Saturday, June 18, 2016

On My Wine Radar: Oregon Gamay

By now, if you’re remotely interested in wine, you know the goodness that is Cru Beaujolais. The Gamay grape’s spiritual home is the source of some fantastic (and still value-driven) red wines of elegance, purity and vibrancy.

Gamay does well in cooler climates. It can produce good fruit in lots of soil types, but granite and limestone soils tend to yield the most hauntingly beautiful examples. Outside of Beaujolais (and the Loire Valley, where it is frequently used in blends), where else can we find exciting hotbeds of Gamay? My vote goes to Oregon.

“It’s the perfect place to grown Gamay in the United States, said Kate Norris, winemaker and proprietor of Division Winemaking Company.

Credit: Division Winemaking Company
I met Kate for dinner in DC recently, and we tasted through a range of her Division wines. Kate makes some thrilling Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but I was most intrigued by her focus on Gamay. Kate has conducted a Pacific Northwest case study of Gamay’s wide-ranging styles. She and her partner Tom Monroe worked in Beaujolais, under the mentorship of Christian Bernard of Domaine des Grands Fers, where they gained a deeper understanding of this beautiful, terroir-mirroring grape.  

She produces a delightful rosé of Gamay. Its a refreshing interpretation of this style that shows bright acidity, lots of floral elements and a pervasive sense of minerality. (The fruit actually comes from Willard Vineyard in neighboring Washington’s Yakima Valley AVA.)

Gamay vines from Methven Family Vineyard. Credit: Wikimedia

She also produces a Gamay Noir “Cru” from Methven Family Vineyards, a sustainably-farmed site in Eola-Amity Hills. Its a structured wine that pays homage to the Crus of Beaujolais, the renowned rocky vineyard sites that produce the region’s best wines. Kate admits the wine maintains a richer profile than most Cru Beaujolais, but touts the grapes signatures of freshness, minerality and deep floral-mineral tones. Theres not much of this wine to go around (about 80 cases), and this vintage was the first time she had enough grapes to ferment two separate lots (one lot was destemmed and the whole went through whole cluster fermentation).

Using some carbonic maceration she also releases a Division-Villages "Les Petits Fers" Gamay, which boasts a more approachable style similar to Beaujolais-Villages wines. Carbonic maceration involves intact grape bunches being placed in a carbon dioxide rich environment (such as a sealed tank), which begins a complex fermentation process that leads to wine of a lighter, fruitier style. Kate employs some semi-carbonic maceration, which she says, “brings am incredible textural component and freshness to wines, and when blended with traditionally fermented juice can expand the scope, intrigue, and complexity of the wine.”

Oh, yeah, and Division also makes an homage to Beaujolais Noveau as well.

“What other grape has this kind of diversity?” she said as we sipped her Gamay rosé. I did not have an immediate answer.

Chehalem, a Willamette Valley institution, has been growing Gamay since the mid-1980s, and they have about two acres planted in their oldest estate vineyard, Ridgecrest, a Ribbon Ridge vineyard that comprises clay, silt and loam on top of sandstone, basalt and siltstone rock. They blend the Gamay with about 20% Pinot Noir in a style that pays homage to the “passetoutgrains blends of Burgundy. Willamette Valley producer Brick House crafts a well-respected Gamay Noir. And Oregon’s Bow & Arrow is supposedly the country’s largest producer of Gamay. Willakenzie and Evening Land also dabble in Oregon Gamay.

These wines are still made on an artisanal scale, sourced from smaller vineyards and dedicated growers. Gamay doesn’t fit into Oregon’s top ten grapes in terms of production, and the Oregon Wine Board doesn’t have specific numbers on total acreage or annual production.

I have an inkling though, that there is untapped demand for these kinds of wines. They’re fresh, food-friendly, tend toward lower alcohol, and show moderate or light tannin structure. I’d love to see some Oregon Gamay on by-the-glass lists at wine bars and bistros. But even though it’s a niche wine at the moment, if producers keep sourcing high quality fruit to produce dynamic, vibrant, diverse wines, we will hear a lot more about Gamay from Oregon soon.

I’m not sure you can actually smell minerals, but this wine makes feel like I’m smelling all sorts of minerals, like they’re pouring out of a rocky mountain stream. I also get some cantaloupe and sea salt. Creamy palate but such precise, refreshing acidity. Pure and vibrant strawberry and peach fruit, along with notes of saline, minerals and rose petals. So fresh and pleasant, but by no means simple. More people need to taste this! (90 points)

I’m intrigued by Oregon Gamay, and this wine is one reason why. It smells like bright strawberries and jammy cherries and raspberries with notes of rocky earth and violets. Smooth but slightly chewy tannins, vibrant acidity, the wine comes off silky. Juicy black cherry and raspberry fruit topped with earth, roses, violets, subtle spice (Cinnamon? Pepper?). Richer fruit than a lot of Cru Beaujolais, but it’s on point with the fruit and earthy-mineral elements. Finishes clean and fresh. So pleasurable to drink, so good with all sorts of food, so inexpensive, what’s not to love? Some carbonic fermentation, some traditional, the combination is working well. From two vineyards, one in Eola-Amity Hills and the other in Umpqua Valley. (90 points)

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