Feb. 24 2010 12:00 AM

One minute past midnight on the third Thursday in November — it’s the time established by the French government for the much over-hyped annual release of Beaujolais Nouveau, the first finished wine of the French vintage.

By law, the grapes must be of the Gamay variety, grown in the French appellation of Beaujolais. Gamay is a thin skinned, low tannin grape. It is vinted into “Nouveau” wine by fermenting the hand picked grapes as whole clusters in a carbon-dioxide-rich process that accentuates fresh, clean fruit and minimizes tannin extraction. Traditionally, Beaujolais Nouveau is approachable immediately upon release, and it is intended for consumption within a year of bottling.

The 2009 growing season was considered one of the best Beaujolais vintages on record. Warm, dry weather contributed to ripe, concentrated grapes and an early harvest. For this sample, taken on Thanksgiving day, two disparate wines were selected, one a mass-produced Beaujolais Nouveau from Georges Duboeuf, the so-called “King of Beaujolais,” and the other from Pierre- Marie Chermette, a small producer whose wines are imported by Peter Weygandt, a renowned importer of high quality wines.

Recent prices for these wines at Goodrich’s Shope Rite were $8.99 for Duboeuf and $14.99 for Chermette Cuve Vielles Vignes.

Both wines showed uncharacteristically deep red color intensity with a hint of purple. Fellow taster Becky DeVries, manager of the Thistle Pub and Grille at Crystal Mountain, instantly noticed that the Duboeuf had the more effusive, aromatic bouquet with a “lot more going on with it,” than the more subdued, straightforward nose of the Chermette.

On the palate, DeVries found tart, red berry fruit and overtones of currant. Zach Zeneberg, another taster and former assistant at Keller Estate Winery in Sonoma, thought the mouth feel crossed the line into abrasive, with somewhat green flavors that presented brightly but then faded. I found subtle notes of banana and some rough edges created by a surprising level of tannin for a Nouveau wine but also a fine acid backbone. I suspect this wine will soften and mellow over the next several months, and it should be a bit longer lived than a typical Beaujolais Nouveau. DeVries suggested serving it slightly chilled and pairing it with poultry, pork, maple glazed fish or even salmon with mango chutney.

The Chermette had a decidedly more viscous presentation. This wine is fermented with indigenous yeasts, aged in oak foudres and bottled unfined and unfiltered. Deborah Cole, an administrator at Lansing Community College, observed that the bouquet was more subdued and the presentation less tart, making for a well balanced wine with a smooth finish. Likewise, DeVries found less fruit in the nose, with gentler tannins. Zeneberg noted the soft palate with components of red berries and red licorice creating bright flavors. This wine is ready to go, and it should be a good companion to the next holiday meal.

Although a bit counterintuitive for a dry red wine, Beaujolais Nouveau shines when served slightly chilled. It will not be a wine of choice for lovers of big, burly reds, but it can be a crowd pleaser when searching for a quaffable, food friendly red, and it might even bring a “white wine only” drinker into the red wine fold.

In vino veritas.

—Michael Brenton (Michael Brenton is president of the Greater Lansing Vintners Club. His column appears monthly.)