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“Give me a Gamay,” is a phrase that should be heard more often. Gamay (or Gamay Noir à Jus Blanc, if you want to address it formally) is a purple grape that deserves a wider appreciation. It makes versatile wines, from ephemeral party favorite Beaujolais Nouveau, to weighty, complex wines that are good for aging.

Next month sees the return of the I Love Gamay festival (full disclosure: I’m teaching a class on Gamay at the event), and brings together Oregon winemakers for tastings, dinners, and events in celebration of the grape and its increasing significance. To get you up to speed, here’s a brief history of Gamay told in 10 chapters.


Chapter 1:

Like a good fable, the exact origins of Gamay are murky: Some say it was planted by Romans in the region of Lyons, France; or perhaps it was brought from Syria a millennium later by the Chevalier du May on his return from the Crusades. Either way, by the 14th century people began planting Gamay in the Burgundy region of France.

Chapter 2:

In 1395 Gamay made medieval headlines when the Duke of Burgundy banished it from his lands, complaining it had a “very great and terrible bitterness” and that it was “an evil and disloyal plant.” Politics as well as personal taste played a part: The duke was competing with his nephew (who happened to be king), Charles the Mad, over who made better wine. He only wanted Pinot Noir grown on his lands, while Gamay became the scapegoat for poor-quality wines.

Chapter 3:

Farmers at the time preferred Gamay to the finicky Pinot, as it was easier to grow and produced higher yields. French peasants, being what they were (and still are), initially ignored the duke’s proclamation, but eventually they were forced to pull up their Gamay vines.

Many headed a few miles south to what is now known as Beaujolais, a complete backwater back then. However, in a satisfying plot twist, it turned out the granite hills and climate of the region were more suitable for Gamay to prosper.


Chapter 4:

Gamay thrives in Beaujolais, but the rivalry with Burgundy continues. In 1845 the Duke of Burgundy’s condemnation of Gamay is reissued by Pinot Noir producers (cue Dr. Evil close-up).

Chapter 5:

A tradition is established in Beaujolais whereby young Gamay wines are sent down river to Lyons to declare a successful harvest. In celebration, bistro owners call out “Le Beaujolais est arrivé!”

Fast-forward to the 1970s and ’80s, and this wine, now known as Beaujolais Nouveau, is selling around the world. Gamay has its moment in the spotlight, though it gets a reputation for being a bit too light and easy.

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Chapter 6:

The good times don’t last. There’s more quantity than quality to Beaujolais Nouveau. Consumers are also backing away from fun-and-fruity in favor of heavier, moody reds. A backlash follows. By the 1990s Beaujolais is in crisis, with unsold Gamay being distilled into industrial alcohol.

Chapter 7:

Fortunately, a few producers continue to produce traditional, non-Nouveau wines. In time, word gets around that there are some serious wines coming out of Beaujolais again—at reasonable prices, too.

Chapter 8:

As Gamay is reevaluated and its stock continues to rise, attention is paid to other French regions where it is planted, such as the Loire and Savoie. It’s mentioned by the right people in the right places. Gamay becomes fashionable.

Chapter 9:

Oregon benefits from the renewed interest in Gamay, attracting attention for wines that offer quality and value for money. First planted in the state in 1988, wine growers appreciate it for the same reasons French peasants did, 600 years earlier—namely, it’s easier to grow, more consistent, and more weather-tolerant than Pinot.

Chapter 10:

The inaugural I Love Gamay event in 2017 brings together Oregon winemakers to celebrate the grape. Gamay has found a new home.

I Love Gamay Festival

May 20-23, The Nightwood, 2218 NE Broadway, ilovegamay.com. (I’ll be hosting Gamay classes at The Nightwood on May 13, more info at sundayschoolpdx.com.)