Gamay: The Duke was Wrong and So Was I

The Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Bold, HATED gamay (or 'Beaujolais'; gamay is the grape and Beaujolais is the region). 

In 1395, Mr. The Bold famously ordered the gamay grapes in Burgundy to be uprooted. And there would be no replanting of the "very bad and unlawful plant of gamay, from which plant comes a very great abundance of wine... which is of such a nature that it is very harmful to human creatures...for it is full of very great and horrible bitterness." That was Phillip talking, not me. He went on to say that anyone who happened to be drinking gamay, presumably while reading that decree, should "extirpate it, destroy and annihilate it" or else be fined. I always thought those quotes along with the threat of a fine were hilarious and would text them to friends, who probably in turn thought I was the lamest texter of all time. But as we often are when claiming to be nerds, I was actually gloating. Because I thought I hated gamay too.

It all began innocently enough with a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau one November afternoon. I was excited to open it for my sister in law for some family bonding, but was stopped in my tracks when I found it tasted like bubble gum and pink stuff. My opinion of all gamay swirled down the drain just like the wine I pointedly poured out of that bottle. After that, I avoided gamay, I belittled it, and basically acted like an ass any time the word Beaujolais was mentioned. Well, life has a funny way of bringing you right back to the ground where you belong. 

Although it's all made from gamay, Beaujolais Nouveau is different than Beaujolais AOC, Beaujolais Village, and Beaujolais Cru, which lamentably, I did not know since I was so early in my wine journey when I gallantly dumped the wine down the drain.  (Note: I still agree with that decision as related to that wine.)

Beaujolais, the region, is located in France. Administratively, it's part of southern Burgundy, but geographically and topographically the two areas are quite different. That's why Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, had something to say about it.

- Beaujolais AOC is the catchall term for 96 winemaking villages, which are mostly located in the south. Since the south contains a lot of flatland, grapes grown here do not ripen as well as they do in some of the hillier areas, but there are definitely some good producers. 'Appellation Beaujolais Contrôlée' (which is Beaujolais AOC) will be written on the label. These are easy drinking, everyday wines with lower tannin and abundant fruit.

- Beaujolais Village comes from one Village, or of a blend of several, in the official 38 Beaujolais Villages. The Villages are more specialized than the AOC areas, and producers can include the Village name on the label. It is said that Village level Beaujolais has more of a mineral quality, given the granite soil. As well, they are a bit darker and deeper than AOC wines, with notes of red and black fruit. Labels will appropriately read 'Beaujolais Villages' but do not state individual Village or Villages. 

- The Beaujolais Crus are generally regarded as the highest quality Beaujolais and can feature just the specific Cru from which the wine comes on its label, such as 'Fleurie'. The Crus are fancy like that. There are ten Crus, and my personal favorite is Fleurie, an area that feminine, floral wine that is full of ripe red fruit and amazingness. Fleurie is actually known as the 'Queen' of Beaujolais for these reasons. The other Crus are, from north to south, Saint Amour, Julienas, Chénas, Moulin-á-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Régnié, Côte de Brouilly, and Brouilly. Each has its own unique, identifiable characteristics, and several produce wines closer in taste and style to the Pinot Noirs of Burgundy proper. We could do an entire feature on the different Crus that could last for weeks.

All of the Crus and Villages are located on the north side of the Nizerand River, which bisects Beaujolais. The northern end of the river tends to have granite and schist soil, while the southern side is primarily made up of clay and is home to Beaujolais AOC and Beaujolais Nouveau. Soil type is so important to the resultant wine. We all know it, but it needs to be said. So. Important.

Beaujolais Nouveau, what my sister-in-law and I attempted to drink, is released on the third Thursday in November which is famously known as Beaujolais Day. Grapes are harvested in September and the wine is already in stores by November... no other wine makes it to the shelves that fast, and there are different opinions on the whole concept of Beaujolais Nouveau. Some say it's a scam, some say it's just marketing, some say it's brilliant. 

Beaujolais Nouveau is made by a process called carbonic maceration, where whole berries are anaerobically fermented in a large tank filled with carbon dioxide. The grapes on the bottom of the tank crush under the weight of the big fat grapes sitting on top, which releases more CO2. The abundant C02 causes the whole grapes to ferment inside their skins (hence the anaerobic process), without being crushed. The grapes macerate for only a few days, then the free run juice is racked off, the remaining grapes are pressed, and juices from the two are blended and continue to ferment. 

Since grapes are de-stemmed prior to going into the CO2 tank, the resulting wine has very little tannin and is characteristically very fruity, with descriptors of grape, macerated strawberries, bubblegum, and even banana not being uncommon. 

The point of all of this? The Duke was way more wrong than I was, because I was only judging Beaujolais Nouveau, and he was judging all of gamay!! So I'm smarter than a Duke. (No, that's not the real point.) The real point is that you should never write off an entire population based on one bad specimen. Don't act like a know-it-all when it comes to a certain grape, region, producer, or technique. The next point, which is equally as important, is to drink more gamay!! Try several from each level - Nouveau through Cru. Gamay can be a really a nice departure from Pinot Noir or other red standbys, especially in a restaurant with a good wine list. Try it and talk to Winelala!

And, yeah. Don't text your friends quotes from Philip the Bold. It's lame. Plus, he was wrong about some stuff.

Noelle AllenComment