The Light, Fresh California Red Winning Over Pinot Noir Fans | Wine Enthusiast
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The Light, Fresh California Red Winning Over Pinot Noir Fans

For oenophiles who increasingly opt for lighter, fresher reds, producers around California’s Santa Barbara County know just the grape to kick things into high gear: Gamay Noir.

Traditionally produced in Beaujolais, the variety is establishing a happy home throughout the region, where a handful of winemakers already grow Gamay and anticipate more plantings to come.

“Because of the juxtaposition of a sunny climate with cold ocean winds, our refrigerated-sunlight conditions prove to be an incredible place to grow cold-climate varieties like Gamay,” says John Faulkner, winemaker at Pence Vineyards & Winery in Sta. Rita Hills.

Pence began growing the grape in 2014. Today, it has one of the most extensive Gamay programs around, recently adding two more acres. Consumers, though initially hesitant, have also gotten on board, and the winery’s Annual Gamay Dinner is now its most popular event.

So, what’s the appeal?

“The simple answer is that it’s not Pinot Noir,” says Eric Johnson, owner/winemaker of Ann Albert Wines. He makes Gamay from Martian Ranch in Los Alamos.

“I love Pinot Noir, but it’s everywhere and everyone is making it. Gamay is almost like a different spin… It tends to [be] darker on the fruit spectrum but lighter in texture, [and can] hold its acid quite well… They tend to be very approachable, even to the most novice taster.”

Jeremy Leffert of Rabble Wine Company, who bottles Gamay from the Santa Maria Valley for his Stasis label, agrees.

“Although plantings are scarce, Gamay is a refreshing change from the [varieties] that occupy the lion’s share of acreage and space on wine lists,” he says.

Plus: “Gamay has a very strong sense of identity. Site and varietal expression has the tendency to trump winemaking.”

That taste of place and state is what makes this Gamay Noir so worth seeking.

“I have yet to taste a Gamay from Santa Barbara County, including my own, that brings me back to Fleurie or Morgon,” says Drake Whitcraft, who makes Gamay for his namesake label. “I love the Gamay I make, but it is distinctly Californian—as it should be.”