Gamay could be Oregon wine’s next great grape

By Sophia Bennett For The Register-Guard

Oregon grape growers have had a penchant for pinot noir since the wine industry started in the 1970s. Fast forward 40 years and another French grape is finding firm footing in local soils.

Gamay, the principle grape of the Beaujolais region, is becoming a more prominent part of Oregon’s wine scene. “It’s a personal favorite for a lot of winemakers,” said Kate Norris, co-founder of Portland’s Division Winemaking Company, Southeast Wine Collective and the upcoming I Love Gamay Festival on May 20-23.

Now that it’s becoming more widely grown, the folks fond of making and consuming its red wine are looking for new ways to share their passion for gamay, or gamay noir, with the masses.

All about gamay

Gamay was first planted in the Willamette Valley in the late 1980s. “What we’ve seen is that there were a few winemakers who were really dedicated to the variety for the past few decades,” said Norris. “In the last five years there’s been this wonderful focus on the grape and its production fueled by rising popularity of high-end Beaujolais cru.” Today there are about 30 Oregon winemakers using gamay to produce wines similar to those found at the southern-most tip of Burgundy.

The grapes are easier to grow than notoriously finicky pinot. “If it’s cooler or warmer or it storms, gamay is a bit heartier as a grape and can produce a high quality cluster even if the weather isn’t perfect,” Norris said.

Jim McGavin and Wendy Golish with Walnut Ridge Vineyard in Junction City have found that to be true. When they purchased the land for their vineyard in 2000 they planted Oregon standards such as pinot noir and pinot gris. In 2006, at the request of Doug Lavelle at nearby Lavelle Vineyards, they also planted some gamay.

They now have two acres and never have trouble selling the grapes. McGavin has enjoyed growing gamay, which he describes as a “big, bountiful wine.” The vines produces bigger grape clusters than pinot. That means more juice and wines that are more affordable, which is a major selling point for consumers.

The taste is another. “It’s got a nice acid balance, so it pairs beautifully with food,” said McGavin. “In some ways it’s very similar to pinot. It pairs well with turkey dinner and ham.”
“Gamay, because of that acidity and because it can play in between structure and lightness, is the ideal variety for any meal,” said Norris, who noted that it also has nice spice and fruit characteristics. “You can have it as an apéritif, with more serious meats, with salads. That’s one of the reasons I love it so much is its flexibility.

“When you bring it to the table, people who like lighter wine like it and people who like richer, heavier wines like it too,” she added. That diversity can be a real selling point.

Gamay noir grapes can be used to produce red wine as a well as rosé, of which McGavin is fond. “I like the freshness and the strawberry flavors that come out of it,” he said.

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