Gamay | Banished Grape of Beaujolais
- The full name for Gamay is Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc
- Outside France, Gamay is found primarily in Switzerland (blended with Pinot Noir).
- Also found in: Canada, Italy, New Zealand, Croatia, Kosovo and Serbia.
Most famous for being the grape behind the light & fruity red wines of Beaujolais, the Gamay varietal has had a tougher history than most grapes. First introduced in the 1300s, it was planted in Southern Burgundy, primarily Beaujolais, and did not receive the same welcome as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay once did. With an attempt to outlaw the grapes altogether, the Dukes of Burgundy banished Gamay to only be grown in the hills north of Lyon where Beaujolais growers defied the banishment laws. This was driven by the distrust in the flavour and texture of the new grape, as the unfamiliar was deemed unacceptable alongside the traditional grapes. Becoming a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) in 1937, there was a rise in popularity for Gamay wines. Currently, wines made within Burgundy with Gamay grapes must legally be labelled Bourgogne Passetoutgrains.
The Beaujolais, and therefore Gamay, production of Beaujolais Nouveau wines was a unique tradition brought to the world stage in the late 1900s. This is the practice of using carbonic maceration to rush a wine through the vinification process and release a wine onto the market by the third Thursday of November after the recent harvest. As it was meant to be wine for the vineyard workers there was not the intention to bring it to the global commercial scale which many wine critics believe has further tarnished the Gamay grape’s reputation with less precision and focus on these wines before being sent out to consumers.
Aside from these Nouveau wines, Gamay has more recently been taken care of and treated with the level of detail Burgundy wines receive. Wines from the villages of Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie and Morgon are exceptional and all vinified traditionally with oak ageing to bring the level of finesse it has previously been missing.
Aside from the growing Beaujolais following, Gamay is also found in other regions of France. In the Mâconnais, north of Beaujolais, it is used as a base in the Macon Rouge wines. Utilised as a rosé grape in the Loire Valley, Gamay is found in the Anjou and Saumur appellations. In Touraine, still within the Loire, Gamay is the principal varietal for the creation of tangy red wines.
Gamay yields a lot more generously than Pinot Noir, and is much easier to grow. This is both a blessing and a curse as when it is not held at reduced yields and overproduces it tends to make light, thin, very acidic wine. The vines are reasonably precocious, as they bud and ripen early. It always flourishes in cooler regions too such as Anjou, Saumur, and Touraine.
Why is Carbonic Maceration so popular with Gamay? This is the winemaking practice that focuses on drawing the colour out without the added tannins. For the winemakers creating a Nouveau they are adhering to the love of fresh, fruity wines that are silky in texture and ready to drink now. This is done by sealing grapes in a vat with carbon dioxide covering the grapes, the grapes burst once fermentation has reached the point of 2% ABV and a natural pressing occurs as the weight of the grapes slowly gravitates down to produce more juice.
As wines that undergo carbonic maceration tend to have distinct notes of banana and candied berries, drinkers assume all Gamay wines will have those elements. As mentioned, there is a new wave of Gamay producers that are taking the time to vinify the grape traditionally with malolactic fermentation and pressing. This encourages the flavours of the terroir and the lighter notes of spices and violets to shine through, a much more finessed version of the Nouveau versions created. You can tell if it was grown in warmer climates when tasting for a higher concentration of black fruits such as plum and boysenberries.
Gamay wines are relatively high in natural acidity, being both light colour and tannins. Therefore, it is always best to enjoy a bottle in its youth at a cool temperature.
Enjoy a glass with a variety of meats such as lamb tagine, salmon fillets, and even a roast turkey with cranberries in December.