Among the red grape varieties, Gamay is the “sprinter.” It sprouts early, bears large quantities of grapes, and is harvested early. Moreover, these grapes are often processed into wine relatively quickly. In general, the first wines of the year are made from this variety, called Beaujolais Primeur or Beaujolais Nouveau. Gamay is most popular in the French region, Beaujolais, where it makes up almost 100% of their red wines.
Still, the fruity and straightforward variety has an interesting story, as it was once a leading grape in all Burgundy. Today, Gamay is experiencing a comeback, not only in France but also in many other countries.
Old grape variety from Burgundy
Gamay is a red-skinned grape with clear juice; its full name is Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc. It has been used to make red wine since the 15th century. Experts suggest Gamay is originally from the area around the village of Gamay, in Southern Burgundy, where there’s evidence it has grown since the 1360s.
Gamay ripens two weeks earlier than Pinot Noir, Burgundy’s other red grapes, so it’s less at risk of suffering from hail and heavy rain. Grape growers favored Gamay over Pinot Noir for centuries until Philippe the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, outlawed its cultivation in 1395, favoring Pinot Noir in every Burgundian region but Beaujolais. Seventy years later, another Duke of Burgundy, Philippe the Good, reinforced the laws against the grape, which eventually led to its eradication in most of the region.
Gamay is most probably an offspring of Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc; therefore, it’s Chardonnay’s red sibling. Thanks to its early ripening, Gamay is often used to make the season’s first wine or “nouveau,” the only wine style fermented and bottled before the year’s end.
To achieve such a feat, producers use a unique fermentation method, carbonic maceration, in which the grapes are allowed to ferment naturally in a sealed environment filled with carbonic gas. The technique produces fruit-forward, one-note, and easy-to-drink wines that might not age well but are delicious.
Of course, Beaujolais is a vast wine region, and its best plots are classified as Crus. Here, you’ll find Gamay’s most contemplative versions — wines on par with Pinot Noir.
Facts about Gamay
Here are some interesting facts about Gamay:
Gamay can be used to produce rosé in western wine regions in the Loire Valley
Although the finest red wines made with Gamay can age, most of them are made to be enjoyed young, within a few months after harvest.
Beaujolais Nouveau is released on the third Thursday of November. It is sold at the same time worldwide.
Gamay has excellent versatility on the table since it has negligible amounts of tannins and has noticeable acidity.
Gamay: Fruity, Light Enjoyment
As for the flavor profile of wine made with Gamay, wines made in the nouveau style are cherry-scented and have uncomplicated bouquets and palates. Since producers use a special yeast to ferment the young wines in a short period, the wine might end with scents reminiscent of banana bubblegum.
Age-worthy Gamay, often made in the acclaimed Beaujolais Crus, is more complex and might display red fruit aromas and oak spices.
Enjoy Gamay with white meat, from pork ribs to roast chicken. The wine is also compatible with cured meats, pâté, and ham. Cranberry and plum sauces have fruit flavors mirrored in the wine.