French farmers celebrate fruits of their labor after grape harvest

November in the U.S. means Thanksgiving and the launch of the holiday season, but in France it means only one thing: Beaujolais Nouveau.

Beaujolais is a wine made from the Gamay grape in the southern Burgundy region of central France. It is popular worldwide, but in the fall there is a celebration in the Beaujolais region that is unique in France and that reverberates around the world.

The celebration marks the release of the new wine by the hard-working farmers of the Beaujolais region north of Lyon, who harvested their grapes a short 10 to 12 weeks ago.

Just as the spring weather in Central Pa wreaked havoc on our local fruit crop, so did hail storms damage the fruit on the vine in southwest France, resulting in a yield diminished this year by about 30 percent. It’s not easy to be a farmer, not anywhere.

The last time I had witnessed the Beaujolais nouveau festivities was in 1993 and I remembered the party in the wine cellar with a band, dancing, and a police escort of the trucks loaded with the cases of new wine departing as the church bells pealed at midnight on the third Thursday of November.

But that was a generation ago and the times, they changed. The tiny village of Beaujou, the capital of the Beaujolais region, now has a global vision. Indeed, the festival in the streets was centered on a large green bottle that started pouring what looked like wine over a gigantic plastic globe that spun around and drenched the world in a bath that started at midnight on the 15th and was still pouring down three days later when a visit to the village found it still bustling.

Herve and Aleks Longefay attended the festival, something they usually don’t do. Herve, a former vintner, currently works as a merchant, selling and distributing the region’s wines all over France and the world. He explained that these days the nouveau wines are already distributed, the cases banded with a label “Do not open before November 15”.

He knows because he had been busy delivering the nouveau wine all week. The former midnight truck race encouraged reckless driving and was deemed a safety hazard.

The Beaujou festival commenced late Wednesday afternoon, when the various appellations in the Beaujolais region set up tables to pour their regular — i.e., non-nouveau — wine.

The Beaujolais, a region less than 40 miles long and 10 miles wide, has 12 specifically named regions that make distinct wines. The first and largest appellation is simply Beaujolais and a large portion of the harvest is sold as Beaujolais nouveau.

A step up in quality is Beaujolais Villages, which makes up the majority of the acreage in the southern half of the region, and a relatively small amount is sold as Beaujolais Villages Nouveau.

The “cru” Beaujolais come very specific small areas northward toward Burgundy that demonstrate a particular style with complex flavors and distinctive aromas to each of the ten appellations — Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Chenas, Julienas, St. Amour, Moulin au Vent, Fleurie, Morgon, Chiroubles, and Regnie. Cru Beaujolais are never made into nouveau wines.

Red Beaujolais wines are all made from the Gamay grape with a tiny production in the region of white wines (about 1 percent) from the Chardonnay grape.

Differences in the appellations result from the “terroir”, the combination of soil, sun and moisture affecting the vines. Historically, Beaujolais has been the table wine of Lyon, the gastronomic capital of France, said to have three “ rivers”— the Rhone, the Soane, and the Beaujolais — coursing through it.

Lyonnaise restaurant owners were very interested in knowing how the vintage fared soon after harvest and pressed producers to release the new wine after the briefest vinification, so they would know how much to invest in spring futures.

In 1951, a law was established by the UVIB (Union Interprofessionnelle des Vins du Beaujolais) that established November 15 as the release date, later changed to midnight of the third Thursday in November.

Native son Georges Deboeuf was on the board that established the rules and is considered the King of the Beaujolais for devising the marketing plan that sells the lesser quality Beaujolais for an immediate return on a crop for cash strapped farmers. He is by far the largest distributor of Beaujolais in the world and, at 79, still reigns supreme.

Marketing ploy or not, the eyes of the world are on Beaujolais in November and open houses in cellars large and small draw visitors to sample.

Festive parties are held in homes all over France and friends get together for an aperitif. Simple foods prevail, the sausages and cheeses of the region, that pair well with the fresh and fruity wine.

The city of Villefranche hosted an 8,000 runner international marathon last Saturday that coursed through five chateau cellars and across miles of vineyards with often costumed runners demonstrating their pride in the region and their own joie de vivre.

Some runners from the cancelled New York race who instead ran the Beaujolais marathon caused some of the proceeds of the event to go to the Hurricane Sandy relief effort in a show of solidarity.

If you try the nouveau and find yourself wondering what all the hype is about, track down some Beaujolais Villages, or better, one of the cru Beaujolais and try it for a holiday occasion. You will understand the Beaujolais slogan “Wine is the child of heaven and earth, and the love it has been given.”

Note: For the best selection of Beaujolais cru wines, visit the specialty Wines and Spirits store on North Atherton Street. Other local stores may have Beaujolais Villages, but rumor has it that the limited Beaujolais Nouveau wine is already sold out.

Beaujolais native Nathalie Fraisse serves an annual nouveau dinner in Grenoble to a group of friends who won’t allow her to make any changes in the main menu.

Local fresh sausages (saucisson) are placed in a casserole dish, and strewn with chopped shallots, carrots and parsley. Pour on enough Beaujolais nouveau wine to come partially up the sides of the sausages and cover with a lid or foil and heat in a moderately hot oven for 30-40 minutes. Serve with steamed potatoes and warm onion confiture. (This condiment would make a great accompaniment to a turkey sandwich, if you are still working on leftovers.)