The central French town of Renaison is pleasant if not especially noteworthy: an above-average kebab shop, a scenic dam that services the nearby city of Roanne and the restaurant Jacques Coeur, with the sort of finessed country cooking once common in deep France.
It’s in the restaurant’s lobby that I meet Vincent Giraudon—his family has long owned Jacques Coeur—who takes me to his nearly century-old parcels of gamay, staked up in the rough granite soils outside nearby towns like Villemontais, not dissimilar to the old vineyards of the Beaujolais.
This area is known as the Côte Roannaise, and while it may sit in the upper stretches of the Loire Valley, the Roannaise has as much to do as the Loire as we know it as the Mississippi’s headwaters in Minnesota have to do with Dixie riverboat dreams. But it does have a small but devoted following for its bracing, mineral expressions of gamay.
The Roannaise tells that tale many parts of France do, of a thriving wine trade wrung dry by phylloxera and war, now resigned to obscurity. “It was bigger than the Beaujolais,” Giraudon tells me, wistfully. “There were vines on all sides of the city of Roanne.”
Yet there’s a deeper story at work. This little-known corner, along with similar places like the Coteaux du Lyonnais, outside Lyon, has a renewed value today, one that’s just becoming clear. For the world is currently in love with gamay—soulful and passionate love, not the tawdry one-night stand that was Beaujolais Nouveau—in a way that’s thrilling for us longtime lovers of the grape. Beaujolais is now a thing we discuss and study in meaningful terms. But even if Beaujolais has more gamay planted than it knows what to do with, the actual quantity of great Beaujolais remains small—devilishly so, given the explosion of highbrow interest in top wines and several brutally small vintages that have sent top producers like Jean-Louis Dutraive scrambling to buy grapes where they find them. When wine nerds bitch about sky-high prices for Foillard and the utter scarcity of Lapierre, they’re half-joking. But it’s not actually that funny.
What this means is that if gamay is to endure as an object of our affection, we’re going to want to expand our horizons while we await more good, affordable, well-farmed Beaujolais from talented producers. Especially because, while I adore the recent intellectualism, gamay remains a wine of pleasure: It can be both meditated upon and, unlike Burgundy, drunk—actually drunk—with abandon. As I put it bluntly not too long ago: Pinot wants to be loved; gamay wants to fuck. It is the quintessential object of alt-desire, a sex toy for grape nerds. And that lust means we’re going to need a lot more good gamay in the world.
That is why I found myself in the Roannaise not long ago. Even if the region was whittled down to just 180 remaining hectares of gamay vines (Beaujolais, by comparison, has over 7,000), it has a value—perhaps more than local vignerons can understand, since much of their wine still goes into cheap bag-in-box packages.
The same is true in the heart of the Loire, where places like the Touraine, Cheverny and the Sarthe not only tolerate gamay but increasingly embrace it—a happy result of our thirstier, less snobby era of wine and a love for the grape in natural-wine corners. Similarly, gamay has found an affinity on the West Coast, where plantings in California are steadily expanding, and in Oregon, where it’s being planted in important dirt like the Seven Springs vineyard. (California, ironically, tallies acreage not for true gamay but for Napa gamay, which is actually another grape called valdiguié that has similarly benefitted from this new era of thirst.)
Gamay is the quintessential object of alt-desire, a sex toy for grape nerds. And that lust means we’re going to need a lot more good gamay in the world.
The way gamay has proliferated in the Loire, however, is a good example to the rest of us about how a grape can be cherished without taking on airs. There, you find not simply the gamay of Beaujolais, officially gamay noir à jus blanc—black gamay with white juice—but also gamay teinturier, a dark-juiced version long used to provide extra color to the region’s other wines. In the Vendômois, for instance, a small area of the northern Loire better known for the spicy pineau d’aunis grape, little slivers of gamay teinturier plantings thrive, tucked next to rail tracks. While in better-known Touraine appellations, like Montlouis and Vouvray, winemakers who don’t wish to live by white wine alone turn to nearby plantings of gamay, often in the Cher valley. There are even tiny plantings of gamay in the chenin fields of Vouvray; winemaker Michel Autran, for instance, uses his few rows to make a sparkling gamay, somewhere between dark rosé and light red, called Arrête-toi à Kerguelen.
That, actually, has been one of the Loire’s great recent contributions to drinking: refashioning gamay as a fizzy pink wine rather than a still red one. They’re not unique in this. Roannais like Giraudon, Stéphane Sérol and Romain Paire of Domaine des Pothiers make similar wines, often just a bit sweet and thoroughly drinkable. Frankly, so do many Beaujolais producers. The sparkling FRV100 (say it in French and you get “effervescent”) from Jean-Paul Brun has for over a decade been a model for irresistibly casual sparkling wine.
Effervescent gamay has become an opportunity for central Loire winemakers to do what they do best, which is craft eminently drinkable wines. The inherent likability of gamay serves this purpose well—as does the popularity of pétillant naturel. But it’s the still versions of gamay from the Loire that are becoming wines of choice as the best Beaujolais gets more expensive, and scarce. And I’m not trying to draw a comparison, because great Beaujolais is its own thing. But the shifting economics—and that unquenchable thirst for gamay—have presented an opportunity for both pure Loire gamay and for wines that blend gamay with other local varieties, namely côt (malbec, to the rest of us), cabernet franc and grolleau, a grape even humbler than gamay.
At Chahut et Prodiges, for instance, down the road from the town of Amboise, there’s both the pure gamay fruit of La Mule and the smokier, chewier expression found in a blended wine like their Le Gros Locaux. Unlike pinot noir, with its slightly egoist demeanor, gamay plays equally in an ensemble. (For this reason, even the most successful Burgundians faithfully keep making Passetoutgrain, a mix of the two.)
These wines can approach the profound, as with the gamay made by Clos Roche Blanche, arguably the most important property in the Cher Valley, which had a devoted following until the owners sold the property after the 2014 vintage. But their real value isn’t in self-importance; they’re not meant to be overly studied. They’re meant to be drunk and drunk again—which, of course, has also been the main message of Beaujolais.
Gamay, then, is a driver of so much of what’s great about our casual drinking times. And that should provide some hope to places like the Côte Roannaise, or to the Auvergne, even deeper into central France, where that two-step of gamay and natural wine has made a modest beachhead.
This is on my mind when I visit Patrick Bouju of Domaine la Bohème, who makes both a still red gamay, Lulu, and his much-loved Festejar pét-nat, a mix of pinot noir and gamay d’Auvergne. (The Auvergne, too, has its own local cultivar of gamay; it’s a well-traveled grape.) Bouju gets some of his grapes from the steep slopes outside the town of Corent, due south of Clermont-Ferrand, the largest city in the area and home to Michelin. As it turns out, there’s a long and proud history with gamay here; even in the 1960s, Corent rosés made from the grape were appreciated throughout much of France. It reaffirms my belief that gamay, even if it was an also-ran for much of its history, makes wine that people have a primal attraction to. In other words, it’s a wine for our times. And by expanding our horizons, we can still find plenty of it to drink.