Toujours Gamay

James T. Murray

Many of us have encountered Beaujolais in its Nouveau form—and stopped there. But the region also produces some excellent vintages, and its signature grape, Gamay, is now being used to make first-rate wines from the Loire Valley to California.

I had driven directly from Charles de Gaulle to help harvest grapes and was more than a bit slammed with jet lag. My friend Catherine Roussel, proprietor of the small Loire domaine Clos Roche Blanche, greeted me as I stepped out of my rental car. With a big grin, she flashed her eggplant-black stained fingers and palms at me. “This is what your hands will look like tomorrow,” she said in her rusty English. “We’re picking Gamay.”

Catherine might have considered me a wimpy New Yorker, but that hardly blocked my enthusiasm. Though I love all of her domaine’s offerings, the Gamay is one of my desert-island wines—I could happily drink it every night. Regardless of vintage, it is cheery with a fresh berryness and a bit of ink, just enough to keep me engaged. And it always puts me in a good mood.

That night we all had dinner together: simple pumpkin tart, crusty bread, and local cheese. Catherine’s mother, Solange, and I surveyed the wine lineup and then she, an elegant woman in her seventies who epitomizes the book entitled French Women Don’t Get Fat (or ever lose their looks), told me her secret. Lifting the glass to her lips, she said, “Toujours Gamay.”

Great minds and palates think alike. Those committed to grand cru Burgundy or other fancy wines might suspect I’m slumming when I wax poetic about this grape. Not that I have a problem with exquisite Burgundy. Absolutely not. I love the stuff. But one does not live by foie gras alone. And Gamay to me is one of those special grapes that, like certain people, are easy to be with yet still manage to excite. But the grape is one of the underdogs of the wine world and, from my perspective, gets a bum rap.

Gamay first appeared in the 14th century, when the grape was noticed in the village of Gamay, right outside Beaune in Burgundy. Like the new girl in town who turns everyone’s head, the grape made a big splash. In his book The Story of Wine, writer Hugh Johnson reported that the people of the region considered the grape to be the Almighty’s apology for the bubonic plague. The variety showed promise by bearing an abundant crop and ripening a full two weeks earlier than did the hometown favorite, Pinot Noir. The resultant wine also delivered plenty of flavor. But in 1395 the Duke of Burgundy, Philippe the Bold, called the Gamay vine a “bad and disloyal plant” whose wine was foul, bitter, and harmful to humans. Finding that the vines lacked the aristocratic elegance, light texture, and fragrance of other wines in the region, he ordered that they be destroyed.

Yet the grape survived. It started to appear in the Loire and took up root in the northern Rhône as well as in Beaujolais, where it became the benchmark for the variety. Gamay had its fans but paled in comparison with the celebrated wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux. It mostly fell into obscurity.

How and why can so charming a grape be so underrated? Was it just the duke’s curse? In all fairness he might have had a point: Gamay is a soil-sensitive, terroir-driven grape that grows best and—most importantly—on Beaujolais’s granite, not on the Côte d’Or’s limestone.

Caught between the Syrah grown in the northern Rhône and the Pinot in Burgundy, Beaujolais’s Gamay suffers from a sort of middle child syndrome. Grapes from the ten specific grand cru villages make structured wines of beauty and can have that touchstone of breeding, the ability—like Solange—to age beautifully. The look of the vines in the region is compelling as well. They are not conventionally trellised but grow in petite round bushes that are almost bonsai-like.

In the seventies, when people worldwide were becoming more curious about wine, Beaujolais nearly climbed out of disgrace. No one in the United States really knew about its bad reputation, and the French import gained fans for having a reasonable price tag as well as being juicy and gulpable. It seemed that every little restaurant with aspirations of a wine list had Beaujolais from the villages of Brouilly, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, or Moulin-à-Vent. Then the category was derailed with the arrival of Beaujolais Nouveau—the insipid candied wine that appears before Thanksgiving and is forgotten by Christmas. There was a huge marketing push to bring Nouveau to the world, and soon the public grouped all Beaujolais into the Nouveau category. Both the wine and the grape suffered. And if the wines from Beaujolais couldn’t make it into the hearts and minds of wine lovers, really, would any other region bother with a grape that didn’t sell?

Oddly enough, yes. The Loire’s version is easy, and many of the best are gaining ground among the wine geeks of America. In the States some vintners have said, “What the hell,” and planted Gamay. Myron Redford of Oregon’s Amity Vineyards was the first to grow true Gamay here. Now he makes three, all worthy options, especially the one he calls Eco-Wine Gamay Noir, which is organic and made without sulfites. Other Oregon wineries that do well with the grape are WillaKenzie Estate and Brick House Vineyards. But California might actually produce one of the country’s best versions. David Schildknecht is the man in charge of reviewing the Burgundy, Beaujolais, and Loire areas, among others, for Robert M. Parker Jr.’s Wine Advocate. Even though I often take issue with his boss, Schildknecht and I have surprisingly similar palates. In an e-mail discussion about the grape he told me, “Steve Edmunds’s Gamay was the first I ever tasted outside of Beaujolais that I wanted to purchase and revisit.”

Edmunds is my kind of winemaker—an independent thinker who eschews fashion and follows his own taste. He makes two Gamay Noirs, one named Bone-Jolly and the other Porphyry, of which the first vintage is just out now. I asked him what had triggered his desire to spend time on such a hard sell. “I first tasted good Beaujolais when I got into the business in 1972,” he said from his home in Berkeley, California. “It was so good, it was such lovely wine, and it made me feel so happy. The fruit is completely seductive.”

But California had a problem and consequently so did Edmunds. He wanted to make a Gamay wine, but the variety was not to be found. The grape called Gamay Beaujolais was in reality an inferior Pinot Noir clone and Napa Gamay was actually Valdiguié, a grape he didn’t care for. If he wanted to make the wine, he would have to get someone to plant for him. “In 1999 I was introduced to Bob Witters, a pear farmer who wanted to get into grapes,” he says. “To show him how great the wine was, I opened up a Guy Breton Morgon.” Witters was convinced. Three years later Edmunds made his first Gamay, the Bone-Jolly, with grapes from Witters’s El Dorado vineyard.

The wine was subtle and complex, a bit more Loire than Beaujolais; it was lovely, but Edmunds was not finished. Like the duke, he knew Gamay loved granitic soils. He found what he was looking for at Barsotti Farms in Camino, California. Edmunds had heard that the owners of this apple orchard were interested in planting some grapes, so he approached them with his Gamay proposal. “I don’t know how I convinced them to plant such an unfashionable grape. They must have been distracted,” Edmunds says.

Porphyry, Edmunds’s new Gamay, is named for the decidedly pink-purple cast of the decomposed-granite soil at Barsotti Farms. If you can snare a bottle ($20) of the first-release 2007—only 55 cases were produced—do. It will need several hours to open up; in fact, the wine is even better the next day: well knit and firm, with a mouth-watering acidity. And it is built for aging.

I still had Gamay on my brain during a recent visit to Burgundy, about an hour from Gamay central, Beaujolais. I was staying with wine exporter Becky Wasserman in the farmhouse she shares with her husband, Russell Hone. This is a house filled with Bonnes Mares, Chambolle, Richebourg—sublime wines for sure, but when I asked about Gamay, Wasserman smiled. “Shall we have some?” she asked.

As we went into her cellar to collect some 13-year-old Beaujolais, she explained, “Maybe I love them because I always had a soft spot for the underdog, the underdog with plenty of talent.”

The 1995 Moulin-à-Vent from the producer Jacky Janodet had a cherry chewiness, a firm meaty wine that outshone the Burgundy, a 2002 Pommard, we had alongside it. The next night, though, Wasserman pulled out a real surprise: a 1947 Juliénas, from a no-name producer. “We bought it at a local auction a few years back. No one wanted it,” she said.

Who could possibly not want to taste a 1947, one of the most famous vintages of the last century? How could no one else have been interested?

Hone cleaned off the dust and stuck in a corkscrew. The cork had dried up and fell into the bottle immediately. He poured anyway. The color was only slightly bricked; the wine had some floating sediment. He took a sniff, sipped, and passed me the glass. “Brilliant,” he said. He was so nonchalant I thought he was kidding. But the 1947 wine was absolutely brilliant. The wine was firm, youthful, alive, vibrant, the tannic structure still holding the wine together like high cheekbones, the aroma, spicy with cardamom, ginger, sweet currants, and raspberry, tumbled from the glass. If I had to guess in a blind tasting, I would have thought it was a red Meursault, delicate but piercing.

I doubt my desert-island wine, the Clos Roche Blanche Gamay, will be as long-lived. After all, the soil up in the Loire is mostly limestone. But whenever I drink a Gamay from the Rhône or anywhere else, whether a 1947 or the 2006 vintage that stained my hands, I’ll have to think of Solange’s toast to the underdog. “Toujours Gamay!” indeed.

A (well-priced) Pick of Gamays

All the wines listed here are current releases, but older vintages, especially of the Beaujolais, are an excel-lent risk to take. I love Morgon, Fleurie, and Moulin-à-Vent in particular: After five to seven years these wines develop a very Burgundian character, and Burgundy lovers will find them—young and old—to be one of the great values out there.

Amity Vineyards Eco-Wine Gamay Noir 2006, Oregon

The planter of Oregon’s first true Gamay, Myron Redford now produces several bottlings. One of them is this all-organic Eco-Wine, made without sulfites as a preservative. It needs some decanting to come into itself, but after a few minutes one is rewarded with a firm wine with plenty of ripe, spiced black cherry. $20

Clos de la Roilette, Cuvée Tardive 2007, Beaujolais

Owners Fernand Coudert and his son Alain make this selection from older vines. As a result, it has more depth and concentration than the normal, younger cuvée. Pour it into a decanter and let it open. Its silty, gorgeous texture and aromas are gently perfumed with cassis. $30

Clos Roche Blanche Gamay 2007, Loire

This wine doesn’t disappoint in any vintage. The 2007 is cheery, filled with currants and a touch of earthiness to keep it interesting. It won’t necessarily age well, but it’s perfect for drinking now. $18

Domaine Romaneaux-Destezet “La Souteronne” Gamay 2005, Rhône

Gamay from the northern Rhône is a rarity, and this is its highest expression. On his property in the Ardèche, winemaker Hervé Souhaut makes this fascinating natural Gamay from the fruit of 60- to 80-year-old vines. It is immensely different from other Gamays in its animal character and structure, which are tempered by hints of strawberry and a touch of cinnamon. The 2004 is also fantastic, if you can find it. $27

Edmunds St. John Bone-Jolly Gamay Noir 2007, California

Drink up, as this wine’s charm is its freshness. At once intense and refined, the bright bitter-cherry and floral aromas and flavors keep getting better in the glass. $16

Morgon Javernières Louis-Claude Desvignes 2006, Beaujolais

Louis-Claude Desvignes and his daughter Claude-Emmanuelle, seventh- and eighth-generation vignerons, produce the region’s top wine from my favorite location in Morgon, a hill called Côte-du-Py. There is a mix of black currant and raspberry with a touch of sage for savory balance ($28). When bottled in a magnum ($70), it is even more delicious.

Beaujolais Nouveau

It seems as if this fall the marketers pushing Beaujolais Nouveau are working overtime. In Miami and New York, Georges Duboeuf’s wine will arrive by motorcycle convoy, and it will also be transported to the Paris Las Vegas hotel via helicopter. This is a far cry from the way it used to be delivered to the bouchons in Lyon: by paddleboat down the Saône River. The question is, why do people get so excited about a wine that is minutes old, dirt cheap—it averages $12—and about as memorable as last night’s Coca-Cola?

The best explanation is that Beaujolais Nouveau signals and celebrates the birth of the wine from that year’s fruit. Because Gamay ripens early, its first fermentation (the one that converts sugar into alcohol) finishes ahead of other wines’. For centuries locals relished this first taste, and eventually tourists started coming to Lyon, the nearest large town to Beaujolais, to take part. By the fifties the celebration had become official: The release date was set as November 15, just four to six weeks after the harvest and several months before real Beaujolais could be sold. The wine wasn’t only nouveau, it was also nubile, fruity, and innocent. In the eighties producers began complaining that when the 15th fell on a weekend, sales opportunities were lost. So in 1985 a new date—the third Thursday of November—was chosen, and the modern “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” campaign, with all its pomp, circumstance, and publicity stunts, was born.

Yet while some are celebrating, others are avoiding. Wine writer Karen McNeil has likened Beaujolais Nouveau to cookie dough. Others just call it plonk. I drink it only under duress or on the rare occasion I see a Nouveau from a serious producer, such as Marcel Lapierre or Jean-Paul Brun’s Terres Dorées. But one thing is for sure: This not-quite-finished wine is a marketing phenomenon that even Australia’s Yellow Tail has not surpassed.