Many of us have been in this situation. Your friend is talking smack about someone that you’ve never met. The way your friend describes this person, you assume you won’t like them all that much. You craft a pretty detailed image of them in your head: they’re a little naive, pretty irritating, and just rub you the wrong way. But then you finally meet this person and you hit it off…big time! You warm up to them cautiously, questioning everything you thought you knew about them. “This dude ain’t so bad,” you say, “I think I wanna spend more time with him.” If you’ve experienced this with a person, you’ll have a vivid understanding of the once-assumed shady guy of the wine world: Gamay.
Back in 1395 (I remember it like it was yesterday), the duke of Burgundy, also known as Philip the Bold, had a real bone to pick with Gamay. The grape was being grown in the French region of Burgundy since the mid-14th century, and Philip the Bold was not pleased with the wine that was being produced from Gamay grapes. In my opinion, this duke was being a little bit of a drama king.
From what I could dig up, Philip the Bold just didn’t like the taste of Gamay. He found the wine to be outrageously bitter and claimed that its flavor was so bad that it could cause injury to humans. He went so far as to state that the Gamay vine was an “evil and disloyal plant” (Source 1). Ouch. It’s not like Gamay slept with your wife, Philip. Can you boldly calm the h*ck down?
Being bold, as his nomenclature suggests, Philip declared that all Gamay grapes should be obliterated. From that point on, Burgundy began to focus on creating red wines almost solely from Pinot Noir grapes. This was slightly problematic because Burgundy was in competition with Paris to see who had the best wine. A big part of declaring your wine as TCBW (The Country’s Best Wine) is having to produce enough wine for everyone to drink it. High production was challenging for Burgundy after the Gamay ban, because Pinot Noir is a much more complicated grape. Growing a good batch of Pinot Noir required a lot more effort than a batch of Gamay, which was able to flourish relatively easy in the region.
Nonetheless, Philip the Bold’s exile of Gamay remained strong. Even today, some of the regions that banned Gamay in the 14th century still don’t grow it. In Côtes de Beaune, Burgundy, the village of Gamay was even named after the grape. Today, the village name is misleading because a wine from this region cannot actually have any Gamay in it. Interestingly enough, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the top grown grapes of the region.
Though Philip trash talked the grape, encouraging all his friends to ditch it, some people just south of Burgundy continued to make wines with Gamay. This was particularly true of the French wine region, Beaujolais. Beaujolais was technically under control of the duke of Burgundy at the time, but was able to fly under the radar. Beaujolais was like, “This Gamay guy hasn’t really done anything wrong to me, and I’m pretty sure he didn’t make sweet wine with Phil’s wife… I guess we’ll let him hang around.” What a lovely and understanding region Beaujolais was! Their kindness definitely paid off, as Beaujolais was able to continue producing – and perfecting – wines made from Gamay.
By the 17th century, winemakers in Beaujolais started to realize that their region, abundant with hills and a cooler climate, was ideal for growing Gamay. When grown in Beaujolais, the Gamay grape starting producing light-bodied red wines that had delicious red-fruit flavors. Primarily, these wines had notes of raspberry, cranberry, sour cherry and red currant. The terroir of Beaujolais also allowed for many underlying flavors to develop in wines made from Gamay grapes. Oftentimes wines made with Gamay have organic undertones of green peppercorn, mushroom, thyme and yeast.
The wonderful Gamay wines coming out of the Beaujolais region started to be known as “Beaujolais.” I know, another one of those confusing situations where a wine region and a wine share the same name. The Beaujolais wines grew in popularity and were eventually classified as an AOC in 1937. Even though Beaujolais had deemed Gamay as “cool enough to chill” hundreds of years prior, this AOC classification was symbolic to the rest of the French guys agreeing, “Hey, maybe Phil was just a bit of a jerk. Sure, Gamay is unique, but he’s also kind of awesome!” After being declared an AOC, Gamay was recognized in France and internationally as a valuable and unique wine with inimitable characteristics.
Along with the declaration of Beaujolais as an AOC came the designation of superior areas within the region. Eventually, this lead to the development of the ten Beaujolais Crus that exist today. The Beaujolais crus (a.k.a. Gamay’s newfound crew of bros) are St-Amour, Julié-nas, Brouilly, Chénas, Côte de Brouilly, Morgon, Moulin-á-Vent, Chiroubles, Fleurie, and Régnié. Today, 75% of France’s Gamay comes from the Beaujolais wine region. Additionally, over half of the world’s Gamay acreage is in Beaujolais.
Nowadays, people all over the world love to drink Gamay. Despite Philip the Bold trying to sabotage the grape into extinction, Gamay was able to let his true colors shine as a light and unique red wine. We thank the wine gods that Beaujolais was such a good friend, and ignored Phil while he was bashing Gamay. Without Beaujolais seeing the good in Gamay, we might not be able to experience the incomparably enjoyable wines that come from this region! The story of Gamay goes to show that, when it comes to wines, you can’t let someone else judge which grapes are “good” or “bad.” In the wine world, there is no black or white. Only shades of Gamay.
Source 3: https://www.guildsomm.com/