Get to Know Gamay, the Beaujolais Nouveau Grape

Thin-skinned gamay grapes in a French vineyard. (Photo: Guyane/Shutterstock)

The third Thursday of every November, just about two months after bottling, the French release Beaujolais Nouveau. This wine is light, fresh and fruity, and it's meant to be consumed young. Since the wine is always released on the same day each year, that Thursday is now known as Beaujolais Nouveau Day.

Here in the U.S., wine lovers will be walking into wine stores asking for Beaujolais Nouveau, particularly in anticipation of the Thanksgiving holiday since the wine can work well with a traditional turkey dinner. But, do wine drinkers really understand what's in the bottle they're asking for?

The gamay grape

map beaujolais region
The Beaujolais wine region. (Photo: Valerylilas/Shutterstock)

Beaujolais is a French wine appellation, or Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in French. An AOC is granted to geographical regions in France and indicates that the region is especially suited to growing a particular agricultural product including wine, cheese, and even lavender.

The region of Beaujolais is especially suited to growing the gamay grape. In France, wines are primarily named for the region in which they're grown, not the grapes that go into the wine.

The grape that the Beaujolais AOC is suited for is gamay noir, and it's the grape that's in Beaujolais Nouveau. Gamay makes a light-bodied red wine that's usually floral, fruity and earthy. It's often compared to Pinot Noir, and it's a very food-friendly wine with nice acidity and low tannins, according to Wine Folly.

Not all Beaujolais is nouveau

Beaujolais Nouveau translated means New Beaujolais. The wine that is released the third Thursday of November is gamay that's very young. It has not been in barrels and therefore usually lacks the characteristics that would allow it to age for more than a year or two in the bottle. If you have a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau sitting around that is more than two years old, it's probably past its prime.

Beaujolais that is not labeled as Nouveau is wine that has aged longer and therefore should be more complex. It's still made from the gamay grape, though. If you're looking for the young, fresh wine that's celebrated each November, make sure the bottle you choose says Nouveau.

Not all gamay is Beaujolais

The terroir of the Beaujolais AOC is perfectly suited for gamay. It's not the only region in France that's suited for the grape, though. The Loire is also known for gamay. The grape thrives in cooler climates. Outside of France, you'll find gamay grown in cool climate wine regions like New Zealand, Oregon and Canada. Those gamay wines will never be called Beaujolais, though, because only wines from the French AOC are allowed to have that region on the label.

A reason to party

Beaujolais Nouveau Day party
A 2011 Beaujolais Nouveau Day party in New York City. (Photo: Wine Riot/Flickr)

What's so important about the third Thursday in November when it comes to the release of this young gamay? According to Beaujolais Nouveau Day, this "new" wine originated "about a century ago as a cheap and cheerful drink produced by locals to celebrate the end of the harvest season." By the 1970s, the wine had spread to Paris, and getting it to France's capital became a race — sort of a marketing campaign. Getting a wine from the late summer harvest to market by mid-November is a feat, and the media picked up on it. The day became a celebration. Eventually the release day for Beaujolais Nouveau spread to the rest of France and eventually the rest of the world.

The wine's release day is now celebrated worldwide. In France, there are festivals, some that last several days. Here in the U.S. bars that are serious about wine hold celebrations and serve the newest of the new — the 2107 Beaujolais Nouveau from gamay grapes that were still on the vine a little over two months ago.

This is just a short primer on gamay, the grape grown in Beaujolais, but the best way to get to know the grape is to drink it. Grab a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau and a bottle of (non-nouveau) Beaujolais and compare the two. Maybe throw an Oregon gamay in there, too. Really, there's no better way to understand what a wine is all about than to pop a cork and enjoy a glass.