John Grochau recommends pairing it with charcuterie or slightly aged cheeses. Tom Monroe likes the way it cuts through the fatty oils of roasted chicken. The list of foods that Doug Tunnell suggests having it with, including fish, pasta and Mexican food, seems longer than the ones he rules out. “It” is gamay noir, or just gamay. Invariably described as “often overlooked” and “misunderstood,” this lively varietal, best known as the grape in Beaujolais, is seeing renewed interest abroad and at home.

Much of gamey’s resurgent appeal comes from the shift among France’s top Beaujolais houses to give these grapes the time and attention they need to achieve depth. In the process, they are helping the varietal overcome the stigma of Beaujolais Nouveau. The latter are those young, otherwise forgettable gamays that have for decades been fueling boisterous liquid lunches worldwide with their release each November (about two months after harvest). Here in the Northwest, a small, dedicated group of Willamette Valley gamay devotees are also helping raise the varietal’s profile.

[Photo by Cheryl Juetten, courtesy of I Love Gamay]

Pinot noir fans need not be alarmed

The Willamette Valley’s 30 or so gamay producers represent less than 10 percent of the region’s 531 total wineries. But the quality of their wines and their efforts to educate consumers about them have bottles flying off shelves. Growing affection for these wines has even spawned Portland’s I Love Gamay celebration. (Now in its third year, the 2019 festival takes place May 3–6.)

To keep up with the wine’s rising popularity, Portland’s Division Winemaking Company, which Monroe and Kate Norris established in 2010, has increased gamay production from about 50 cases in 2011 to 2,000 or so cases in 2017. (Monroe and Norris developed their affinity for gamay while studying winemaking in Fleurie, one of Beaujolais’ premier villages.) In Amity, Grochau, owner/winemaker of Grochau Cellars, bumped his winery’s gamay production from 250 cases in 2016 to about 500 in 2017. His 2018 production is expected to top 700 cases. And the only thing slowing him down is the lack of more vineyard sources for the grape. (Of the Willamette Valley’s roughly 19,000 vineyard acres, gamay occupies about 30 to 40 acres. By comparison, pinot noir covers about 14,000 acres.)

A natural fit

Tunnell included gamay among his initial plantings when he established his Newberg winery, Brick House Vineyard, in 1990. In the 1980s, Tunnell, then a foreign correspondent for CBS News, was living in France when Burgundy’s Drouhin family announced plans to establish an estate in the Willamette Valley. This prompted Tunnell, who grew up in the Willamette Valley, to begin looking for vineyard land of his own.

Having regularly visited Beaujolais, just south of Burgundy, Tunnell suspected that gamay could thrive just as well in the Willamette Valley as pinot noir and chardonnay. In addition to having similar climates, Willamette Valley and Beaujolais both possess low-pH soils with high levels of silica. (Willamette Valley’s soils lack the granite found in top Beaujolais sites.) Today, Tunnell produces mostly pinot noir and chardonnay. But the 600 to 700 cases of gamay he makes each year represents about 15 percent of his winery’s portfolio.

“Gamay was definitely under the radar for a long time,” he says. “I joke that my wife and I can talk about gamay in our sleep. For the first 18 years, you had to explain what the grape was and where it grows. But we’re off to the races now, so we don’t have to explain what it is anymore.” (Tunnell also penned this informative article about gamay’s fascinating history.)

A food-friendly value

If you can get past gamay’s pronounced acidity, you are likely to become hooked. Fatty, lightly salted and/or lightly spiced foods tend to unmask its ripe fruit and spice notes. The wine’s interactions with the oils in turkey, the acidity of cranberries, and the creaminess of mashed potatoes and gravy make it the pros’ choice for Thanksgiving dinner. And since most French and Oregon bottlings come in at $20–$35, Beaujolais and gamays also offer incredible value. (In the movie SOMM: Into the Bottle, Brian McClintic calls Beaujolais the ultimate red wine play for fish—and “catnip for sommeliers.”)

At Brick House (appointments required), the iridescent cranberry-colored Ribbon Ridge gamay offers ripe red berry flavors and hints of anise. Soft cheeses, pâté, and even a well-made pizza with mushroom and sausage bring out many of this wine’s most pleasing qualities.

Grochau typically produces two single-vineyard gamays each year. His Björnson Vineyard selection possesses an intense, almost syrah-like color and dark fruit notes that can stand up to grilled or stewed meats. His lighter, pomegranate-hued Redford-Wetle Vineyard gamay is a great match for saucisson and chicken.

Back in Portland, Division Winemaking produces about five gamays throughout the year. These include single-vineyard bottlings and multi-vineyard gamay blends sourced from Willamette Valley vineyards. The winery also produces a rosé of gamay made with Yakima Valley grapes. When available, most of these find their way into the rotation at Oui! Wine Bar + Restaurant at Southwest Wine Collective, Division Winemaking’s on-site sister business. The winery also offers a gamay-only wine club. The aptly named Club Gamay gives members dibs on Division Winemaking’s vineyard-designate selections and other special gamay releases.