Back in the 13th century, the modest and high-yielding Gamay was still a serious rival of Pinot noir. After its cultivation was banned in 1395 it was pushed over onto the granite soils of Beaujolais. Fortunately it flourished even better there than where it had previously been grown.
Gamay as Beaujolais nouveau – a very gentle process
The venerable Gamay grape variety is the signature grape of Beaujolais, the southernmost part of Burgundy, where it also produces the best wines. 98% of Beaujolais is planted with Gamay vines.
One factor that has contributed to the popularity of the Gamay grape variety is the winemaking technique employed. Carbonic maceration is used almost exclusively: a sealed vessel is filled with uncrushed Gamay grapes. Fermentation is triggered by the pressure of the layers of grapes at the top on the ones underneath.
The carbon dioxide released permeates through the grapes and they begin to ferment from the inside out. This method extracts the maximum colour and the minimum of tannins from the grapes. After a few days they are then pressed and fermented in the customary manner. The wine vinified from Gamay in this way is light, slightly bluish, very fruity and lively, with a slight sweetness and crisp acidity. Typical aromas are bananas and jam. This Beaujolais nouveau should be drunk young and slightly chilled.
Gamay outside Beaujolais
Gamay is also grown in Touraine, in the Loire region, in Alsace and in the Ardèche. The grape is used for Mâcon rouge in the Mâcon region. Some growers, especially in Moulin-à-Vent and Morgon, produce wines that – in good vintages – can be cellared for up to 10 years, when they resemble a mature Pinot noir. In California the wine is known as Napa Gamay.
In Switzerland, Gamay is one of the most widely planted grape varieties. In Valais it is blended with Pinot noir to make Dôle, and in Vaud it is blended with Salvagnin.
Aromas of the Gamay grape variety
Although Gamay has a dark skin, its flesh is almost white. Wine made from Gamay is refreshing with low alcohol and tannins. Its aroma is characterized by fruity notes of raspberries and cherries. Gamay in general should be drunk young, not just Beaujolais nouveau. Some top wines aged in wooden barrels can be long-lived, however.