Gamay Noir, Uvae Incognitus
One common question we hear at Sheldrake Point is “what grape varieties do you grow?” We routinely rattle off this list of the ten varieties planted in our vineyard:
- Pinot Gris
- Cabernet franc
- Pinot Noir
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Gamay Noir
Most of these Vinifera grapes are found throughout the Finger Lakes. When we mention that last one, Gamay Noir, visitors are curious and often say that it’s a grape they never heard of. It’s a common admission—Gamay Noir, the uvae incognitus or “unknown grape,” is not widely seen, nor is it widely understood.
Gamay Noir vs. Philippe the Bold
Gamay Noir is a light-bodied red wine that’s a wonderful little secret for anyone who loves Pinot Noir, but seeks a more affordable alternative. The variety, a cousin of Pinot Noir, hails from Beaujolais, the region just south of Burgundy (Pinot motherland). Gamay’s reputation dates back to the late 14th century when Philippe the Bold, the Duke of Burgundy, decided he didn’t like the grape’s flavor. At all.
Philippe, bringing his medieval power to bear on a grape, decreed the Gamay’s exile from Burgundy, declaring it “despicable and disloyal,” thus paving the way for the reign of Pinot Noir.
Yet, south of Burgundy, in the area known as Beaujolais, the Duke’s edict was largely ignored and winemakers continued planting Gamay Noir.
To this day, Gamay grapes grown in that part of France are used to produce Beaujolais Villages (or Beaujolais Cru) red wine, as well as the immediately drinkable Beaujolais Nouveau that is released on the third Thursday of November.
Gamay Noir in the new world
There are few regions outside of France where Gamay is grown extensively. And, predictably, Gamay has received little attention in the New World, where a majority of winemakers choose to plant more popular varieties.
New Zealand and Australia grow Gamay, but the country most known for a focus on Gamay is Canada, both in the Niagara region and in the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, on Canada’s west coast.
When we chose to plant Gamay Noir at Sheldrake Point, we purchased plants from a nursery in Ontario for our initial block (1997) and for a subsequent additional block (2001). Both blocks have performed well for us over the years.
Gamay Noir finally gets respect
Gamay wines are appreciated for their youthful fruit expressions reminiscent of bright crushed strawberries and raspberries, deep floral notes of lilac and violets, as well as a subtle earthiness.
Because of the high natural acidity and generally low tannin, Gamay pairs wonderfully with a wide array of foods. Karen MacNeil, author of The Wine Bible, said it best:
“Beaujolais (Gamay) is the only white wine that happens to be red.”
What does she mean by that? If you treat Gamay as you would a white wine, by serving it slightly chilled, you bring out the bright acidity. This acidity makes the wine a natural for all sorts of food pairing, from yummy cheese to cured meat, and from seafood to poultry. But serve it too warm (i.e. room temperature) and you can end up getting less acid and fruit, and more alcohol in the aromas.
Sheldrake Point & Gamay Noir
What Gamay has going for it is that it produces a wine unlike any other. Sheldrake Point makes and sells Gamay Noir as a varietal because it is so different from any other grape we grow, and different from any other grape grown on the planet. In fact, very few Finger Lakes vineyards grow true Gamay Noir. (Read more about our Gamay Noir in our Winter 2014 newsletter)
So don’t be shy when you see a Gamay Noir on a menu—whether one from the many crus (villages) of the Beaujolais region in France, or our Sheldrake Point Gamay Noir, which is made in that style. Give it a try. We think you will agree that back in 1395 Philippe the Bold “doth protest too much.”