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50 Shades of Gamay

By Debra Meiburg MW

This Thursday the Beaujolais Nouveau public relations circus begins. Each year journalists enthusiastically recycle stories about this simple red wine allegedly transported by every means possible – including elephant and helicopter – to reach its global fans by the third Thursday of November. Through encouraging these unorthodox distribution techniques, the Beaujolais public relations teams have ensured their wine becomes the talk of the town every November. Not bad for an inexpensive fruity wine made from the relatively unknown grape variety, Gamay.

Gamay is not new to the press corps. It was first publicized in the 1400’s, about the time the Ming Dynasty was in full swing. Confusingly, the full name of this dark grape – which produces an exuberantly purple wine – is Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, meaning Black Gamay to White Juice. No wonder the marketing team had to push up their sleeves.

Early 20th century spin doctors in California weren’t slackers either. Saddled with promoting the unwieldy-named Valdeguié variety, they promptly dubbed it Napa Gamay, a moniker they were required to phase out by 2007. Another name cheekily appearing on California labels until 2007 was the name “Gamay Beaujolais”, a term attached to an early ripening clone of Pinot Noir. This designation is not too off base as Gamay is thought to be an old mutation of Pinot Noir, though Gamay is much stronger and fruitier.

Viticulturists treasure Gamay more for its reproductive enthusiasm, than its elegant quality. The grape’s abundant yield, easy cultivation and early ripening – two weeks earlier than the more refined Pinot Noir variety — made it a favorite of amongst villagers in France’s Burgundy region recovering from the Black Death in the 14th Century. Gamay is thought to have made its first debut in the 1360’s in the village of Gamay at the southern tip of Burgundy. By 1395, dismayed that this inferior variety was usurping prime Pinot Noir sites, Philippe the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, outlawed the cultivation of Gamay declaring it “a very bad and disloyal plant.” Sixty year later, Philippe the Good strengthened the ban by stating, “The Dukes of Burgundy are known as the lords of the best wines in Christendom. We will maintain our reputation.” It seems that spin doctoring was alive and well in the 14th Century.

Gamay is usually easy to spot due to its youthful fruit, boisterous cranberry flavors and lack of oak handling. Few producers bother to mature this variety in oak barrels as it rarely develops the finesse and complexity to justify the expense. Notable exceptions are the wines labeled Cru Beaujolais, which are derived from the ten finest Gamay vineyards in Beaujolais, a small district in southern Burgundy. Top sites include Fleurie, Morgon, Moulin-à-Vent and the romantically named St.-Amour. Good quality Cru Beaujolais is not to be confused with the lighter, simpler and fruitier Beaujolais Nouveau hitting our shelves this week. The first French wine to be released from the year’s grape harvest, this Thursday this youthful wine becomes legal. Stop press.

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