Gamay (pronounced gah-maye) is most well known for being the main grape (18,682 hectares/98% of area under vine) in Beaujolais (pronounced boe-joe-lay). For the past couple of hundred years, Gamay was primarily known to make simple, fruity red wines, especially when compared to its posh neighbour Burgundy’s Pinot Noir. Where Pinot Noir is seen as elegant, complex and full of ageing potential, Gamay is perceived to be rustic, fruit-forward, and best drunk with food in a simple bistro – a reputation that’s unfairly foisted upon Gamay more for historical reasons than due to viticulture.
gamay: History & Growing Conditions
Even among seasoned wine drinkers, not many know that Gamay originates in Burgundy and is a child of the great Pinot Noir itself. There was a period of promiscuity between Pinot Noir and the Gouais Blanc grape before the 14th century in Burgundy which gave us Gamay and its full sibling Chardonnay (yes, the famous white grape). But like an ugly duckling which never became a swan, Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc (its full name literally means “black gamay with the white juice), seemed destined to be overshadowed by both its parent Pinot Noir and its sibling Chardonnay.
For one, unlike Pinot Noir, Gamay is not a finicky grape. It’s hardy, resistant to disease, easy to grow and yields well. It’s no surprise that it was a popular choice for Burgundian grape growers when it arrived, with more Pinot being uprooted to make space for Gamay. However, this soon represented a threat to the power and prestige of the powers that ruled Burgundy in the 14th century. It’s important to know that Burgundy was already considered a center of vinicultural excellence back then. The austere wines of Pinot Noir produced both a sterling reputation as well as an never-ending source of revenue for royalty and clergy.
The fruit-forward, robust Gamay was popular among the commoners, and therefore a threat to the high-tastes of the aristocracy. The ruler of Burgundy, Duke Philippe is a man who took himself very seriously (he was a son of the King of France afterall), applies the same seriousness to the wines of Burgundy. He called Gamay “a bad and disloyal variety” and claimed that people would suffer diseases should the wine be drunk. In a royal decree, all Gamay in Burgundy was ordered to be ripped out in a span of 5 months. The survivors of this grape genocide found its way south to Beaujolais where it thrives till today.
Gamay: Wine Styles and Taste
Gamay is highly acidic, and typically full of vibrant red-fruits (strawberry dominant, with notes of raspberry as well) and notes of pepper. While it can produce wines that taste of bubblegum and banana (in Beaujolais Nouveau for example), that’s primarily because maceration and fermentation is rushed to get the wine out to consumers as fast as possible. In the right hands, for example the more aristocratic Beaujolais producers like Chateau Thivin, Gamay can produce wines that rival the complexity and ageing potential of Cote de Beaune premier crus handily. In blind tastings, tasters could perhaps be forgiven for mistaking aged Cru Beaujolais with Pommard Rugiens, or even a Nuit-St-George.
Like it’s parent Pinot Noir, Gamay actually expresses its terroir really well – meaning that it tastes very different depending on where its planted. Its exile from Cote d’Or in Burgundy to Beaujolais actually improved its taste. The predominantly granite soils of Beaujolais gave it more of a backbone than what the limestone soils of Burgundy could provide.
It’s unfortunate that many Gamay growers are almost subsistence farmers who have to work hard to make ends meet. This means that they’re often unable to afford better equipment, or laborious farming techniques that’s common in Burgundy. While Gamay actually can age well, especially if it undergone traditional fermentation, but the lack of long-term economic upside for the wines mean that most producers would not age their wines, producing a style more suitable for immediate consumption.
Regardless of the style of Gamay, I’m hard pressed to find a red wine that pairs as well with Asian Food. The fruity, acidic flavours really cuts through any greasiness found in fried foods, or fried rice/noodles, and rounds off the wine.
A discussion of Gamay is incomplete without a discussion on Carbonic Maceration. I will one day devote a full article to this wine making technique. But for now, a short introduction is in order.
Carbonic Maceration is to be contrasted against traditional fermentation, where grapes are fermented by yeast, turning sugar into alcohol. In Carbonic Maceration, grapes are placed in its full bunch (stem on, no crushing) in vats, which are then sealed and filled with carbon dioxide gas to displace the oxygen. The grapes then undergo a process called intracellular fermentation, where certain enzymes in the grapes start to ferment the sugars naturally until the alcohol level reaches about 2%, where this process ceases. The grapes are then moved to traditional fermentation (with yeast) to complete the winemaking.
Some colour from the grape skins are extracted, but little tannin. This process created wines that are lightly coloured (not as light as Rosé), low in tannins and highly fruit-forward. Carbonic Maceration also yields more ester compounds in wine, leading to more fruity and floral aromas than traditional fermentation. In the highly acidic Gamay, it also has the effect of reducing the levels of acidity in wine.
This process of Carbonic Maceration is applied either partially or fully to almost all Gamay production giving it its typical style of red fruitiness and bubblegum flavours. More serious Gamay producers are now turning to a greater percentage of traditional fermentation in wine making, resulting in less fruity but more complex, age-able wines.
Readers may consider checking out this excellent wine-cast on Youtube to learn more about Carbonic Maceration:
Gamay: Producers, PRices and ratings
Top Gamay typically comes from the 10 Crus of Beaujolais. A separate article on Beaujolais would cover those in greater detail. However, in the meantime, look out for ascending level of quality in the crus: Chiroubles, Saint-Amour, Fleurie, Régnié, Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Juliénas, Chénas, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent (credit: Jancis Robinson). I “researched” Gamay by drinking all 10 Crus to prepare for this article.
Top producers include Jean-Marc Burgaud, Lapierre, Lapalu, Château de Thivin, Vissoux and Jean-Paul Brun, with top Burgundy Negociant Louis Jadot recently purchasing the famous Chateau des Jacques in Moulin-a-Vent. The top producers typically put the Gamay through traditional fermentation as well as oak ageing just like Pinot Noir, so look out for those.
Gamay prices are very affordable typically not exceeding $80 USD even for top producers.
Gamay: Table of Facts & Figures
|Parentage||Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc|
|Where is it grown||France (Beaujolais), Switzerland, Oregon|
|Wine Styles||Dry Still Red|
|Typical Colour||Light ~ Medium Ruby|
|Typical Nose||Strawberry, Bubblegum, Banana|
|Typical Body||Light ~ Medium Bodied|
|Typical Acidity||High Acidity|
|Typical Alcohol||Medium (~13% ABV)|
|Typical Flavours||Strawberry, peppery,|
Gamay: Concluding Remarks
Gamay is delicious to a fault – it is easy and approachable for casual Beaujolais; complex, rich and elaborate in top Crus on par with the best Burgundies. Its reputation for producing simple rustic wines gives wine lovers a great avenue to procure top-grade Gamay at a fraction of Burgundy prices. Many sommeliers I speak with have a large personal stash of Beaujolais – it’s the perfect wine to unwind with and who knows, if you keep the right bottles, it could jump up in value in years to come. If you haven’t had a Gamay wine before, and is skeptical about its charms, I urge you to try a Cru Beaujolais immediately and let me know your thoughts below.
Gamay: Further Reading and REferences
- Wine Flavour Chemistry by Jokie Bakker, Ronald J Clarke
- Wine Science Principles and Applications by Ronald S Jackson
- Vines for Wines A Wine Lovers Guide to the Top Wine Grape Varieties by George Kerridge, Angela Gackle
- The New Sothebys Wine Encyclopedia by Tom Stevenson
- Wine Grapes a complete guide to 1,368 vine varieties, including their origins and flavours by Robinson, Jancis Harding, Julia Vouillamoz, José
- Jimmy Smith’s video on Gamay – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w7f54fRKsRs&ab_channel=WineWithJimmy
- Unknown Winecaster’s Gamay – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iYaqiGrIxBw&ab_channel=TheUnknownWinecaster