Forever young?

Gamay noir struggles to outgrow its nouveau reputation

When Beaujolais nouveau arrives just weeks after harvest (released each year at midnight on the third Thursday in November), people around the world race to get it.

But ironically, the fluffy hype and fanfare surrounding one of France’s most celebrated wines hasn’t much helped the reputation of Gamay noir, the very grape used to make Beaujolais nouveau. Indeed, soda-poppy Beaujolais nouveau is more a triumph of marketing, not good winemaking, and it’s now losing popularity as consumers look for more complex, nuanced wines. Naturally, they’ve looked right past Gamay noir without realizing that it can, with a skilled hand, be made into serious wine.

“People think of Beaujolais nouveau as Kool-Aid, but the Beaujolais area can produce very good Gamay wines,” said Dennis McLaughlin, co-owner of local wine shop Creekside Cellars.

McLaughlin said Gamay noir wines can be high in acidity, which makes for a tart flavor, but that many drinkers take to the wine after just a few uncertain sips.

Winemaker Chris Brockway, who makes an Oregon-grown Gamay noir at Broc Cellars in Berkeley, said Beaujolais nouveau’s low reputation seems to have rubbed off some onto Gamay noir. “A lot of people associate Gamay noir with the truckloads of cheap wine that come in just before Thanksgiving,” he said. Brockway added, “Most Beaujolais nouveau is pretty bad, with that estery yeast flavor, like banana and bubble gum.”

These uncouth aromatics, he says, are mostly a result of the yeast used in fermentation—a critter cultivated and sold as yeast 71B—not any shortcoming of the Gamay noir grape. Brockway makes his Gamay noir using natural fermentation with natural yeasts, which allows a more nuanced expression in the grape.

For some, Gamay noir is downright entrancing. Steve Edmunds, of Edmunds St. John Winery—also in Berkeley—remembers his first experiences tasting good Beaujolais-region wine in the 1970s.

“It was such a pleasure to drink,” he said. “It was irresistible. It smelled so beautiful, and the flavor was so pleasurable—simple, fresh, grapey, almost floral. You almost can’t stop drinking [good Gamay noir]. It just makes you happy.”

In California, the name Gamay has been masquerading about since the 1970s and 1980s, when “Napa Gamay” and “Gamay Beaujolais” were stamped on bottles containing what it turned out were other grapes entirely—valdiguié grapes in the former case, and bottom-end pinot noir in the latter.

It wasn’t until about 2000 that the first true Gamay noir vines were planted in a focused effort to use the grape in a serious way. Edmunds had convinced farmer Ron Mansfield, in Placerville, that if he planted the grapes, Edmunds would buy them.

“It seemed to me an opportunity to take a little gamble on something that no one else had really tried,” said Mansfield, who put 4 acres in shortly after a wine-tasting trip to France’s Beaujolais region, and now has a total of about 10 acres.

In Oregon, Gamay noir got an earlier start. Harry Peterson-Nedry, of Chehalem Wines in the Willamette Valley, planted it the early 1980s. He calls it a “quirky” wine but, with a $24 price tag, it costs about double the lower-end Beaujolais wines.

“We treat it seriously, not like the celebratory Nouveau style,” he said.

French producers, too, are trying to separate Gamay noir from the synonymous association with Beaujolais nouveau. A trade group called Inter Beaujolais has even proposed to have the region’s best vineyards classified in a separate category from those used for Beaujolais nouveau production. Meanwhile, the industry is pushing the nation’s better renditions of Gamay noir outward into the California market—burly red wines from producers like Daniel Bouland, whose Chiroubles 2011 is a bomb of tart-cherry pleasure; and Henry Fessy’s 2011 Chateau des Reyssiers, richly layered with raisin and bitter cranberry.

At Creekside Cellars, visitors will find one or two examples of French Gamay noir on the shelf for much of the year, especially in the summer and fall, when fruity, light wines are most enjoyable, McLaughlin said. He noted that, “unfortunately, Gamay noir is one of those wines that it’s easy to forget about.”

Just as hard to remember may be the fact that, even though all Beaujolais nouveau is Gamay noir, not all Gamay noir is Beaujolais nouveau.