The Banishment of Gamay from Burgundy: The Controversial Decree that Shaped Beaujolais
In the annals of wine history, one chapter stands out as a tale of intrigue, controversy, and the consequential journey of a grape variety. This is the story of Gamay, the vibrant and fruity red grape, and its banishment from the illustrious vineyards of Burgundy in the 14th century.
The Birth of Gamay in Burgundy
Gamay's origins can be traced back to the fertile soils of Burgundy, where it is believed to be a natural cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais Blanc. The exact circumstances of its creation are unclear, but it likely occurred spontaneously through natural cross-pollination. By the 14th century, the grape was well-established in the Burgundy region. It was valued for its early ripening and high yields, making it an attractive choice for local winemakers. Flourishing in the region's diverse terroir, Gamay gained popularity for its early ripening, high yields, and exuberant fruitiness.
The Controversial Banishment
The turning point in Gamay's history occurred in 1395 when Duke Philip the Bold, in a controversial decree, banished the grape from Burgundy. The decree specifically targeted Gamay, labeling it as a grape that produced wines of inferior quality compared to the revered Pinot Noir.
Reasons Behind the Ban
Several factors likely contributed to the banishment of Gamay:
The Pursuit of Royal Greatness: At the time, Pinot Noir was already gaining prestige for producing wines of depth and complexity, the monks who tended Burgundy’s best vineyards knew how to make incredible wine and Burgundy’s reputation depended on it. The Duke tried to reflect a perception that Gamay, with its higher yields and fruity character, was unable to achieve the same level of quality as Pinot Noir. To farmers, the fickle, exasperating Pinot Noir required a great deal of effort and worry that could be better spent on pursuits like avoiding starvation, marauding armies, or avoiding the plague. Farmers understood that Gamay was easygoing and generous in yield – offering blessings in hard times so they were increasingly bidding adieu to temperamental Pinot Noir and replaced the vines with Gamay. Phillip huffed that Gamay was an “evil disloyal plant” and “injurious to the human creature”, then when he couldn’t convince farmers to remove it, he finally ordered that it be “destroyed to nothing” and replace it with Pinot Noir. Luckily farmers did not fully destroy Gamay, they just moved south to Beaujolais.
Protection of Burgundian Identity: Burgundy was asserting its identity as a region capable of producing world-class wines. Burgundy was locked in rivalry with Paris over which had the better wine, and Philip wasn't about to let the city, where his erratic nephew Charles the Mad reigned as king, best the duchy on his watch.
Potential Self-Serving Ordinance: Philips ordinance may have been self-serving for two reasons. First, Philip himself owned 500 acres of Pinot Noir. Hmmm??? Second, Pinot Noir commanded a much higher price making it an important source of commercial and fiscal revenue in Burgundy, where it was the most important commodity subjected to taxes. Hmmmm?????
The Migration of Gamay to Beaujolais
While the ban from Burgundy was a setback for Gamay, the grape found a new home in the neighboring region of Beaujolais. The granitic soils and climate of Beaujolais proved to be a perfect match for Gamay, allowing the grape to thrive and express its full potential.
The Resilient Home of Gamay: In Beaujolais, Gamay underwent a renaissance. Winemakers embraced the grape, and it became the dominant varietal, especially in the southern part of the region. The soils, climate, and winemaking traditions of Beaujolais allowed Gamay to shine, giving birth to wines celebrated for their freshness, fruit-forwardness, and vibrant character.
Legacy of the Ban
The banishment of Gamay from Burgundy, while initially a setback, ultimately led to the creation of a unique wine identity in Beaujolais. The grape found refuge in the neighboring region of Beaujolais, where it not only survived but thrived. From the granite soils of northern Beaujolais to the schist-laden landscapes of Morgon, Gamay adapted and evolved, creating wines that are celebrated for their freshness, vibrant fruit character, and undeniable charm.
The banishment of Gamay from Burgundy was a pivotal moment in wine history, shaping the destinies of both the grape and the regions it called home. As Gamay found refuge in Beaujolais, it embarked on a journey that would reveal its true potential and create a legacy of wines cherished for their joyous and vibrant qualities. Today, Beaujolais stands not just as a region of exile but as a proud home where Gamay has thrived and continues to captivate wine enthusiasts with its expressive and delightful character. The ban may have been a decree of exile, but it unwittingly set the stage for a story of resilience, reinvention, and the enduring allure of a grape that refused to be forgotten.
Today, Gamay is celebrated for its approachability, low tannins, and vibrant fruit character. Winemakers continue to experiment with different winemaking techniques, including carbonic maceration, to enhance the grape's natural qualities. While Gamay is most closely associated with France, particularly Beaujolais, the grape has found success in other parts of the world. In recent decades, winemakers in regions such as the United States (especially in Oregon), Canada, Switzerland, and New Zealand have embraced Gamay and produced wines that showcase its versatility writing its continued history for generations to come.