Gamay is the grape of Beaujolais and it’s in this region of France that Gamay displays its charms to perfection. Of the 30,000 hectares of Gamay grown globally, half are in Beaujolais where the grape represents 98 per cent of all plantings. Chardonnay is the other grape of Beaujolais.
Before the phylloxera epidemic of the late nineteenth century, France had about 160,000 hectares of Gamay. It is a cross between Pinot Noir and Gouais. Gamay’s full name is Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, and it is believed to have been developed in the village of Gamay, south of Beaune (one of the main cities of the Burgundy region). As the name suggests, it’s a red grape with white flesh.
Gamay produces lots of fruit and is easier to grow than Pinot Noir, though growing it demands skills and care, something the vignerons of Beaujolais are good at. In 1395 the Duke of Burgundy known as Philippe the Bold outlawed cultivation of the grape, saying that despite its abundance Gamay was full of “very great and horrible harshness”. More likely he wanted the land for cultivating Pinot Noir. His grandson Philippe the Good reissued the ban 60 years later. That same duke’s troops captured Joan of Arc and handed her over to the English.
Beaujolais extends over about 50 kilometres, meandering with the Saone River between Macon in the north to Lyon in the south. The region is about 30 kilometres wide. The Rhone region is further to the south.
Beaujolais prices are generally lower than in neighbouring Burgundy. Price-conscious people are turning to beaujolais ahead of burgundy, because beaujolais can make elegant yet relatively inexpensive wines that can both be consumed young and also cellared, as a tasting in London revealed.
Gamay ripens early and the resulting wine can be bright, limpid and elegant with flavours of strawberries, blackberries and raspberries, sometimes with slightly peppery and floral notes. Mature wines taste a lot like older pinot.
The Beaujolais region consists of 10 crus, plus the wines classified as AOC Beaujolais and AOC Beaujolais Villages. AOC Beaujolais makes about 33 million bottles each year while AOC Beaujolais Villages produces about 25 million.
From north to south the cru names are Saint-Amour, Julienas, Chenas, Moulin-a-Vent, Fleurie, Chiroubles, Morgon, Regnie, Brouilly and Cote de Brouilly. Their combined production is about 35 million bottles.
Wines from the crus at Brouilly, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Regnie and Saint-Amour are more aromatic and refined, and tend to be best when consumed young. Wines from Chenas, Cote de Brouilly, Julienas (believed to be named after Julius Caesar), Morgon and Moulin-a-Vent tend to be bigger and more generous and match better with heavier meats and mature cheeses. AOC Beaujolais and AOC Beaujolais Villages wines are great with salmon and subtle Asian foods like dumplings and fried dishes.
Saint-Amour, probably because of its name, is said to be the favourite wine of couples. A special Saint Valentine cuvee is created each year and almost a quarter of that cru’s production of 2 million bottles is consumed each February 14. At the start of October each year a special Beaujolais called Paradise is released. It is the first juice pressed from whole bunches and is highly fruity with almost no tannin and can be consumed immediately.
Another notable day is the third Thursday in November when Beaujolais Nouveau is released around the world. New Beaujolais represents about a third of all regular wine produced in the region, and is exported to 110 countries. It takes skill to produce a fruity and aromatic wine for the Beaujolais Nouveau release, and wines are only left on the skins for four or five days (known as maceration) to ensure lots of red fruit aromas and just the right amount of acidity, with minimal tannin. Beaujolais Nouveau was a good marketing ploy but has taken people’s attention away from the quality of cru wines.
Beaujolais is one of the few wine styles made using carbonic, or semi-carbonic, maceration. Partial fermentation takes place in the grape rather than through yeast, which is the normal way to ferment. Whole bunches are kept in a low-oxygen environment, usually at the bottom of the tank or covered with carbon dioxide. This process increases the fruit intensity and lowers the level of acidity and tannin, which is ideal for Beaujolais Nouveau and wines designed to be consumed young.
About two in five bottles of Beaujolais are exported. The main importers include Japan (8.5 million bottles), the USA and the UK (about 6.5 million each).
Sicarex Beaujolais, based in the region’s major city of Villefranche-sur-Saone, is devoted to research into Gamay and technical training. It runs Chateau de l’Eclair, a 19-hectare site dedicated to experimenting with grape clones and viticulture. Since 2003 Sicarex has aimed to gather the widest collection of Gamay varieties in the world.
The 2014 vintage in Beaujolais saw a 10 per cent increase in production compared with the previous year, boosted by an Indian summer in September that meant grapes matured slowly to reach optimum maturity before harvest.
Bertrand Chatelet, the director of Sicarex Beaujolais, described the 2014 vintage as “very elegant”. “The wines have great aromatic intensity,” he said, and the tannins are silky, giving structure and length to the palate.
A tasting of a handful of 2009 beaujolais showed the quality of that vintage. Jean-Luc Berger, Sicarex’s technical manager, said vines were especially healthy that year, and wines were “powerful with wonderful richness”, exhibiting a great balance between sugar content and acidity. If they can be found, wines from this vintage represent excellent value for money.
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