Anyone who listens to the GuildSomm podcast may have heard Anthony Moss MW misidentify a Cru Beaujolais (Moulin-a-Vent) as a village level Chambolle Musigny. Easy mistake. As Geoff Kruth MS says, Moulin a Vent is one of hardest Crus to tell from Pinot Noir because it is more structured.
When Anthony was considering what this light red wine could be he neglected Beaujolais. Kicking himself when the wine was revealed, he stressed the importance of memorising shortlists of easily confused wines so that you don’t miss the obvious. Like he did.
Gamay and Pinot Noir can be very similar. Both can be light or pale in colour, have perfumed aromatics (tending to red fruits, particularly strawberry), have elevated fresh acid, be relatively light bodied, and have a low level of gentle, supple tannin. Both tend to have moderate alcohol. Although, Pinot Noir probably has a higher ceiling — Beaujolais isn’t often above 13%.
In Wines of Southern Burgundy, Beaujolais, and Jura, Benjamin Lewin MW, says top Beaujolais Crus can be difficult to distinguish from village wines from Cote de Beaune. He likens the tense black fruit and earthy overtones of Lapierre’s Morgon to a Pommard.
Tim Gaiser MS has a very nice piece on his blog called Tasting: the Evil Dwarves Part II. It focuses on light coloured red wines and how to distinguish between them. And, looks specifically at Pinot Noir, Gamay, Sangiovese, Tempranillo, Grenache, and Nebbiolo. Part I of the two part series, incidentally, looks at identifying easily confused semi-aromatic whites.
Tim uses Beaujolais Villages as his Gamay example. He identifies the candied/artificial fruit character of carbonic maceration as a prime indicator for Gamay. He also identifies the absence of new oak as another way to distinguish Gamay from Pinot Noir. While this may be true for Beaujolais Villages (typically made with carbonic maceration and without oak) both of these indicators are a result of winemaking. What do you do when faced with a Cru Beaujolais made without full carbonic maceration and with new oak influence, as is the growing trend.
So, aside from carbonic maceration and oak, how can Gamay and Pinot Noir be distinguished–especially if both of similar quality level?
Gamay tends to have more obvious fruit character, even when layered with some savoury complexity or new oak influence. Gamay rarely has the forest floor notes that’s often seen in Pinot Noir. And, Gamay can also have a pepperiness to it that you don’t see in Pinot Noir.
Pinot Noir seems to achieve a greater sense of weight and richness while still being light, delicate and elegant. While light bodied, Gamay doesn’t seem to achieve the same ethereal nature of Pinot Noir or the smooth, sublime, silkiness.
In a similar vein, while there are some very high quality, complex, and age worthy Cru Beaujolais they don’t reach the same heights as Pinot Noir can. An article titled, Bojo with mojo, on the free for all area of JancisRobinson.com reaches a similar conclusion. Sure, .
Gamay may never achieve the renown or prominence of Pinot Noir. Or, for that matter, other light coloured red-fruited wines, such as Grenache, Nebbiolo, and Tempranillo. However, when faced with a pinot-esque wine in a blind tasting Gamay–and in particular Beaujolais–should not be overlooked.