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Gamay Noir

photo of Gamay Noir by Tim Ramey.Gamay noir is the primary black grape of France's Beaujolais region, where the wines are typically fermented quickly, spared from aging, and consumed young in order to appreciate their fresh, fruity qualities, with more tang than tannin.

Like its regional "sibling" chardonnay, gamay noir was proven through DNA testing to be a cross between pinot blanc and an obscure, ancient, and nearly extinct variety called gouais blanc, which Roman Emperor Probus (b 232 AD - d 282 AD) probably brought from his Croatian homeland to Bourgogne.

In 1395, the Duke of Burgundy, Phillip the Bold, ordered Gamay vineyards to be torn out and banned the variety evermore from being planted in the vineyards of Burgundy, so that it would not compete with Pinot Noir. Although this decree nearly eradicated Gamay altogether, it found a new home to the south in Beaujolais.

The name is so closely associated with Beaujolais, that many vineyard plantings and wines, in California especially, were incorrectly identified as the variety "Gamay Beaujolais" for many years (an illegal practice after 2007). Gamay is also planted, but is less significant, in the Loire, Rhône, Jura and Savoie appellations of France.

Although gamay noir vines grow with moderate vigor in many soil types, it seems partial to granite and limestone soils. Gamay can be quite productive, averaging five to seven tons per acre. Heavy crop loads may slow growth to below average, as well as reduce fruit quality, so crop thinning is often used to control this tendency.

Gamay begins its annual cycle early as grapes go, budding and flowering early and, although it may become victim to early Spring frosts, gamay sometimes sprouts additional buds later to bear more fruit. Ripening is usually early to mid-season. Both the clusters and juicy oval-shaped berries of gamay noir are large, making it a relatively easy variety to pick, with relatively thin but tough skins. The true full name of this grape is Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc; there are, however, some clones of teinturier gamays, with colored rather than clear juice.

Generally light in color with hue that usually is more blue-purple than red, wines made from gamay noir can be very fragrant, full of fruit and fresh, floral esters. Frequently tart in their youth, wines made from gamay noir tend nonetheless to be short lived. Like its distant cousins, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Gamay tends to easily lose its varietal aroma and flavor identity when blended with another grape variety. Both red wines and rosés are typically produced from unblended gamay noir.

The technique of carbonic maceration is quite often used to enhance the fruitiness of this grape. The fruit is placed whole, uncrushed, in the fermenting vessel and the fermentation begins within the individual berries, trapping the forming bubbles of carbon dioxide until the grape bursts. The resulting wine has a lighter, yet brighter color and a much fruitier aroma, compared to standard red wine fermentation techniques, often accompanied by a slight petillance or "tickle". When grapes are not overripe and the fermentation temperature is kept cool, an ester called isoamyl acetate forms and permeates the aroma, resulting in a distinct "banana", "candy", or "bubblegum" character.

*Typical Gamay Noir Smell and/or Flavor Descriptors
*Typicity depends upon individual tasting ability and experience and is also affected by terroir and seasonal conditions, as well as viticultural and enological techniques. This list therefore is merely suggestive and neither comprehensive nor exclusive.

Varietal Aromas/Flavors:

Processing Bouquets/Flavors:

Fruit: cherry, strawberry, raspberry

Carbonic Maceration: banana, bubblegum, cotton candy (spun sugar)

Floral: violet, rose petal

Vegetal: (atypical) Oak (light): (atypical) vanilla, coconut

Beaujolais Nouveau has declined in worldwide popularity and sales have fallen steadily, with the exception of Japan, which consumes about 20% of each vintage. The French consumes most of "proper" Beaujolais themselves and many vignerons of the region see the Nouveau style as a passing fad that threatens the region by confusing the consumer, much as serious Zinfandel producers feel toward White Zinfandel.

There is relatively little gamay noir planted in California, even less than was thought to exist only a few years ago, because many vineyards, once thought to be planted with gamay noir, were positively identified by DNA "fingerprinting" as valdiguié in the 1990s. American Charles Shaw, a Beaujolais enthusiast, imported authentic gamay noir cuttings in the late 1970s and planted two acres in Napa Valley.

by Jim LaMar

1. Jancis Robinson (ed), Oxford Companion to Wine, 3rd Edition, (Oxford University Press: London) 2006

2. Steven Spurrier & Michel Dovaz, Academie du Vin, Complete Wine Course (G.P. Putnam & Sons, New York) 1983

3. Charles Sullivan, A Companion to California Wine: An Encyclopedia of Wine and Winemaking from the Mission Period to the Present (University of California Press: Berkeley) 1998

4. Benjamin Lewin, Wine Myths and Reality, (Vendage Press: Dover, DE) 2010

5. Jancis Robinson (ed), Jancis Robinson's Guide to Wine Grapes, (Oxford University Press: New York) 1996

6. L. Peter Christensen, Nick K. Dokoozlian, M. Andrew Walker, James A Wolpert, et all. Wine Grape Varieties in California (University of California, Agricultural and Natural Resources Publications: Oakland) 2003

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Page created October 5, 2001; last updated October 1, 2011
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