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The great grape comeback . . . why you might be grateful for Gamay

If Gamay isn’t on your radar but you enjoy your Pinot Noir you are missing out – for Pinot is Gamay’s parent and this grape might just be your next big discovery. Both hail from Burgundy and both have a similar light bodied style but unlike Burgundy, good Gamay doesn’t have to cost the earth. Fruitier than Pinot; Gamay is the grape behind Beaujolais and, thanks to a huge revival, this once ‘retro’ grape is making a comeback. It’s poised to become a serious contender on the world stage . . .

Gamay's under the spotlights once more
Gamay’s under the spotlights once more

Back into the limelight

Decades ago Gamay found fame with the craze for Beaujolais Nouveau and, like most fads, it was destined to fade away from the spotlight. However, Gamay never quite got to take that final bow and the curtains didn’t drop on its last act. Instead Gamay went on a world tour. Stepping out of the spotlight paid off and the resulting resurgence in interest on developing Gamay’s potential has lead to it finding a new home in the New World wine regions of Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the USA (California and Oregon).

Both Gamay and Pinot Noir make light bodied wines
Both Gamay and Pinot Noir make light bodied wines

In the Old World of Gamay’s native France, it has moved once more into the limelight as passionate producers have pushed the grape to new heights with the best wines coming from the Beaujolais Villages and Cru Beaujolais AOCs. Beyond Gamay’s stronghold in Beaujolais the grape has now found a second home in the Loire.

Today Gamay is full of possibilities, it’s repertoire is growing with variations on its style being developed constantly in different sets of countries.

Gamay’s spreading popularity has also lead to it being being blended in an ever evolving set of wines from across the world with Malbec and Cabernet Franc.

Gamay grapes
Gamay grapes

Gamay’s lineage

Gamay’s full name is ‘Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc’ and it’s thought to have originated in the village of Gamay, south of Beaune in Burgundy. The local names for the grape are ‘Bourguignon Noir’ (Black Burgundy) and ‘Petit Bourguignon’ (Little Burgundy). Gamay’s parents are the black Burgundian grape Pinot Noir and the white Gouais Blanc. Given Gamay’s deep rooted connections with Burgundy it seems strange that this grape found its home in Beaujolais. The reason behind this is down to its success. Gamay is easier to grow than Pinot Noir as it ripens 2 weeks earlier and it produces a stronger, fruitier wine. Back in the 1360s villagers in Burgundy preferred to plant Gamay over Pinot which lead the Duke of Burgundy to outlaw it in 1395. The Duke preferred his Pinot and that was that. Fortunately Gamay was adopted by Beaujolais . . . and the rest is history.

The difference in styles between New World and Old World Gamay

New World Gamay

Gamay's signature flavour is of cherry
Gamay’s signature flavour is of cherry

It’s a little early to put a definitive style on cool climate Gamay from Canada and New Zealand as Gamay is still making its first appearance there. There’s much expectation (and excitement) about what wines will find favour.

  • Flavour profile: In general the wines have less of an earthy undertone than those from France. They are characterised by a light body, gentle tannins, vibrant red cherry flavours, fresh acidity and intense perfume.

Gamay can express roasted fennel seed / fenugreek notes
Gamay can express hints of roasted fennel seed / fenugreek

Gamay didn’t make its debut in California until the 1990s as Napa wine makers had been mistakenly growing Valdigue instead, believing it to be Gamay.

  • Flavour profile: Grown at higher altitudes Californian Gamay is typically light bodied, lively and aromatic with bright, sweet and sour morello cherry flavours lifted by roasted warm spices (fenugreek and fennel seed).

Australian Gamay is also new on the block thanks to the warmer climate not suiting Gamay (which prefers cooler temperatures). However antipodean wine makers have persisted and Gamay growing has developed.

  • Flavour profile: These wines are light bodied and tend to have deeper fruit flavours than their New World cousins of black cherry, crushed strawberry and violets with juicy acidity.

Old World Gamay

Beautifully perfumed, Gamay can show notes of Peony
Beautifully perfumed, Gamay can show notes of Peony

Gamay is Beaujolais’ star and the better wines come from the AOCs Beaujolais Villages and Crus Beaujolais.

Beaujolais Villages AOC tend to vinify their wines in a similar method to neighbouring Burgundy. Wine here are aged briefly in oak barrels which gives an intriguing depth and compexity.

  • Flavour profile: Grown on granite Beaujolais Villages trademarks are vivacious fruit driven wines, light bodied, lively and aromatic with notes of morello cherry, violets, strawberry, raspberry, peony and peach. They can possess savoury and earthy undertones with hints of cinnamon, white pepper and smoke.

Collectively known as the Beaujolais Crus – these are the 10 top Beaujolais Villages that produce deliciously structured wines:

  • Fleurie

    Beaujolais, Gamay's stronghold
    Beaujolais, Gamay’s stronghold
  • Brouilly

  • Chenas

  • Morgon

  • Chiroubles

  • Julienas

  • Cote de Brouilly

  • Moulin a Vent

  • Saint Amour

  • Regnie

Beaujolais Nouveau!
Beaujolais Nouveau!

Beaujolais Nouveau is designed to be drunk young – and it can also be drunk chilled – the French drink it as an aperitif before meals. Each year the Beaujolais Nouveau is released on the third Thursday in November, and not earlier, by decree of the French Government. Just after midnight on the given day a race begins to ship the wine out all around the world as quickly as possible, generating stunts (balloon, elephant and rickshaw races) and excitable headlines.

Beaujolais Nouveau is not fermented in the usual way – carbonic maceration is used. This means that the grapes are fermented without being crushed. The resulting wine is very fruity and low in tannin and can be ready inside 6 weeks.

  • Gamay makes a surprise entrance!
    Gamay makes a surprise entrance!

    Flavour profile: Beaujolais Nouveau is very light bodied and has exuberant fruit flavours of black cherry, crushed strawberry, lilac and violets with zesty acidity. Thanks to the carbonic maceration it also has subtle hints of pear drops (boiled sweets) and occasionally bananas.

The Loire produces fine Gamay wines, particularly in the area around Touraine (it’s also used in Anjou to produce Roses).

  • Flavour profile: Gamay wines from the Loire exhibit thirst-quenching freshness with a good depth of fruit (black cherry, raspberry and peach), light body and earthy, lightly spiced tones. The wines have a more herby note with floral aromas of lavender and rose.

There are some promising Gamay wines coming out of the Loire Valley which beg further investigation. Keep an eye out for them as we are increasing our range at www.bordeaux-undiscovered.co.uk and hope to bring you some pleasant surprises.

2 thoughts on “The great grape comeback . . . why you might be grateful for Gamay

  1. Beautifully perfumed, Gamay can show notes of Peony

    Be very careful. Peonies are poisonous!

    1. Thanks for the warning! We were referring to the scent of peonies, (which is harmless), and agree that eating them would be a dreadful idea – as yes, the flowers are poisonous if ingested 🙂

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