(For all my 2016 wine tastings, click the "wine2016" tag at the end of this entry; or just the "wine" tag for all the writing I've ever done on the subject.)
Bon mercredi! For those coming by for the first time and need the backstory, I'm a wine neophyte who made a New Year's resolution in 2016 to finally get better educated about the subject; and the first thing I'm doing as part of that education is thoughtful tastings of the world's 20 most popular types of grapes, one a week for 20 weeks, moving chromatically from the darkest reds to the lightest whites (which I'll be getting to right when the weather starts turning warm again in Chicago, which I'm looking forward to). So far since New Year's I've tried Syrah/Shiraz, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chianti, Merlot, (Red) Zinfandel and Garnacha/Grenache; and this week I'm trying the Gamay grape for the first time, my second-to-last red wine before starting up on the whites for the first time in March.
Like last week's Grenache, Gamay is a type of wine I had never heard of before taking on this tasting project this year, and it turns out there's a very good reason for that; a staple of "Old World" (i.e. European) fine-wine* since literally the Romans and the pagans came together in France in 600 AD and started making fine-wine in the first place, like many Old World countries France actually labels their wine by the region it came from, not the type of grape used, meaning that every time someone drinks a bottle of the super-trendy Beaujolais style of wine, what they're actually drinking is a bottle full of Gamay juice. That's not the only type of French wine that's made from the grape, and not all Beaujolaises are made from 100 percent Gamay, and France isn't the only place on the planet that grows Gamay (it's become popular in recent years, for example, in the US's Oregon); but the association between Gamay and French Beaujolais wine is so closely linked that you can effectively substitute one word for the other in most cases.
(*And it bears repeating, that we actually have recorded evidence of winemaking going all the way back to the birth of agriculture, ten thousand years ago in the "Fertile Crescent" region of Mesopotamia [making up what we now call Iraq, Turkey, Croatia, and other modern nations], and with there being an entire wine culture in places like ancient Egypt; but the definition of making wine back then was essentially, "Stick the grapes in a jar, let them rot, then drink the juice," resulting in "wine" that you and I would undoubtedly call vinegar instead. It wasn't until the 7th century AD that the pagans and early Christians of Western Europe got interested in making wine in a much more rigorous and better way, assisted by the Roman Empire that was just starting to lose its global influence at that point, which signaled the birth of the kind of "fine wine" we still drink to this day.)
I have to say, Gamay has one of the most interesting histories that I've read so far this year; a favorite among Benedictine monks during the Medieval period, it was famously poo-pooed by a prominent member of the French aristocracy in the 1400s (for being a "poor man's Pinot Noir"), which started its downward slide in popularity that lasted all through the Renaissance (although with a surge again in the late 1800s, when the invention of railroads brought large quantities of Beaujolais to Paris for the first time.)
Ah, but we all know what Beaujolais became so famous for in the 20th century -- the so-called "Beaujolais Nouveau" wines, which after some research I'm realizing is part fact, part savvy marketing. See, unlike a lot of Old World wine back in the early Modern era (1400s to 1800s), which needed to sit in the bottle for five or ten years before it fully ripened into its most flavorful taste (which is where we get the tradition of wine cellars in the first place), Beaujolais wine is both unusually fruity, unusually light, and ripens unusually early, which meant that it was one of the few Old World wines in those years that was meant to be drank immediately after it was bottled. In fact, when the first bottles would start showing up each year in the famous restaurants of nearby Lyon, it became popular to joyfully yell, "Le Beaujolais Est Arrivé!," which was even more cemented with the idea of good times since it coincided with the harvest each year; and starting in the 1960s, some smart salespeople in this region decided to revive this tradition and to sell it as something special to the rest of the world, including the brand-new term "Beaujolais Nouveau," with the French government eventually passing a law that designated a specific day and time each year that bottles around the world could be opened (12:01 am on the third Thursday of November), leading to big parties in the US and Europe among wine novices to herald the famous "wine that must be drank right this moment."
Now, you know, never mind that actually most modern wine is now meant to be drank the moment you buy it -- due to modern science and advances in academic vintner programs, only something like 10 percent of all the wine still made on the planet actually gets better with age -- this was a smart and delightful advertising ploy that eventually led to the region selling tens of millions of bottles each year by the time the 1990s rolled around (including a huge majority of it to Japan, where they do crazy things like fill hot tubs and then bathe in it). Only one problem; in their greed for all that tourist money, the hundreds of wineries in the general Beaujolais region (but more on this in a bit) started releasing really inferior wines to keep up with demand, then got caught in a series of scandals (like illegally adding sugar to their wines behind the backs of government inspectors) that virtually wiped out that area's reputation by the early 2000s. In 2001, in fact, right when all these casual Beaujolais drinkers were first discovering things like South American Malbec and Australian Shiraz, the wineries of this region were forced to destroy literally 1.1 million barrels of unsold Beaujolais Nouveau wine, a huge blow to the area that they still haven't recovered from 15 years later.
Still, though, like every other type of wine these days, there is a core group of dedicated and serious vintners in Beaujolais who are trying to restore their local reputation for quality, and you can largely judge their seriousness based on what kind of Beaujolais they're legally allowed to call themselves on their label: "Beaujolais AOC," for example, can be from any of the 96 small towns making up the Beaujolais region, and is the origin of most of the infamous '90s "vin de merde" (or "shit wine," the term that a local journalist came up with back then to describe his neighbors, and then famously got sued over), while a wine labeled "Beaujolais-Villages" comes from one of a core 30 towns that have been producing such wine for much longer (and have soil with more granite in it, which is thought to improve the wine's flavor), while a "Beaujolais Cru" is the cream of the crop, and can only come from one of ten villages that have proven themselves worthy of the name in the eyes of the law.
The wine I tried tonight is a Beaujolais-Village from Louis Jadot, one of the classic wineries of the area that's been around since the early 1800s. (Their website claims that they're the "number one French wine sold in America," so take that as you will.) The main reason a lot of people like Gamay is that it's basically a much more affordable version of Pinot Noir, and after tasting it I could see what these people mean -- it has a light, fruity touch, a subtle aroma that you have to really stick your nose into to get, and a taste intensity that virtually disappears when you pair it with food, making it much more appropriate for cheese and crackers than for steak and chicken. All in all, I have to admit that I've been underwhelmed by the two Old World wines I've so far tried in 2016; with my preference for things like craft-beer stouts and black coffee, I find myself just naturally drawn more towards the bolder and more "in your face" flavors of such New World wines as Shiraz and Malbec, as well as such darker traditional wines as Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Beaujolais-Villages (100% Gamay), 2014
Southern Beaujolais, France
Look: A bright red that easily lets the light through, plus with a distinct magenta glint to the liquid's surface, much like Malbec.
Smell: Much like Chianti, the only other Old World wine I've so far tried this year, this has a uniquely sour and “musty” smell that reminds me of a basement or cellar. Also like Chianti, this wine must be swirled a bit before it will release its full aroma.
Taste: Not nearly as sweet as I thought it was going to be, this has a quite discernable tartness that makes the mouth pucker, reflecting high acidity and undoubtedly why some people call Gamay “the only white wine actually colored red.” A VERY grapey grape taste that leaves a sour, side-tongue feeling in the mouth after swallowing.
After a Full Glass: After an entire glass with some almonds, I realized that, much like the Pinot Noir I tried last month, the flavor of this Beaujolais virtually disappears when pairing it with food.