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The Rise, Fall, and Rise Again of Gamay

A look at the history of Gamay and how it’s made

Pix Editors By June 28, 2021
photo of town of Lantignié and its surrounding vineyards are perched on the western hills of Beaujolais
The town of Lantignié and its surrounding vineyards are perched on the western hills of Beaujolais. Photo courtesy of iStock.

It’s a grape that’s been called thin and nasty, deemed widely inferior to Pinot Noir, and designated as harmful to human beings.

Today, Gamay is known as the darling of the natural wine world, thanks to its juicy raspberry flavors and the crunchy acidity that gives it such a drinkable quality.

But its history is checkered. In some periods it’s been vilified as a poor-quality grape. At others, it’s been a massive commercial success.

What gives?

The rise, fall, and rise again of Gamay

In “The Story of Wine,” author Hugh Johnson wrote that Gamay’s arrival was “mysterious and spectacular. It arrived from nowhere.” 

  • Gamay was discovered some time in the 1360s, in the decade after the Black Death swept through Europe.
  • It was likely a random mutation of another grape.
  • Gamay was named for the village of the same name to the south of Beaune, where it was found.

“To the growers it seemed like a miracle; the Almighty was almost apologizing for the Black Death,” Hugh Johnson continued.

The peasants loved it. Gamay was hardy, offered high yields, and made a reliably alcoholic wine. However:

  • Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, hated it. He recognized that quality wine production would be a great financial asset to him — and Gamay was not a fine wine. 
  • In 1395, he ordered it removed.
  • Gamay was also pulled from vineyards in Lorraine in the late 1500s. 
  • In 1620, winemakers in Mâcon were forbidden from growing it.

But it never went away. In 1937, Beaujolais became a Protected Designation of Origin. Gamay was safe.

A new way of making wine

In 1934, a French scientist named Michael Flanzy discovered a new technique called carbonic maceration.

  • It was adopted in Beaujolais in the 1960s. 
  • It involves putting whole bunches into a sealed vessel filled with carbon dioxide. Lacking oxygen, the berries ferment from the inside out and then burst, and normal fermentation begins. 
  • The result is a drinkable, low alcohol, low tannin wine.

Today, however, many quality winemakers are now turning back to traditional fermentation in open wooden vats, with aging in small barrels.

The decades-long Gamay party

By the middle of the 20th century, the region was producing Beaujolais Nouveau. A Gamay bottled just two months after harvest, it was a kind of end-of-harvest libation.

  • In 1951, merchants hit on one of the wine world’s most successful ever marketing campaigns — a race to deliver the first bottles to Paris.
  • It took place on the third Thursday of November.
  • In the 1970s, winemaker Georges Duboeuf turned the race into an international media event.
  • “Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé!” became a well-known marketing slogan.
  • But falling sales at the end of the 1990s signaled that the party was coming to an end. 

Beaujolais faced an overproduction crisis. But then came an unlikely savior.

The Gang of Four

In the 1980s, a group of winemakers rejected contemporary thinking about farming. One of the most significant was scientist Jules Chauvet, who looked to make wine without sulfur dioxide. His work inspired a group who came to be known as the Gang of Four: Marcel Lapierre, Jean Foillard, Jean-Paul Thévenet, and Guy Breton, all of whom focused on low-intervention farming and winemaking. Many others followed.

Importers like Kermit Lynch and Joe Dressner began to bring quality Beaujolais wine into the U.S. in the 1990s.

These wines gathered steam alongside the natural wine movement, until bursting into the mainstream about a decade ago. Today, Beaujolais cru wines are highly sought after.

Anything else?

Gamay has a great price-to-quality ratio. There are few red wines with as much bang for the buck.

3 Gamay to Try:

bottle of Henry Marionnet Terres Blondes Touraine Gamay 2019

Henry Marionnet Terres Blondes Touraine Gamay 2019 ($10)

It’s fresh and juicy with bright flavors, including cranberry, strawberry, and orange rind, all lifted by the lively acidity. The hand-harvested grapes are vinified with carbonic maceration by Jean-Sébastien Marionnet, who specializes in Gamay wines. Pair this lively wine with pizza night.

bottle of Jean-Claude Lapalu Beaujolais-Villages Vieilles Vignes 2019

Jean-Claude Lapalu Beaujolais-Villages Vieilles Vignes 2019 ($24)

Jean-Claude Lapalu is a revered grower from Beaujolais’ southernmost Cru of Brouilly, renowned for being a leader of the natural wine movement. It’s a wine that’s great value for the money.

bottle of Alex Foillard Côte de Brouilly 2018

Alex Foillard Côte de Brouilly 2018 ($48)

Alex Foillard is the son of the legendary Jean Foillard, now making his own wines from 50-year-old vines. He’s acknowledged as a rising star.