The Gamay grape has suffered terrible indignities through the ages. Can you imagine being being labeled “evil and disloyal,” then banished from your homeland? Yes, this happens to people and to grapes. In 1395, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, declared that wines made from the Gamay grape had a “great and terrible bitterness” and were “injurious to the human creature.” Which is really funny since bitterness is often equated to tannins in wine. Gamay has next to no tannins in comparison with a showboat like Cabernet Sauvignon. In any case, the Duke demanded that the offensive Gamay grapevines be “destroyed and reduced to nothing” throughout Burgundy. As a result, almost all red wine in Burgundy’s most prestigious region, the Côte d’Or, is made from Pinot Noir and not Gamay.
Now, some would say that the Duke wasn’t really a bad guy. He just wanted to protect his star, the Pinot Noir, from being upstaged by the rough-and-ready-to-please Gamay. In Philip’s mind, it was an issue of quality control. Others see the Duke as a demon, hellbent on ripping out the vigorous Gamay vines in favor of the more lucrative though hard-to-grow Pinot Noir. Armed with these facts, maybe you want to begin thinking about where you sit on the issue, if you have nothing better to do than debate such quandaries with the drinking buddies in your parlor.
Luckily for the persecuted and humble Gamay grape variety, there was a region in the very south of the Duke’s purview that escaped his notice: Beaujolais. This region, compared to Burgundy’s celebrated Côte d’Or, was primitive, a boondocks in which wine was made for local consumption. Gamay had been grown in the nearby Lyon area since the rule of the Caesars and became increasingly popular throughout Beaujolais. The region’s granite soils and hilly terroir were ideally suited to the Gamay variety, which has thrived there since. Gamay’s legitimacy was sealed in 1937 when Beaujolais was awarded an AOC designation (as part of France’s wine classification system). The grape’s official name is Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, but nobody calls it that unless they want to show off. Some people like to call it Gamay Noir. I think we’ll let them get away with that, don’t you?
The Beaujolais region has always been upstaged by Burgundy’s showy and expensive Côte d’Or, and in fact, by all of Burgundy. This means, to you and me, that there are many lovely examples of Gamay-based wines, some of which share the characteristics of a Pinot Noir, available at a price we are happy to pay. The Gamay grape is known for its fruity red, tart flavors of cherries and raspberries. At its best, the grape is additionally capable of producing a well-structured wine with mushroom, smoke, wet earth, tea and other exotic aromas typical of a well-made Pinot Noir. Gamay wines are usually light in body and in color with almost no perceptible tannins and refreshing acidity, traits that can also be found in Pinot Noir wines. Both Gamay and Pinot Noir wines pair well with meat and cheese plates, salads, fish, and roasted chicken. Lighter fare is ideal for these light-bodied wines that can take on multiple personalities.
Gamay is, in fact, a relation of Pinot Noir. Gamay’s parents are Pinot Noir and the less well known grape, Gouais Blanc. These are the same parents of Chardonnay, a grape that has enjoyed much more fame and prestige than Gamay. The ancient Pinot Noir grape is highly prone to mutation, so it is not beyond the stretch of the imagination that it can father both red-skinned (Gamay) and white-skinned (Chardonnay) grapes with the same mate. Rather versatile, don’t you think?
You may have enjoyed the quaffable wines known as Beaujolais Nouveau. These are fruity, easy-drinking reds that are released on the third Thursday in November immediately following the harvest. Beaujolais Nouveau Day was launched by wine merchant Georges Duboeuf, also known as the “Pope of Beaujolais.” Throughout the eighties, Duboeuf held Beaujolais Nouveau festivals and the tradition was soon celebrated by vintners and wine lovers around the globe.
These young rustic wines did little to boost Gamay’s reputation as a serious wine grape, however. Nouveau wines are made quickly and in abundance. When I initially learned about these wines, which are available from several producers, they were described to me as the “Kool-aid of wines.” Critics are quick to disparage Beaujolais Nouveau wines, once again humiliating and shaming the unlucky Gamay grape. The world of wine lost a tremendous showman when Duboeuf died in January of this year at the age of eighty-six.
Today, Nouveau wines have lost much of their attraction to the buying public. You are likely better off enjoying a more ambitious example of the Gamay grape unless you are looking for a simple, fruity tart wine to drink without giving it a second thought. Chill your Nouveau for about thirty minutes in the fridge before consuming it to accentuate its fresh and lively nature. Drink your Nouveau as soon as possible as it is meant to be drunk within a few months of release.
Gamay’s most exciting expression is generally found in the ten named Crus in Beaujolais, each one exhibiting a distinct flavor profile of this terroir-expressive grape. The most famous Crus are Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie and Morgon. The Cru labels indicate the named region rather than the grape, and all are located in northern Beaujolais. The other Crus are Juliénas, Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Régnié, Chénas, Chiroubles and Saint-Amour. Crus are forbidden from producing Nouveau wines. Some Crus are delicious upon release, but most need a few years in the bottle to develop fully.
I opened a 2018 Morgon by Jean-Marc Burgaud recently that was not as good as other Morgons I had experienced in the past. Of course the wine was rather young to be drunk, but lately I can’t help myself from reaching for wines made from the Gamay grape. I capped the unfinished bottle and threw it in the refrigerator feeling rather disappointed, then I left for a quick trip to Coronado Island with Peter. I sampled the Morgon upon my return a week later and it tasted better than I remembered. Ten days into its “incubation” in the fridge it tasted great. This tightly wound wine needed the help of oxygen to tame it, apparently. Most wines taste worse, once opened, being stored in the fridge. This Morgon was the exception. Ten days of “relaxation” made this wine absolutely generous in its flavor and nuance. Clearly, I should have taken the time to decant this Morgon in the first place. Just when I think I understand wine, a bottle surprises and rewards me. This makes me want to give everyone I meet a second chance!
In France’s wine classification system, the next desirable level below Cru is Beaujolais-Villages, and these villages are located on lands surrounding the Crus. There are many tasty bottles to be had at the village level, especially in vintages that are known to be good. Examples include 2006, 2010 and 2014, but there are many more good vintages, each offering something that reflects that year’s growing and harvest conditions. The easy way to identify a good vintage is with an internet search on your phone as you shop or by observing price differences between bottles. A higher price by the same maker for a different year can be an indication of a better vintage.
The last and largest appellation is known simply as Beaujolais. This region produces fruity, easy-drinking reds mostly in the villages of the south. You may run across a Beaujolais labeled “Supérior.” This indicates a wine with a higher concentration of flavors, darker in color and with a higher level of alcohol, so it may be worth the few extra bucks. If you are looking to find yet another expression of the Gamay grape, keep an eye out for the growing number of rosés from the Beaujolais region.
Most Beaujolais undergo a winemaking process that differs from traditional methods. This widely accepted approach is known as semi-carbonic maceration, a technique that accelerates fermentation and gives freshness and energy to the wine. Most interestingly, aromas such as bubblegum, bananas and candy develop right along with Gamay’s traditional red fruit flavors. The banana, bubblegum and candy aromas are so unique that, once you identify them in your Beaujolais, you will be able to find them in any wine made using this process. Some producers of Pinot Noir also use this method, especially those known for producing “natural” wines. Winemakers occasionally experiment with semi-carbonic maceration to bring out entirely new expressions of fresh fruit character from other types of grapes as well.
The winemaker starts by throwing whole bunches of grapes into a vat, which is then sealed. The grapes on the top crush the ones below, causing the grapes on the bottom to release their juice. The ambient yeast on the grapes feast on the juice and kickstart the process of fermentation, producing not only alcohol but carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide works its way up to the grapes on top and fills the vat. Meanwhile, berries toward the middle and top of the vat stay intact, where fermentation happens at the intracellular level. Most Beaujolais producers employ the semi-carbonic maceration technique, though the Crus either abstain from it all together (such as Moulin-à-Vent) or use some variation of this method along with traditional winemaking techniques.
Beaujolais is the first wine region that comes to mind when discussing Gamay, but in France’s Loire Valley, Gamay is the region’s second most planted grape, producing pleasingly fruity wines meant to drink now. You will also find plenty of Gamay plantings in France’s Mâconnais wine region, located directly above Beaujolais. Gamay is a robust grower and early to ripen on the vine. It is certainly a picnic to cultivate and vinify compared to the finicky yet intriguing Pinot Noir. Both grapes reveal their finest expressions in France’s cool Burgundy region, so look for other delicious examples in the cooler wine regions of the world.
For example, Gamay is fashionable in the western, French-speaking area of Switzerland, where it is often blended with Pinot Noir. Oregon hosts and annual I Love Gamay festival, where some in the industry insist the wines rival those of the French Crus. Look for examples from California in the Sierra Foothills and Santa Barbara County. You can also find Gamay in New York State, Italy, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Croatia, and beyond. Gamay is a performer with a big heart, but it needs the right director to stay focused.
When people ask, “What’s the most surprising thing you have learned about wine?” I like to pull from the quote at the beginning of my book, Your Love Affair with Wine: How to Meet and Fall in Love with a Bottle of Wine:
“Each wine grape (or person), when treated with kindness, flourishes.”
Yes, this happens to people and to grapes, including the humble and sometimes surprising Gamay. The next time you reach for a bottle of Pinot Noir, why not also pick up a Gamay for a fun compare-and-contrast tasting? Then you can decide whether the Duke of Burgundy was completely crazy or a shrewd businessman prone to theatrics.
The Gamay Grape: General Characteristics
Flavors: red cherries, raspberries, violets, wet earth, candy, bananas
Acidity: medium high
Tannins: medium low
Alcohol: medium low
Body: medium low
Key regions: Beaujolais, Loire Valley, Switzerland, Canada, Italy, New Zealand, California
Parents: Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc