It was a warm, bright, sunny, almost-Spring morning, and we were tasting Gamay in the backyard. What could be better? Nothing.
But what exactly is Gamay? Well, to begin with it is the bastard child of Burgundy. Banished from the golden slopes in 1395 by Philip the Bold (and then again in 1459 by Philip the Good), so that to this day, Gamay is not to be found mingling with the illustrious Pinot of Bourgogne. Or sort of.
Gamay is an old grape. In fact, it is a crossing of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc, which itself is a wild grape that has parentage to many of the wines we know today. The style of Gamay shares some characteristics with Pinot Noir – lots of delicate fruit, soft tannins and an ability to age when made by the right hands. But Gamay is not Pinot Noir. It is a little more on the wild side. It is a bit less finicky to grow and as such can be a good cropping grape, albeit with slightly less concentrated juice if allowed to grow too wild, which is why farmers like it but also why it was banned from Burgundy.
Throughout central France, Gamay plays a role in many wine regions, but in general the best come from Beaujolais, as well as certain areas of the Loire. Many would agree that the granite slopes of the northern part of the Beaujolais district is where Gamay shines brightest; it loves the pink granite soils and the rolling hills of the area, which is France’s hilliest wine region, BTW.
The Gamay here is pure, rich, and almost cult-like in a way. The farmers of the villages of Morgon and Fleurie and Moulin-a-Vent make some of the most dramatic wines – all from Gamay; be warned though, these are not your 1990s Nouveau. Here we find, even demand, serious, old vine, fruit driven but textural wines that are perfectly suited for food. Shift a little to the north and Gamay has a number of home appellations along the Loire (aka Le Jardin du France), where produces will often use it to blend with a few other grapes, most notably Pinot Noir. The variety of soils and cooler climates makes for more consistent wines year in and year out if your Pinot doesn’t quite ripen but your Gamay does. Plus – it just tastes good.
Our tasting pack includes selections from each of these regions, and includes some of the region’s top producers. It was tough to limit ourselves to just six, but these are our favorites for the moment, and these will help you up your Gamay game, big time.
A quick note on vintages: 2018, 2019
In a nut shell: Get in My Belly!
These are spectacular vintages, period. Buy, drink, enjoy. Rinse your glasses and repeat.
2019 was a smaller cropped vintage, but the wines from across Europe are delicious, and the Gamay below are no exception. Bursting with fruit and concentration, the wines are fresh and beautiful. Do Not Miss Them.
2018 is a Cru year. These are drinking so well now, but the top Crus can be set aside for a few years and will shine as good as the best in Burgundy. Slightly lower alcohols, good acidity, and a concentrated purity that is rare.
We split the wines up by region, but in the end did a quick ranking by preference and the wines ended up being mixed, which only proves that you can get great Gamay from both the Loire and the Beaujolais regions. Notes below are in the original tasting order, but please don’t ask us to reveal the final order – it can easily change if we did this tasting again.
Domaine Les Hautes Noëlles Gamay Vin de Pays du Val de Loire, 2019
Super bright, just basically explodes with fruit on the palate. I called this the raspberry Starburst wine because it had so much lovely red fruit on the palate, backed by lush acidity that carried the flavors on an on. Young as can be, which is a good thing. 12%abv.
François Cazin Cheverny Rouge Vendanges Manuelles, 2019
This is one of the BIG DOGS of the Loire, and this tasting. Right away you notice the color – it is beautifully saturated in the glass. The aromas are mellow but complex with an underlying intensity that pulls through the long finish, which include soft tannins that do not quit. This wine gets better after being open for a bit and was easily a favorite.
2/3 Pinot Noir, 1/3 Gamay. 13.8% abv
Domaine Des Terres Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun) Beaujolais Le Ronsay, 2019
And the other Big Dog, Brun is an icon in the Beaujolais. This wine comes from younger vines in the southern part of the region, and is meant to showcase the fresh, youthful side of the grape. To me there was an abundance of raspberry and cinnamon, mixed with some tart cranberry and lush acidity. Fermented all in concrete and sees no oak (yes, that is a thing), it has beautiful texture through the finish. Lovely wine for any night of the week. 13% abv
Domaine du Clos du Fief (Michel & Sylvian Tete) Juliénas, 2019
This wine has great fruit on the nose, and is perhaps the most well-balanced wine of the group. Dusty tannins, smooth in texture and the red fruit just goes on and on. A very lifted style of wine with complexity. 14.5% abv
Domaine des Marrans Beaujolais-Villages, 2018
This is a family estate located in Fleurie, with holdings essentially only in Crus. This is actually older vines from those Crus, and the wine shows its pristine pedigree wonderfully. Round, juicy, super smooth and very complex for a “simple” Beaujolais-Villages. Don’t get fooled – you are drinking The Villages in this wine. 13% abv
Domaine Des Terres Dorées (Jean-Paul Brun) Morgon, 2018
BOOM. Brun. (Mic drop, please.)
Here you go. And then some. Wonderful wine. The essence of what Cru Beaujolais is meant to be; what it can be; why Burgundy should be shaking in their muddy-boots. Brings everything together: huge nose, super polished style, loads of fruit on the palate, super well integrated tannins. Blackberry leaf, plum, bramble, savory, earthy – just get some. (I read a review for this wine that recommended it is best from 2023-2055+. What will you be doing in 2055? Drinking Beaujolais, baby!)
Terry Theise said that. He did - not sure if it was original, but he did say it, and I heard him.
He also said, "Wine is an especially luminous object of beauty, to which the proper response is to be moved and delighted".
Why do I mention this? Well, this week I was reminded how beautiful wine can be when made in the right place, by the right person, at the right time. It is actually more rare, or at least more challenging, to discover a wine of true beauty these days. Think I am crazy? When was the last time you tasted a wine that made you stop, and nearly (or literally) brought tears to your eyes because of the simple, impossible way it invoked an emotional response in you?
Now, I did not have any wines this week that made me cry. But, I have had wines that did this. They exist, and it is a very personal and exciting thing to experience. Wine writers try to describe this experience every day, although I find it done poorly and very mechanically by most, and done well with rare exception. I suck at it. It is truly the unique individual that can express in words the depth of emotional waves of a particularly singular emotional response, such as to a glass of wine, and its affect on them. It's completely subjective of course, so the difficulty of expression is nearly impossible to convey to others and get a similar impression.
Having said all that, I did have a wine or two this week that expressed themselves in beautiful ways - mostly because of their delicate and delicious drinkability. You need to realize that my days of sucking down big, ferocious Napa Cabs is pretty much over. I appreciate them for being grand wines, but I cannot tolerate them. Same for Double IPA's; sorry, my body-chemistry does not liked to be zapped with high levels of alpha-acids and hop resin - worse hangover than from alcohol. France often is a particular source of delicious and balanced wines that fill a void in my jones for delicious.
I was part of a conversation last week where the group was asking around the cliched question - "if you could only drink one for the rest of your life, what would it be?" Some said Napa Cab, top Cru Bordeaux, Champagne. I said - Chambolle: pure, elegant, beautiful. Right after that would be Chablis for me - simple Chablis - fresh, pure and so drinkable. I did not have any Chambolle this week, nor did I have any Chablis, but I did come close on several fronts to what I consider beautiful, simple and elegant wines, that can nearly make you weep with delicious pleasure...
Here are four wines we covered in last Sunday's tasting group. All Burgundy, and all from the Cote de Nuits, which was our theme. Everything was quite as it should have been and was quite on mark, but the Vosne-Romanee really hit it out of the park for me. Domaine Jean Grivot is considered one of the top Domaines in the village, and this wine, which is at the limit of what I would realistically pay for wine, was worth every cent. Balanced, elegant and full of rich fruit. I enjoyed it - actually the rest of the bottle that evening - while watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, and then the end of Casino Royal - perfect combination of suave elegance and gritty ass-kicking power - kind of like Vosne-Romanee.
The other three wines were on point. All from classic producers, these are wines that are never-going-to-fail-so-just-go-ahead-and-buy-them, kind of wines. The Grand Cru showed why Chambertain is what Chambertain is. The aromatics and flavors just kept evolving out of the glass, and it was a different wine each and every time I went back to it. Complexity, power, richness. I tasted a bottle of Rousseau's Chambertain, the week prior, and all I can say - Chambertain is Chambertain for a reason - there is almost no equal (perhaps Richebourg, which is in Vosne-Romanee).
The other wine that caused an elevated emotional reaction for me this week is the Jacquere from Domaine Demeure-Pinet. Wait, what is that wine, you may be asking? Yeah, I know, not something that rolls off the tongue or is even easily found in this or any market outside of the the Savoy region of France. But a wine that is remarkable for its simplicity, beauty and streamlined elegance at 11.5% alcohol. Jacquere is the grape. The high mountains between France, Switzerland and the Piedmont section of Italy is the place. Just drink it if you do find it. There is a sleek feeling to the wine that glides across your palate. This is perhaps the single most exciting tactile feeling in wines for me - the glycerol, sleek, almost liquid stone sensation; I love it. This is similar to the experience I had in December when drinking a L'Etoile from Domaine Rolet. This happens to be a Chardonnay from the Jura in far eastern France, but a region not too unfamiliar if you know Burgundy. The wine is Chardonnay, grown on light marls similar to what you might find in classic Burgundy vineyards. This wine was so good that it stops you in your tracks and makes you think about it; forces you to appreciate what you are experiencing without taking no for an answer. You may not know why or what, but that's ok - just allow yourself to enjoy it. If I had gotten my act together and wrote my recap of my best wines tasted in 2019 - this was the wine. Its a wine that demands its own emotion.
As I move through the wine world, I find myself more and more drawn to these wines of elegance, mineral undertones, power through subtle expression, and lower alcohol. I still love a glass of Napa Cab every so often, but the reality is that I have never been able to drink the Double IPA versions that some producers continue to promote; I'll take a sessionable cab, thanks. I am more about the Berliner Weisse of the wine world - give me some acid and freshness, and I'll sort out the rest without a headache, thanks, and double thanks.
Terry Theise is an iconic wine importer and promoter of German, Austrian and Champagne sourced producers. Since the mid-80's he has brought Americans closer to the opportunity to taste wines from people who get their hands dirty all year long. If you want a great introduction to his philosophy and thoughts, take an hour and listen to Levi Dalton's I'll Drink to That podcast #237, where he interviews Terry. It will be an hour not unwell spent.
ABOUT THE Author
Brian Mitchell runs The New England Wine Academy, and is responsible for the content of this blog. With over 25 years of drinks industry experience, Brian has learned a few things, but everyday he is learning more. This blog helps to bring that knowledge to you.