State of Play: Gamay
Looking for a lovely, lighter-bodied red? It may be time for Pinot to share the spotlight, as more and more Australians discover the charms of Gamay.
Whilst Gamay is not widely planted in Australia, there has been an increasing interest as we trend towards lighter bodied, dangerously drinkable red wines. Stylistically speaking, if Pinot is the self-important, overly serious, intellectual-suited character, Gamay is the fun-loving, Hawaiian shirt-wearing life of the party. It’s still in its relative infancy here, but before we dive into modern-day Gamay, let’s first look at its long and chequered history.
The other Red Burgundy
Gamay is an ancient varietal related to the Pinot Noir grape, which took its name from a hamlet near Saint-Aubin on the Côte de Beaune in Burgundy. However, it was dramatically banished by the Duke of Burgundy in the 14th Century, before embarking on a 600-year journey to redemption. Undeterred, vintners discovered the terroir in Beaujolais further south of Bourgogne was uniquely suited to the grape, and it was here that it thrived. Covering around 42,000 acres of low granite hills, Beaujolais is the heartland of Gamay from which it takes its French namesake.
On the third Thursday of November each year, "primeur" Beaujolais Nouveau – the first wines of the vintage – are released globally just months after harvest. These wines are made using a particular technique, “carbonic maceration”, where grapes are left whole instead of being crushed, and fermentation occurs inside the whole grape. This softens the acid and produces fruity, low tannin, ready-to-drink wines with a distinctive confected or bubblegum character. This became an international marketing phenomenon, peaking in popularity in the 1980s, which led to a glut of mass-produced, slightly sweet, simple and light-bodied Beaujolais.
In recent years there has been renewed emphasis on evolving Beaujolais’s wine culture to produce more complex, higher quality, age-worthy wines. There are many stunning wines with longer ageing in oak barrels, terroir expressive estate-bottled wines from single vineyards, or wines crafted from the ten Cru Beaujolais communes. These wines can be just as distinctive and beguiling, at a fraction of the cost of their red Burgundian neighbours.
The Australian Story
Original plantings of Gamay occurred in Australia in the 70s and 80s. It was first believed to be planted in the Hunter Valley by Len Evans in 1976, where it still thrives today. Other pioneers include Sorrenberg in Beechworth, Bass Phillip in Gippsland and Eldridge Estate in Mornington Peninsula. However, it can now be found in the cool climates of Tasmania, Adelaide Hills and the Yarra Valley, as well as the Granite Belt. The past decade has seen “young gun” winemakers producing fresh, bright, juicy, fruit-forward wines, whilst others pursue more serious wines with structure, finesse and elegance.
For David Lloyd, owner and winemaker of Eldridge Estate, Gamay is a labour of love. Besotted with the variety after visiting France, David grafted an acre over to Gamay in 1995.After trialling carbonic maceration and a Nouveau wine, he quickly committed to producing a more complex Cru style, using the same winemaking techniques as his Pinot. Said David, “in the early days no-one knew what Gamay was, so selling it was a hard slog”. He admits it’s not a problem these days, as it’s always his first wine to sell out.
In the early days no-one knew what Gamay was, so selling it was a hard slog.
Adelaide Hills-based Darryl Catlin, owner and winemaker at Catlin Wines, has been experimenting with the variety since 2019. “I love the vineyard where I source my Pinot, so when they planted Gamay, I jumped on board, taking fruit from the first vintage.”
With such young plantings, Darryl says the grapes suit a more Nouveau style. As the vines mature, he expects he’ll be able to create a wine of complexity and personality to truly express the character of the site. According to Darryl, “there are new plantings going in around the Adelaide Hills and, as it’s a fairly resilient grape in the face of climate change, I’m confident the variety has a good future”.
Fifth-generation winemaker, Ross Gehrig from John Gehrig Wines, spent five vintages in Beaujolais soaking up as much winemaking knowledge as he could. They planted two acres in the King Valley around 30 years ago, which is handpicked each year. Whilst techniques may adjust slightly according to vintage conditions, he uses 100% carbonic maceration to produce a juicy, fruit-forward wine.
Ross’s view is that “Gamay fits perfectly with the Australian climate. It’s a light, fruity red that retains its acidity, has some tannin, and can be chilled for summer drinking. It’s a perfect red wine for white wine drinkers”.
The aromatics of Gamay positively burst out of the glass with immediate hedonistic appeal. It’s a joyous combination of youthful fruit like strawberries, raspberries, cherries, cranberry, with floral notes of violets and an earthy spice.
When people taste my Gamay, their faces just light up as the flavour spectrum hits the palate.
Gamay is a crowd pleaser that is versatile with food. Lightly chill for a summer picnic with friends, serve with a delicious charcuterie plate, crack a bottle with pizza, pork sausages or, pour it at your dinner party with roast chicken or baked salmon.
David Lloyd’s favourite food and Gamay match? “I love it with Thai dishes. It just works so well, but the most surprising match I’ve found is with a funky washed rind cheese. It’s sublime!”
What we discovered
With around 40 Gamay producers in Australia, the wines in our line-up provided a good representation for the Tasting Panel, sourced from mostly cool climates including Yarra Valley, Mornington Peninsula, King Valley, Adelaide Hills, Gippsland, Geelong, Geographe and Tasmania.
Given working with this variety is reasonably new, it’s fair to say that the quality across the board surprised the panel. Our tasting showed what a chameleon this grape variety can be.
We were curious to see which path Australian winemakers have taken – the fun, juicy Nouveau style, or the more complex, serious Cru style. Most seemed to tread the middle line.
Rather than distinctiveness driven by region or age, the wines instead clearly conveyed the preferred style and winemaking techniques of the winemakers. It was more than anything interesting to see just how many ways a single variety can be expressed.
The best examples showed a judicious use of whole bunch, carbonic maceration and oak with well-balanced fruit, acid and tannin. The panel agreed that Gamay is best consumed within a few years whilst the fruit is still fresh. Nearly all the wines tasted were less than five years old. But there’s always an exception to the rule and the 2004 Eldridge Estate Gamay proved to be a unicorn, astounding the panel with fruit and acid still present.
Gamay can be quite the seductress. Wines that impressed included the Aylesbury Estate which was elegant and characterful with floral aromatics, glossy dark fruit, a savoury complexity, energy and drive on the palate. Empire of Dirt Ink from Geelong also found favour with fruits of the forest, a meaty savouriness and silky tannin on the finish. Bass Phillip has long been thought of as a benchmark Gamay, and did not disappoint. Whole bunch, sour cherry with an expressive palate, depth, weight and flavour, it’s one that will reward cellaring.
We also looked at a bracket of blends, mostly of Gamay and Pinot, which proved to be highly compatible and delicious drinking – see the side panel on facing page for more.
Gamay is a playground for Pinot lovers, or those seeking something new and interesting. We have barely scratched the surface of Gamay in Australia however; with the natural charm, fruit generosity and vibrancy of the variety, it’s clear that the future is bright.
Elan Vineyard Gamay 2019
MORNINGTON PENINSULA, RRP $22
From a low-yielding vineyard on a north-easterly slope in Balnarring on the Mornington Peninsula. Medium to dark purple in the glass with a quite gamey and floral nose displaying graphite, black tea and plum. Bright and vibrant, yet dry, fine and savoury with layers of black and purple fruit, tightly-wound acidity and tannic persistence.
Bande Apart Gamay 2019
KING VALLEY, RRP $38
Jess DiGiorgio from Coonawarra and Jamie Sainte are behind this project, inspired by their shared love of Burgundy and Beaujolais. Pale ruby in the glass with red cherry, cranberry, herbs and orange blossom on the nose, it's definitely a lighter-weight style, yet hints at underlying fruit power, and is driven by a fine, earthy tannin structure.
Rising Gamay 2021
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $35
Sourced from the Roundstone Vineyard in the north-west of the Yarra Valley, which has the oldest Gamay vines in the region. Bright pale red with aromas of whole bunch spice showing as stalk, crushed leaf and white pepper over red berries. Red fruit entry in a herbaceous style with layers of dusty, savoury spice alongside sour cherry, and sappy tannins making for a real food wine.
Thick as thieves Gamay 2021
KING VALLEY, RRP $37
Founded by Syd Bradford in 2009, whose interest in alternative styles has paid off in this little number. Medium red with a brick hue, with aromas of raspberry, cranberry, pot pourri and crushed herbs. Light to medium-weight, this wine has an earthy, savoury core of sour cherry and rooibos tea, some whole bunch spice and a dry, earthy finish.
Scarpantoni Gamay 2018
MCLAREN VALE, RRP $25
Made by the Scarpantoni family, who hail from the Abruzzi region of central Italy on the Adriatic coast. The winery is very much a family business with every step of production, from viticulture to the packaged product, done entirely on the premises. Medium density garnet in colour with white pepper spice lift over crushed herb and red berries. The wine is lean and quite light-bodied with a savoury mix of red fruit, herb and earth, spicy tannin harmony and firm acidity.
Bass Phillip Gamay 2019
GIPPSLAND, RRP $55
From Gippsland by the hand of Phillip Jones, who's been making wine in the region since 1979. Pale brick colour. Sweet cherry fruit lift with notes of lavender and baked earth. Surprisingly sweet, fleshy and juicy for such a light-bodied wine, with faint earth and lanolin development adding a layer of complexity to the mouth-watering finish. Classy!
Eldridge Estate Gamay 2004
MORNINGTON PENINSULA, RRP $60
An aged example from Mornington's Red Hill district that really impressed with its still-lively fruits, by winemaker David Lloyd. Medium density brick red with surprisingly youthful mushroom, earth, mocha, cherry and sandalwood aromas. Fine tannins and still-fresh acidity drive the earthy mix of secondary flavours, with notes of Italian bitters, sour cherry and white pepper lingering on the savoury finish.
Mac Forbes EB74 After Midnight Gamay 2021
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $40
Part of Mac's "Experimental Batch" range, created to showcase small or interesting selections, and the first Gamay to come from this Yarra Valley label. Medium garnet in colour, it has quite funky and developed aromas of leather, mocha and game. Light-bodied yet energetic, the palate displays a mix of tart red fruit, dried herbs and amaro bitters, soft tannins and a gentle exit.
Vella Wines Gambler Gamay 2020
ADELAIDE HILLS, RRP $42
The Adelaide Hills, with many other cooler regions, is showing great promise when it comes to this variety, and this beauty from Vella is no exception. Pale to mid brick colour, displaying sweet cherry lift with some herb and spice notes. Light-bodied yet quite juicy and fresh with loads of cherry and raspberry fruit flavour, some earth, woody herbs and crushed pepper complexity, and a satisfying supple finish.
Empire of Dirt Ink Gamay 2021
GEELONG, RRP $40
A lovely wine from Tash Webster, founder and winemaker of this Geelong-based winery, Youthful deep red with quite Pinot-like, dark cherry, earth and cracked pepper aromas. The palate delivers sweet and fleshy cherry, strawberry and raspberry characters with good depth and persistence and spicy/herbal notes of pepper and bay leaf lingering on the finish.
Sinapius Esmé Gamay 2021
PIPERS BROOK, RRP $38
Estate-grown Gamay sourced from a dry-grown, high density vineyard, planted in 2013 by Linda Dell and her husband Vaughn. Unfined and unfiltered for a cloudy pale red appearance, its nose shows very lifted and stalky whole bunch spice over sour cherry and cranberry. A leafy and herbaceous expression, with red berry fruit alongside earth, leaf and pepper, tight tannins and supple acidity.
Golding Ombre Gamay 2021
ADELAIDE HILLS, RRP $40
From the husband-and-wife team of Darren and Lucy Golding. In the glass it presents a youthful and bright pale red. A very fragrant nose of cranberry, red cherry and clove spice opens onto a palate that is light-bodied, elegant and lithe, with almost ethereal layers of red fruit, cinnamon and orange zest, very bright acidity and super-fine tannins. Bronze medal winner at the 2021 Adelaide Hills Wine Show.
John Gehrig Wines Gamay 2017
RUTHERGLEN, RRP $30
Nicknamed "Grace's Gamay", this expression from fourth-generation winemaker John Gehrig is medium ruby to garnet in colour. Moroccan spice, black tea, and dark cherry perfumes open onto a a palate that is medium weight and quite leafy, with herbaceous notes alongside a bright core of red fruits, almost sappy tannins and vibrant acidity.
Pfeiffer Gamay 2021
RUTHERGLEN, RRP $25
Pfeiffer has been working with Gamay for over three decades, which makes them one of Australia's pioneers. Their 2021 is a light and juicy wine, perfect with cheese: pale ruby colour with a pretty lift of blood plum, raspberry jube, cherry cola and damp earth. Light to medium-weight, it's a dry and savoury wine with a fine mix of earthy red berries and dried herbs, some white pepper and bay leaf notes, and a surprisingly dry finish.
Eldridge Estate Gamay 2018
MORNINGTON PENINSULA, RRP $60
A contrast with the aforementioned 2004 from Eldridge. A wine of bright, medium red colour with cherry, green olive, chocolate and stalky spice aromas. Palate is quite fruit-forward with plum and cherry, notes of liquorice and tapenade, dusty tannins and fresh acidity. Will be interesting to see if it cellars as well as its 2004 stablemate.
Aylesbury Estate QO5 Gamay 2020
FERGUSON VALLEY, RRP $35
The QO5 label from Aylesbury showcases alternative varieties that are well-suited to WA's Geographe region, and this delicate yet intense Gamay is proof of its success. Medium garnet colour with Italian bitters, red cherry, cranberry, pomegranate and anise on the nose. A bright and fresh wine brimming with crunchy red fruit, attractive savoury notes, super-fine tannins, beautifully bright acidity and wonderful harmony throughout.
Aylesbury Estate QO5 Gamay 2021
FERGUSON VALLEY, RRP $35
Where the 2020 Gamay from Aylesbury impressed, this one stuns. Pale garnet in colour, with a nose of juicy red berries and red confectionery with savoury wood smoke notes. Palate shows a soft entry with abundant savoury cranberry and cherry, beautifully supple tannins, soft acidity and a silken finish. Beautifully balanced and light on its feet.
De Bortoli The Estate Vineyard Gamay 2020
YARRA VALLEY, RRP $25
De Bortoli's Estate Vineyard range are fine examples of ideal variety-region synergy, and this delicious Gamay shows the best of Victoria's Yarra Valley.
Medium brick red. Very aromatic cherry-berry fruit with underlying earth and lanolin. Medium weight with excellent structure, and the start of some earthy fruit development, showing good depth and power and a very persistent peppery finish.
Catlin The Gellert Gamay 2020
ADELAIDE HILLS, RRP $32
Founded in 2013 by Darryl Catlin, who has already carved out a reputation for high quality wines. This Gamay is pale brick in colour, withs some secondary notes of lanolin and damp earth over red berries. The palate is clean, dry and savoury with strong cherry and raspberry fruit drive, light tannins, fresh acidity and hints of earthy development creeping in.
Catlin The Gellert Gamay 2021
ADELAIDE HILLS, RRP $32
Power and grace have been collectively captured in this wine with the high quality of the 2021 vintage in the Adelaide Hills clear to see. One that should tempt lovers of Pinot – youthful and bright, with aromas of fresh and lifted raspberry, redcurrant, dried herb and violet florals. A surprisingly rich palate, with good depth of ripe plummy fruit, hints of liquorice, beetroot and cola, and a long, dry finish.
Meadowbank Gamay 2021
DERWENT VALLEY, RRP $45
Blended from the fruit of older (circa 1987) and newer Gamay vines, unfined, unfiltered and preservative-free, this is a youthful, deep red wine with a nose of ripe red and blue fruit showing earth depth and some wild herb notes. The palate is earthy, plummy and spicy in a light-bodied frame, yet with excellent structure, elevated acidity and a firm, dry finish.
Mutual Promise Gamay 2021
KING VALLEY, RRP $33
Ex-restaurateur Evan Milne has turned out a wonderful expression here crafted with fruit from the Koombahla vineyard in King Valley. Bright pale ruby with delicate aromas of strawberry and white chocolate, it's an appealingly light-bodied wine, yet packed with raspberry and red plum, hints of vanilla bean, boiled lollies and cherry cola. A seductive silky texture, fine tannins and a long, juicy finish makes it a winner.