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‘A very bad and disloyal variety’: The banning of Gamay

The 31 July marks Philip the Bold’s famous edict of 1395 banning that most “disloyal variety”, Gamay, from the Côte d’Or, an act which has had far-reaching consequences for the region.

Philip the Bold

Gamay, as many readers are no doubt aware, is generally held to have originated in the village of Gamay in the south of the Côte de Beaune (near St Aubin) probably before the 14th century. Some suggest it actually appeared around 1360 although the earlier date is more likely.

Its parents are Pinot Noir and the now little used grape Gouais*. Pinot Noir (often referred to as ‘Noirien’ at the time although ‘pinot’ or ’pinoz’ were becoming more common) was the principal (but not the only) red grape of Burgundy in the Middle Ages as it is now and Gouais was one of the most widely planted white varieties in western Europe. The same couple would also go on to produce Chardonnay, which surfaced in the Maconnais** some time in the 16th or 17th century (the first reliable mentions at least) a variety that was not nearly as detested at first as its poor, elder sibling Gamay was.

Yet although it has come to be remembered for its damnation of Gamay, the edict of 31 July 1395 actually covered several aspects of winemaking. As well as calling for the expulsion of Gamay from the duke’s much cherished vineyards around Beaune and Dijon, it strongly admonished the abandonment of good vineyard sites, the use of fertilisers to encourage a greater crop as this was considered injurious to the wine’s quality, as well as the apparently growing practice of adding hot water to the must and which Philip wished to call a halt to.

The decree is sometimes presented as Philip acting in the vein of a little lord Fauntleroy, stamping his feet in anger at some minor thing that displeases him.

Viewed in a different light, however, it was a serious attempt to curtail very damaging malpractice and corner-cutting that had been allowed to take hold both before Philip received the apanage of Burgundy in 1363 and during his early years as duke when he was not quite as attentive a ruler as he ought to have been.***

As he accrued greater wealth and fame, however, Philip became determined to reinvigorate and maintain the reputation for excellence that Burgundian wine enjoyed throughout Europe but from which the shine was coming off. Nonetheless, there is no denying that the tone of his edict in its forceful condemnation of this new variety can sound, at least to modern ears, somewhat hysterical. In fact it is not too unusual for the time; a rather eclectic mix of bombast, righteous indignation and pearl-clutching admonition.

Gamay (spelled ‘Gameez’ in the ordonnance), was branded a “disloyal” plant whose wines were even “very harmful to human beings”. It was, in many ways, almost a forerunner of some of Russia’s stronger denunciations of the quality of Georgian wine that have periodically been issued as part of the two countries’ diplomatic spats.

The text declares that Philip is most concerned to hear his subjects have taken to planting: “a very bad and disloyal variety called Gameez, from which come abundant quantities of wine; and to make the greater part of this said bad wine they have left to ruin and desolation the good places from which is wont to come the best sort. 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.”****

All those who failed to comply with the decree could expect to be fined and Philip appointed officers to ensure it was carried out. It’s worth noting that, despite the wording, Philip was not calling the grape itself ‘disloyal’, but rather meant that it was contrary to law or custom for it to be grown in his lands.

There were, as we shall see, very simple reasons for the growth of Gamay plantings in Burgundy, however, Burgundy was Philip’s duchy to rule as he saw fit and the role of a great lord’s territories at this time was to earn them money. The injunction against Gamay was a clear cut case of Philip calling for a tightening up of standards in the quest for personal gain and prestige.

Although winemaking in medieval France was far more extensive than it is today, Burgundy, even then, was considered one of the best regions and its red ‘Beaune’ wines were highly prized. It is even said it was Philip who helped select the clone of Pinot Noir that came to dominate plantings in the Côte d’Or.

This inheritance was a source of great pride for Philip and his descendants and wine from their territory was a key tool in their diplomatic arsenal; and one they made free and extensive use of with barrels of Burgundian wine being sent to kings and popes as presents.

Philip was, understandably therefore, rather fussy about its quality because it was a reflection on himself and his standing as a prince of the blood, both a son of a King of France (John II), brother to one (Charles V) and uncle to another – the incumbent at the time, Charles VI.

As he declared at the beginning of the ordonnance: “The vineyards of said places [Dijon, Beaune and Chalon] and their environs are considered the best and most precious and most suitable wines in the Kingdom of France for the nourishment and sustenance of men and for said goodness our Holy Father, the Pope, myself, the king and many other lords and men of the church have become accustomed to make provision of these wines from said places and vineyards.”

An enviable roll call of clients and, naturally, the greater esteem Burgundian wines were held in and the more exclusive their audience, the greater the price they fetched on the domestic and international market, which in turn boosted Philip’s coffers as the decree makes clear: “Though they have had other wines from many other markets in great abundance those that have become accustomed to said wines…are prepared to pay a very great price for the honour.”

Pinot Noir was genuinely well thought of in Medieval times and considered a high quality grape, far superior to others. As a measure of the appreciation in which Pinot was held and its immense value to the vineyard owners, we only have to turn to two incidents the town of Saint-Briz en Auxerrois (now Saint-Bris-le-Vineux) in 1394; a mere year before the edict.

In the first document we read of a vineyard manager concerned that one batch of his Pinot is now worth considerably less after a harvester by the name of Jehannin tipped in a pannier of other grapes. Jehannin was clearly rather dozy as it seems the supervisor had instructed his workers beforehand that the Pinot and other grapes were to be kept separate.

On the other hand, Jehannin appears to have got off lightly compared to a 15 year-old boy who, in the same year and in the same town, did exactly the same thing and was then beaten so savagely by the overseer that he died. Unless Jehannin and the boy are one and the same, of course.

Despite this brutally severe appreciation of Pinot – or at least its monetary worth – it was then, as it still is, a difficult grape to cultivate and maintain. Gamay by contrast is not and it crops higher than Pinot. As such, since its emergence it had spread quickly and was quickly supplanting its more ‘noble’ parent in many areas.

One driving factor behind its adoption was the enormous impact on the population caused by the Black Death, which had hit the region in 1348-1356 and flared up again intermittently in 1360-63 and 1374. Its ravages had denuded the countryside of huge numbers of people. In the long run this helped lead to a radical change in later medieval society with the decline of feudalism and the rise to prominence of an emerging mercantile and artisan bourgeoisie. In the short term, however, it meant there were fewer peasants to work the fields. Cruelly, this in turn caused widespread famine and yet more death from starvation and disease as the immune systems of malnourished people struggled to fight off sickness.

To compound the problem, a series of peace treaties between England and France at this time led to roving bands of soldiers with no war to fight, known as ‘free companies’ or ‘routiers‘, plundering the countryside, leaving further swathes depopulated as more peasants fled their fields to seek safety in towns or cities.

By the 1390s this demographic and agricultural crisis was coming to an end but, nonetheless, in the 40-odd years before the damage had been done with desperate vine growers switching out their low-yielding, costly and time-consuming Pinot for the easier to manage and more productive Gamay, which they encouraged to crop even further with the generous use of fertilisers using a variety of components.

These were listed by Philip in his decree and ranged from cow, sheep and horse manure, to animal horns and rotten grapes, the scrapings from lanterns and other “ordure” which also had the added effect, according to Philip, of making the wine “stink” as well as later becoming “yellowed” and “fat” – although here he must be speaking of white wines rather than red. A rough diagnosis might indicate oxidation, with the wines becoming darker and, indeed, “fatter” and heavier with less crisp and defined aromas; which just goes to show premature oxidation in white Burgundy isn’t a new phenomenon.

As far as Philip could see, the rising proportion of Gamay, the use of these fertilisers, the abandonment of good sites and the practice of adding hot water was contributing to a loss of faith in the quality of Burgundian wines on the part of foreign merchants which in turn meant they no longer came to buy them. They felt, he said, “disappointed and defrauded; because after they have made provision of these wines and taken them to their own country, they have found them all yellowed and fatty and ruined in such a manner that no one could find them suitable [to drink]; but they have lost all that they have bought.

“For these causes, the said garrison commanders of our said lords, merchants and others, have shunned and left, will shun and will leave our said lands and never come back as they were previously wont; therefore [the reputation of] our lands and subjects are greatly diminished.”

This was both an insult to Philip’s pride and it also meant that less wine was sold and thus less money collected in tolls and taxes, which hit Philip where it really hurt – his wallet. Gamay had to go.

The new law was not always met with much enthusiasm, as one might imagine. Vine growers were none too keen to abandon their new cash crop and even if outside merchants were less keen on Burgundy wines because of Gamay the glut of wine it had produced had led to a lot of money and thus vested interests being created in the duchy. The municipal council of Dijon reacted very strongly against the decree at a sitting that August.

They declared the ordonnance to be in contravention of the town’s privileges first set down in the charter of 1187 and prohibited its publication and implementation.

After months of back and forth, Philip grew tired of the foot dragging and had the mayor imprisoned and fined several councillors.

The immediate effect of the ordinance was in fact detrimental. The grubbing up of most of the Gamay led to a slump in production and with it a decline in trade as many new merchants, brokers and the like went out of business due to a lack of wine to sell. Indeed, the ban may have exacerbated problems, caused by war and plague, that the farming of Gamay and use of fertilisers were trying to alleviate in the first place.

The historian Rosalind Kent Berlow, examined the edict and its effects in an issue of Agricultural History (1982). She concluded: “The results went far beyond the duke’s expectations. With the destruction of the entrepreneurial class came the decline of wealth of Burgundy. The resources of the duchy had once been sufficient to propel its dukes to national power. Now Burgundy would take a back seat in a state which, while using its name, was centred more and more in the alien territories to the north [Flanders].”

Philip’s edict may have caused problems and certainly in terms of wealth the agriculturally-based duchy lagged seriously behind the mercantile cities of Ypres, Bruges and Ghent as they flourished on the back of the English wool trade for the remainder of the tenure of the Valois dukes.

Flanders, not Burgundy, did indeed become the beating heart of the nascent state but it did not take long for Burgundy’s vignerons to see the positive effects of 1395; even if Philip did not as he died nine years later in 1404. Less than 20 years after the edict the wines of ‘Beaune’ were still held in high regard by important clients. For example, after his victory at Agincourt in 1415, King Henry V of England asked one of his captives, Raoul de Gaucourt, to pick up 200 casks for him as part of the Frenchman’s ransom.

In 1435 the Burgundian chancellor, Nicolas Rolin, commissioned the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck to paint a lavish portrait (above) in which Rolin is seen praying before the Madonna and child. In the otherwise fantastical landscape in the background, directly behind Rolin’s head is a hillside covered in vines (detail below). They are representations of his vines and an indicator of where he drew a sizeable chunk of his private income. In 1443 Rolin and his wife would commission the building of the Hospices de Beaune, bequeathing it many vineyards which remain in the hospital’s possession to this day.

The verdant hillside in the background is covered in vines.

Clearly, therefore, standards had been raised sufficiently in the intervening years since the edict that neither Burgundian wine or the economy were subjected to a centuries long slump. Tim Unwin’s assertion in his book ‘Wine and Vine‘ that the popularity of Burgundy wine had only revived by the 18th century rather appears to forget their continuing popularity from the 15th century onwards. Burgundy would vie with Champagne to be the most popular wine at the French royal court over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries as well before, indeed, becoming the definitive favourite in the late 17th/early 18th century.

Contrary to popular belief, although the edict banned Gamay from the Côte d’Or it did not banish it and certainly not to Beaujolais. Gamay does not appear to have settled as Beaujolais’ grape of choice until the 17th century***** and Philip couldn’t have banished it to that particular territory anyway as, in this period, Beaujolais was the territory of Edward of Beaujeu who would then leave the lands to the Dukes of Bourbon when he died without a successor in 1400.

Just 60 years later Gamay and more bad habits began creeping back into the vineyards and Philip’s grandson, Philip the Good, was forced to remind (one senses through gritted teeth) his “much-loved” subjects of Dijon in an edict of 12 May 1441 that the cultivation of other, “little” and even “puny” varieties was not to be tolerated.

The repetition of the order by his grandson as well as other anti-Gamay decrees in 1567, 1725 and 1731 by later dukes shows that Philip’s original ‘banishment’ of 1395 was just the first step in a long and ultimately futile campaign to stamp out the hardy little plant and, indeed, it is still planted in the Côte d’Or to this day; though less than 200 hectares remain.

Although by no means a smoothly carried out or even widely adhered-to command, Philip the Bold’s insistence on Pinot Noir’s position as the red grape of Burgundy has paid dividends in the end. One has to wonder if Burgundy would have enjoyed the fame it has to this day if Pinot Noir had been largely or completely supplanted by Gamay; the wines might certainly be cheaper but, 600 years later, there’s no denying that producers in the Côte d’Or are much happier to be selling Pinot Noir rather than Gamay like their neighbours to the south.

Philip could never have envisioned quite how much of an impact his decree would have. Even if it was not 100% successful in rooting out that “très-disloyaulx plant”, his order of 1395 did indeed help restore and secure Burgundy’s winemaking reputation, not just in the lifetime of his descendants but for a full six centuries afterwards and, no doubt, beyond.


*Actually a much more important grape than people give it credit for as it is the parent of many widely-used varieties today.

**In the village of Chardonnay. Ironically, you can’t grow Gamay in Gamay today because it’s reserved for Chardonnay but you can grow Gamay in the village of Chardonnay.

***In his first three years as duke he used the revenue from his new lands to pay off his tennis debts.

****”Un très-mauvaiz et très-disloyaulx plant nomméz Gameez, duquel mauvaiz plant vient très-grant habondance de vins; et pour la plus grant quantité des diz mauvaiz vins ont laissié pour ce en ruine et désert les bonnes places ou souloit venir et croistre le dit bon vin. Et lequel vin de Gameez est de tel nature qu’il est moult nuysible a creature humaine, mesmement que plusieurs, qui au temps passé en ont usé, en ont esté infestés de griez maladies, si comme entendu avons; car le dit vin qui est yssuz du dit plant, de sa dite nature, est plein de très-grant et horrible amertume…Pour quoi nous…vous mandons…sollempnellement à touz cilz qui ont les diz plans de vigne des diz Gameez, que yceulx coppent ou fassent copper en quelque part qu’ilz soient en nostre dit païs dedens cing mois.”

(Wine Grapes, Robinson, Harding, Vouillamoz 2012 p384; Rossignol 1854; Vermorel 1902)

*****According to the Inter-Beaujolais site 

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