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. Think of it this way. Your friend is describing someone to you, but the image they’ve crafted leads you to assume you won’t like that person all that much. But then you finally meet them and you hit it off…big time! You warm up to them cautiously, questioning everything you thought you knew about them. If you’ve experienced this, you’ll have a vivid understanding of the once-assumed shady vino of the wine world: Gamay.
Back in 1395 (we 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 had been growing in the French region of Burgundy since the mid-14th century, and Philip the Bold (a bit of a drama king, tbh) was not pleased with the wine that was being produced from Gamay grapes. Put simply, he 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.” Ouch.
Being bold, as his name so obviously states, 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. 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 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. There’s even a village in Burgundy named Gamay (after the grape), which is a little misleading because the wine is still restricted in the region today. Interestingly enough, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the top grown grapes in that region.
Even though Philip trash talked the grape, 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 they were able to fly under the radar. Their sneakiness 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 as well.
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 its true colors shine as a unique red wine. We thank the wine gods that Beaujolais was such a good friend and ignored Gamay haters like Philip. Without Beaujolais seeing the good in Gamay, we might not be able to experience the incomparably enjoyable wines that come from this region. We raise our glasses to you, Beaujolais!
Sources: Wine Spectator, Wine Folly, Guild Somm