Wine Blogging Wednesday 68: Got Gamay?

22 April 2010
By Tom Mansell

This post is part of Wine Blogging Wednesday, the monthly event where bloggers across the internet drink similar stuff and write about it. This month’s theme: Gamay. Thanks to Frank Morgan at Drink What YOU Like for hosting this month.

Sheldrake Point Gamay 2007

Gotta love Sheldrake's labels. In a world of simply awful labels, Sheldrake's labels are always elegant, classy, and informative.

Appellation: Finger Lakes
Grape: Gamay Noir
RS: 0.1%
Price Point: $18
Closure: Natural cork

Technical Notes: Info from the website. TA: 6.7 g/L, pH: 3.44. Hand harvested at 22 Brix, 8.2 g/L TA, 3.29 pH. Seven days on the skins. Six months in neutral French and American oak.

Hedonic Notes: Dark ruby color in a normally lightly-colored grape, but 2007 was a hot, dry year in the Finger Lakes, so I guess a high tide raises all boats.
Cherry and raspberry on the nose, a hint of spice, and a little floral component. Like many Finger Lakes wines, acidity supports the structure, but it’s not as zingy as a Riesling might be. A bit of woody oak on the finish. There’s also a persistent dairy-like flavor on the palate. It’s kind of like cheese, but it’s OK among the other aromas. A slight bit of {astringency} reminds us that it’s a red, but for the most part, it drinks like a white. Try it lightly chilled, too.

Rating: corkcorkhalfcorknocorknocork 2.5 out of 5 corks . It’s not bad, but you can do better for $18.

Almost every wine drinker knows about Beaujolais Nouveau and the marketing bonanza that goes with it in mid-November. The wine quality is often hit-or-miss, and the aroma composition of the wine leads to a relatively short shelf life. The Beaujolais Nouveaux that I had this year were quite nice (for once) but the nature of this wonderfully executed marketing leads many to look down on the Gamay grape.

Most people participating in this event were reaching for the under-represented Crus Beaujolais (the quality value of which is so much of an open secret that its repetition is becoming trite.) I decided to reach right into my cellar (that is, the wine rack next to the kitchen table) and pull out some local Gamay from Sheldrake Point. Only a handful of producers in the Finger Lakes make a Gamay, likely due to consumers’ lack of familiarity with the grape (or aversion to it from a bad Beaujolais Nouveau experience…).

I like to say that every wine has a purpose. To me, this wine fills a similar niche to some rosé wines as one to sip lightly chilled on a warm afternoon. It’s not for serious analysis. The savory “cheese” note, explained in more detail below, could help with food pairings, especially picnic food.


If you’re familiar with malolactic fermentation (MLF), (or if you’ve ever had a buttery California Chardonnay or even microwave popcorn) then you are likely familiar with the aroma compound known as diacetyl. (If you’re not familiar with MLF, then study up in this article I wrote for Palate Press a few months back.)

Diacetyl is found naturally in all kinds of dairy products like butter, cheese, and yogurt. It is produced naturally by yeast, and in beer brewing there is often a step called “diacetyl rest” to allow its degradation (perhaps R. Pliny will expound on this in a later brewing-related post).

In wine, diacetyl is much more acceptable and sometimes desirable. It’s produced by a lactic acid bacterium called Oenococcus oeni, which makes it as a byproduct of citric acid metabolism (see figure). Basically, citric acid is metabolized into all kind of things, most of which have high aroma thresholds. Diacetyl, however, is detectable down to about 0.2 ppm (200 micrograms/kg).

Diacetyl production and metabolism. Reproduced with permission from Bartowsky and Henschke, Intl. J. Food Microbiol., 2004.

A few things to point out:

  1. Increased citric acid can lead to higher diacetyl in MLF wine, which is why citric acid is rarely used to adjust acidity.
  2. Oxygen can increase diacetyl concentration, since oxygen aids the non-enzymatic decarboxylation (step 11 above) of α-acetolactic acid to diacetyl. So air exposure during MLF could cause higher levels of diacetyl.
  3. A host of other factors affect diacetyl concentration, including pH, temperature, and exposure to lees

The question here is whether (A) this wine has higher levels of diacetyl than other wines or (B) it is more easily perceived in this wine than in others. Almost every red wine out there undergoes malolactic fermentation, but they don’t all smell buttery. Indeed, the detection threshold for diacetyl in Cabernet Sauvignon has been reported at 2.8 ppm, compared to 0.2 ppm in Chardonnay. The explanation for this is that Cabernet presents a more varied array of aromas than Chardonnay, so diacetyl is harder to pick out in the more complex matrix. The threshold measured for Pinot Noir was 0.9 ppm. Now we’re getting somewhere.

I’ve noticed this “cheese” characteristic in some rosés as well, some of which also undergo MLF. Rosé, along with Pinot, tends to be lighter in body and more subtle aromatically. This wine is aptly compared with Pinot, its famous big brother in Burgundy. Basically, in lighter wines, diacetyl will be more noticeable after malolactic fermentation. This is one reason (besides reduction in acidity) it’s not typically done in, for example, Riesling, although Paul Brock at Lamoreaux Landing is experimenting with the concept.

There are lots reasons to allow malolactic fermentation beyond diacetyl production. Its primary purpose is to reduce perceived acidity. This, along with other functions of MLF, can also affect the mouthfeel. I have no idea what this Gamay would be like without MLF, but I can guess that it would be a bit more fruity on the nose, if thinner in body and more acidic. In the end, MLF and blending are winemaking decisions. It’s up to the winemaker (or if not, the owners) to determine which decisions will be preferable to consumers and sell wine.

Further Reading:
Bartowsky and Henschke, “The ‘buttery’ attribute of wine–diacetyl–desirability, spoilage and beyond.” Intl. J. Food Microbiol., 2004.
Malolactic Fermentation Primer at Palate Press
Malolactic fermentation in Riesling from the New York Cork Report

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6 Responses to Wine Blogging Wednesday 68: Got Gamay?

  1. Kit Kalfs on 23 April 2010 at 8:53 am

    I know of two others producing this delicious wine in the Finger Lakes. Bet the Farm Winery & Gourmet Market (winery-Hector/retail shop-Aurora) makes a delicious Gamay Noir from grapes purchased from Sheldrake Point. Same grapes, different style – the 2009 vintage was aged in older French & Hungarian oak for four months and went through full ML. The other producer of Gamay Noir in the Finger Lakes is Bloomer Creek.

  2. Antoinette Di Ciaccio on 24 April 2010 at 4:44 pm

    I was excited to try a dry rose produced from Gamay Noir, when I was touring the northwest side of Seneca Lake @ Billboro Winery. Interestingly I learned when I visited that it is made from Gamay Noir grapes purchased from Sheldrake Point! It is quite good and refreshingly different than the pinot noir and cabernet franc roses that dominate in the Finger Lakes.

  3. jamie goode on 26 April 2010 at 3:47 pm

    great post, Tom – thanks for this. I often find diacetyl to be a distraction on roses.

  4. David Falchek on 27 April 2010 at 5:34 pm

    The Americans who know about St. Amour can fit into Baily Hall.

  5. [...] from NY-based Ithacork also went with the Sheldrake Point Gamay 2007.  Great review, especially the diacetyl information – clearly a Chemical Engineering PhD [...]

  6. Cyclist on 12 May 2010 at 8:34 pm

    I’ve had several vintages of the Sheldrake Point Gamay and, while it shows promise, it has been all over the place. Hope they can settle on a consistent style (that is good). Oak should be kept away unless it is 100% neutral, IMO. Bloomer Creek’s version has been more successful in some years. At one time, Dr. Frank’s Salmon Run Coho Red was also supposed to be based on Gamay – I wonder if that is still the case? Since Gamay seems to be a red grape that might ripen well in the FL, I’m wondering why it isn’t grown more.

    I’d like to disagree with the statement that Gamay is light colored. The good stuff from France, while not opaque, never seems to lack for color. The almost rose like colors I sometimes see in the FL (and this applies to Pinot Noir as well) almost always correlate with a poorly made or overcropped wine lacking in depth and richness.

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