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Gamay, Up Close & Personal

I spent last week in Beaujolais, drinking wine made from Gamay and talking with a lot of people about the grape and the wine. I’ve always enjoyed a variety of Beaujolais wines, but this was my first visit to the area and my first opportunity to taste a couple of hundred bottles of Gamay in a very short period of time.

And the wines I tasted were almost uniformly very good. A couple were great. Here are my take-away thoughts about the region and its wines:

• Gamay is not everyone’s favorite grape, even when it’s made well – but so what? Such popular wines as Chardonnay and Merlot certainly have their very vocal detractors, yet no one dismisses white Burgundy or the wines of St. Ēmilion because of these critics.

• Beaujolais offers a lot of variety in small measures. Red Gamay accounts for about 95% of Beaujolais, but there are also Beaujolais Blancs (Chardonnay, usually a little spicier than in Burgundy), Gamay rosés and sparklings. And, of course, there is the world’s most-famous nouveau.

• Gamay tastes more like Gamay than anything else, but it can resemble Garnacha when young and like Pinot Noir when old. Many times during my visit, I savored the creamy, black raspberry flavors of the 2009 Beaujolais Crus and might well have been drinking Spanish Garnacha or southern Rhone Grenache. Those who love those wines should give the top Beaujolais wines another look. The older wines often tasted like aging Pinots – but then don’t half of aged red wines in the world? If you like older Burgundies, put away a few cases of Morgon or Moulin à Vent for a few years.

• Not all of the 10 different Beaujolais Crus taste the same, but they taste more alike than they do different. Each of the 10 has its subtle differences – more floral, more structured, more mineral flavors, more tannins and so on, but you have to know your Crus much better than I do to pick them out consistently in a blind tasting. The point is, they are all Crus, and all worthy of special consideration.

• Beaujolais-Villages are great bargains. The winemakers I talked with all bemoaned the fact these well-regarded wines are too often being skipped over by today’s consumers. I like basic Beaujolais from good producers, but you seldom go wrong with any Villages, especially for burgers and bistro food. No one served them to me chilled, and the option didn’t even occur to me. But lightly chilled is OK.

• Can top-flight Beaujolais age well? Sure. Does it need to? Maybe not. Over a dinner of poulet aux morilles at the Restaurant des Sports in Fleurie, négoce Jean Tête, director of the Vins Jean Tête, told me his basic aim wasn’t to make wines that age well (although his do), but to have his Crus taste at their optimum as soon as they hit the shelf. There are two old sayings he likes to quote – “People taste Burgundy, but drink Beaujolais” and “The best vintage is the current one.” While I don’t completely agree with Tête, there is a third saying that might also be relevant: “People ask the wine shop owner how long a wine will age, then take it home and drink it with dinner.”

• Crus within Crus attract interest. Within the individual Crus, there continues to be further emphasis on special, smaller areas, just as there is along Burgundy’s Côte d’Or. The critical attention Laurent Gauthier’s Morgon Grands Cras continues to get from Jancis Robinson and other writers (including me) asks the question as to whether that region should be elevated to a par with Morgon’s fabled Côte du Py.

• The past two vintages are delicious studies in contrast. This is a wonderful time to be a Beaujolais drinker. The 2009 vintage on the market is big, fruity, sturdy, tannic but balanced, while the 2010 is a study in elegance. Of course, both will have their exceptions.

• There are some interesting experiments going on. Julie Balagny is producing some lovely vin naturel that has found its way to the United States. Other vintners are playing more with “the Burgundy method” by de-stemming all or part of their cuvees rather than using total whole-cluster fermentation. In Julienas, Vincent Audras at Clos de Haute Combe is experimenting with plantings of Viognier, Syrah and Gameret, none of which is approved for the Beaujolais appellation. He would market them as Vins de France. “Here we know perfectly our soil,” Audras says, “but only for Gamay.”

• Gamay or Beaujolais? Winemakers are uncertain how best to market serious Beaujolais in the United States – as Gamay or as Beaujolais? I don’t know the answer to that one.

• The region is more beautiful than many of us would anticipate before our first visits. If I were looking for a place in rural France to visit with rolling hills, no traffic congestion and lovely little towns with great restaurants, it would be Beaujolais. The wines aren’t bad, either.

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