Anne Krebiehl MW recently attended the International Pinot Noir Celebration in Oregon, but came away equally captivated by the 'hauntingly perfumed' Gamays also produced in the region.
Vivid cherry fruit, pepper and ample freshness: that is Oregon Gamay. This often overlooked grape is finding authentic expression in the temperate climate of America’s Pacific Northwest, where Oregon’s volcanic and sedimentary soils, its sunny days and strikingly cool nights are proving a perfect home.
Once outlawed in Burgundy, and more recently derided as unserious for its high volumes of Beaujolais Nouveau, Gamay carries reputational baggage. Nonetheless, in the right hands, especially hands that have crafted Pinot Noir, it can make hauntingly perfumed and age-worthy wines.
Scroll down for Anne’s top five Oregon Gamay wines to try
Doug Tunnel of Brick House Vineyards in the Willamette Valley’s Ribbon Ridge AVA was among the first to plant Gamay in 1992. To him, the climatic parallels between Beaujolais and Oregon were clear, ‘When I first started selling Gamay it took so much talking, people just did not know what it was’, he remembers.
But Tunnell’s Gamays have inspired others. By now there are approximately 30 acres of the variety in Oregon, where orchards still outnumber vineyards. There is talk is of grubbing up fruit trees to plant more. ‘I think at this moment a lot of people want to make Gamay but there is just not enough planted’, says Thomas Houseman, winemaker at Anne Amie Vineyards, who clearly loves the grape.
Oregon Gamay almost always ripens later than Pinot Noir while holding its acidity well. ‘We never have to acidulate’, attests Brad McLeroy of Ayres Vineyard, who is thinking of planting more acres.
Both carbonic maceration and traditional skin fermentation are used. The carbonic styles are a hit as chilled reds for summer, while the traditionally fermented styles, often with a portion of whole bunches, are increasingly Pinot-esque.
John Grochau of Grochau Cellars notes that the grape’s thicker skin and upright growth are a natural protection against rot, a great asset in a damp climate. But he is also clear that Gamay does not achieve Pinot Noir prices, despite the same input and dedication.
This may make it difficult to justify the expense of planting, at least for now, but for consumers these hand-crafted, authentic wines represent fantastic value.