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  • 01 April 2020
  • Grapes and Regions

Nobody puts Gamay in the Corner

Gamay is the Daft Punk of the grape world. There is perhaps no other grape variety that has made as much of a comeback over the past ten years, but what is it making a comeback from?

The now much-loved Gamay grape has had an unfortunate past. This past reaches back as far as 1395, when it was banned by Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. If he found out that today the cool kids are drinking Gamay, he’d be rolling around in his grave and swearing profusely, if swear words existed in the 14th century.

Philip the Bold: Hater of Gamay

1395: The Banished Wine  

One of the many (20+) children of Pinot Noir, the Gamay grape is an ancient variety that can be traced back to 1395. Unfortunately, its first mention that we have on file was deeply condemning. The variety was banished from Burgundy in 1395 by the Duke.  He announced that any vines of Gamay must be pulled out with immediate effect , saying;

“Gamay is a very bad and most disloyal grape, from which come abundant quantities of wine that is harmful to human beings, indeed many that consumed it in the past have been infested with serious diseases.”

Ouch, poor Gamay. One can hardly think of worse insults. Why did old Philip have such a bee in his bonnet? 

We don’t know his precise motives for the ban, but we have a few theories. If Gamay is pushed to carry a very heavy cropload, it can produce thin and acidic wines. As a result, perhaps Philip presumed this was the case for all Gamay. He might even worried that growers were favouring it over the King of red wine grapes, Pinot Noir. That would likely have been considered treachery. 

Regardless of his reasoning, Gamay found its forever home in the Beaujolais region, which lies just south of Burgundy. Thankfully, it wasn’t banned there, rather the opposite: it thrives on granitic soil, whereas Burgundy’s limestone soils are well suited to Pinot. 

The Rolling Hills of Beaujolais, the heartland of Gamay | Photography for Inter-Beaujolais by Etienne Ramousse

1970s: Gamay Races Headfirst into Trouble 

Nouveau wine: young wine that is produced the same year as harvest, bottled almost as soon as fermentation has finished. In the past, it was often considered a celebration drink for workers, only to be shared locally, and as a fun insight into the new vintage. It is rarely produced with the vision to be a “serious” wine, more a party wine. 

These wines have a great and long history in Beaujolais, where red wine must be produced from the Gamay grape variety. However, until the 1960s, almost nobody abroad had heard of them. That all changed with the idea of creating the Beaujolais Race. If you speak to almost anyone who was drinking wine in the 70s and 80s, they will remember it. It was created as a marketing tool for the region, and in terms of marketing - it must have been one of the most successful wine campaigns of its time…

… that is until the name Beaujolais had become inextricable from that other word - Nouveau. The nouveau wine had become such a success by the 80s that behemoth cooperatives were capitalising on it, and farming - already on a slippery chemical slope - had become so focused on maximising yields, resulting in dilute wines.

Jules Chauvet | Photograph from the family archives, sent by Aline Chauvet Decombe

1980s: The Saviours 

While everybody else was busy racing their Gamay Nouveau wines to countries across the world as fast as they could, a small group of winemakers, whose leader was wine merchant and biochemist Monsieur Jules Chauvet, were quietly pedalling away, working on a specific form of fermentation for the Gamay grape variety.

Chauvet has since become known as the Godfather of what is often dubbed the natural wine movement; a growing effort by an expanding group of farmers and winemakers across the world to farm with natural methods, and to make wine with as little intervention by the human hand as possible; to allow the soil, grapes and yeast to speak.

He was dedicated to nature, and believed firmly that in order to respect our planet, human beings needed to work to understand nature, and never to overrule her by working with fertilisers, herbicides and other chemical sprays.

He advocated for the use of natural yeasts - not the lab-cultured yeasts that were surging in popularity. He explained that in order to show true terroir, fermentation should happen spontaneously from these natural yeasts, as the expression of terroir should also reflect the living side of the soil; the symbiotic relationship between the soil and its microflora.  To achieve a healthy natural fermentation, he emphasised that these aforementioned sprays must not be used. Instead, one must return to the age-old practice of ploughing the vineyards. He was also against judicious use of sulphur, as the use of too much would inhibit the work of the natural yeasts present on the berries and in the winery, thus stopping them from reflecting the true side of terroir.

Thirdly, he worked for decades on carbonic maceration, the aforementioned specific type of fermentation, which today he is particularly celebrated for. 

P'Tit Max

A Beaujolais winemaker based in Morgon, Marcel Lapierre, met Jules Chauvet by chance in 1981. Lapierre, who had already been trialling making wines without sulphur, now had a mentor. Soon, he was joined by Guy Breton, aka "P'tit Max," who learnt how to make wine with them as a young man. 

He remembers, 

“Honestly, I didn’t drink Gamay before I met those guys… I drank very little wine at all because I just didn’t find it interesting, but once I met them, the obsession began. I am so happy that I had the chance to know them, and to have carried on their work. Both Jules and Marcel Lapierre… well, they’re people that we miss very much these days.” 

These days, P'tit Max has himself become a mentor for many young winemakers, showing them how to work with carbonic maceration.

Guy Breton on Carbonic Winemaking

The Late 2000s: Bye, Bye, Big Wines

In the noughties, many things happened in succession that came together in favour of Gamay. The quality-driven farming and vinification of this fast-growing group of winemakers coincided with Burgundy prices rising to new heights, which meant many of the most loved Pinot Noirs of the world were now getting so expensive that they were of reach for many. Beaujolais, the heartland of Gamay, is Burgundy's neighbour and the wines find a certain similarity in lightness of touch, so Gamay was a logical replacement for the growing gaps in wine lists for bottles under $50. The influence of Robert Parker, a wine critic once deemed to be the most influential wine critic in the world, was fast waning. He had become known for celebrating “bigger” wines; richer wines with higher alcohol; but by the late 2000s consumers around the world had started to look for fresher wines, with more acidity and lower alcohol levels.

Biodynamic old vine Gamay, tended by young Yann Bertrand

Furthermore, the wine trade was starting to become more eco-conscious. Sommeliers and wine merchants around the world were looking for wines that were farmed to high organic and or biodynamic standards, and this led them straight to the gates of the disciples of Jules Chauvet.

At the same time, budding young winemakers had long been priced out of regions such as Burgundy and were looking for regions where they could start up, and many of them sought out Beaujolais like homing pigeons: a beautiful region with a wealth of old vines where land costs were comparatively very low… what more could they want?

From Undervalued to Allocated: 2010s 

New York, Copenhagen, London and several other cities around the world started to take notice. Suddenly the race had switched from Beaujolais Nouveau to Get Your Gamay. Growers such as Marcel Lapierre, Guy Breton and Yvon Metras, along with the emerging younger, next generation crew of growers such as Pierre Cotton, Sophie-Ann Dubois, Raphaël Saint Cyr, Domaine Chapel and Yann Bertrand reached the dizzying heights of “allocation status.” In wine terms, this is somewhat like being a mini-celebrity, meaning that your wines are in such demand that some (or even all) of your cuvees will be pre-sold; already promised to restaurants and independent wine merchants. 

Pierre Cotton

Yvon Métras

Sommelier Honey Spencer, founder of wine-led events platform Bastarda, and previously of Roxie & Den Vandrette in Copenhagen, Sager + Wilde and NOMA Mexico, was one of the sommeliers to first start listing the grape in swathes. She muses,

"My friends and I have never managed to hang out with the kind of people who say things like: “Gamay is poor man’s Pinot”, but that’s probably because we’re somewhat poor and what’s more: we all bloody love Gamay. In the right hands, Gamay can whip the legs from right out under you, rendering you in awe of its dazzling ruby purity. And at worst, it’s the mate that convinces you to buy the most expensive Champagne on the list even though you’d just extended your overdraft. Either way, it is its own beast, and to simply compare it to Pinot shows a disdain for imagination..."

9,500 miles from home 

This mad Gamay Gold Rush meant that there simply wasn’t enough Gamay to go around. This meant that sommelier noses started to sniff around, and came across various examples of Gamay from further afield; the Loire, the Rhone, but also across the New World. What’s more, many growers around the world were so inspired by the wines of this movement that they wanted to make Gamay themselves. 

Unfortunately in California, it turned out that a lot of the vineyards thought to be planted to Gamay in the 1980s were in fact an obscure variety called Valdiguié. However, Steve Edmunds of Edmunds St John’s, who had fallen for the variety in the 1970s by drinking Cru Beaujolais, found some true Gamay which became the “Bone Jolly” cuvée.  

Rajat Parr

Meanwhile, sommelier extraordinaire Rajat Parr had retired from the floor and turned his hand to winemaking. He had had a crush on Gamay for a long time, remembering, 

“I first fell in love with Gamay in a classic Paris Bistro in 1999. I had tasted it before, but that was my first chance to drink a wine made by the Master Marcel Lapierre himself. It was a 1995 Morgon and I was hooked!! Since then I have been obsessed with the grape. It’s so delicious, and comes in so many forms. Some are light and lacy, and some are rich and extracted, needing 10+ years to age.”

This obsession led him to create a Californian Gamay in collaboration with Nathan Roberts and Duncan Arnot Meyers in 2011, eponymously named RPM. That wine no longer exists, but fear not; Pax Mahle of Pax Cellars and Scott Schultz of Jolie Laide, two of California’s most revered winemakers, jumped on the Gamay train and produce thrilling Gamay cuvees, even by Beaujolais standards. 

A couple of years later, Rajat and his business partner, Sashi Moorman, became custodians of the historic Seven Springs Vineyard in Oregon. Initially planted to what was considered the oldest plot of Gamay in the US, sadly in 2017 it succumbed to phylloxera. However, they had another parcel in 2002, and the dying parcel was replanted. Despite the variety having been grown there since the 80s, it took until the 2010s for the likes of Evening Land, Bow & Arrow and Division Wine Co for Oregon Gamay to hit the metaphorical Big Screen of wine. 

Evening Land Vineyards, Seven Springs Gamay vineyard, Oregon

Jay Drysdale of Bella Wines

Meanwhile, in Beechworth, Australia, biodynamic winemakers Sorrenberg have quietly been producing Gamay for over a decade. This Aussie cuvée has also joined the dizzying heights of celebrity Gamay. The variety has also found a home in Canada. Jay and Wendy Drysdale, biodynamic farmers of Bella Wines in the Okanagan, have been producing Gamay for many years in the Okanagan Valley.  

Jay says, “I just love its expressive personality. It can be so elegant and floral, and really allows the soil type to show through in the wine. Volcanic soils and Gamay are probably my favourite, but granite is a very close second!”

About as niche as it gets, together they craft Gamay in the form of pét-nat and “trad-nat” sparkling wines, the latter being a very rare, challenging and precise method similar to Christoph Hoch’s Kalkreich cuvee. 

It’s clear that there is no stopping Gamay; endless styles are possible and it is arguably only the start of the winemakers getting aboard the Gamay steam train. There is a growing field of Gamay devotees, and it just makes us wonder… where will Gamay be in ten years from now? We’ll have to wait and see.

This image & header image shot for Inter Beaujolais / Etienne Ramousse

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