What Is So Special about Gamay and Beaujolais Nouveau?

Rodica abaluta Windmill in Beaujolais - beaujolais nouveau
The famous windmill above the vineyards in Beaujolais. Attribute: Rodica abaluta

Updated December 2023

With Thanksgiving around the corner, you may be thinking about what wines to serve. Custom suggests, though not exactly dictates, a Beaujolais Nouveau wine made from the Gamay grape paired with the traditional Thanksgiving turkey dinner.

The story of Gamay makes for great dinner conversation.

So go find a bottle of Gamay, pour yourself a glass, and sip through this bit of history…

Where Is Beaujolais?

History of Gamay in France

what's so special about beaujolais nouveau - gamay wine profile

Gamay is a robust and prolific variety, producing abundant fruit. Normally, varieties that produce a lot of fruit don’t make the highest quality wines.

Helpful Tip: Here’s a full post on Gamay wines, including Cru Beaujolais.

Gamay’s grown primarily in the southernmost part of Burgundy, in a region called Beaujolais (pronounced bow-joe-lay).

Gamay enjoys something of a mottled reputation in France, where it made its viticultural home widely following an outbreak of the Black Death in the 1300s.

The population decline following the plague meant fewer farmers capable of working the land. An unfussy, high-yielding grape with that needed minimal vineyard labor would have been seen as a boon to the average person trying to get by. 

But then came along the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, not your average person. 

Who Was the Duke of Burgundy Philip the Bold?

Phillip the Bold owned great swaths of land in modern day Burgundy, today famous for world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. These two varieties produce outstanding wines, but not at the volume of our friend Gamay. 

Phillip the Bold was intricately tied to the French nobility’s social circles through his brother, King Charles the V, and later his nephew, King Charles the VI, for whom Phillip the Bold served as co-regent during the youth’s minority. 

All of these links to the court meant that Phillip the Bold had a monopoly on supplying the thirsty noblemen and noblewomen of Europe with the finest Burgundian wines. 

Why Did Philip the Bold Hate Gamay?

When production quality took a plunge due to extensive Gamay plantings on the Duke’s land holdings in Burgundy, Phillip the Bold knew he had to act if he wanted to maintain his convenient, if slightly nepotistic, corner on the fine French wine market. 

Phillip the Bold famously proclaimed Gamay the “disloyal Gaamez” because despite its reputation as a prolific producer – a favorable quality in times of massive social displacement – Gamay could never compare in quality to the far more elegant Pinot Noir.

He mandated that all Gamay vines be stripped from the lands held under his title as the Duke of Burgundy. This edict became an early example of regulating agriculture to improve wine quality.

But replanting a vineyard starts a 3-year clock to produce the first meager crop, and adds another year to produce wine.

Imagine the outcry of dismay from the small peasant farmers who would now have to wait four years before they could have wine to drink and sell!

Our dear friend Gamay, however, did indeed manage to survive.

Farmers in the then backwater area of Beaujolais were geographically separated from the famous golden slopes of Burgundy and blatantly disregarded the edict.

Cultivation of Gamay continued in secret.

Over the centuries Beaujolais wines made from the Gamay grape have evolved, using complex wine production techniques to help Gamay shine, along with ingenious regulations to help it sell. 

What is so special about Gamay and Beaujolais Nouveau?

Philip the Bold Beaujolais Nouveau

Today, Beaujolais is best known for its easy quaffing and approachable style through Beaujolais Nouveau, which gets released on the third Thursday in November following harvest.

Literally at 12:01 am.

This gives wineries just 8 short weeks from harvest to bottle – a crazy production timeline for any wine.

Gamay made into Beaujolais Nouveau is special because it is the first wine of the harvest.

Beaujolais Nouveau’s marketing genius aligns a celebration for the first wine of the new vintage with Thanksgiving’s kick-off of the holiday season. Brilliant. Of course, we’re going to be toasting harvest and holidays!

Why not celebrate the season with Beaujolais?

Beaujolais also enjoys a unique popularity with Japan, which helped propel the nouveau style to the international stage.

How to Buy Beaujolais Nouveau

Beaujolais Nouveau isn’t a fine wine. The whole goal of buying Beaujolais Nouveau is to FIND a bottle to uncork.

Large wine specialty shops and liquor shops will bring in Nouveau. You’ll probably be out of luck with your average grocery store or corner market.

Charles Shaw Nouveau Wine - beaujolais nouveau
Look for wine labels with the word ‘Nouveau’ on them made in the same style as Beaujolais Nouveau.

If you can’t find a Beaujolais Nouveau specifically, look for the word Nouveau on the label from producers outside of the Beaujolais region.

Many wine businesses will market a nouveau wine the same way as the traditional Beaujolais Nouveau – this will be their first release of the season and they are celebrating the harvest with the new wine release right before the holidays.

If you want to support local wineries, nouveau wines are a great way to show you care.

How to Serve Beaujolais Nouveau

how to serve beaujolais nouveau infographic

Serve Beaujolais Nouveau wine slightly chilled at about 55°F (13°C) alongside your Thanksgiving and holiday turkey or ham dinner and you won’t be disappointed. Put your Beaujolais in your fridge for 20 minutes before serving. Don’t decant. Use a standard red wine glass with a tapered rim.

The fresh, ripe red fruit acts much the same way as cranberry sauce, pairing perfectly with roasted game and honeyed ham.

Can You Age Beaujolais? No

Also, it’s good to note that Beaujolais Nouveau is not a wine for cellaring, but a wine for celebration, so drink up and enjoy this unique beverage during the holiday season. 

Thirsty for More?

Check out this full guide to Gamay, which is the grape that makes Beaujolais Nouveau.

Here’s a list of fun wines to drink with Thanksgiving.

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