Don’t ignore gamay
Fashion is the biggest factor that influences wine purchasing. We see it in every facet of the business. The price of grapes: why are Langhorne Creek or Rutherglen grapes of the highest quality cheap to buy but Adelaide Hills and Margaret River more expensive? Why is grenache unloved relative to shiraz and pinot noir? Why is the Swan Valley generally ignored as a quality wine region?
Why is pinot noir so revered (there have been two major pinot conferences this month alone, in Wellington and Mornington) and gamay neglected?
It’s mostly to do with fashion.
The gamay versus pinot noir issue is especially vexing. Why is pinot noir so fashionable, so expensive, so hyped and over-discussed? And gamay looked down upon?
Gamay, the sole grape of Beaujolais and close relative of pinot noir in Burgundy, is barely planted at all in Australia or New Zealand. But pinot noir is on a roll.
But compare the numbers: Beaujolais (which is almost all gamay) sells oceans and is popular all over the world, especially recently as its star has risen lately (fashion again). There is far more gamay from Beaujolais drunk in the world than pinot noir from Burgundy, yet Burgundy is way more famous. In new world countries like ours, winemakers are killing themselves to make a great pinot, but hardly anybody has thought about making a great gamay. This despite the fact that light-bodied red wine is on the upswing – a trend that’s been a long time coming as Australia’s climate and lifestyle are far better suited to light reds than heavy.
My theory (we all need a theory, even if it’s wrong!) is that it can all be traced to the fact that Burgundy has world-famous grand cru vineyards, while Beaujolais doesn’t have any vineyards of comparable fame to Musigny or Chambertin. Never mind that the grand crus are less than 1% of total Burgundy vineyards, they’re what everyone thinks of when they think of Burgundy, and what every pinot noir grower secretly dreams of emulating.
So, snobbery AND fashion.
Beaujolais produces about 1.35 million hectolitres of wine; in some years its output is more than the entire production of the rest of Burgundy combined. Burgundy in 2011 produced 1.5 million hectolitres – 31% of it red.
If winegrowers need another reason to plant gamay, its wine is eminently more affordable than pinot noir, surely with corresponding potential for sales.
Recent Australian vintages have seen some superb lighter-weight gamay-based reds coming from DeBortoli Yarra Valley winery (tastings), and a handful of boutiques such as Eldridge Estate (tastings), Sorrenberg (tastings), Ochota Barrels (tastings), Farr Rising (tasting), Bass Phillip (tastings) and Pfeiffer (tastings).
Marketers might argue that it’s the word Beaujolais that sells, not the word gamay. And we can’t use the word Beaujolais. So perhaps the industry should start promoting gamay. The potential could be huge.