Gamay is one of those grapes that is often thought of in a poor light mainly due to the annual offering of Beaujolais Nouveau. This is a massive shame as the grape has the potential to make wines so much better than the annual release of wine that has barely stopped fermenting, but before I get to that, I should tell you about the rubbish first.
Beaujolais Nouveau is the first wine released from France, bottled only six to eight weeks after harvest. Initially it was meant as a wine to be drunk by the people who had harvested the grapes, but a few producers realised that they could clear a lot of ordinary wine quickly at a profit. They marketed Nouveau as a big thing, when the reality was that it was cheap, young wine they wanted to get rid of. And because this wine is rubbish, Beaujolais as a whole, and the Gamay grape, gets a bad reputation as being producers of light, flimsy wine.
Put the grape on decent soils and you find it can be a truly serious wine. The slopes sandwiched between Mont-Brouilly and the Maconnais have slate and granite soils, and have the potential to produce great wines. Running north to south you have wines by the name of Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Regnie, Morgon, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Moulin-a-Vent, Chenas, Julienas and Saint Amour. Here you find producers who, although may also make some of the cheap, terrible Nouveau, spend a lot of time making quality wine, but the Gamay grape doesn't help them!
Gamay is a high yield plant which ripens early and has a thin skin, making them quite delicate. To make a quality wine producers have to keep growth in check by a lot of pruning. The grapes must also reach the cellar undamaged, so hand picking is required and the crates used to transport the fruit must hold no more than 80 kilos. Once in the cellar, the grapes undergo a process called Carbonic Maceration - a process that is synonymous with the region. The grapes are tipped into tanks where the grapes at the bottom get partially crushed and the start to ferment into a must. Carbon dioxide is produced and starves the other grapes of oxygen, forcing these uncrushed grapes to use intracellular fermentation - essentially fermenting within their skins. This causes the juice to extract a high level of aromas from the skins. The must is then drained off and the remaining grapes pressed. The longer this maceration time is, the more tannin is extracted from the skins, which can result in bigger, more Burgundian styles of wine from this vastly underrated grape.
It is from one of the good areas of Beaujolais that I tried a trio of wines, from one of the best producers in the Cote de Brouilly - Chateau Thivin. Aside from a young wine - not even two years old - I went back to a well aged wine from 2005, showing how the wines can evolve and become really beautiful.
2010 Chateau Thivin Cote de Brouilly Clos Betrand
Soft, juicy red berries - almost like redcurrant compote with a dusting of cinnamon. The palate is light, with some alcohol spikes and a touch of pepper mixed with some cranberry and a tiny amount of dried raspberry. Well balanced, nice clean structure and a long, very nice finish. 87pts
2007 Chateau Thivin Cote de Brouilly Cuvee Godefroy
Strawberries with slight element of poop coming through - but horse poop which is nice! The palate is really bright, with slightly drier fruit, nice earthier notes with some menthol and a bit of bitter fruit stone at the end. Well made with a little bit of red apple coming on the finish. 89pts
2005 Chateau Thivin Cote de Brouilly Cuvee de la Chapelle
Round, ripe fruit - lots of red cherries and a delicious slight spice coming through. A soft, round nose - unctuous and inviting. The palate has some dried fruit, really nice berries mixed with some leathery, older fruit. A lovely rustic element with the thinner, old fruit lasting right until the end of the very dry palate. 90pts