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The Exile of Burgundy

Cast out of Burgundy by a spiteful ruler, the Gamay grape embarked on a 600-year road to redemption in Beaujolais

Ben O'Donnell
Posted: November 17, 2011

A wine isn't always to a critic's liking, and bad reviews happen. Usually, the winemaker moves on: Better luck next vintage. But sometimes a takedown has fangs, as in the case of perhaps the most famous critical savaging in wine history: a July 1395 edict of Philip the Bold, duke of Burgundy. The target of Philip's hatchet job was Burgundian Gamay, and he disliked it so much he tried to ban it entirely.

For one thing, the wine's "very great and terrible bitterness" was not much to Philip's palate's preference, but he went much further in his complaint, calling it "injurious to the human creature." The Gamay vine, Philip huffed, was nothing less than an "evil and disloyal plant." (One by now imagines the duke glowering at his writing desk, vassal to a king-size hangover.) Should anyone not have taken his meaning, Philip ordered the hapless fruit "extirpated, destroyed and reduced to nothing." And that is why virtually all red wine from the Côte d'Or today is made from Pinot Noir.

The monks who tended Burgundy's grandest crus knew how to make a mean Pinot Noir, and by the 14th century, the region's wine reputation depended on it. 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. It is said that Philip selected the clone of Pinot he wanted growers to use and even gave it the name we use today (pineau, from "pine cone"). But to farmers, the fickle, exasperating grape required effort and worry that could be better spent on pursuits like avoiding starvation, or avoiding marauding armies, or avoiding the plague. At around this time, area growers were discovering Gamay, easygoing and generous in yield—a godsend in hard times. Many were quick to bid Pinot Noir adieu. Enter Philip’s meddlesome edict.

The new law was not popular. The citizens of Dijon complained bitterly, so Philip imprisoned their mayor and installed his own. Ultimately, productivity decreased, Burgundy wine sales tumbled even more although Philip had ostensibly "saved" the region's reputation, and poverty worsened.

Philip's ban on Gamay was disastrous as a policy move but, it must be said, effective as a ban on Gamay. Today, in the Côte de Beaune commune of St.-Aubin, you can make wine in the premier cru Sur Gamay, outside the hamlet of Gamay—but the bottle can't have any Gamay in it. The Gamay area is now primarily Chardonnay country. (Ironically, though, Gamay is permitted to be grown around the village of Chardonnay, in the Mâcon. The mindbending designation for that wine is "Mâcon-Chardonnay Rouge.")

Despite Philip's bluster about this botanical menace to society, scatterings of Gamay escaped his notice. Though it was under his jurisdiction in the extreme south of his territory, the Beaujolais region was a medieval backwater, its wines mostly drunk at local tables. Gamay had grown around Lyon since the time of the Caesars—the cru Julienas takes its name from Julius—and gradually took hold in Beaujolais, but Philip didn't bother enforcing his edict in the area. Good thing: By the 17th century, vintners had discovered that the hilly, hail-prone terroir suited the grape uniquely.

The granite, limestone and clay soils give the wine its mineral zip; as Rudolph Chelminski writes in I'll Drink to That: Beaujolais and the French Peasant Who Made It the World's Most Popular Wine: "Nowhere else does the little black grape express itself so completely and cheerily as in the Beaujolais … From [the 17th century] onward, there has never been any other red wine grape for the Beaujolais."

Beaujolais wine history meanders along for a few more centuries, only occasionally surfacing in the bigger narrative of European wine. "Historically the Beaujolais region has always been under the shade of Burgundy. It started to change with the AOC classification in 1937," says Georges Duboeuf, founder of the eponymous négociant house. Duboeuf thinks that it was another governmental edict, in fact, that finally elevated Gamay to the prominence that had been snatched from it 556 years prior. This one saluted, rather than condemned, the grape's singular qualities. "I see the 1951 law that authorized us to release our wines on Dec. 15 as the 'rebirth' of the Beaujolais region: It was an official recognition of the Gamay grape and its characteristics" that make its wine friendly to drink early, says Duboeuf.

Though Beaujolais has long been released young, the new law invited the possibility of "primeur" Beaujolais Nouveau as an international marketing phenomenon. (Eventually the release date was changed to the third Thursday of November.) "The development of the primeur wines," says Duboeuf, "has put the spotlight on our region and allowed us to also showcase all the magnificent crus in Beaujolais," which benefit from the publicity as well. 1951 was also the year that 18-year-old Duboeuf began selling wine, and by 1957, he was bottling wine for 45 growers, already on the way to the 400-grower-strong enterprise he runs today.

Had the Gamay grape thrived in, say, Bordeaux, its history might be quite different. Beaujolais has never been cosmopolitan, and Duboeuf says that it took until the 1970s for its wines to reach significant popularity outside Lyon. But despite hiccups and challenges, the last few decades have finally brought Gamay out of the shadows. Beaujolais Nouveau became so popular in the '80s that Gamay again suffered the slings of critical opinion, nearly undone a second time by charges of overabundance and underperformance.

Yet the Beaujolais again rallied to the grape that has become the foundation of their wine culture, escalating quality to new levels, especially in the 10 crus. Every November, with the release of Beaujolais Nouveau, Gamay still showers acclaim and profit on the Beaujolais villages and generates excitement worldwide; 202,000 cases were moved in the United States alone last year. But sterling vintages like 2009 and 2005 have proved that, with the aid of conscientious viticulture, the grape can fill a cup with poise and character in any season. Nowadays, no one is calling Gamay's loyalty into question.

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