Oregon Wine: Don't Sleep on Gamay, Oregon's Dark Horse

Brianne Cohen, certified sommelier, wine educator, judge & writer tells us about Gamay. Gamay is a beautiful grape and Oregon has embraced it.

When talking about wine in the Willamette Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area) of Oregon, one thing comes to mind: Pinot Noir. Ready to think outside of that box and explore something different? If so, Gamay is your answer.

The Willamette Valley AVA in Oregon is a long swath of a wine region that runs from the Portland area in the north to the Eugene area in the south. Approximately 150 miles in length. The valley is set between Oregon’s lower Coastal Range to the west and the higher Cascade Range to the east.

It is said that outside of Burgundy, the Willamette Valley makes the world’s best Pinot Noir. Not all wine regions have a signature grape, but the Willamette Valley clearly does.  The region hangs their hat on this grape. In fact, approximately 67% of the Willamette Valley AVA is planted to Pinot Noir.

Brick House Gamay Noir

Why Gamay?

Let’s go back to Burgundy, the famous wine region in France. Two main grapes are grown in Burgundy: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with Gamay being the supporting actor behind the two leads. You may have had Gamay before and not even know it, as Gamay is the grape used to make Beaujolais.

The climate of the Willamette Valley of Oregon has some similarities to Burgundy. It would make sense that the same grapes work in both places. For reasons not to be discussed here, the Pinot Noir grape makes for an expensive wine. Just watch Paul Giamatti’s oft-cited ode to the grape in the movie “Sideways”. Pinot Noir is finicky, complicated, delicate, and yields lower crops. Gamay offers value and is a perfect complement to the sea of Pinot Noir in the Willamette.

According to Doug Tunnell, proprietor/winemaker of Brick House Vineyards who makes both Pinot and Gamay, he thinks the interest in Gamay is that millennials find it an affordable alternative, as it easily clocks in at about half the price of many Oregon Pinots. Gamay, he says, “Has bright, natural acidity and is super food friendly.”

Drive through napa valley
“This book is an answer to dry guidebooks and stiff informational publications that pervade the wine industry.” – L.A. Times

Winemaker and sommelier Ian Burrows’ personal views reflect the following, and are not meant to portray any other producer’s opinions or reflect current industry trends. His project, Aerea Vintners is unique in that it is the only Willamette Valley AVA producer to base its entire business model on the Gamay grape. A small portion (about 10%) includes Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, and Syrah, but Gamay is the focus.

Aerea has always believed that Gamay is a grape that when grown in the right place can easily achieve wines that are thirst quenching and interesting in their youth, and wonderfully complex when aged for up to a decade.  According to Ian, “A well-made Gamay with a local retail value of about $35 offers a dry red wine with rarity, value, precise flavors, and easy drinking properties.”

Aerea Orbis Gamay

Vincent Fritzsche of Vincent Wine Company says “The Pinot market is crowded.”  Fritzsche makes Pinot but also a bit of Gamay to offer a different angle. As a Pinot producer, making Gamay to him is, “Like a big musical act playing a small club for the love of music.” He’s doing something he doesn’t need to do, but does it anyway because it’s fun and electrifying.

Want to try something really special? While in the Willamette, Ian Burrows shared his Aerea Vintners 2018 Orbis. Only one 225L barrel was produced. Orbis means “global” in Italian.

Major funkytown notes on the nose such as dried meat and animal, while at the same time delivering a delicate floral note. The 2018 is sold out, but the 2019 is available for purchase in limited quantities (1.5L or 3L) as a future by email request only.  

Brianne Cohen is a WSET Diploma certified sommelier, wine educator, judge, and writer based out of Los Angeles. She blogs at SOMMspirations.com. Follow Brianne on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.