There's more to gamay than a merry drink-now drop - it's a seriously seductive grape, says Max Allen.
I'm standing in Barry Morey's small underground barrel cellar beneath his house in Beechworth, Victoria, and I'm in heaven. I've just taken a mouthful of ruby-coloured one-year-old wine made from the gamay grapes planted here on his home property almost three decades ago. The wine is full of joy: perfumed and fleshy, redcurrants and strawberries tumbling across the tongue.
Now Morey draws a sample from another barrel and pours the wine into my glass. It's a little darker, less aromatic, with supple but sturdy tannin in the mouth - a crystal-clear expression of the unirrigated gamay vines Morey grows in more gravelly, granitic soil on another property just up the road.
It's fascinating to see the gamay grape here in its youthful, unblended form; the wines from each block will be combined to make the 2013 Sorrenberg Gamay, due for release next year. Morey argues (convincingly) that the fleshiness of the older vineyard combined with the sturdiness of the dry-grown vineyard produces a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.
It's also a wonderful illustration of the two faces of gamay. On one hand, most wine drinkers have long associated the grape with light, cheap Beaujolais nouveau - a wine that can be fleshy and fun, but is hard to take seriously. On the other, it's a grape responsible for some amazingly complex, intensely structured, even long-lived wines: gamay from the top producers in the 12 "crus" or best subdistricts of the Beaujolais region can be both stunning and seriously good value.
Wines such as Jean Foillard's seductive purple Côte du Puy from Morgon or Jean-Claude Lapalu's deeply earthy, savoury Vieilles Vignes (old vines) wines from Brouilly are every bit as brilliant as the great pinots from more famous appellations in Burgundy to the north, at a fraction of the price.
Gamay's ability to be both serious and seductive in the same glass is perhaps one reason why France's pioneering natural winemakers emerged in the Beaujolais region back in the 1970s and 1980s. Beaujolais vignerons such as Jules Chauvet and Marcel Lapierre have inspired producers from France to New Zealand to make bright, juicy, sulphur-free vins de soif from gamay.
One of the most delicious French examples of the variety made in the natural fashion is from the Loire: Domaine de la Garrelière's Gamay Sans Tra La La, a moreish, gluggable red wine that also manages to be satisfying and soulful. I find a similar sense of satisfaction in the stunning brightness and slippery black cherry of the sulphur-free gamay from Rippon in Central Otago.
Closer to home, gamay is beginning to catch the attention of some of our better, more innovative winemakers. In the Yarra Valley, De Bortoli put the grape to good use in both a single-varietal wine under the Vinoque label, and blended with syrah to delicious effect under the excellent value La Bohème range.
And some of the Australian producers who planted gamay a while ago are making better and better wines each vintage. Rutherglen's Jen Pfeiffer does a splendid job producing one of this country's lightest, juiciest, most refreshing gamays from the Pfeiffer family's warm-climate vineyards. In Gippsland, Phillip Jones's gamay is now often every bit as complex, profound and deeply earthy as his Bass Phillip pinots. David Lloyd at Eldridge Estate has settled into a two-tier approach to gamay: he produces both a gorgeously bright, red-fruity wine called PTG (gamay blended with pinot), and a darker, more dense, textural straight gamay, with all the complexity and depth of a top pinot noir.
Back at Sorrenberg in Beechworth we've emerged from the barrel tasting and sat down to dinner. Morey digs around in the far reaches of his cellar and brings out a couple of older bottles - a 1998 and a 1996 gamay. And they're a revelation: the '98 has settled into a wonderfully savoury groove, with abundant flavours of damp soil, wild mushrooms and soy sauce, while the '96 still has plenty of the grape's fleshy fruit vitality. Both are about as far as it's possible to get from the image of gamay as a simple, drink-now wine.
No wonder people are falling in love with gamay: whether it's tasted straight out of the barrel or after years of bottle slumber, grown in the right spots and vinified by the right hands it's a seriously seductive grape.