Gamay has come a long way in Australia
Gamay may have a troubled past, but this grape is finding its place in Australia and producing some deliciously drinkable wines.
MOCKED BY MONARCHS, disliked by dukes, yet beloved by the bourgeoisie throughout history, gamay is the people’s grape. Well-made wines produced from gamay blast out of the glass all youthful, fresh and vital. They are pretty and eager to please even the most boorish devotee of Burgundy – the place where gamay was long ago once made an outlaw.
Gamay is the offspring of pinot noir and gouais blanc, and a sister to chardonnay. But throughout the history of wine in Burgundy, gamay has never been anywhere near as revered as chardonnay. When compared to its most noble parent, pinot noir, gamay was considered by some to be positively vile.
According to the long-deceased Duke of Burgundy, Philippe le Hardi, aka Philip the Bold (1342-1404): “A very bad and disloyal variety called Gaamez [sic] is of such a kind that it is very harmful to human creatures, so much so that many people who had it in the past were infested by serious diseases, as we’ve heard; because said wine from said plant of said nature is full of significant and horrible bitterness.” (Rossignol, 1854)
The audacious duke was not a fan of gamay because it threatened further cultivation of the more delicate wines made from pinot noir, which happened to constitute the main source of his land’s wine supply. He therefore ordered the removal of gamay vines from Burgundy, exiling them to Beaujolais, where they have flourished ever since. However, the derision for gamay didn’t stop once it landed in its adopted home.
In Beaujolais, the winegrowers who rushed their grapes through the cellar typically turned them into light, thin and fruity wines that often tasted like strawberries, bananas and even bubble gum. Often uncomplicated and one-dimensional, these wines would go on sale just a few months after harvest in November. They would become known as the fun and frivolous wine Beaujolais Nouveau. Nevertheless, for those in Beaujolais who take the grape seriously, they are rewarded with a fine, ageworthy wine that is admittedly more playful than its profound parentage, yet can be just as distinctive and delicious as any Burgundy cru.
In Australia, plantings of gamay are limited, but some sites have been quietly growing it for many years and producing a seriously charming drink. Barry Morey from Sorrenberg has been growing the grape in the granitic soils of his Beechworth vineyard in Victoria’s north-east for more than 30 years. “Gamay is an unpretentious variety,” Barry says. “It’s a grape that can be delightfully fun or make a serious wine that I reckon would give
some of Burgundy’s a run for their money. We handpick and crush into open fermenters with a little whole bunch, depending on the season.” Barry’s aim is to make a wine to complement food, so he strives for structure, finish and finesse. At Meadowbank Wines in Tasmania, the Ellis family has been growing gamay by the banks of the Derwent River since 1987. Winemaker Peter Dredge says he’s been inspired many times by a bottle of Sorrenberg and was excited to learn that gamay vines were growing among the pinot noir rows at Meadowbank. “I love gamay wines that are bright and fresh. They’re just lovely, easy-drinking wines,” Peter says. “The gamay grown here is a super-bright purple colour that retains an incredible amount of natural acidity. We tend to pick on flavour, aiming for that fresh, lower-alcohol, easy-drinking style, which we enhance by not adding any preservatives.”
“It’s a grape that can be delightfully fun or make a serious wine that I reckon would give some of Burgundy’s a run for their money.”
Perhaps better known for his gorgeous examples of pinot noir, Phillip Jones of Victoria's Bass Phillip also has several rows of gamay growing among the pinot in his South Gippsland vineyard. “We’re slightly cool for gamay in Gippsland, but that means we get really good natural acidity, which is vital for the grape,” Phillip says. “It never has the length of our pinot noir, but it certainly has the freshness, with a lovely wild berry fruit character that will find a satisfying place at a table of cold meats and terrines.”
Further north in the Hunter Valley, it’s perhaps surprising to learn that gamay has been growing here since the 1960s. “I started looking around for gamay around the middle of
2016,” says Chris Tyrrell of Tyrrell’s Wines. “[Viticulturist] Liz Riley pointed me in the direction of Len Evans’ family vineyard. He’d planted gamay some time in the late ’60s from cuttings we think he got from Rutherglen.”
With one eye on the past and another on the future, Chris is taking the family winery into uncharted territory with a gamay in the range for the first time in the winery’s 160-year history. “Obviously our reputation is built on semillon and shiraz, and Bruce [Chris’ dad] was pretty against the idea, which might be a generational thing,” he says. “But I think we should always be wanting to challenge and reinvent ourselves while respecting the achievements we’ve had in the past. For me, gamay is a pretty noble variety and one that I believe fits well with our philosophy. The Hunter is historically known for making light, dry, refreshing reds, and I think the gamay we made fits the bill nicely.”
“The Hunter is historically known for making light, dry, refreshing reds, and I think the gamay we made fits the bill nicely.”
Sorrenberg’s Barry Morey.
Chris Tyrrell of Tyrrell's Wines.