For fans of lighter-style reds, Gamay is a go-to grape, and one that’s on the move. Inspired by the wines of Beaujolais (and the Loire Valley), a small but dedicated group of Oregon winemakers are expanding the red wine repertoire of the Willamette Valley.
Gamay in Oregon
Willamette Valley has long been recognized among the world’s premier growing regions for Pinot Noir. But an important Burgundian grape remains on the periphery—Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, the red grape of Beaujolais, where it has thrived since the early 17th century.
This is not the same grape as California’s Gamay Beaujolais (an early-ripening clone of Pinot Noir) or Napa Gamay (which is actually Valdiguié). Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc (commonly referred to as simply Gamay) produces wines with high acidity and vibrant fruit flavors. It’s often made using the carbonic maceration process, where whole grape clusters are fermented.
Doug Tunnell (Brick House) was one of the first to explore the variety’s potential in Oregon, planting it in the early 1990s. As a Paris-based TV correspondent for CBS, Tunnell “had spent a good deal of time in Beaujolais,” he says. “Its rolling hills, warm summers and easygoing country folk reminded me very much of the Willamette Valley where I grew up.”
Though still rare in Oregon, Gamay fits in well stylistically, producing juicy, tart, berry-flavored wines that are best enjoyed young.
Oregon Gamays to Try
Brick House 2014 Biodynamic Gamay Noir (Ribbon Ridge); $29, 90 points. Brick House was one of the first to plant Gamay Noir in the Willamette Valley, and may well be the state’s leading producer in terms of quantity. This is loaded with chunky cherry fruit, a penetrating style that simply brings a grin with every sip. Aromatics of root beer, sassafras and hard cherry candy add to the complexity. Editors’ Choice.
Salem Wine Company 2014 Gamay (Eola-Amity Hills); $25, 89 points. Rajat Parr is one of the partners in this new venture. This Gamay offers chunky cherry fruit with a pleasing peppery bite. Tannins are firm and proportionate, and the lively mouthfeel derives from fermentation via carbonic maceration.
Division 2014 Methven Family Vineyards Cru Gamay Noir (Eola-Amity Hills); $27, 88 points. Aged in neutral oak, this appealing wine has a strong underpinning of wet rock. The spicy, tart cranberry/raspberry fruit is rich enough to deserve more bottle age in order to reach its peak. Drink 2016–2020.
As we inch closer to spring, it’s never too early to start thinking about enjoying lighter-bodied reds. That’s where Beaujolais comes in. These wines are fruity, low in alcohol (12.5% is the norm) and offer great quality for their generally modest prices. What more could any wine lover ask for?
The Beaujolais region has an image problem of its own creation, the result of the bubble of Beaujolais Nouveau that bursts each November. There is, however, more to this region. Wines from the 10 cru villages in the far north and from Beaujolais-Villages may be fruity, but they’re also complex, sometimes age-worthy and certainly worth taking seriously.
Not too seriously, though. The Gamay grape that makes its spiritual home in the granite hills of Beaujolais is effusive, generous and always ready to give a good glass of wine. It can even come with bubbles, as maverick producer Jean-Paul Brun has shown with his FRV100, a semisweet Gamay-based rosé wine imported by Louis/Dressner Selections.
Beaujolais offers wines for the cellar in addition to fruity wines and light summer sparklers. That’s plenty of reason to pay more attention to this beautiful region and its bottlings. —Roger Voss
Domaine de la Madone 2014 Le Perreon (Beaujolais-Villages); $19, 90 points. This Jean Bererd wine comes from the village of Le Perreon in northern Beaujolais. It is a rich and fully structured wine with rich cherry fruits that are balanced with acidity. Hand-picked from an organic vineyard, the wine is ripe and full in the mouth. It should be drunk from 2016.
Domaine Dupré 2014 Vieilles Vignes de 1935 (Morgon); $22, 91 points. A big, rich wine, this is bold with black fruits and some firm tannins. The concentration comes from vines planted in 1935, giving a great, dense texture. As it develops, the wine will become ripe, jammy, delicious and impressive. Drink from 2018.
Louis Jadot 2014 Beaujolais-Villages; $13, 90 points. Knowing the terroir makes a difference. This Jadot is a combo of long-term contract vineyards and its Regné Cru. The blend shows well in this rich, full wine. It reveals ripeness—round and full of strawberry flavors from the 100% Gamay, with a tight layer of mineral acidity at the end.