Is Gamay Niagara’s next Cinderella story?
Written by Amanda Allison Photography by Elaine Aquan-Yuen
Elusive. Atypical. Overshadowed.
This isn’t a modern fairy tale about a princess locked away in a castle tower while her evil stepsisters get all the limelight – the high society balls, the glass slipper, the prince. It’s far more real than all that.
It’s the story about Gamay taking its rightful place on the throne of Ontario wine.
Just like the princess, Gamay has had a bit of a rough life. The grape hit its stride in France during the 1980s. In its prime, Gamay was the ‘it’ grape. Beaujolais, the Gamay producing region in France that made its wine a household name, was the centre of the wine world. Beaujolais, with its appealing character, fruity and earthy notes was perfectly matched with bistro food on café patios from Lyon to London. Then, somewhere along the line, Gamay fell out of favour. Some blame the marketing ploy of Beaujolais Nouveau for killing off the region’s more serious offerings. Others believe other more typical grapes from New World wine regions pushed it out of the limelight. Mostly though, it faced the same kiss of death as songs on the Top 10 list – it was simply overplayed. Familiarity bred contempt.
Gamay came to Canada in 1970s, just before its song was played out. Paul Bosc Sr., of family-run Château de Charmes Estate Winery, planted vines along the Niagara Peninsula. Soon enough, Gamay production was up and running thanks to wineries like 13th Street Winery, where in 1983 Bosc supplied the first Gamay vines to be planted in partner Erv Willms’ Sandstone Vineyards.
Ken Douglas, one of the original owners of 13th Street, says he eventually saw the future in these vines, by making a style that reflected the past.
“I had enjoyed old Cru Gamays from the 50s from my father’s wine cellar,” says Douglas. “They would age gracefully for 20 years or more.” During his time at 13th Street, Douglas promoted traditional Burgundy-style winemaking, following in the footsteps of one of the area’s greatest winemaker’s Henry Jayer. This meant choosing lower yields, long maceration times and at least 12 months in French oak for texture.
That being said, Ontario Gamay isn’t your father’s Beaujolais.
Evolving from a simple bistro red when it was first produced, more and more producers are pushing the preconceived notions on what Gamay can be in this cool climate area. Winemakers such as Shiraz Mottiar at Malivoire Wine Co. and Angelo Pavan at Cave Spring Cellars are leading the charge.
“No one’s tasting our Gamay and going ‘Oh, Beaujolais!’ There’s cool things going on here,” says Mottiar. “When we first started making it, we thought we should make it like Pinot Noir, but we’ve fine-tuned how to get there.”
Key to this success was the planting of newer clones of the Gamay vines, with small berries. Both Mottiar and Pavan praise its addition to their vineyards. The older clones had bigger berries, which meant they were juicy, but had less fruit intensity. In the new clones with smaller berries, the acid levels stay higher and the grapes deliver less forest floor notes.
“Arguably Gamay is the best-suited red for Niagara,” says Pavan, highlighting that he enjoys the grape because he doesn’t have to worry about getting a Cabernet variety’s green, herbal notes or tannin. “Plus, Gamay is cold tolerant. You could probably grow it on Baffin Island,” he jokes.
Mottiar agrees about Gamay’s suitability for the region’s climate. “Gamay as a whole, you can succeed with vintage variation,” he says. “Every vintage is different and we still end up getting amazing results.” That means it not only survives cold winters and makes a solid wine in the cooler summers, it can thrive in the occasional super hot growing season as well. “The 2007 turned a lot of heads. It’s really structured, but still had a lot of dry fruit,” he says about the vintage many call the best of a decade. “It wasn’t dead, flat or too flabby.”
Pavan also says there’s a crucial characteristic that draws him to Gamay and it’s not just that the wines are often more affordable than their counterparts.
“I open a lot of wines at night and can’t drink them. They’re either too much or too fruity,” he continues. “That’s what I like about Gamay. You can make not only good Gamay, but serious Gamay. It isn’t about colour. Just because it doesn’t have a ton of colour doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the weight.” The official club of Gamay lovers then, definitely should be gearing up for a membership drive. After all, both wineries are finding ways to make more of it.
“We’re committed to it,” says Pavan about their new plantings that will eventually boost production to all estate fruit. “We just planted one of the best sites for Cave Spring, arguably one of the best in Niagara, to Gamay.”
Malivoire’s Gamay production has also increased in the last year and a half. “We’re fighting producers for Gamay, most of them want it for rosé,” says Mottiar, of the grape’s other popular use in Ontario. So, what is it then? What’s keeping this princess languishing in the castle tower and not out dancing with her sisters on the ballroom floor?
“They make nice wines, damn it!” says Pavan passionately. “I don’t know what it is. It’s a tough sell.” He only hopes that Gamay will follow the path of Cave Springs signature white varietal. “You couldn’t give Riesling away when we started and now everyone and their brother is in on it.”
Mottiar wants to see it be part of the conversation too.
He says there are a few varieties that people talk about in Ontario; Chardonnay or Riesling for whites and Cabernet Franc or Pinot Noir for reds. “I’d love to see Gamay in that debate,” he says. “Pinot Noir is hot, sexy. Cabernet Franc is ‘easier’ from a grower’s perspective. I think you put the two together, make a little effort and there you go.”
Perhaps it’s Douglas, the veteran, who says it best while calling for a distinct Ontario style. “We grow and make the best Gamay in the world,” he says. “So, like other ugly ducklings that have become swans, such as Malbec, it could someday put us on the world wine map.”
Gamay may or may not catch on in a big way in Ontario. One thing is for certain though – it ought to.