Loire Varieties: Gamay
When it comes to the next red variety in the Loire Valley line-up after Cabernet Franc, I have to confess I was originally intending to turn now to Pinot Noir. Although it is far from the most widely planted variety in the region, the high levels of quality achieved by some vignerons in Sancerre, and also in Cheverny it has to be said, told me that Pinot Noir should be next.
This, sadly, has long been Gamay’s lot. Ever since Philippe de Bourgogne cast the variety into the wilderness with his scathing edict six centuries ago (more on this below) the variety has been at the very least overlooked, if not actively derided and despised. Vineyards were ripped up, and planting was banned; vignerons who stuck by it were, many would assume, more interested in quantity than quality. Outside the Côte d’Or, however, the variety established a foothold on the hillsides and slopes around the town of Beaujeu, the wines made here known to us all as Beaujolais. Having tasted some fairly ropey examples of Beaujolais Nouveau in my earlier drinking days, I saw nothing at that time to dissuade me that drinkers much older and wiser than me had it wrong.
When I first started investigating the wines of the Loire Valley, I carried this perception of Gamay with me. While I came with an open mind to the Cabernet Franc of Chinon and Bourgueil, when it came to the Gamay of Touraine my old prejudice reared its head. It was only with the discovery of wines from selected vignerons that I realised the wines could have genuine appeal. These discoveries included domaines in Touraine most notably Clos Roche Blanche, Domaine de la Charmoise (here featuring more than one ‘version’ of Gamay – more on this later also) and more recently Noëlla Morantin, and in Anjou several famous domaines such as Château Pierre-Bise and Domaine de la Bergerie. In the case of the latter region, the variety tends to crop up as a component of rosé along with Grolleau and Cabernet Franc, but at the opposite end of the spectrum Claude Papin’s Anjou Gamay enjoys cult status in some quarters, so the quality does exist.
Having said that, while I admired some of these efforts, they never touched my vinous soul in the way that Cabernet Franc from Chinon or Bourgueil did, nor indeed in the way in which Pinot Noir from Sancerre has also done in recent times. That is no longer true, however, as there are Loire Valley regions producing vibrant, polished, tense and nervously exciting examples of Gamay that can wipe the floor with those coming out of Anjou and Touraine. These secret regions are distant and little-known, under-appreciated and perhaps rather misunderstood, but I am delighted to have discovered them. Before I come to these regions, however, some more detail on Gamay.