Some years ago, when Willamette Valley wine producers began searching for a grape to complement the Pinot Noir for which Oregon has become renowned, they cast their eyes and palates upon the Beaujolais region of France.
Gamay is the principal grape of Beaujolais, which stretches along the west bank of the Saône River just north of Lyon (France’s culinary capital) and south of Burgundy. About 98% of its acreage is dedicated to these vigorous vines.
A natural cross of Pinot Noir with the ancient Gouais Blanc grape, Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc (as it is properly known) is a purple-colored grape that has been cultivated as long ago as the 14th century. It is less difficult to cultivate than the elegant but temperamental Pinot Noir, ripening about two weeks earlier and in greater abundance. Indeed, medieval records show that Gamay was once regarded as the poor man’s Pinot.
But planting on alkaline soil helps to soften Gamay’s natural acidity, resulting in distinctive wines — light-bodied, like Pinot Noir, but stronger and fruitier. Many of the wines showcase floral aromas of lilac and violet, while emphasizing the fruit finish of crushed strawberries and raspberries.
During a recent visit to Portland, Inter Beaujolais export manager Charles Rambaud described the subtle, light flavor of his wine as “a good introductory wine for young drinkers.” That struck a personal note for me. In my early 20s, as my tastes evolved from college-era jug wines to slightly more sophisticated varietals, I discovered Beaujolais-Villages. This fruit-forward, dry-on-the-finish wine became my “go-to” choice when I wanted to impress a date.
In particular, I liked bottles from winemaker Louis Jadot. Rambaud assured me that Jadot is still making good wines, but Jadot is not alone.
In fact, there are about 2,000 winemakers in the small province of Beaujolais, 30 miles north-to-south and less than half that wide. With only 25,000 acres of land planted in grapes, the average estate is very small. Most vineyards are on hillsides between 200 and 500 meters elevation (650 to 1,650 feet), with east and southeast exposures. This gives them a remarkably similar perspective to the lower Coast Range vineyards facing the Willamette Valley.
Yet there is great variety in the distinctive terroirs of Beaujolais. Soil that ranges from limestone to schist and granite, and notable variations in heat and precipitation, have created a dozen different appellation zones. Ten of them are designated as “Cru” wines (from north to south, these are Saint-Amour, Juliénas, Chénas, Moulin-à-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly). More basic Beaujolais and mid-level Beaujolais-Villages wines are grown in vineyards that flank and surround the “Cru” areas.
Georges Duboeuf is the region’s largest producer and exporter; its wines are widely available in the United States. Many of these are the basic Beaujolais and Beaujolais-Villages varietals, typically priced several dollars less than Cru. Easy-drinking, fruit-forward wines with dry finishes, these are the classic wines of Paris bistros: They are designed to be enjoyed within two years of their release.
Rambaud told me Beaujolais wines are made by very traditional methods that incorporate carbonic maceration and malolactic fermentation. Hand-picked, whole-cluster grapes are thrown into tanks so large, the grapes on the bottom are crushed by the weight of gravity. Thus fermentation begins in a low-oxygen environment, with the natural yeasts and acidity in the grape skins inducing the fruity flavor.
The longer the grapes ferment, the more tannins develop along with a fuller bodied wine. “It all comes down to the winemaker,” Rambaud noted. The subsequent conversion of malic to lactic acid, with the inoculation of desirable bacteria, helps to integrate fruit and oak, and softens the wine when it is barreled.
Higher-quality Cru varietals may be blends of whole-cluster and individual grapes, Rambaud said. These are more full-bodied and tannic (and thus astringent) than other Beaujolais wines, and are recommended for at least four years of aging. I especially like those produced in Brouilly and Fleurie.
The best known Gamay may be Beaujolais Nouveau, a “vin de primeur” released every year on the third Thursday of November, just six to eight weeks after it’s harvested. To aficionados, its youth reflects its charm.
Gamays in Oregon
The Gamay grape has been in Oregon’s Willamette Valley since 1988, when it was introduced by Amity Vineyards near Salem. Today, three decades later, there remain fewer than two dozen Oregon vineyards that grow Gamay Noir. Although Oregon has more than 700 wineries, a mere 30 acres were planted in Gamay Noir as of 2017.
Doug Tunnell, owner and winemaker at Brick House Wines in Newberg, said the single largest planting of Gamay in Oregon is 4.2 acres. His own winery is located in the Ribbon Ridge AVA, one of the state’s smaller but most highly regarded viticultural regions. “Our marine sediments share much with the hills of Beaujolais,” he said, including minerality and soil acidity level.
Brick House released its first Gamay Noir in 1995, Tunnell said. It continues to be a steady seller, aged in French oak and produced in the Cru Beaujolais style, with typical flavor characteristics of sour cherry, dried berry and black pepper.