Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

If Beaujolais Nouveau were a movie, then it would be “Love Actually.” After all, like the film, it is seasonal, light and frothy, and it always leaves you with that warm, fuzzy feeling.

The 2010 vintage of Beaujolais Nouveau was released a couple of weeks ago and the wines are in the shops now. You can usually find them at the front of the store, stacked below a hand-written sign that features light and frothy verbiage, a price in the low teens and a whole bunch of explanation points.

Often the wines, especially those from Boisset and George DeBoeuf, two of the largest makers and marketers of Beaujolais, are packaged in plastic wine bottles that reduce the weight of the cases when shipped and, so the theory goes, the amount of fuel needed to ship them around the globe. Kind of a Nouveau nod to the fight against global warming (and also, one should assume, an added nod to the bottom line).

Not that there is anything wrong with that, of course. My chapeau is always doffed this time of year out of respect to the producers of these wines who have turned a grape that is marginal, at best, when grown just about anywhere else on the globe, into not just a business, but a happening. And this happening not only boosts the region’s reputation but also offers a drinkable novelty at a reasonable price.

It is one of France’s best examples of brilliant marketing. Lemons into lemonade, as it were.

But I digress. Back to the wine.

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Beaujolais is a beautiful wine region located in central France, just south of the considerably more loved and esteemed Burgundy. Running nearly 35 miles in length from Macon, the southern end of Burgundy, to just north of Lyon, Beaujolais is one of the few places in the world where the Gamay grape is grown.

Gamay is a purple, highly acidic, thick-skinned grape that, unfortunately, pales in comparison to the infinitely elegant Pinot Noir grape that dominates the neighborhoods to the north. But Gamay has its advantages. It is hardy, it is prodigious and it ripens early. While there are some very good cru wines produced from Gamay in ten AOC-sanctioned regions or villages in the area, the bulk of the region’s production goes into the Nouveau wines.

Each year, the Gamay grapes are harvested by hand (French law states that Beaujolais Nouveau must be hand-picked) in early September, when as many as 50,000 pickers descend on the region to help with the harvest. The grapes are fermented using a process called “carbonic maceration” where whole grapes are placed in a vat and carbon dioxide is pumped into the containers. The juice actually ferments inside the skin of the grapes, as opposed to more standard winemaking techniques where juice is first crushed out of the skins and then ferments on the skins, gathering color and flavor.

The result is a light, fruity wine that gets little, if any, tannins or embellishment, from the skins of the grapes. The wine is quickly bottled and then rushed to market for the anticipated November release date. These wines should be consumed within the first year of bottling, and are best when served chilled (think 55 degrees or so).

For many, it is not the wine but the event that makes Beaujolais Nouveau interesting. Since the early 1970s, the wine has been released to great fanfare at midnight on the third Thursday of November. Just in time for the American Thanksgiving celebration and Christmas. Japan and the U.S. are the biggest markets for the release and it is nearly impossible to miss the hype in local wine shops and French restaurants in those countries.

While hype no doubt accounts for much of the wines’ popularity, it is nonetheless a good value and a fine wine to sip at a party before dinner as friends gather for a holiday repast. And it also pairs well with fowl, i.e. the holiday turkey.

So if you happen to be in a wine shop this time of year, and are looking for a few bottles to round out a group gathering, and you don’t want to spend to too much, and you want to keep things light and a little frothy, there is a wine that might fit your bill.

Beaujolais Nouveau. Actually.