Food

The grapes of Beaujolais, the spirit of America

Seeing how Americans love Beaujolais, especially at Thanksgiving, you’d assume gamay noir, the noble grape of Beaujolais, would find a happy home on these shores too.

Not so.

Domestic gamay noir is a rare curiosity in American wine.  It can be found, though in such small quantities that production data is essentially nonexistent. Despite consuming oceans of the French stuff — 2.4 million bottles of nouveau per year alone — Americans have never warmed to homegrown gamay.

Still, a handful of brave (or perhaps foolhardy) vintners remain committed to their mission. Half a dozen intrepid U.S. wineries produce a total of perhaps 2,000 cases annually, mostly in Oregon — which stands to reason, since pinot noir and gamay noir thrive under similar conditions, and Oregon State University first distributed gamay vine cuttings in 1987. The Chehalem winery, in Newberg, Ore., even produces an American version of passetoutgrains, Burgundy’s blend of gamay and pinot noir.

“My feeling early on was, this wine is dangerous because it’s so hard to stop drinking it, you almost have to call the police,” says Steve Edmunds, owner of Edmunds St. John in Berkeley, Calif., which produces about 200 cases of gamay annually. “There’s not another wine that, to me, gives such really simple, pretty, pleasurable perfume and that just invites you to drink it.”

Edmunds currently stands out among California vintners as the state’s most visible gamay advocate. His vines, planted in 2000, are located in a former pear orchard in remote El Dorado County at 3,400 feet elevation — more than twice as high as Beaujolais’ highest plots.

Michigan's Old Mission Peninsula remains home to at least one gamay noir, from Chateau Grand Traverse in Traverse City, though it’s only available in the Midwest.  Across the border, a handful of Ontario vintners produce gamay. New York lays claim to one or two.

Yet the wine world is filled with lore of gamay projects that fizzled. Charles Shaw — who would later sell his name to Fred Franzia’s Bronco Wine Co., which produces so-called Two-Buck Chuck — tried to grow gamay near St. Helena in the Napa Valley, though Shaw’s vines likely weren’t true gamay. (More on that later.)

Beringer, another big California player, ceased bottling gamay in 2002. North Carolina's few scattered plots are now gone.

No ‘sex appeal’Why hasn’t American gamay flourished?

Perhaps it’s that France’s Beaujolais region has staked its entire reputation on this one grape, and thus made gamay and Beaujolais effectively synonymous. 

Perhaps it’s that Americans’ wine tastes have shifted away from light, fruity wines. Efforts in the 1970s and ’80s to mimic the Beaujolais nouveau craze of young wines from the year's vintage — Montevina Winery, in Plymouth, Calif., even created a “zinfandel nuevo” — are but a distant memory. Myron Redford, owner of Amity Vineyards in Amity, Ore., recalls producing a “pinot noir nouveau” in the 1970s, and has bottled gamay noir since 1988, watching from a distance as big, brawny wines came into fashion.

“All the new winemakers are looking for wines with sex appeal,” he says. “Gamay doesn’t have any sex appeal.”

Or perhaps it’s simple economics.  With even the most rarified Beaujolais topping out around $20, what vintner in his or her right mind wouldn’t assign vineyard acreage to more valuable grapes?

“Who said what I do is logical?” retorts Doug Tunnell, owner and vintner at Brick House Vineyards, in Newberg, Ore.

Tunnell, a former CBS journalist, spent vacations during his years based in Europe toiling in Beaujolais vineyards. He planted four acres of his organic vineyard in gamay, producing just 400 cases in 2004, with a mere 150 cases expected this year.

“It's a pursuit of the heart,” he says.

Mistaken grapesBut domestic gamay’s biggest downfall may have been two cases of mistaken identity. Wines known as Napa Gamay and Gamay Beaujolais were routinely bottled in the 1970s by major wineries like Robert Mondavi, with up to 4,000 acres of Napa Gamay recorded in California alone.

Something was amiss. Edmunds recalls working as a Mondavi tour guide in 1977, and telling Mondavi’s son Tim that his Napa Gamay didn’t taste like the real deal. “I got into some hot water,” Edmunds says.

It would be another 19 years, but in 1996 the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms decided Napa Gamay was in fact an obscure, dark-berried southwestern French variety known as valdigiué. Vintners had until 1999 to correctly label their wines.  The occasional bottle of valdiguié can be found (J. Lohr, in San Jose, Calif., produces one) but the grape fell from favor.

Then the federal government ripped the mask off Gamay Beaujolais. It concluded, as Oregon had in 1977, that the grape was merely a low-grade pinot noir clone known as pinot droit.  Oregon wineries phased out the name long ago, and others must follow suit by 2007, though it has all but vanished already.

So would the real gamay please stand up?  While French Beaujolais , much is ho-hum, due in part to rampant overproduction.  The best domestic gamays resemble top cru Beaujolais like Moulin-à-Vent or Brouilly — for a similar price. Many are ageworthy.  A recently tasted Amity gamay noir from 1991 was as vibrant as the 2004 bottling, and far more complex.

If Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate this nation’s bounty, including wine, why not uncork a gamay noir from these shores this year? Give thanks for American vintners who remain committed to their ideals, no matter how obscure.

TASTING NOTESDomestic gamay can be a challenge to hunt down.  These four either currently are available or will be shortly.

Edmunds St. John 2004 "Bone-Jolly" Witters Vineyard gamay noir ($17): From a high-altitude plot in El Dorado County northeast of Sacramento. Vibrant, with classic scents of perfumed strawberry and straw. Balanced and fruity to taste, with a little zing at the end, some hints of moist soil and a bit of tannin to underscore its structure. Like a good Brouilly or Juliénas from Beaujolais.

Brick House 2004 Willamette Valley gamay noir ($19): Fragrant white pepper pops out of the glass on first sniff. Doug Tunnell’s vineyard offers up forward tannins and a dominant scent of dry soil. A bit herbal and chewy, with more white pepper and a little tar at the very end. Curious and engaging, with a hard-edged fullness not unlike a stoic Moulin-à-Vent.  After being open a day, the wine rounds out, tannins soften and mushroom notes appear.

WillaKenzie Estate 2003 Oregon gamay noir ($19): Dark and full-bodied, another sign of how Oregon’s blazing-hot 2003 vintage, like Beaujolais in 2003, yielded big, lush wines. Ripe cherry and stewed strawberry, with green-leaf hints and a whack of fine tannins. Though it’s fleshy, there’s good acidity in its core and a sweet vanilla thanks to 20 percent new French oak barrels used to age the wine. Elegant, though with an alcoholic kick at the end.

Amity 2004 Oregon gamay noir ($16): Bright berry collides with pungent forest-floor notes of pine pitch and mushrooms. Fuller at the start than the finish, but delightfully juicy and forthright, if a bit tart at the end. The foresty notes provide great depth, and make for a pretty, alluring wine.

WHERE TO FIND THEM
Drinkers in states eligible for wine shipping can purchase gamay directly from WillaKenzie (willakenzie.com) and Amity (amityvineyards.com). 

Edmunds St. John (edmundsstjohn.com) and Brick House (brickhousewines.com) list local distributors in many states on their Web sites, and some gamays can also be ordered online via local in-state retailers like Oregon's Avalon Wine, or from major retailers like New York’s Astor Wines and MacArthur Beverages in Washington, D.C.

Information on Chateau Grand Traverse’s gamay is available from the winery (cgtwines.com).

TOP