georges DuBoeuf ($11/ 750 ml bottle) is readily available, and, frankly, drinks like a much more expensive bottle of wine. A jovial purple in the glass, the wine is meaty and peppery and full of black fruits on the nose, and only a whiff of the classic "bubble gum" or "pear drop" aroma often associated with inexpensive Beaujolais.

This aroma is produced when grapes undergo a process called "carbonic maceration." Rather than being crushed first, grapes are placed in fermentation tanks whole. Under ideal conditions, the juice will ferment inside the grapes, which produces different aromas and flavors than "normal" fermentation. Inexpensive Beaujolais, especially Nouveau, is often produced using carbonic maceration, but more expensive "cru" Beaujolais (see below) are increasingly not.

Beaujolais Nouveau is traditionally served slightly chilled, preferably to around 55 degrees, a common cellaring temperature. This does not mean, however, that I would advise you to actually cellar your Beaujolais Nouveau. It is not meant for aging, but for immediate gulping, usually within a year of its production. It's not really going to improve with age.

The next two "steps up" in the region, Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages, can be cellared for a couple of years without suffering grievous disintegration, and the top tier--cru Beaujolais--can improve over three, five, even 10 years in a cellar. The world "cru" refers to any one of 10 villages within the Beaujolais appellation that makes wine with grapes only from that village.

Some of the crus are blessed with intriguing names like St.-Amour, Moulin-à-Vent ("windmill"), and Fleurie, perhaps adding to my association of Beaujolais with whimsy and festivity. Regnié may not have that titular mystique, but is notable because the vignerons of the region labored tirelessly for years to have their village added as the 10th Beaujolais cru, which they achieved in 1988.

2015 Jean-Marc Burgaud Regnié Vallières ($22) is still young for a cru Beaujolais, and full of vigorous acidity and finely drawn tannin. Tart blueberries, cranberries and cherries adorn the core of graphite and iron, with purple floral notes dancing in the periphery. Regnié can produce some of the fuller-bodied cru Beaujolais, and the Burgaud is no lightweight. It certainly stood up to everything on my Thanksgiving plate from the cranberries to the gravy-drenched turkey (I insisted on cooking the bird for the first time this year … there was an incident).

The region makes a small amount of white and rosé wine, as well. While not as famous or copious as the reds, they can make for enjoyable off-the-beaten path drinking. 2015 Dominique Cornin Beaujolais Blanc ($23) is an organically and biodynamically produced Chardonnay, redolent of creamy almonds and baking bread, with a flinty, green apple edge.

Regardless of what holidays one may or may not be observing in December, I find that, if one tries hard enough, one can always find a reason to celebrate. And a good bottle of Beaujolais could just do the trick.