Around The World In 80 Wine Varietals: Gamay

In Around The World In 80 Wine Varietals, contributor Chantal Martineau unearths how a particular grape drinks differently around the globe.

The third Thursday in November — that's today! — marks Beaujolais Nouveau Day, a time for wine folks to celebrate yet another harvest with the season's first wine release. Beaujolais Nouveau is a fresh and fruity wine that ferments for just weeks before being bottled and is meant to be drunk immediately. But it's not the only Beaujolais out there. The region produces complex and age-worthy wines that exquisitely express their local terroir. And the grape that does the expressing? Gamay.

Easy-drinking Beaujolais Nouveau has become a victim of its own success. Especially in the U.S., these gumdrop versions of Gamay have come to overshadow the other wines from the region. Beaujolais is made up of 10 crus (villages or sub-regions), each with its own unique terroir. So, you might want to celebrate this Beaujolais Day with something a little less Nouveau. Like, say, a cru Morgon, said to take on an elegant Burgundian character after a few years in the cellar; or a Brouilly, with its wild forest fruit flavors. Wines from Fleurie can be silken and floral, while wines from Moulin-à-Vent can be some of the most powerful and structured in the region.

Yes, Gamay can be all these things. Thanks to its many faces, it's become a wine-geek darling. But it wasn't always this way. The grape was nearly banned in Burgundy after Philip the Bold, the duke of Burgundy, in 1395 pronounced Gamay "injurious to the human creature" due to its "very great and terrible bitterness." This scornful slandering of the grape is the reason you don't see it much in Burgundy proper. It was relegated to the region's southern depths, Beaujolais, where it has flourished.

Gamay loves granite, as well as clay and limestone soils. The ancient variety is rather prolific, said to grow with little viticultural labor. You find it in the Loire and Switzerland, as well as in Oregon's Willamette Valley and the Niagara Peninsula. But winemakers from Israel to New Zealand have planted it with success.

Here are five Gamay wines to try from around the world:

  1. Beaujolais

We could have given this entire section over to five different cru Beaujolais, as each sub-region produces wines with distinct characteristics. But we'll settle for featuring a gorgeous Gamay from the late Marcel Lapierre, who wasn't just a master of Beaujolais but a pioneer of the natural wine movement in the region. His son Mathieu is now at the helm, producing such beauties as the pure, red-fruited and floral Marcel Lapierre Morgon 2012., $25.

  • Loire
  • In the Anjou sub-region of the Loire Valley, Gamay is used to make rosé and red wines. Olivier Cousin, the outspoken biodynamic winemaker who has battled the local wine board over its failure to promote organic farming and natural winemaking, makes a dark, juicy yet mineral Gamay called, irreverently, Olivier Cousin Yamag 2012. Astor Wines, $22.

  • New Zealand
  • A handful of winemakers Down Under are working with Gamay, but finding these gems on U.S. soil can be tricky. Te Mata, located in Hawke's Bay on New Zealand's North Island, is one of the country's few Gamay exports, turning out a Beaujolais-style wine full of grapy Gamay character. Te Mata Gamay Noir 2012 shows red fruit with hints of roses and spice. K&L Wine Merchants, $17.

  • Oregon
  • The Willamette Valley has gained recognition for its Pinot Noir. So, it comes as little surprise that the region would also lend itself to Burgundy's other red grape. Bow & Arrow, a Portland-based urban winery works exclusively with Loire varieties. Its Bow & Arrow Gamay Noir 2012 is vivacious and savory. Chambers Street Wines, $24.

  • Switzerland
  • Ever wonder what the French Swiss like to drink? Well, we'll tell you anyway. Dôle is a fresh and fruity wine made from the region's most widely planted grapes, Pinot Noir and Gamay, that like Beaujolais is often drunk young. Domaine de Beudon Les Vignes Dans Le Ciel Dôle 2010 has a bit of age on it, still showing vibrant fruit but also autumnal complexity. Astor Wines, $45.

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