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Why Gamay is a Sommelier's Secret Weapon

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The oft-overlooked Gamay grape is making a comeback.

Rad Gamay bottles to try.
Rad Gamay bottles to try.
Alex Ulreich

At Philadelphia’s a.kitchen, wine director Mariel Wega calls lighter-bodied red wine made from the Gamay grape "a sommelier’s secret weapon." And thanks to its versatility and food-friendly nature, Gamay—a long-maligned grape varietal grown predominantly in the Beaujolais region of France—is finally getting the respect it deserves.

Gamay’s substandard reputation dates back to the late 14th century, when the Duke of Burgundy decreed the grape’s exile from that region in France (he didn’t like the grape’s flavor), declaring it "despicable and disloyal," thus paving the way for Pinot Noir’s reign. But in the southern part of Burgundy, in the area known as Beaujolais, the Duke’s edict was largely ignored and winemakers continued planting Gamay. There, in the 1930s, the French appellation governing board Institut National des Appellations d’Origine created 10 "Crus" (wine areas) of highly-prized terroir (land), located on the appellation's best slopes. Regardless, Gamay in Beaujolais continued to suffer as winemakers adopted modern techniques in the 1950s like chaptalization (adding sugar to wine to boost its alcohol content), and began using artificial yeast to create both a signature bubblegum flavor and to speed up fermentation to ensure their "Beaujolais Nouveau" wines would be ready for the traditional spring release. Even now, many winemakers throughout the world still manipulate juice, though the practice peaked in France in the 1980s. (Today there are regulations in place against excessive chaptalization.)

... the image of Beaujolais as a spring release wine for picnics is starting to fade away, replaced by appreciation for Gamay as a terroir-expressive grape.

In response to the excessive wine manipulation happening in the 1980s, a group of Beaujolais winemakers known as the "Gang of Four" took it upon themselves to reclaim their ancestral, pre-technological winemaking approach. Influenced by chemist and fourth-generation winemaker Jules Chauvet, these four menMarcel Lapierre, Guy Breton, Jean Foillard and Jean-Paul Thénevetpushed back against shoddy practices in the region. They stopped chaptalizing and added less sulfur (a preservative) to their wines. At that time, the men were deemed heretics for embracing a more natural approach to wine production, but over the years, and with the support of American wine importer Kermit Lynch, they proved that Gamay can yield beautiful, terroir-expressive juice.

Gamay is now grown widely across France and in some parts of the U.S., and is increasingly well-known for making highly quaffable, affordable wine. The ten Crus of Beaujolais display distinct flavor profiles and characteristics, with Morgon, Fleurie, and Moulin-à-Vent generally the most revered. Per France's wine classification system, following the Cru designation, the next most desired title is "Beaujolais-Villages," which encompasses the land surrounding the Crus. Finally, the most common and general appellation is simply referred to as "Beaujolais." Outside Beaujolais, there is plenty of Gamay in the Loire Valley, as well as in cooler U.S. climates on the West Coast like Oregon and higher altitudes in California. As well, one will find Italian Gamay in the Valle d’Aosta, a mountainous region bordering France.

"Everybody’s really into Beaujolais right now," says Randall Restiano, wine director at Eli’s Table on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. He points out that the image of Beaujolais as a spring release wine for picnics is starting to fade away, replaced by appreciation for Gamay as a terroir-expressive grape. "People are interested in trying Cru Beaujolais, rather than just the Nouveau." In part, Restiano sees customers opting for Beaujolais rather than Pinot Noir from Burgundy, as the later is presently particularly pricey.

"Gamay is one of my favorites," says Jared Hooper, wine director at Los Angeles’ Faith and Flower. "It’s wilder, it's different, it's got an extra button unbuttoned, and it's loud. It's brash, it's less refined, but it’s true." Plus, a.kitchen's Wega adds that Gamay wines are "probably the most versatile reds I can think of with food. They’re approachable and consistent yet expressive and complex, totally over delivering for the price."

Be it a lightly chilled Gamay on a hot summer day or a room temperature pour in the fall, below are five bottles worth seeking.

Gamay Bottles to Try

All photos by Alex Ulreich

Producer: Guy Breton
Wine: Beaujolais-Villages
From: Beaujolais, France
Retail: $22

Guy Breton was one of the original Gang of Four, and today the winemaker (known by his nickname, Max) continues to produce outstanding Cru and Village-level wines that are strong accompaniments to roast chicken or salmon. Organic vineyards and native yeasts are consistent features of Breton’s wines. Also notable is his use of carbonic maceration, a winemaking technique that draws out Gamay’s fruity characteristics by fermenting whole clusters of grapes in a vat before crushing, as opposed to after crush. This wine is incredibly elegant. On the nose it shows crushed cranberries, and fresh raspberries on the palate. It delivers beautiful acidity with a strong mineral finish, like wet stones.

Producer: Edmunds St. John
Wine: Bone Jolly
From: El Dorado, California
Retail: $20

Winemaker Steve Edmunds named this wine "Bone Jolly" as a reminder of Gamay’s lighter, fun side, and that’s exactly what this bottle is about. Vinified in a warehouse winery in Berkeley, Bone Jolly is a true patio guzzler that also has enough brightness to stand up to a cheese plate or some barbecue. But don’t mistake Edmunds’ whimsy for a lack of seriousness; the winemaker was so intent on producing California Gamay that he asked grape growers to plant vines specifically for him back in 2005. The result: not only this fresh and energetic wine, but also an equally good rosé version, both of which sell out quickly because they are basically impossible to dislike.

Producer: Domaine Jacky Marteau
Wine: Lulu
From: Loire Valley, France
Retail: $15

Aside from the Beaujolais region, the Loire Valley is one of Gamay’s home bases. A brother-sister winemaking team from a fourth-generation winemaking family started this domaine in Touraine in 2010. Lulu is an excellent example of everything Gamay has to offer: great fruit, approachability and excellent value. Fresh, on the fruity side, with earthy overtones, this is an obvious weekday go-to bottleit's an easy patio quaffer and will also pair nicely with charcuterie, pasta or risotto.

Producer: Tricot
Wine: Les Petites Fleurs
From: Auvergne, France
Retail: $19

Gamay is native to the Auvergne, a Southern French appellation. Les Petites Fleurs is made by husband and wife team Vincent and Marie Tricot who work a few small plots of land in the region that are planted with 40-year-old vines. The Tricots use semi-carbonic maceration to produce this organic wine, meaning that they ferment some whole grape clusters along with de-stemmed grapes. Perhaps more so this year than in previous vintages, Les Petites Fleurs is super barnyardy and funky, which makes it a really fun wine to drink. In addition to smokiness, the wine is bright with good mineralityto really emphasize its funkiness, pair it with some gorgonzola.

Producer: Lo-Fi
Wine: Pinot Noir/Gamay
From: Santa Barbara, California
Retail: $22

What makes this Pinot Noir and Gamay blend especially unique is that it’s made in the style of "Passe-tout-grains," a name that roughly translates to "Every grape goes," and references an appellation in Burgundy known for its rustic wines made with unsorted berries ("all berries go"). Here, Gamay stands out at 81 percent of the blend, with Pinot Noir playing a supporting role (the 14th century Duke of Burgundy would be so offended!). This is winemaker Mike Roth’s first vintage; he set out on his own after working as the winemaker at CA's Martian Ranch, with the intention of making terroir-driven, natural wine. This Lo-Fi blend is an ideal food wine thanks to a healthy dose of tannin and a medium body. It displays warm umami flavors, complemented by excellent acidity.

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