No matter how hard I try to expect the unexpected, there are wines that completely change the way I think about a grape or a region. This Gamay, from Hawke’s Bay on New Zealand’s North Island, did both.
It shares a lot in common with serious, top-tier Morgon from Beaujolais, not to mention many Pinot Noirs from Burgundy (the varieties are related, after all). And, just as New Zealand has proved its capabilities with Pinot Noir, why not Gamay? My palate was leading me in the direction of a particularly elegant and fleshy Morgon—dark-berried fruit with soft tannins and lots of mineral energy—until I turned the bottle over and had to smile. New Zealand! This is a gloriously inventive wine made by two (married) winemakers who love their land as much as they love flouting traditions. It says so right on their website: “We treasure freedom over approval. Our wines are not burdened by expectation or convention.” Yes, they used Morgon as a frame of reference for the potential of their Gamay but never did they set out to make a wine that wasn’t a perfect representation of their home. This is one of the most surprising and affecting reds I’ve had from New Zealand in quite some time, which is saying something when you consider the quality of its Pinot Noirs. And at this price, there’s no way I could pass it up. You shouldn’t, either!
Rod and Emma Easthope fell in love with Gamay through Beaujolais. Who can blame them, when the wine that lit the fuse was 1929 Morgon? It had so much staying power, so much life and texture, that it lodged a peculiar conviction in their hearts: Gamay would do really well in Hawke’s Bay. Their home and winery are perched above the Ngaruroro River in the Mangatahi district—a place more readily associated with “Bordeaux” varieties, given its alluvial soils and mild maritime climate. But destiny intervened: Friends told them about a parcel of forgotten Gamay planted 15 years before in a neighboring vineyard, essentially on their doorstep. It was mixed in among Malbec, and getting blended into the larger planting every year. Rod and Emma knew it was theirs. They convinced the vineyard owners to let them take over the parcel and sculpt the viticulture to meet their ambitions for the resulting wine.
Rod and Emma take great care to isolate the Gamay fruit and pay attention to its individual ripening patterns, totally separate from the surrounding Malbec. It buds and ripens early, and yields need to be carefully restricted in the sandy, loamy soils of the area. First comes harvest—by hand of course. Whole bunches are tipped into open-top fermenters, where the slow release of juice and sugars is given a little boost through good-old-fashioned foot-treading. Fermentation takes six weeks with native yeasts before the wine is drained directly into oak, where it rests in barrels through the chilly North Island Winter and ‘wakes up’ again in the Spring, to begin a natural malolactic fermentation. After 10 months, the wine is racked and bottled without fining or filtration—Gamay with the raw charm and charisma of an uncut ruby.
I’ll tell you right now: There’s only so much you can say about New Zealand Gamay before words run out and the wine gets to speak for itself. Our entire team was stunned by the depth and velvety texture of this bottle, and we found it doubled in personality after a good 45 minutes in decanter. Your patience will be rewarded with a veritable mountain of dark, wild raspberries and dewy primroses on the nose. Sun-warmed tomato leaf keeps things savory on the nose, while the palate is marked by a distinctive earthiness in the spirit of top-tier Cru Beaujolais. This is not melted popsicle Gamay. This is concentrated, weighty, textural, and intense. Black cherry keeps things juicy while notes of star anise and cinnamon add a little verve in the mid-palate. The finish is svelte and savory, with fine, slippery tannins. Halfway through you’ll be asking, “there’s another bottle of this, right?”
Yes, you could pair with French bistro food...but since we’re already drinking Southern Hemisphere Gamay you might as well stick to the theme and go off the beaten path for a really exultant pairing. Try this recipe for one-pot braised chicken with coconut milk, tomato, and ginger. Make a big pan of fragrant basmati rice and marvel at just how well this wine navigates a little spice. There are few things more enjoyable than exceptional Gamay and curry—particularly when the wine is as deep and succulent as this painstakingly crafted specimen. You heard it here first!