Gamay is the primary grape of Beaujolais, a region administratively considered part of the Burgundy wine growing region, but one that has a climate closer to that of the Rhone. Wine produced here appears in your glass in essentially three forms:
1) Nouveau: Released to the public every year on the third Thursday of November, this is not a wine that's had much time to develop any finesse; sometimes it's even bottled while still fermenting. It doesn't have any body, and in bad years, the flavor reminds us of paint thinner. The excitement it causes, at restaurant events timed for its release, can best be attributed to harvest frenzy, coupled with some very shrewd promotion on the part of the growers.
Nouveau doesn't really taste like other wines. There's something fresh and assertive about the flavors, and the bouquet is often strongly chemical. The explanation for this is the unconventional (and fortunately, unique) nature of vinification:
What happens is that grapes from the field are loaded into a tank and covered with an atmosphere of carbon dioxide. Under the blanket of gas, the grapes stay alive and begin to metabolize their own sugar into alcohol without the help of yeast. The grapes can produce as much as two percent alcohol all by themselves. While they're at it, they also produce byproducts like glycerol, methanol (wood alcohol), and acetylaldehyde, which can sometimes give the wine a paint-thinner aroma.
Meanwhile, down at the bottom of the tank, some of the grapes have been crushed by the weight of the ones above. Their juice comes in contact with the yeast on the skins, and a regular fermentation starts. After a week or so, the tank is emptied, and all the grapes are crushed and the juice collected. The juice that fermented inside the grape is mixed with the stuff that was already fermenting, and the whole tank ferments rapidly to completion. The process is called carbonic maceration. It preserves a lot of the freshness of the grapes and accounts for the cidery vigor of the wine. Its power to create a whole slew of flavor chemicals is why the Nouveau tastes so peculiar.
2) Beaujolais Villages: Carbonic maceration and fresh fruit flavors are also characteristic of this more refined drink from the hilly central part of the Beaujolais district. The extra finesse comes from better vineyards, lower yields, and also from its not being pressed early and hurried through fermentation. If the wine is no more than a year or two old, you can usually count on a reliable, tasty drink at a bargain price. Serve at 50-55F (10-12C).
Incidentally, the Loire Valley regions of Gamay, Vouvray, and Anjou are also good sources for inexpensive, fruit-driven wines made from Gamay. These are good proxies for Beaujolais Villages wines.
3) Cru Beaujolais: Vastly under appreciated, these wines come from the best vineyards in the north-central part of the region. They can show remarkable concentration and longevity while still boasting a bundle of Gamay flavor. At this writing, they are about twice as costly as a Nouveau Beaujolais and are, for the fruity-wine lover, a great bargain. These cru Beaujolais can take on Pinot-like characteristics, and pair well with foods like roast chicken or grilled salmon.
Unfortunately, they usually don't carry the name Beaujolais on the label. To find them, you will have to remember their individual names: Brouilly, Cotes de Brouilly, Chenas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Julienas, Moulin-a-Vent, Morgon, Regnie, and St. Amour. Our favorite producers here include Domaine Marcel Lapierre and Domaine Louis-Claude Desvignes.