There’s lots of great wine made from Gamay, but it’s not appreciated as much as it should be. It’s historically been planted in the wrong places on the wrong soils; criticized for the wrong reasons; often made into inexpensive wines that take advantage of its naturally high yields; and associated with Beaujolais Nouveau, which is released just a few weeks after the harvest. The conclusion: Gamay should be drunk immediately without any thought.
Cru Beaujolais is proof that all these conclusions are wrong as they are some of the finest wines in France. These wines have become more popular (and unfortunately more expensive), but the other great wines made from Gamay still aren’t always fully appreciated.
Gamay, the seventh most planted variety in France, is grown in plenty of regions other than Beaujolais; for instance, not too far away in the Loire. I’ve previously sold wines from Domaine Sérol, a winery in Côte Roannaise, adjacent to Beaujolais with related volcanic, granitic soils. Sérol makes all sorts of excellent wine: white, red, and sparkling rosé. The wines are irresistible: new to the club is "Perdrizière" ($35) from granite soils at 400m elevation, with a gripping texture and a pleasing fruitiness. Further proof that wines made from Gamay aren't just simple, forgettable wines.
Another long-time Loire favorite of mine is Jean-François Mérieau, located in the southern tip of Touraine. "Le Bois Jacou" ($24) is classic Gamay: medium-bodied, ready to drink now, fun and fruity, but with a tannic edge. The labels are memorable, drawn by an artist after she’s drunk a bottle.
A lesser-known region is Lorraine, on the border with Germany and the other side of Alsace's Vosges mountains. This is a cool, wet region I always want to support because it’s so difficult to grow grapes there. Domaine Migot make both still and sparkling wine: the Brut Rosé ($35), very pale pink in appearance, has the high acidity and lees-based texture of a high-quality traditional method sparkling wine. It's an excellent alternative to champagne, gently fruity and creamy. To make great wine in Lorraine takes true dedication, and demonstrates the versatility of Gamay.
The undeservedly low reputation of Gamay means there isn’t that much planted outside France. In New Zealand, there are just 12 hectares. Te Mata, one of the leading producers in Hawke’s Bay, is one of the few to champion Gamay, first planting it in the 1990s. It’s a shame there isn’t more, as it’s perfectly suited to New Zealand’s moderate climate and in particular to the gravel soils of Hawke’s Bay. Taste this Gamay blind and you might think it’s New Zealand Pinot Noir ($27).
Which brings us back to everything that’s great about Gamay: it’s an offspring of Pinot Noir; widely planted in Beaujolais, just south of Burgundy; planted in cool climates like Loire, Lorraine, and also Savoie; grown in New Zealand and Oregon, both also more famous for Pinot Noir but making a small amount of excellent Gamay. Save some money and drink Gamay instead of Pinot Noir.