When most people talk Gamay they mean Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc the celebrated grape of Beaujolais. And since the vast majority of the Beaujolais vineyards are planted to Gamay noir the discussion usually ends there. There’s not much need to mention the thirty-eight approved and hundreds of unapproved clones residing in nurseries around the world. Nor is there much need to mention the assortment of massale vines that contribute to the genetic strength of the breed or to point out the nuances created by the many far-flung biotypes — I’m thinking here of the resurgent Swiss biotype Plant Robert which has, over time, adapted to its lakeside home in Lavaux.
After all, Gamay is Gamay, isn’t it?
It should surprise no one that a grape as old as Gamay is bound to have a few funky mutations and that not all of them work to strengthen the breed. Such may be the case with the three Gamay teinturiers — Bouze, Chaudenay and Fréaux. These are the red-fleshed bumpkins of the family who bring color, and not much else, to the white-fleshed Gamay noir. As stand alone varieties the three mutants are considered inferior.
In my book, that doesn’t mean they can’t be interesting and, in some cases, worthy of awards.
Recently the 10th annual Gamay International Competition in Lyon identified 119 Gold Medalists from among more than 700 entrants. As one would expect, the vast majority of these were from Beaujolais, but buried deep within the list of winners were four outliers from Switzerland — two from Geneva and one each from Vaud and Valais. One from Geneva, in particular, caught my attention: the 2018 Chaud du Coin from Domaine de la Mermière.
What I find interesting about this wine is nothing the judges could have known: it’s made from Gamay de Chaudenay without added sulfites — a rarity in Switzerland and I assume a rarity in a competition like this.
First, a little background.
There is no AOC in France that recognizes any of the Gamay teinturiers as stand alone varieties and nothing in Switzerland that distinguishes them from Gamay noir. In Beaujolais they are accessory grapes which, individually or in combination, must not exceed ten-percent of the mix — if they are used at all. Elsewhere they are permitted as principal varieties in dozens of IGPs and as stand alones in the Vin de France category.
The rare Chaudenay (182 hectares in France) is generally considered the best of the bunch. (If not for wine, then for herbal preparations — the vine’s bright red autumn leaves are prized in the manufacture of Vigne Rouge, often prescribed for venous inefficiencies and to quell restless leg syndrome). Chaudenay is, in fact, a mutation of Gamay de Bouze which is a mutation of Gamay noir. It is used in Beaujolais to add color and tannin to Gamay noir but has very little aroma to offer. This weakness can be improved upon by carbonic maceration which tends to highlight whatever aroma is available.
Oddly, it’s not in Beaujolais where the teinturiers garner the most respect. It’s in the outer fringes of Touraine, in the Cher-et-Loir département to be exact, where they are most fully appreciated.
Jean-Sébastien Marionnet of the Domaine de la Charmoise in Soings-en-Solonges bottles a pure version of Gamay de Bouze called “Cépages Oubliés”. It’s a bit of a cult favorite and hard to find.
His neighbors, Julien Courtois and Heidi Kuka at Clos de la Bruyère pay homage to Gamay de Chaudenay as a stand alone in their cuvée “Elements” from 50 year-old vines. It is likewise difficult to find.
Not far away, in Monthou-sur-Cher, François Saint-Leger & Estelle Maitre of Les Caves de l’Arche Macé propose a 100% Chaudenay from vines planted in 1929.
And in the more northerly reaches of the department, in the Côteaux du Vendômois, Ariane Lesné of Domaine de Montrieux fashions her highly regarded Pet-Nat, Phylactere, from a frothy blend of Noir, Bouze and Chaudenay.
All of which makes the Chaud du Coin a rare bird indeed — a Swiss version of Chaudenay with philosophical roots in the natural wine incubator of the Loire Valley.
The Chaudenay mutation came direct to Geneva from Beaujolais where Yves Batardon fashions a traditionally fermented cuvée without sulfite additions.
First up is the lovely crimson color that is slightly cloudy but virtually opaque. 14.5 alcohol stains the glass. There is more serious weight to this than a typical gamay which is a bit reminiscent of a Petite Sirah. Very saturated cassis fruit, some licorice, refreshing fennel, something roasted, black pepper, fresh green elements. Smooth with the barest of edges from tannin. Simply marvelous but not cheap at 24 CHF which is almost twice the going rate for most Swiss Gamays.