Burgundy, the tenth century; it is early in Christianity’s attempts to reclaim the Holy Land when a young knight, one Seigneur du May, returns from doing battle with “the infidel” in the east. He is rewarded for his service with lands on the steep southern edge of the Cote D’ Or, near the town of Montrachet. Having brought vines of a particularly fecund red grape home to Burgundy from his Crusade in Syria, he plants them on the hillsides around his great, turreted manor in the village of Gamay. They thrive!
It is noted that the vines of the village of Gamay seem less subject to disease than those traditional grapes of the Cote; Pinot noir and Chardonnay. The Gamay requires less training, less labor. It grows straight and tall with little care. A single Gamay vine is seen to produce more fruit than three of its more delicate cousins…and, best of all, a wine writer of no less repute than Matt Kramer would concede a thousand years later that the wine from these vines of Gamay “was not half bad.”
This was all of some marginal interest to the Lords of Burgundy until 1349 …the year the Great Plague reached into their homes and fields, decimating their families, the clerics who tended the sick and the work force who tended the vines. For fourteen vintages many vineyards went unpruned and uncultivated. In the wake of a plague which claimed one of every three Europeans, the allure of Gamay as a highly productive source of tasty winegrapes was too good to resist.
Gamay emerged as the poor man’s Pinot; it was widely planted on the Haute Cote and on the plains of Burgundy by peasants who rented lesser vineyard sites from their Lords. It produced nourishment for the masses. But by the late 1300′s Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc ( black Gamay with the white juice) was seen to be encroaching on the sacred soils of the Grand Crus…farmed by some of Burgundy’s most powerful men.
Gamay emerged as the poor man’s Pinot; it was widely planted on the Haute Cote and on the plains of Burgundy by peasants who rented lesser vineyard sites from their Lords. It produced nourishment for the masses. But by the late 1300’s Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc ( black Gamay with the white juice) was seen to be encroaching on the sacred soils of the Grand Crus…farmed by some of Burgundy’s most powerful men.
In 1395 Duke Philippe the Bold ordered his subjects to tear out ” the very nasty and very disloyal plant named Gaamez.” They did not. In 1441 the Dukes issued a second edict to eradicate Gamay. But Gamay Noir just wouldn’t go away. It survived as a tribute to the working class of winedom.
By 1855, 87percent of the Cote d’Or was planted to Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc. It brought wealth sufficient to transform more than a few pre-revolutionary peasants into post-revolutionary land barons. But with the reorganization of French vineyards in the latter half of the 19th century, Gamay was once again banned from the great sites of Burgundy …this time by the new aristocracy, including some of the same families whose Gamay vineyards had supplied the wherewithal to purchase the world’s most pricey sites planted to Pinot noir.
Today, Gamay is largely relegated to Beaujolais, a region just south of the Cote d’Or that Burgundians have on occasion claimed as their own. It has always grown better there than on the limestone soils of the Cote. It is the source of the succulent wines of Morgon, Fleurie and Moulin a Vent.
There are probably only a dozen plantings of Gamay Noir on the mica rich, acidic soils of the hills surrounding the Willamette river today. Outside of Beaujolais, the plains of Burgundy, and some acreage in British Columbia, I am unaware of Gamay Noir a Jus Blanc having taken root elsewhere.
The variety remains a Black Sheep; an outrider that seems to accompany Pinot noir and Chardonnay on their travels around the world. When grown greedily, it will produce a light, less-than-average wine. But when it is pruned sparingly and given its due in the winery, Gamay Noir can be a luscious, dark glass with enough acidity to match a wide array of foods. Its allure is irresistible…even after a thousand years of turmoil.