The fourth Thursday of November will always be Thanksgiving but if you're an oenophile, it's the third Thursday that you look forward to. That's when Beaujolais Nouveau, the vinicultural herald of the holiday season, is released. Let's take a tour of Beaujolais before returning to this specific and festive wine.
Beaujolais, (boh-zhuh-LAY), like most French wines, is named for the region of France, not the grape, from which it emanates. Beaujolais is a 35 mile strip of granite hills, containing over 55,000 acres of vineyards, between the towns of Lyons and Macon in eastern France. It forms the southernmost part of France's world renowned Burgundy region. Beaujolais is made from the gamay grape. It is a light, fruity, and inexpensive red wine that is ordinarily drunk young.
Generally, there are three quality levels in Beaujolais. The first is your generic Beaujolais. This wine can be a mixture of grapes from any number of vineyards, mostly in the southern part of the district. This is your basic, everyday Beaujolais.
Next, in the northern part of the territory are thirty-nine villages distinguished by superior vineyards. Beaujolais-Villages, as it will appear on the bottle, is made from grapes from any one or a number of these thirty-nine communes. Beaujolais-Villages is noticeably more concentrated than regular Beaujolais and for a dollar or two more a bottle, is well worth the additional outlay.
Finally, the pinnacles of Beaujolais are ten specific crus, from villages whose vineyards are considered to be the best. They are: Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Cote de Brouilly, Fleurie, Julienas, Morgon, Regnie, Saint-Amour, and the venerable Moulin a Vent. Wine from any of these villages is made from grapes derived only from within the boundaries of that village. Each village will have a slightly different character or style but all will be of an even higher concentration and quality than the more diffuse Beaujolais-Villages. The wine bottle will display the name of the village only and will not publicize the words "Beaujolais" or "Beaujolais-Villages" except maybe in the fine print.
For those who wish to push the quality curve to the max, there is Moulin a Vent, the crème de la crème of Beaujolais. Moulin a Vent, (moo-lan-nah-VAHN), which gets its name from the historic windmill located in the vineyard, is considered the "king" of Beaujolais. Moulin a Vent, unlike its other Beaujolais brethren, is more concentrated, more tannic, less fruity, and not only capable of, but required to age. Moulin a Vent can age ten years or more. (The other crus can be aged but usually not as long as Moulin a Vent). It is so uncharacteristic of the Beaujolais region that it is sometimes compared to a light Burgundy.
At the other extreme is Beaujolais Nouveau. Beaujolais Nouveau is the lightest, fruitiest, and earliest consumed Beaujolais, although still of good quality. While the standard Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages are aged for one year and then released, Beaujolais Nouveau is put into market seven to nine weeks from harvest. The lack of aging results in a grapier tasting wine. As stated, the third Thursday in November hallmarks the distribution of Beaujolais Nouveau with most of the world supply being drunk between Thanksgiving and New Years.
Thanksgiving, because of its temporal proximity to the release date, has become particularly associated with Beaujolais Nouveau. But wait. Red wine with turkey? What about the white wine with fish and fowl rule? Well, the red-wine/red-meat vs. white-wine/white-meat dichotomy is not as hard and fast a rule as popular wisdom would dictate. It is only a general rule of thumb that can be culinarily sidestepped depending on the nature of the wine and the specific dish. A classic example would be a fish in an assertive, tomato based sauce being paired with a light red. Or, for our current purposes, a hearty fowl such as turkey combined with an ultra light and fruity red such as Beaujolais Nouveau.
Beaujolais in general can affiliate with many foods since it is something of a hybrid. It is a red wine that embraces white wine characteristics, namely serving temperature, (low to mid 50's) and lightness of body. This heterogeneity renders it a wine-of-all-trades to some degree. If you are going to pair it with a heavier meat dish however, I would recommend at least stepping up to one of the crus, particularly Moulin a Vent.
The two most common Beaujolais producers, which you will find in most liquor stores, are Georges Duboeuf and Louis Jadot. I prefer the Jadot. You can find basic Beaujolais and Beaujolais Villages for about $8-$10 a bottle. Nouveau will be in this price range as well. The Crus will cost in the teens and Moulin a Vent, depending on the producer and vintage, mid teens to mid 20's. Happy Thanksgiving!