Pinot Noir and the Willamette Valley are so tightly entwined in people’s minds that they sometimes forget there are other red grapes twisting up trellises in Oregon. For those looking for some variety in the state’s top wine region, Gamay Noir may be just the thing.
The grape most closely associated with France’s Beaujolais region is showing up more often and winning over both winemakers and wine drinkers. Gamay has been grown successfully in Oregon since 1987. Myron Radford at Amity Vineyards in Amity and Doug Tunnell at Brick House Wines in Newberg were among its early proponents.
“(They) were the ones who showed us that Gamay was a variety that made sense here and could be done at high levels,” said Scott Frank, owner of Bow & Arrow Wines in Portland. “They kind of quietly did that for years and years and nobody paid much attention.”
By the early 2000s, a few things started to change. As much as visitors to the Willamette Valley loved the Pinot Noir, there was also a desire to offer them something else to try.
“When you go to a tasting room and all they have is Pinot, it gets pretty boring,” said Dr. Allen Methven with Methven Family Vineyards in Dayton. “This gives people a choice.”
“Don’t get me wrong — I like Pinot,” said Jason Hanson with Hanson Vineyards in Woodburn. “It’s been very good to us over the years. But a man cannot live on Pinot alone. Finding some other things we could grow in the red department was something we were really looking for. Gamay has been a great fit.”
The grape is easier to grow than famously finicky Pinot Noir, which vineyard managers appreciate.
“Gamay thrives in volcanic and iron-rich soils,” said Thomas Monroe, who owns Division Wine Co. in Portland with his business partner, Kate Norris. (They also co-founded the I Love Gamay festival, which typically takes place in May but may offer some in-person tastings later this year.) “Our climate here is really well-suited for a lot of northern French varieties.”
Gamay faces less disease pressure and produces slightly higher yields than Pinot.
There was also a demographic and attitude change that happened in Oregon around the turn of the millennium. Many of Oregon’s early winemakers came to the Willamette Valley with the intention of creating world-class Pinot Noir. The people who came later often had a broader vision for what Oregon could produce.
Monroe and Norris went to winemaking school in Beaujolais, so they developed a fondness for Gamay early in their careers. When they opened Division Wine in 2010, a lot of other young winemakers were also just starting out.
“They, too, had experience with grapes other than Pinot Noir that they thought could work well here,” Monroe said. “Gamay was just one that worked especially well.”
Gamay is beloved by both winemakers and consumers.
The grapes typically produce a light-bodied wine with notable fruit flavors such as raspberry and cherry. Aromas and flavors such as violets and earth may show up to add complexity. It’s good lightly chilled or at room temperature. While it’s known as a food-friendly wine, it can also be enjoyed on its own.
Gamay is made in several styles in the Willamette Valley. “I would say that in Oregon, the majority of it has been made more in the traditional approach that Pinot Noir has been made with,” said Monroe. “I think that’s what a lot of the winemakers have familiarity and comfort with.”
That’s something Frank hopes will change in coming years. “The future of Gamay is for people to figure out how to make the wine that Gamay wants to be,” he said. “Gamay is a completely different variety that needs to be made in its own unique way to say what Gamay has to say.”
More traditional takes on Gamay Noir are beginning to show up in Oregon — including from many of these producers. But they aren’t the only wines gracing tasting room counters. Frank, along with winemakers such as Matt Berson of Love & Squalor at the Portland Wine Co. and Terry Brandborg in the Umpqua Valley, occasionally produce a Beaujolais Nouveau-style wine. Both Frank and Hanson are making a Cheverny-style blend that’s 50% Gamay and 50% Pinot Noir.
Gamay can also be used for beautiful, delicate rosés. Bow & Arrow and Methven Family Vineyards are a few of the producers making still wines with the grape. Stedt Wines in Carlton does a sparkling rosé of Gamay Noir, and Swick Wines in Newberg makes a Gamay pét-nat.
It is unlikely that Gamay will eclipse Pinot Noir in popularity in Oregon. For one thing, there still isn’t much of it. The Oregon Wine Board reports there were 116 acres planted to Gamay in 2018, a that number had grown to 128 acres by 2019.
But its star is definitely rising. Frank noted that the price he’s paying for Gamay has increased by at least 50% since he started purchasing it in 2011.
Methven, who boasts one of the largest plantings of Gamay in the Willamette Valley, said the grapes are the most sought-after one he sells. His Gamay wine is the No. 1 seller in his tasting room.
“I would be surprised if Gamay didn’t continue to flourish,” Monroe said. “It’s not ever going to be what Pinot Noir is, nor do I think it should be, but it still has a lot of upward mobility before the market says there’s enough Gamay.”
Sophia McDonald is new to Wine Press Northwest, but she’s not new to the wine industry. Her work has appeared in more than three dozen newspapers, magazines and trade publications including TheAtlantic.com, Eating Well, Wine Enthusiast, VinePair, Cheese Connoisseur, Live Naturally, VIA, and Oregon Wine Press. She enjoys writing about food, wine, farming, cooking, nutrition, travel, sustainability and business. Oregon Wine Tales for Wine Press Northwest will focus on Oregon wines and wineries.