The region of Burgundy, in the heart of France, is a fairly narrow growing area running from just north of the city of Dijon down to the larger city of Lyon. Although Chardonnay is the main white grape and Pinot Noir is the main red grape, several others are grown, including the once-maligned Gamay variety. The grapes are related, yet distinct, with Gamay offering a more straight-forward, fruity profile compared to Pinot Noir’s often coveted, floral complexity.
One especially narrow strip of land within the region is a hillside of clay and limestone extending north and south from the commercial center of Beaune, known as the Cote D’Or or “Golden Slope.” This area produces the world’s most expensive bottles of Pinot Noir. Over the centuries, monks studied the land, identified and delimited the best sites for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and delimited the vineyard area into a complex classification system that is now recognized by French law. In more recent years, Pinot Noir has exploded in popularity, with captivating examples being produced around the world, from the Sonoma Coast, to Argentina, to New Zealand, to Argentina.
The Gamay grape has experienced a more subtle resurgence in popularity, mostly centered around its longtime home in the Beaujolais subregion within Burgundy. Here, the land is cheaper and vineyards are interspersed amongst plots of other crops and grazing pastures. This vast expanse of land contains granite hills in the north and alluvial flatlands in the south. It is these northern hillsides that produce the world’s most structured, ageworthy Gamay wines. This represents, however, only a small portion of Beaujolais production. In the 1980s and ‘90s, cooperatives and other large producers began flooding markets around the globe with Beaujolais Nouveau. For this wine, Gamay grapes undergo a rapid fermentation in a closed tank using a method called carbonic maceration. The result is a wine that is light and fruity at best, but more often thin and tart. The official release date of these wines was set as the third Thursday in November, usually less than eight weeks after the grapes were harvested. This date guaranteed winemakers and growers a quick influx of cash as the wines were transported to Paris to be served in cafes. They soon realized that it also coincided with the American tradition of Thanksgiving and new marketing campaigns were launched. Georges Dubouef was, and still is, the most successful producer to bring Beaujolais Nouveau to the States for the Thanksgiving holiday. The light red doesn’t overwhelm the flavor of turkey, and notes of cranberry can highlight that important aspect of the meal. The wine is easy to drink and certainly priced to ensure that everyone can enjoy it.
For those looking for a little more character out of their Turkey Day wine, another wine style is recommended: Bourgogne Passetoutgrain. This is a traditional Burgundian blend of at least one-third Pinot Noir and two-thirds Gamay. Although Duke Philip the Bold banned Gamay from the most famous parts of Burgundy in 1363, Gamay vines continue to be propagated in small quantities in even some of the most prestigious growing villages in France to this day. Compared to Pinot Noir, Gamay is easy to grow and produces large quantities of grapes, making it an economical blending partner for a family looking to sell their produce for a living while still keeping enough wine to sustain themselves throughout the year. While not much Bourgogne Passetoutgrain is imported into the United States, many acclaimed Burgundian winemakers continue to produce the blend as a way of honoring their fathers and grandfathers.
In addition to making sense from a logistical and financial standpoint, blending Pinot Noir and Gamay often creates an absolutely delicious wine. Our release comes from the Sierra Foothills’ El Dorado growing region, which has become the unofficial home of Gamay within California in the last twenty years. Much of the soil here is granite, similar to that found in northern Beaujolais. The high elevation of the vineyards is key for maintaining freshness in this dry, sunny location. Winemaker Chris Pittenger, having made wine in the area for years, has a deep knowledge of the soil and climate that allows him to marry Gamay and Pinot Noir together to form a very complete blend that highlights the best characteristics of each grape.
The simple pomegranate and cranberry notes found in Gamay are rounded out by the dark cherry, green tea, and citrus peel aromas from Pinot Noir. The resulting wine is medium-bodied and has more tannin and better balanced acidity than a wine produced solely from Gamay and can match light meat, dark meat, and even pot roast. The slightly herbal character goes well with brussel sprouts, stuffing, and gravy. The ripe fruit character will not only pair well with cranberry sauce, but bring it to a whole ‘nother level. While it is easy to love Pinot Noir, we think this is the perfect time of year to be grateful for Gamay, too.