For an easygoing, floral-scented red wine, Gamay has never had it easy. Seen by winegrowers of Burgundy throughout history as a competitor to Pinot Noir, the aromatic grape was banned by the local ruling bodies in 1395, 1455, 1567 and several times during the 18th century.
Gamay’s advantages are that it is easier to cultivate, produces higher yields and ripens two weeks earlier than its regional rival. It produces wines with red berry and floral aromas and flavors of bright red fruits with high acidity and a sense of earthiness. France is home to 84,000 acres of this native grape, with over two-thirds of that grown in Beaujolais.
Besides the famed Beaujolais nouveau (a fresh, just-fermented wine released each November), Beaujolais is home to 10 communes that produce high-quality Cru Beaujolais wines that are worth exploring any time of year. Within France it’s also grown in the Rhône and Loire Valleys; it’s also found in Canada, Italy, Switzerland, Oregon, California, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel.
Gamay is the second-most planted red grape in Switzerland, trailing behind Pinot Noir. In Lavaux, in the canton of Vaud, it produces wines noted for aromas of cherry and rose petal. Swiss Gamay can be lighter in color and intensity than its French counterparts; some producers use chaptalization, or the addition of sugar during the fermenting process, because the grapes are not able to achieve full ripeness. A biotype of Gamay called Plant Robert (also known as Plant Robez or Plant Robaz) is grown by 15 or so producers who make wines that are a deep garnet red and have uncharacteristic spice and pepper flavors.
Gamay is a natural in the acidic soils of Oregon, where it was first planted in the late 1980s. Around 30 wineries cultivate the French native on about the same number of acres. Oregon Gamay—called Gamay Noir here—tends to have more intense color, aromas and flavors than versions grown elsewhere. Less expensive to farm than Pinot Noir, it also fetches less per bottle, as it does in its home country. An annual festival in the state, called “I Love Gamay,” features tastings, seminars and specials on Gamay in restaurants and bottle shops.
One of the most popular wine grapes grown on the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario, Gamay is also planted in Prince Edward County on the opposite side of Lake Ontario and as far afield as Nova Scotia and British Columbia. Planted on 550 acres in Ontario alone, it is produced in a variety of styles, from light, fresh and easy-drinking to elegant and age-worthy. It is also made into rosé and sparkling wine. Unfortunately, most Canadian Gamay does not make it out of the domestic market, but they are worth looking for when visiting the Great White North.
Know Your Crus
The 10 Communes Where Beaujolais Is at Its Bougie-Est:
This article originally appeared in the October 2022 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!