Like Canada, Burgundy has two solitudes. Their names are pinot noir and gamay. Aficionados of the former generally think of the region in eastern France as ending around the town of Macon. To the North of Macon virtually all red Burgundy is made from pinot noir. Yet Beaujolais, the sprawling vineyard area below Macon, belongs to Burgundy as well, and in Beaujolais, gamay is the star.
Some producers in the north frankly wouldn't mind if the Beaujolais got up and separated like a badly made Hollandaise. They believe gamay - specifically from the industrial practices of some Beaujolais producers - dilutes the hallowed Burgundy brand.
Yet like the thin border that separates Burgundy and Beaujolais on a map, sometimes the line between pinot noir and gamay is hard to distinguish. Pinot, which typically tastes of berries and, more subtly, of beetroot, flowers and cinnamon, tends to be more concentrated, complex and capable of longer cellaring.
Gamay, in its best examples almost always tasting uncannily of bright cherry, is lighter, crisper and more parsimonious in its flavour profile. It also tends often to evoke a confected quality - cherry candy rather than fresh berries or berry pie. In bad examples it calls to mind Hubba Bubba.
Gamay's detractors, and declining sales of Beaujolais suggest there are many, might describe it ungenerously as a grape that wants to be pinot noir when it grows up.
As a fan of pinot, I can almost see their point. But taken on its own terms, the wine can be compelling. I think of it as a happy wine. Where so many other reds aspire to gravitas, gamay just wants to have fun. It's Cyndi Lauper in a Miata with the top down. Served slightly chilled, say, 15 minutes in the fridge, it's a fine, crisp, light-bodied red for fish or for sipping on a warm day. It's pretty versatile with vegetarian dishes, too, not overpowering like cabernet and syrah.
Beaujolais isn't the only place that excels with gamay. Niagara happens to be fine terrain for the crisp grape. It's picked earlier in the season than many other red varieties, so frigid Ontario autumns aren't a big threat. Good producers include Chateau des Charmes, Henry of Pelham and Malivoire. And one the best-value domestic gamays I've tasted was just released, Cave Spring Gamay 2007 ($12.95, product No. 228569). It's among the first reds to emerge from Ontario's top-ranked 2007 vintage. The sunshine of that growing season can be tasted in the ripeness of this delectable light-bodied red from winemaker Angelo Pavan. Relatively round and plump for a gamay, it has a silky texture and offers up a big note of berry jam as well as whispers of earth, herbs and spice. Lots of ripe fruit flavour and nice poise. In a blind tasting, I'd bet some experts would confuse it with good pinot noir. It's a great bottle to take to informal cookouts this summer.
From the same producer comes another deliciously balanced wine, Cave Spring Estate Bottled Chardonnay 2006 Beamsville Bench ($18.95, No. 256552). This medium-bodied white, available as a permanent "essentials" listing through Vintages departments in Ontario, represents a stylistic change from previous vintages of the wine. Malolactic fermentation, a post-alcoholic fermentation that yields a soft, buttery wine, was inhibited, leaving the wine's malic, or crispy-apple, acidity intact. The result is a flintier, zippier chardonnay that still displays a toasty, tropical-fruit bottom.
Nova Scotia's ambitious new winery, Benjamin Bridge, has turned out another wine that should turn some heads. A while ago I mentioned the fabulous Nova 7, an off-dry, crackling white made in the image of moscato d'Astis from Italy. That wine, now sold out, could frankly hold its head up proudly among the best moscato d'Astis.
Its new release is Taurus 2007 ($29.95, available only in Nova Scotia at select NSLC outlets and private wine stores, as well as direct from the winery), a robust red based on marechal foch. That's one of the hardy hybrid grape varieties, along with baco noir, that helped give a leg-up to the Niagara region in the 1970s and 1980s while producers began feverishly planting the noble vitis vinifery varieties of Europe.
The first good Ontario wine I tasted was made from foch, and the grape does make good wine - as long as you don't come at it with preconceptions about wine having to taste like cabernet, pinot noir or syrah. This one is full-bodied, with a silky core that develops a slightly rugged, spice outer layer in the mouth. Flavours hint at the blueberries I used to pick off bushes as a kid during summers in Muskoka. It doesn't take childlike imagination to notice dollops of vanilla and spice in it. A good wine for food grilled outdoors.
Also from a new winery in Nova Scotia's Gaspereau Valley and available only in the East is an impressive bubbly, L'Acadie Vineyards Brut 2005 ($32.99, http://www.lacadievineyards.ca). Made in the traditional Champagne-style method and aged in the bottle for three years, this bone-dry sparkling wine shows brilliant green-apple and citrus flavours, with a nuance of stone and electric acidity softened ever so slightly by a hint of butter and sweet note of fresh bread.
Pick of the week
Cave Spring Gamay 2007
($12.95, product No. 228569)
has lots of ripe fruit flavour
and nice poise.