As with any trend, over time, it begins to fade. For years, Pinot Noir has dominated the spotlight, while its lesser-known cousin Gamay Noir, has been lurking in the shadows, eagerly awaiting its debut. Don’t get me wrong, Pinot Noir is still and will always be one of my top favourite wines, especially if it’s from Oregon. However, I think we’re all ready for a new act and the “talent” Gamay brings to the stage is looking very promising.
Back in 2016, my first encounter with Gamay (the grape, the vine and the wine), was when I started working for Evening Land Vineyards. At this point in my wine career, I wasn’t familiar with this cousin to Pinot Noir. I clearly remember the first time I tried Evening Land’s Seven Springs Vineyard’s Gamay Noir because my palate was intrigued; so similar to a Pinot Noir but with a style all its own. Despite being named after the village of Gamay, located southwest of Beaune in France, the Beaujolais appellation is renowned for being the epicentre of all things Gamay related. Wines from this region may be labelled as Beaujolais, Beaujolais Villages or Beaujolais Cru, while Beaujolais Nouveau is a style of wine made anywhere within the Beaujolais AOC from the Gamay grape.
Let’s Talk Terroir
So where else can we find this rising star of the Vitis Vinifera world? The answer is…pretty much in the same locations where Pinot Noir is grown, cool to moderate climates. Although not widely planted outside of Beaujolais, Gamay is currently growing in the Loire Valley, Switzerland, Niagara Peninsula, Oregon and New Zealand. It is important to mention that the Gamay variety native to Beaujolais is actually known as Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc because is it a cross between Pinot Noir and a rare white variety called Gouais Blanc. There are other Gamay varieties and it is important to identify them because they differ from the one associated with Beaujolais.
Not only is Gamay a rather vigorous variety, but it is also early ripening. Gamay is best suited to cooler climates for two reasons. Cooler temperatures slow Gamay’s vigorous vine growth, thus enabling the canopy to be more easily managed. In return, the vine’s energy is refocused on grape ripening and development. Curbing the vine’s vigour also slows the ripening process, thus extending the time the grapes spend on the vine. Additional time on the vine is favourable, from a winemaking point of view, because the more time grapes spend on the vine, without being deemed as overripe, enhances desirable varietal flavours, aromas, colours and complexities. As a result of its vigour, Gamay grapes tend to be slightly more acidic. In order to soften these naturally high acidity levels, the vines are often planted on acidic soils, thus creating wine worthy grapes. To further enhance this grape’s potential, Carbonic Maceration is used to vinify the grapes, which releases floral aromas like violets while also creating memorable flavours such as banana, raspberry, cherry, and earth notes. Some people even detect flavours of bubblegum and boiled sweets…a real crowd pleaser! The expressions of Gamay are climate and terroir dependent, so it’s important to taste a variety from different regions in order to fully understand and appreciate all this grape has to offer.
Finally, let’s discuss the money side of things. Viticulture and winemaking are quite costly endeavours. For this reason, if you’re able to plant a variety that produces higher yields, ripens earlier, is less disease prone, and still exhibits characteristics of a more costly variety, then why wouldn’t you plant it? Furthermore, appellations known for successfully growing Gamay, such as Beaujolais and the Willamette Valley, are much more affordable as compared to Pinot Noir’s more costly growing regions such as Burgundy or Napa Valley. It makes sense…complete financial sense, especially as a bottle of top quality Beaujolais Cru Gamay is significantly less than a Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Grand Cru for example.
The difficulty lies in convincing others to jump on the Gamay bandwagon. The power of Pinot Noir is strong, but I promise you, Gamay will soon be all the rage. I certainly don’t see this is an end of an era for Pinot Noir, but rather the dawn of a new day for its cousin Gamay.