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Gamay: The Ultimate Guide

Barrels of Gamay wine in a cellar.
Gamay wine in a cellar. Image by D Mz from Pixabay.

Grown primarily in France, the Gamay grape is a purple grape used for red wines, most famously the variety known as Beaujolais. Keep reading our in-depth guide to discover everything there is to know about the Gamay grape including where it’s grown, its history, best types to try and more.

Table of Contents

Gamay Basics

Gamay is a purple grape that is from the Western area of France, the most notable vineyards that it is associated with is the Loire Valley and also Beaujolais. Both of these vineyards are in the Tours region of France.

Gamay is used to make exclusively red wines, and while it is colloquially known as Gamay, its full name is actually Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc. This roughly translates to Black Gamay with White Juice.

Gamay is a naturally acidic purple grape, which makes naturally acidic red wines. The level of acidity in the wine is very much dependent on the type of soil that it is grown in. A soil with high levels of acidity will mellow out a wine and give a calmer wine. In contrast to this, a soil with a high level of alkanes will stress the vine and cause an extremely acidic grape.

However, the acidity of the grape does not mean that the wine that is sold is necessarily very acidic. By using a fermentation process called carbonic maceration- which essentially sees grapes being fermented with extremely high levels of carbon dioxide, the acidity is slightly negated. This method of fermentation also offers a way for other flavors and expressions to shine through in the wine. These flavors are vibrant and offer a youthful elegance to the wine.

A Gamay that is fermented in such a way will have primary aromas of raspberries and strawberries and secondary aromas that bring a distinctly floral aspect to the wines. These floral notes can be of violets, lilacs, and other delicate purple flowers.

Regardless of the method of fermentation used or the type of soil that the vine experienced as it grew, a glass of Gamay will likely give you a wonderfully light body with delightfully fruity flavors. It does not typically have the characteristics that a wine needs to age as a wine made for aging will typically have a much fuller body- although the acidity in the grape does mean that it is possible for a Gamay to be made to be aged.

The Gamays that are made to be aged are few and far between- and even then they are made for moderate aging of 5 to 7 years. These wines are made differently, using the skin of the grape in the production much more than otherwise- this is a process known as ‘whole-berry maceration’. These wines will have much different flavors, with sour cherries, dried berries, black pepper, and even chalk.

The grape is predominantly grown throughout France- although some regions prefer to use the wine in a blend. Outside of France, there are only a handful of vineyards that cultivate the grape. These can be found in parts of Canada, Oregon, and even a very select few in Australia. It is reported that these wines taste relatively similar to those of France.

History of Gamay

The Gamay grape itself has been around for a long time, being recorded in the history books as far back as the 15th century, but evidence suggests it may stem from much further back in history. It is a popular grape for many reasons, it is partially favored by vineyards because of the ease of cultivation- it is well known to produce a large amount of grapes with each harvest.

While the first written mentions of Gamay have been noted from the 15th century, there is evidence that it has first been bred from as early as the 1360’s. It is thought to have been first grown in the small village of Gamay, its namesake. This village is the south of the Beaune region of France- which at the time, was also very popular for Pinot Noir.

The Gamay grape flourished here as it was easy to cultivate, ripened relatively quickly and produced grapes in a plentiful manner. This is in relative contrast to the Pinot Noir grape which is known to be a relatively temperamental grape and can be hard to cultivate, while also resulting in a low yield. The Gamay grape also gained popularity in the town of Gamay because the wine that it produced was stronger and had a much fruitier palate than the Pinot Noir grapes.

However, all was not well for the Gamay grape. The duke of Burgundy in 1395, Phillippe the Bold, made a law that forbade the growth of the grape. He branded the grape ‘disloyal’, and stated that the wine was simply full of a ‘very great and horrible harshness’. He insisted that the space being used for the Gamay grape be used instead for the previously popular Pinot Noir, branding this grape the more elegant choice.

This was not the end for the tirade against Gamay. Just sixty years after Phillipe the Bold branded the wine horrible and harsh, Phillippe the Good, the new Duke of Burgundy, banned the cultivation of the grape once more. The reason that was cited for this ban was in order to maintain the reputation that Dukes of Burgundy have for having the best wiens in Christendom.

Climate and Terroir

While the Gamay grape is not widely grown around the world, where it is grown reports relatively similar tasting notes to those found in France. This implies that the climate has little effect on this particular type of grape.

However, the same cannot be said for the terroir. As mentioned above, a Gamay grape responds to the type of soil that it is grown in a very apparent way. A Gamay grown in soil that is heavily alkaline will produce a grape that is so acidic, it might just get banned from the region by a local duke. This can be dealt with relatively easily through a different style of fermentation. This fermentation will mellow out the wine and make for a much more palatable glass of wine.

Equally, Gamay that is grown in limestone soil produces a grape that is extremely acidic. This acidity means that Gamay grown in limestone soils has little appeal to a wider audience- although it is still grown- particularly in Southern France, in the Pierres Doreés vineyards.

In contrast to this, a Gamay grown in an acidic soil will actually present a wine that is much fruitier and much softer on the palate, and is generally more likely to be a crowd pleaser than that which was grown in alkaline soil (pre fermentation).

This information is important for sommeliers to know, but the nuances between different types of soil can be difficult for a beginner, or even intermediate, wine drinker to pick up on. Thanks to the methods of fermentation, it is unlikely that you will be faced with a volatile acidity as you sip your Gamay.

Regions and Vineyards

Gamay is typically grown throughout select areas in France. Despite the rocky start it had in Burgundy, other areas of France have welcomed the grape into a regular location- particularly Beaujolais just south of Burgundy. In fact, up to 75% of the world’s Gamay supply has been produced in Beaujolais. The most well known of these areas is the Loire Valley and the Tours area. Gamay grapes that are produced here can generally be used in a blend, but they are equally popular as varietals.

The blend of the Loire Valley is typically Gamay combined with Cabernet Franc and a clone of Malbec, named differently only in certain regions of France, called Côt. This blend is said to be relatively similar to the wines of Crus Beaujolais- and indeed Gamay is grown in the Beaujolais region of France, making it a part of the Crus Beaujolais.

This is because typically wines grown in France are labeled after the region they are grown in, and not the grape they are made from. These wines can be a blend, or they can be a varietal, it is mostly dependent on the preference of the vineyard.

Crus Beaujolais wines are a selection of ten different types of wine that are said to demonstrate the ten best wines of the Beaujolais region, each representing a different area in the region. These wines are often fit for aging, although each present different characteristics.

The Gamay wines that are produced in Beaujolais are grown in alkaline soil. This alkaline soil produces a grape that is considerably more acidic than the already extremely acidic Gamay. Through the use of carbonic maceration (a type of fermentation that uses much larger levels of CO2 than is normal), this wine turns from an exceptionally acidic- borderline undrinkable- wine, into something that is quite delicious.

So delicious, in fact, that it is made into a wine that is most commonly known as Beaujolais Nouveau. Beaujolais Nouveau is aged for just a few weeks before being released for sale and on the day that it is released, distributors flock to share what they can with buyers from around the world.

Outside of French vineyards, Gamay can be found growing in a select few areas of Canada. These areas are commonly focused in the Niagara Peninsula in Southern Ontario, where certain vineyards produce mutations of the grape- specifically Gamay Noir Droit. The original Gamay grape is found in vineyards throughout the region of Southern Ontario, including Prince Edward County, and Château des Charmes, which carries the recognized mutation of Gamay Noir Droit.

Stretching south from the Vineyards of Canada, the grape can be found growing predominantly in Oregon in the United States of America. It is most famously grown in the Willamette Valley region. This area has made a name for itself in adoption of grapes from Burgundy- even more popular than Gamay, it produces increasingly famous Pinot Noir wines.

The Gamay grape was introduced to this region in 1988, but its popularity picked up slowly, with different vineyards picking up the grape for just a few seasons before changing for another type of grape- usually Pinot Noir, which was also used as in a blend with the Gamay. This was done as the Gamay would help to improve the color and the fruit palates of Pinot Noirs- however it came to a halt when the vineyard that was producing the bulk of Gamay grapes refused to sell to wineries that would use them in blends.

Since this time, the popularity of Gamay in the United States and in Oregon has slowly grown, with young wineries adopting the grape with a steadily increasing frequency. In fact, the popularity of the grape in the United States has increased to the point where there is a festival celebrated each year in Portland- a festival called simply ‘I Love Gamay’.

Gamay from Oregon has been celebrated, with tasting notes reported to follow a flavor palate similar to the Gamay that is produced in Beaujolais.

Gamay is a grape that flourishes in cooler regions- and is popularly produced in France, parts of the United States and Canada, but also places like Switzerland and Turkey- places that aren’t necessarily known for their vineyards, but certainly do have a solid selection of wines whose grapes fare better in cooler temperatures.

Styles & Flavor Characteristics

Gamay is a relatively consistent grape throughout production. The predominant differences stem from the type of soil that it grows in- which naturally alters the type of fermentation used. Despite these differences, Gamay is a fruity wine that has a very low tannin count and a medium-low body- often bordering on low.

It is an exceptionally aroma based wine, often said to carry more in the notes than in the actual flavor itself. However, these flavors will offer you a beautiful example of berries and florals to enjoy. Regardless of vineyard, country of production, or method of fermentation, you will find your Gamay to have notes of raspberries, blackcurrants, violets, and maybe even a rogue earthy note.

Pairing Gamay with Food

The art of pairing a wine is a relatively complex one- but it is also one that once you have a firm grasp on the basics, the rest somewhat falls into place. While some may find it useful to be given solid meal plans of what may work, it will also be helpful for you to understand why some pairings may work and others may not.

Rule One: Make Sure You Like the Flavors

The first, and most important rule of wine pairing is to make sure that you already like all of the components. Thousands of people might agree that the absolutely perfect pairing for cod fish is a light Sauvignon Blanc- but if you can’t stand white wine you will still hate the pairing and the wine may even ruin the dish for you. Likewise, if you just bought a lovely Pinot Noir and the experts are insisting that the best choice of pairing is a mushroom risotto- but wait, mushrooms make your mouth itch… it’s no longer the perfect pairing- no matter what the experts might say.

Rule Two: Try, Try, and Try Again

That being said- it is a good idea to make sure that you actually don’t like a wine, and it wasn’t the food that you were eating it with- or perhaps even the time of day or even year that you chose to indulge in a particular wine. A good example of how this may work is this: if it’s a hot summer day and you’re looking for a lunchtime wine then a full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon is not going to taste as good as it might in other situations.

In contrast to this, a light and crisp white wine is not going to deliver the best of itself if you are drinking it in say, a Christmas market. Equally if you pair a wine inappropriately- say a Shiraz with a delicate white fish, the wine is going to completely overpower the fish and really damage the chances that the wine AND the fish have of actually being enjoyed.

While these are good rules to follow, if you didn’t know about them then you may already assume that you don’t like a particular kind of wine, when really it was the situation that was unsuitable. There are other reasons to give a wine a second chance as well- perhaps you have an underlying preference to warmer or cooler climate wines, and the Chardonnay you picked up was of the opposite persuasion.

The wine could have been suffering from a common (or uncommon) wine fault that left it- perhaps not undrinkable, but perhaps somewhat less appealing than it was meant to be. It could be the particular vintage that was not to your taste, or even the vineyard and their method of fermentation or aging (maybe you love an oak aged wine, maybe you don’t).

Rule Three: Know Your Flavors

As we begin to consider the wines- we must first consider the flavors of both the wine and the food. There are six major flavor points that we can categorize things we consume into:

  • Salty
  • Sweet
  • Umami (‘Meaty’ flavors like mushrooms and beef)
  • Spicy
  • Bitter
  • Sour

Some of these taste points go well together, things like sweet and spicy, salty and umami, and so on. Others will probably never go together- and there are three that fit into a triangle of uncomfortable pairings- three things that just do not go together at all. Those three are spicy, bitter, and sour.

This is important to know, because as you prepare to pair your wines, you need to know exactly what won’t work and this triangle will help you with that.

Wine is made up of three key flavor points- sweet, which goes by the same name, sour, which is referred to as ‘crisp’, ‘fresh’, sometimes ‘tangy’ and so on. Wine also has the flavor point of bitter, which is referred to as tannin or tannic wine. To pair a wine you must consider the dominant flavor point of the wine, which in the case of Gamay, is acidic, and the food.

Finding the flavor point of food can be more challenging than it may seem. More often than not, it is the sauce, not the protein that gives the dominant flavor point- however it is important to try to pair the dish as a whole. For things like pasta dishes, this is less challenging. For a meat, two veg, a carbohydrate and a sauce, choosing the dominant flavor is slightly more complicated. If you are feeling confused and overwhelmed, it’s always best to stick with the sauce if there is one, or the protein if there is not.

So once you have clear the dominant flavor of both the wine and the dish, you can start to consider whether they will go together, and the following rules of pairing a wine with a dish.

Rule Four: Complementary or Congruent Pairings?

There are two main ways that a wine and a food pairing is happily reached, and that is either a complementary pairing- so a flavor that is different but complementary- such as sweet wine with salty foods, or a congruent pairing, such as sweet wines with sweet foods. Both of these pairing techniques work well with each other, and both of them allow the wines and the food to present themselves in their best light. So if we look at this in terms of Gamay:

A complementary pairing of Gamay would be something that has an Umami flavor, like herby roasted chicken, pork sausages, and even something like beef stroganoff. You can also opt for something that may not necessarily be considered as sweet, but certainly has sweet notes- things like glazed meats.

Because of the exceptionally low tannic nature of Gamay wine- and the light body that can be enjoyed by all, Gamay can actually pair very well with a variety of seafood dishes. If this is the route you wish to travel, consider the more meaty fishes like tuna steaks and salmon for this, especially if they are glazed or with a creamy sauce. You can also match up a good Gamay with other fried seafoods like prawns, calamari, and even seasoned seafood dishes like cajun prawns.

A congruent pairing of Gamay is something that is also acidic. It’s worth remembering that when choosing a congruent pairing, it is important that the wine is more than the food. A dessert that is sweeter than its dessert wine will still taste good, but the wine is essentially wasted as the flavors from the dessert will overpower it and leave it as almost nothing. In the case of Gamay, it is already quite sour, which makes it a good choice for sour dish pairings.

Things like cranberries, pomegranate sauces, certain cheeses, all pair very well with Gamay, complementing in a very congruent way and helping to display both the wine and the food in the best lights. You can also pair it with a lemony fish, or even a salad with a zesty dressing on it.

Rule Five – Location Matters

Many wines have been made and served alongside a meal for hundreds and hundreds of years, and Gamay is no different. If you want to be sure of a steadfast pairing for your wine then look at the region where it is from and consider whether any of the dishes there will work for it. In the case of Gamay dishes that are traditionally from Burgundy, for example Escargots à la Bordelaise, pair very well with a Gamay.

Equally, Rabbit served in a creamy mustard sauce will pair nicely with a Gamay. The fruity flavors of the wine will stand up to the rabbit and the creamy sauce will be cut through with the fresh acidity of Gamay. Equally, braised pigeon which is extremely popular in certain parts of France can go very well with a Gamay.

Considering the original location of any wine that you are drinking is very important when pairing. It’s important to remember that particularly in countries that have Old World wineries, wine has been very much as much of a part of the culture as food as for as long as anyone can remember. This can make pairing wine very easy, and it’s a great tool to have a few go to great choices on hand.

Best Gamays to Try

Gamay is a type of wine where it’s really not that necessary for you to spend a whole lot of money in order to be sure that you’re getting a good one. In fact, most Gamays are actually very much budget friendly. A really exceptionally good bottle of Gamay is likely to set you back in the region of $15 to $25. So don’t worry too much about the potential price hurdles, Gamay is an affordable friendly wine- although it is certainly possible to find bottles that are more expensive than this.

According to a wide range of critics scores, these are the 10 best Gamay wines for you to indulge in:

Domaine Louis Claude Desvignes Morgon Javernières Les Impénitents – Beaujolais, France

Score: 93/100
Price: $47 USD

This is one of the most expensive wines to come out of its region, and each vintage is popular, but continues to improve year after year. It has fragrances of both sweet cherry and wild strawberries with hints of truffles and pepper. This wine is a soft, delicate wine with a relatively rich attack on the palate. This wine offers a delicate complexity while remaining unassuming.

Domaine Mee Godard Morgon Passerelle 577 – Beaujolais, France

Score: 92/100
Price: $37 USD

An increasingly popular wine- particularly in the region, this bottle has had some success in the World Wine Awards, most notably for its 2014 vintage.

Château des Bachelards Comtesse de Vazeilles Fleurie Le Clos – Beaujolais, France

Score: 92/100
Price: $73 USD

This wine is one of the most expensive wines from the region of Fleurie, and the past year has seen a drastic increase in its popularity. It is said to have aromas of elderflower and be gripping on the palate. It has an unusually rich tannic profile for a Gamay, and is a relatively powerful wine despite its comparatively low alcohol content.

Domaine Jules Desjourneys Moulin-à-Vent Chassignol – Beaujolais, France

Score: 92/100
Price: $77 USD

Critically acclaimed to be a part of the best five wines in Beaujolais, this Gamay has had a relatively positive buzz following it since 2011. From the sub-region that it is grown (Moulin-a-Vent) it is one of the highest priced wines, but also one of the most popular- and it is only increasingly so.

Daniel Bouland Morgon Les Delys – Beaujolais, France

Score: 92/100
Price: $33 USD

This wine has received excellent critical acclamation, including a rating of 95 out of 100 by The Wine Advocate for the 2019 vintage. It is relatively expensive for its region, finding itself in the top 20% of the price bracket- however it is sought after, in the past year it has found itself as the tenth most sought after wine from the sub region of Morgan.

Domaine Jules Desjourneys Moulin-à-Vent – Beaujolais, France

Score: 92/100
Price: $58 USD

From the region of Moulin-a-Vent, this is one of the more expensive wines, although some of its vintages have been extremely popular with critics, most notably of which is the 2015 vintage which scored a rather impressive 96 out of 100 by The Wine Advocate. It is thought to be the fifth most popular wine in the region despite being one of the more expensive bottles available.

Yvon Metras Fleurie – Beaujolais, France

Score: 92/100
Price: $72 USD

Of the wines produced in Fleurie, critics agree that this is the best, with its 2018 vintage scoring 94 out of 100 points from The Wine Advocate. It has steadily increased in price alongside its popularity, and today it is one of the most expensive wines in the region.

Jean-Marc Burgaud Morgon Cote du Py James – Beaujolais, France

Score: 92/100
Price: $36 USD

The 2018 vintage of this wine scored an impressive 95 out of 100 points, and over the past year the popularity of this wine has catapulted the wine into one of the most popular wines in the region. Along with this popularity, an increased price tag has followed- making it one of the most expensive wines in the Morgon region of Beaujolais.

Domaine Louis Claude Desvignes Morgon Javernières – Beaujolais, France

Score: 92/100
Price: $25 USD

As we stray further down the list of best Gamay wines, you will notice that the price becomes more favourable to the casual consumer, but that the score out of 100 remains almost the same. In fact, this very wine received a 94 out of 100 scoring for their 2019 vintage, and despite (or perhaps because of) the price, this wine is one of the most popular in the entire region.

Domaine Jean Foillard Morgon Côte du Py – Beaujolais, France

Score: 92/100
Price: $40 USD

Gamay wine that is produced in the Morgon Region has dominated this list, and this entry is no different. Of all the wines from Beaujolais, this is no different, sitting comfortably in the top ten wines from the Morgon region. Its delicate notes almost suggest a white wine flavor of peach. It has a distinctive level of finesse and elegance and is recommended for its value for money.

You will notice that all of the wines on this list are from the Beaujolais region of France. This is not a coincidence as much as it is simply a game of numbers- this region has been producing the wine for the longest amount of time, and it produced the most (75% of the world’s supply is from the Beaujolais region).

Gamay Facts

  • The Gamay grape can be used to make rose wine as well- most commonly in the Loire Valley.
  • Gamay can be aged, but typically only for 1-3 years. It is made to be drunk young.
  • Gamay was originally grown to be drunk by the workers of the vineyard after the harvest.
  • Gamay is released on the third Thursday each November, after its quick fermentation time.
  • The Grape was banned from the Burgundy Region by not one but two different Dukes, as each Duke felt they had a responsibility to retain a certain quality of wine in the region, and they didn’t feel that Gamay abided by that.
  • Gamay pairs very well with food! It’s light body and low tannin means it is an extremely versatile wine.
  • 75% of the world’s Gamay is grown in the Beaujolais region in France, just South of Burgundy, next to the city of Lyon.
  • There are only 37,000 hectares of Gamay grown worldwide, and of that, 23,000 hectares are in the Beaujolais region.
  • The terroir of the wine greatly affects how the wine tastes and its ability to age.

Gamay FAQs

What is a Similar Wine to Beaujolais?

If you are looking for a wine similar to Gamay or Beaujolais, it is best to choose another light bodied red wine. This can include wines such as Pinot Noir- as the more popular choice. While this is the best choice, you can also opt for a Burgundy or even a Chianti. The most readily available, and budget friendly option for this would be the Pinot Noir.

What are the Beaujolais Varietals?

Beaujolais wine is typically Gamay or Gamay Noir grapes- a small mutation from the original grape. Sometimes a Beaujolais can be a blend but even with blends, Gamay is the predominant grape.

What is the alcohol content of Beaujolais?

Usually around 10% to 13%. Commonly this will settle around 12.5% alcohol.

What is Beaujolais’s Flavor Profile?

You can expect red berries throughout your Gamay experience- cherries, cranberries and raspberries are all different notes of what you can expect to enjoy. You may also find earthy notes and floral aromas.

Final Notes

While not a widely popular wine as of yet, Gamay, or Beaujolais as it is known when it comes from the famous Beaujolais Region of France, is a versatile wine that has a charming fruity aroma while keeping a low level of tannins and what can be a relatively high level of acidity- depending on the fermentation methods.

It is most similar to Pinot Noir as they are both light bodied reds. However, the Gamay grape produces a wine that is even lighter still than Pinot Noir. It pairs very well with many different foods and cheeses, and it is growing in popularity around the world. To learn more about different types of wines and how they work, pair, and where they are grown, then take the time to explore our in depth article about different types of wine.

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