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BURGUNDY'S UNEXPECTED RED GRAPE: GAMAY

Updated: Sep 1, 2023


Emmanuel Guillot thinks Philippe the Bold got it all wrong way back in 1395 AD.


Back then, Burgundy was independent from France and Philippe was the region's industrious and obstinate leader. He is said to have selected the clone of Pinot that was planted across the region and even given the grape its name. During Philippe's reign, Pinot Noir's value to the local economy increased dramatically. Gamay, he thought, was a garbage grape; a weed of a plant that overproduced and underdelivered. His dislike was so strong that he banned it from the region, ordering this "very evil and very disloyal plant" to be ripped out.


Today, many are surprised to learn that Gamay can be used to make elegant, age-worthy red wine in Burgundy. This is only true in the Mâcon region, where the AOC dictates that anything labeled Mâcon Rouge is made from Gamay. Manu Guillot at Domaine Guillot-Broux sees it as being every bit as noble as Pinot Noir, which carries the "Bourgogne Rouge" designation. "I've always thought Philippe should've banned the bad winemakers rather than the grape. Properly cultivated, Gamay can produce remarkable wines with great aging potential."


Gamay is highlighted in the single vineyard Beaumont bottling as well as Guillot-Broux's versatile and delicious Macon Rouge.


Dive into the videos below, where Manu defends and explains his beloved Gamay, the unsung hero of Southern Burgundy.


Two glasses of red wine.
Gamay at Guillot-Broux


What is Gamay?


Winemaker Emmanuel Guillot explains the red wine grape, Gamay:


First and foremost, from a historical standpoint, Gamay is a cross between Pinot Noir and the Gouais, an older variety. The Gouais grape was more productive, while Pinot Noir yielded less. The aim was to create a grape that was not only more productive but also had more structure, addressing some of the perceived weaknesses of Pinot Noir, which can be challenging to grow and achieve a decent crop.


Crossing grapes has always been a technique used in winemaking, not just in France but globally. Contrary to popular belief, there's not just one Gamay; there are hundreds of types of Gamay. Here in the U.S., we often discuss varieties like Gamay, Pinot, and others, but in France, Gamay is part of a large grape family. In our vineyards, I could show you at least five or six different types of Gamay. We recognize them by how hardy they are, which ones produce the best wine, and the weaknesses of each, treating them differently based on these factors.

Gamay can be seen as the cousin of Pinot Noir. If you handle it well, it can rival what Pinot Noir achieves in the bottle.

One key aspect of Gamay is its love for granite-rich soils. In Burgundy, there's a long history with this grape. The Mâconnais region began planting it in the 18th century, before which it was primarily Pinot Noir and some Chardonnay, along with other older grape varieties. Interestingly, Gamay faced a ban in Burgundy about 400 years ago. It was deemed "disloyal" to Pinot Noir because of its high yield, which some winemakers exploited. The Duke even went as far as banning it. I've always thought he should've banned the bad winemakers rather than the grape. Properly cultivated, Gamay can produce remarkable wines with great aging potential. If you push a Pinot Noir to produce, you genuinely have to restrain the Gamay to achieve excellent results. It's all about understanding and nurturing the plant.

There's a stark contrast between Beaujolais and Mâconnais. In Beaujolais, the soil is primarily granite, which is less fertile and thus, perfect for Gamay. Mâconnais, on the other hand, has limestone and clay-rich soils. If you're not careful about where you plant Gamay in this region, it can be problematic due to the soil's richness.


In essence, Gamay can be seen as the cousin of Pinot Noir. If you handle it well, it can rival what Pinot Noir achieves in the bottle.


What Does Gamay Taste Like?



Winemaker Emmanuel Guillot discusses the flavors he finds in the red wine grape, Gamay, and how to pair it with food:


Gamay, first and foremost, always offers a pleasant acidity and freshness. Then, you encounter that bright red fruit character, which truly defines it. It's incredibly fresh, with excellent acidity. Depending on the soil, sometimes it leans towards spices like pepper. Depending on where you produce it, you could find different floral notes. For instance, if you venture to the Beaujolais regions like Morgon or Fleurie, you'll encounter a very floral style of Gamay that closely resembles Pinot Noir.


Gamay pairs perfectly with the vegetables from the Beaujolais region, which are rillette, paté and saucisson!

We have a fun joke about Gamay. We often say it pairs perfectly with the vegetables from the Beaujolais region, which are rillette, paté and saucisson! It's a good joke, but it also illustrates that Gamay pairs exceptionally well with fatty foods. The wine's acidity cleanses the palate, leaving behind the spice from the food and the fruitiness of the wine, creating a harmonious balance. I'd argue that Gamay is an approachable and friendly wine. It's not so much about what you pair it with, but more about who you're sharing it with. That's the true charm of Gamay.


Pairing Guillot-Broux Gamay:

Beaumont is Manu's single vineyard Gamay and a wine that demonstrates the combination of fruit and spice that can be the hallmark of Gamay in this area. Chef Jean-Michel Carrette from the 1-star Michelin restaurant, Aux Terrasses in Tournus, Burgundy, and his team serve Beauont with a saddle of lamb and fennel, where the red fruit of the wine matches the tender meat while the wine's pepper pairs with the fennel.


Bottles and glasses of red wine from Guillot broux in Burgundy, France.
Beaumont, Single Vineyard Gamay from Guillot-Broux in Burgundy.

a saddle of lamb from Clavisy Farm, accompanied by fennel and piment de Bresse peppers
Saddle of lamb with fennel. from Jean-Michel Carrette at Aux Terrasses in Tournus, Burgundy.


Does Gamay Age Well?


Winemaker Emmanuel Guillot says 50+ year old Gamay can be as elegant and beautiful as Grand Cru Red Burgundy:


Wine made from Gamay can age extremely well. Last year, we were doing a tasting with a well-known Negociant in Burgundy. We tasted a plethora of exceptional wines; Vosne-Romanée Malconsorts 1959, and Mercury '71, a truly vintage treat. After these old wines, where we openly displayed the labels, my friend proposed a fun twist: a blind tasting. He uncorked a bottle, and the wine was simply outstanding. Everyone began guessing – Vosne-Romanée, Chambolle-Musigny. We were utterly befuddled. We had just indulged in several delightful Pinot Noirs, and to our astonishment, the wine turned out to be a Moulin a Vent '58! It took us by surprise.


Reflecting on history, in the 18th century, Moulin wines were even pricier than the prestigious Montrachet. Today, you can purchase a Moulin in France for around 10 to 15 euros, whereas Montrachet can fetch over 400 euros. The trajectory of Beaujolais wines took a turn primarily due to Beaujolais Nouveau. Initially, Beaujolais Nouveau was a success story, but with time, and perhaps due to high production coupled with diminished quality, it tainted the reputation of the region. Many turned away from Gamay, proclaiming, "I don't like Gamay." This is truly regrettable, as Gamay is a magnificent grape when cultivated in the right conditions and handled with care.

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