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ripe gamay noir grapesGamay Noir à Jus Blanc, to give it its full name, is an ancient grape variety that enjoys its greatest success in the Beaujolais region of France. Situated to the north west of the city of Lyons Beaujolais is the southernmost appellation of Greater Burgundy. On the granite-based soils here the Gamay grape produces a range of wines that includes the infamous Beaujolais Nouveau at one extreme and the much more serious and long-lived wines of the ten Beaujolais crus, such as Moulin à Vent, at the other. Approximately 70% of the world's 36,000 hectares of Gamay plantings are in Beaujolais itself.

The Gamay grape is well-known for producing relatively light, purple-coloured, fruity wines with raspberry and strawberry flavours and quite a high level of acidity but, in truth, there is quite a difference in the range of wines that can be made from this variety and in cooler areas such as Touraine in the Loire Valley some very refreshing rosé wines are made. In Beaujolais itself the less exalted wines are usually fermented employing a rather industrial technique known as carbonic maceration whereby the bunches are not crushed but are simply piled into fermentation vats or tanks and then sealed to preserve flavours and prevent oxidation. The weight of the upper-most grapes crushes those at the bottom which start to ferment. Some time later the whole, un-crushed, grapes begin to ferment eventually bursting their skins. This wine-making method results in light and fruity wines with an early drinking date that are reminiscent of bananas and boiled confectionary. In the case of Beaujolais Nouveau it is ready to drink at six weeks and is released for sale on the third Thursday in November. A recent trend for altogether more serious wines in the Beaujolais region has seen something of a return to more traditional Burgundian methods which involve crushing the grapes and fermenting in oak barrels to produce darker wines with greater concentration of flavours and tannin. One such distinguished producer is Jean-Paul Brun.

Gamay is a grape variety that buds and flowers early and, as a consequence, ripens in advance of many other varieties. In the event of damage wrought by late Spring frosts it possesses the clever ability to sometimes develop new budding sites so that all is not lost. Its tight bunches do, however, make it prone to rot when conditions are wet later in the season. It is not a vine that grows prodigiously tall and is trained in the gobelet style, i.e. pruned to about a half meter tall so that it grows like a small bush. In fact another name for vines resulting from this technique is "bush vine". The granite-schist soils prevalent in the rolling hills in the north of the Beaujolais region are home to the aforementioned ten Beaujolais crus villages. In order of increasing weight and ageing potential these villages are: Chiroubles, St-Amour, Fleurie, Régnié, Brouilly, Côte de Brouilly, Juliénas, Chénas, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent. Wines from any of these should be several cuts above standard Beaujolais and certainly the Beaujolais Nouveaux wines made with grapes from the lower quality, for Gamay, limestone and clay soils of the plain in the south of the region. The very best wines in great years can easily evolve over a decade or even two.The word Beaujolais is quite likely to be missing from the label of the crus wines, just as the name Burgundy is not emblazoned on bottles of Chambertin Grand Cru produced further to the north. Wines bearing the name Beaujolais-Villages, however, will fall somewhere between standard Beaujolais and the crus being made from grapes grown in terroirs that are recognised as superior to those further south whilst not meeting the quality requirements for cru status in their own right.

History of Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc

Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc has a long history. DNA research conducted by the University of California, Davis, has shown that the Gamay grape is descended from a cross of Pinot Noir with Gouais Blanc, the latter having probably been introduced to north-east France from central Europe by the Romans. As such it is a close relative of Chardonnay and all of the other "Pinot" grape varieties. It is quite possible that Gamay has been grown in Burgundy since the year 300 A.D. despite the oft-quoted claim that its arrival in Burgundy dates back to the 14th. century. What is certain is that by 1395 Gamay had become so widely planted in Burgundy's vineyards, and that its inferiority to Pinot Noir for making the finest wines understood, that the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, ordered it to be banned wherever it had supplanted the Pinot Noir grape. This was actually no bad thing as Gamay then found a much more suitable home further south in Beaujolais where it produced wine of a better quality than it had in the Côte d'Or. In the Mâconnais Gamay is also grown but it is often blended with Pinot Noir to produce the region's Mâcon Rouge. It is also a constituent in the Burgundy-wide appellation Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, a wine that has been of decreasing interest over the last few decades with the availability of New World varietals which are usually, frankly, better value for money.

Other Gamay Regions

Apart from in the Beaujolais region there are plantings in the Loire around Touraine where it is used to make fresh and fruity red wines which are marketed at one year old as well as some refreshing rosés for light summer drinking. Both drink well when chilled. Savoy, in the foothills of the French Alps, and Jura in eastern France also produce light red wines from Gamay which are very popular with the regions' summer tourists. Similarly it is also fairly widely grown in Switzerland although there it is often either chaptalised (the practice of adding sugar to beef-up the fruit's natural sugar levels to increase the alcohol content) with something of a heavy hand or blended with Pinot Noir. Outside of Europe it hasn't made much of an impact and is often confused with other varieties which carry the name such as Napa Gamay in California which turned out to be the old southern French variety Valdeguié. Since 2007 it has been illegal to market Napa Gamay as such within the E.U. Another variety, Gamay Beaujolais, is another grape grown in California but this has been revealed to be an early-ripening clone of Pinot Noir. One exception to its scarcity outside of Europe is its success in the Niagara Peninsula in Canada and there are also small plantings in Oregon, Australia and New Zealand but these are not usually exported.


Video: Winemaker Guillaume de Castelnau on Gamay

  1. Jean-Paul Brun, Beaujolais à l’Ancien, 2010

    Jean-Paul Brun, Beaujolais à l’Ancien, 2010

    A fruity red Gamay wine tasting of sour cherries, raspberries, redcurrants with some notes of citrus. Fresh and juicy this is a traditional style of Beaujolais.

    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Gamay
    Country France

    Out of stock

  2. Jean-Paul Brun, Côte de Brouilly, 2011

    Jean-Paul Brun, Côte de Brouilly, 2011

    This Côte de Brouilly employs wild yeasts for its fermentation and, at 12.5% abv, it is lower in alcohol than most wines from the appellation. Cherry and raspberry fruit are evidenton both on the nose and palate. A smooth, sleek wine with remarkable purity.

    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Gamay
    Country France

    Out of stock

  3. Jean-Pierre Large, Morgon, 2009

    Jean-Pierre Large, Morgon, 2009

    The deep soils and the very old vines, some over a hundred years old, are exploited to produce this Morgon, 2009, from Jean-Pierre large. An exceptional wine of profound depth and good longevity.

    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Gamay
    Country France

    Out of stock

  4. Jean-Pierre Large, Morgon, 2010

    Jean-Pierre Large, Morgon, 2010

    A lovely Morgon Cru Beaujolais made from old vines, some in excess of 100 years old.

    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Gamay
    Country France

    Out of stock

  5. Jean-Pierre Large, Morgon, 2013

    Jean-Pierre Large, Morgon, 2013

    Jean-Pierre Large's Morgon Cru Beaujolais,2013, is a wine with great finesse and depth made with Gamay grapes harvested from old vines

    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Gamay
    Country France

    Out of stock

  6. Nicolas Potel, Fleurie, 2009

    Nicolas Potel, Fleurie, 2009

    This Fleurie, 2009, is a light red and is an excellent example of the terroir expression resulting from the joint project of Potel-Aviron's Beaujolais wines. With dark notes of cherry and blackberry with hints of pepper and vanilla on the nose and a finish which David Schildknecht of The Wine Advocate described as "forceful, invigorating, and saliva-inducing" this is a Fleurie from the top drawer.

    Colour Red Wine
    Grape Variety Gamay
    Country France

    Out of stock

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