A memorable Thanksgiving

My first taste of wine came during Thanksgiving dinner.

I was 12 years old, and a very merry uncle capriciously proclaimed to an equally cheerful table that it was time for me to offer a celebratory toast. Panicked and in search of a sure way out, I agreed to do it only if I could have my own glass of wine. My proposal backfired, and before I knew it I was on my feet awkwardly balancing a goblet filled to the brim. I don’t remember my toast, but I will never forget the flavor of that glorious first sip.

And so began my lifelong love affair with Beaujolais Nouveau.

Beaujolais is a grape-growing region in southeastern France, just 35 miles long and 8 miles wide. Its vineyards produce a light table wine meant for everyday consumption. Centuries ago, Beaujolais vineyard owners began making wine from their recently picked grapes in celebration of the fall harvest. Unlike most wine, which is bottled and released no sooner than a year after it is harvested, the new vin de l’annee was made to drink in just two months.

Whole clusters of grapes, stems and all, were thrown into a vat without being crushed and then fermented, resulting in light, fruity juice typically low in alcohol.

The novelty of a “sneak preview” of the vintage spread through France, and vineyards in Beaujolais soon realized that selling this nouveau wine would result in unprecedented early income that would sustain them through the year.

Local producers released wine earlier and earlier — sometimes just two weeks after harvest — in an attempt to be first to the eager market. In the 1950s, regulators stepped in and formally set Nov. 15 as the official release date. The date was changed again in 1985 to the third Thursday in November, ensuring a celebratory weekend.

Clever French marketers were quick to take advantage of the release date coinciding with Thanksgiving in the United States. Chief among them was the region’s largest exporter, Georges Duboeuf, whose name is now synonymous with Beaujolais Nouveau. He created a global promotional campaign that peaks to frenzy every November, and this year marks the 25th anniversary of his wine being sold in the United States. If you have been in or near any establishment that sells wine, you have no doubt seen the colorful displays announcing “The New Beaujolais Has Arrived!”

This campaign has come to represent the unofficial start of the holiday season, and the public response has been overwhelming. A bottle of Nouveau is now as ubiquitous as stuffing on Thanksgiving dinner tables. Thirst for the new wine is not limited to France and the U.S. Germany and Japan will claim the highest proportion of the more than 65 million bottles that will be consumed worldwide in the coming weeks.

Most wine snobs turn up their discriminating noses at Beaujolais Nouveau. They ridicule the wine for being too simple and mock the commercial hype it inspires. But I contend you cannot be passionate about wine and not get caught up in the excitement. There is something undeniably romantic about drinking wine made from grapes that were hand-selected from their vine just a few weeks ago, as required by local law. Nouveaus are not meant to be complex. What makes them special is their effortless expression of fruit. They are for swigging, not sipping.

At around $10 a bottle, you can afford to try this year’s offerings from each of the major Beaujolais wine houses: Duboeuf, Drouhin and Picard. So raise a glass of Nouveau to the new 2007 vintage and to the millions of others who are simultaneously celebrating it with you.