In an era of the McMansion, the Hummer, and HD widescreen TV, it's important to be reminded that bigger isn't always better. Few grapes illustrate this maxim more convincingly than Gamay, whose various regional incarnations share a few essential traits: thirst-quenching freshness, vigorous acidity, fruit that leans toward the cherry side of the spectrum, and an addictive "gulpability" that makes them among the world's most versatile wines at table.
At a time when the dense, high-octane expressions of Cabernet and Malbec that gained such popularity over the last decade continue to hold many drinkers captive, Gamay's nimble charms represent a welcome antidote, offering some of the best values to be found on the market.
Beaujolais: The Roots of the Root
The mere mention of Gamay immediately conjures up the region of Beaujolais, the grape's spiritual epicenter at the southernmost tip of Burgundy, whose hilly, granite soils yield the varietal's most archetypal character. For all its mouth-staining succulence, however, Beaujolais has suffered a long history of slander and neglect.
Considering it a country bumpkin of sorts, compared to the region's more "elegant" plantings of Pinot Noir, Phillipe the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, banned cultivation of the "disloyal Gaamez" in 1395, exiling it to current its outpost just above Lyon. Hence the birth of Beaujolais as we know it, which has since lived in the shadows of the famed Pinot strongholds further north in Burgundy's Côte D'Or.
Recently, Beaujolais' reputation has largely been hijacked by the marketing gimmickry surrounding the release of "Beaujolais Nouveau," that yearly ritual whereby a flood of colorful, garishly labeled bottles assaults US shelves each November. Churned out primarily in the saccharine, "wine-meets-Hawaiian-punch" style developed by large corporate firms (George Duboeuf is a notorious example), these are hardly the region's most credible foreign ambassadors.
Fortunately, the past few decades have witnessed a true Beaujolais renaissance, due largely to the efforts of the so-called Gang of Four, a group of visionary winemakers based in the town of Villié-Morgon. Numbering among the natural wine movement's early leaders, they reacted against the generic style that had come to dominate the region's wines. Their example ushered in a new generation of vignerons committed to using traditional methods (no chemical fertilizers or sprays, no added sugars, no commercial yeasts) to craft artisanal wines of restored balance and integrity.
Today, Beaujolais provides an embarrassment of riches, beginning with the bright, quaffable, entry-level bottles labeled simply Beaujolais, of which the 2009 Domaine Dupeuble ($11-14) is a delectable example.
A step up in quality, the Beaujolais-Villages designation offers textbook "bistro wines," marrying snappy acidity with ripe cherry fruit. A perennial favorite, the jubilant 2009 Christophe Pacalet Beaujolais Villages ($11-$15), crackles with fleshy fruit, outclassing many competitors listed at twice the price. Both wines would be best be served with a light chill and a heaping plate of steak frites.
Finally, Beaujolais achieves a regional apotheosis with its ten celebrated villages, or crus (such as Morgon, Fleurie, and Chenas, among others), which are permitted to label under their respective township names. More structured and concentrated than the regional bottlings, these are the Chaplins and Twains of the wine world, playful yet profound. A prime example of the critically-acclaimed '09 vintage, the 2009 Jean Paul Brun (Terres Dorées) Morgon (about $20) could serve as the prototype of its genre: meaty yet elegant with enough "stuffing" to develop in cellar for a few more years.
Beyond Beaujolais: The Loire and Other Contenders
If Beaujolais represents Gamay's "native soil," then France's Loire Valley—particularly the areas surrounding the city of Tours—could be considered its "home away from home." Here Gamay is often blended with a host of other indigenous grapes, such as Cabernet Franc, Pineau D'Aunis and Grolleau, to produce the straightforward but delicious Touraine Rouge, a favorite of the bistros and brasseries of Paris.
When bottled as a single varietal, however, Loire Gamay often assumes an earthy expression, exhibiting a bit of the "barnyard" character that makes bona fide "wine geeks" swoon. Take, for example, the heartbreakingly pretty 2008 "La Mule" from Domaine Chahut et Prodiges ($16), which interjects the faintest whiff of classic Loire funk (think animal musk and fresh hay) into an otherwise ethereal concoction of herbs and strawberry fruit.
Outside of France, there are few regions to which Gamay is indigenous. But isolated clusters surface in Italy's Val D'Aoste, a tiny winemaking oasis nestled thousands of feet above sea-level at the crossroads of the French and Italian Alps. In this punishing Northern climate, grapes struggle to ripen, resulting in finely etched wines of shimmering transparency and restraint. Translucent in the glass, yet loaded with minerals and smoke, the 2009 Grosjean Gamay (around $20) sings of its Alpine terroir, even if it might seem atypically brawny in this warm vintage.
Predictably, Gamay has received little attention in the New World, where the majority of winemakers choose to plant more commercially viable international varieties. However, Steve Edmunds of El Dorado county's acclaimed Edmunds St. John winery applies his "non-interventionist" philosophy to make the 2009 "Bone-Jolly" Gamay Noir ($18-$20), arguably the best Gamay produced outside of Europe. Stylistically modeled after Beaujolais, this high-altitude, low-alcohol wine performs a true miracle in Californian soil: it could be a dead ringer for its Old World counterpart, just another example of the unsung glories of this underdog grape.
Disclosure: All wines except the Domaine Dupeuble were samples provided for review.