Today we head to the most monocepagiste region in France, which indicates a region that relies solely on one varietal for its entire output- I speak of course of the Beaujolais region and its love of the Gamay grape variety. Gamay is a variety not as well known or globally-grown as many other varieties that originated in this part of the world such as Pinot Noir or Chardonnay (in fact Pinot Noir is one of Gamay’s parent varieties and Chardonnay is a brother). This is not because it is an inferior grape however- how could it be with such good genetics! Instead this is because it requires very specific conditions to produce great wines, just like Nebbiolo in Barolo or Gewürztraminer in Alsace. Gamay is a fussy grape variety that was famously banned from the Burgundy region by Philip the Bold in a famous edict on the 31st of July 1395, which stated;
“A very bad and disloyal variety called Gameez (the original name for Gamay)… And this wine of Gameez is of such a kind that it is very harmful to human beings, so much so that many people who had it in the past were infested by serious diseases, as we’ve heard; because said wine from said plant of said nature is full of significant and horrible bitterness. For this reason we solemnly command you…all who have said vines of Gameez to cut them down or have them cut down, wherever they may be in our country, within five months.”
Philip was the Duke of Burgundy at the time, and this edict leaves very little room for misunderstanding, so Gamay was removed from the region before Christmas in 1395. It crept back in, but this edict was reiterated in 1441, 1567, 1725 and 1731. So what next for Gamay? Well, this is where southern neighbour Beaujolais came to the rescue!
Today Gamay is Beaujolais as Beaujolais is Gamay, they are intricately linked, and over the centuries, as growers have experimented with new clones and sites, better and better sites have come into being. Within the Beaujolais region today there are 10 sub-regions, known as the Crus, which are separated above bog-standard, drink-now, fresh-and-fruity Beaujolais. Today we’re looking at why Juliénas, the northern-most Cru, gets its own classification, and is recognised as one of the best of the 10, and produces more intense and age-worthy wines from Gamay.
Juliénas, interestingly enough is named after Julius Caesar, which harks back to the Roman heritage of the area. This appellation is located on the 2000+ year old Roman trade route up the Rhone and Saone valleys. The Romans brought the vine with them wherever they went, and established vineyards here in Juliénas on the favourable south and south-east facing slopes to quench the thirst of travellers. After the Roman decline, the Benedictine monks took up working the land here, and for many centuries this region was merely an extension of southern Burgundy, producing light and fresh Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Gamay as it was all through the region. When the famous edict of Philip the Bold (quoted above) was put in place, many Gamay specialists moved to this southern edge of the official Burgundy region, and found that the slightly warmer, Granitic soils produced more interesting and floral examples of this fussy varietal, which was much more flabby and boring when made in the north, despite its usefulness in warmer vintages and its higher productivity- much appreciated at the time after the Black Death had ravaged the country and left fewer able-bodied workers to till the fields.
The granite base which lies underneath the majority of the Beaujolais region and controls the naturally high vigour is surprisingly mostly absent here in Juliénas with the exception of the far west of the region. However the soils are very rocky and variable all throughout the region, with cold clay subsoil that holds moisture and forces the vines to dig deep for water rather that grow abundant leafy canopy, serving the same purpose in restricting the enthusiasm of Gamay to over-crop and produce flabby, uninteresting wines. This appellation is within a transitional section, almost half-way between Burgundy and Beaujolais in regards to climate and soils, and the wines reflect that. In fact, with northern neighbour being the Maconnais, a little bit of Chardonnay is even grown here in Juliénas!
Another method to restrict Gamay’s desire to over-crop is close planting of the vines. Despite only consisting of around 550 hectares (2 square miles) of vines, the region produces about 4 million bottles of wine per year, yet it is some of the most dense and concentrated of any of the Beaujolais Crus. By planting the vines close together (about 1 x 1 apart), they must compete with each other for water and soil nutrients, and are shaded by each other so never get as much sun as vines with plenty of space to grow outwards. This forces the vines to concentrate their scarce and hard-fought nutrient resources on producing just a few bunches of intense, concentrated berries rather than a larger number of more watery grapes. With these darker, richer grapes, many winemakers of Juliénas today treat their Gamay like a Burgundian producer does with Pinot Noir; cold soaking the juice on skins to extract colour and primary fruit flavours, open-vat fermentation in oak to promote wild yeast fermentation with plenty of punching down of the skins to extract chalky tannins and a deeper ruby-red colour. Classic aromas are strawberry, violet, cinnamon, red currant and peony, alongside vanilla and wood spices for the more heavily-oaked examples. For anyone who has tasted an entry-level Beaujolais with its bubblegum fruit profile and no tannins, the wines of Juliénas would be a big shock!
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles