Illustration by Joao Neves
For an easygoing, floral-scented red wine, Gamay has never had it easy. Seen by winegrowers of Burgundy throughout history as a competitor to Pinot Noir, the aromatic grape was banned by the local ruling bodies in 1395, 1455, 1567 and several times during the 18th century.
Gamay’s advantages are that it is easier to cultivate, produces higher yields and ripens two weeks earlier than its regional rival. It produces wines with red berry and floral aromas and flavors of bright red fruits with high acidity and a sense of earthiness. France is home to 84,000 acres of this native grape, with over two-thirds of that grown in Beaujolais.
Besides the famed Beaujolais nouveau (a fresh, just-fermented wine released each November), Beaujolais is home to 10 communes that produce high-quality Cru Beaujolais wines that are worth exploring any time of year. Within France it’s also grown in the Rhône and Loire Valleys; it’s also found in Canada, Italy, Switzerland, Oregon, California, Turkey, Lebanon and Israel.
Gamay is the second-most planted red grape in Switzerland, trailing behind Pinot Noir. In Lavaux, in the canton of Vaud, it produces wines noted for aromas of cherry and rose petal. Swiss Gamay can be lighter in color and intensity than its French counterparts; some producers use chaptalization, or the addition of sugar during the fermenting process, because the grapes are not able to achieve full ripeness. A biotype of Gamay called Plant Robert (also known as Plant Robez or Plant Robaz) is grown by 15 or so producers who make wines that are a deep garnet red and have uncharacteristic spice and pepper flavors.