11 June 2015

n.d.p. in beaujolais: benoit camus, ville-sur-jarnioux

Some tasting appointments in Beaujolais are difficult to obtain because a given winemaker's work is so sought-after that he or she has no interest in cultivating new clientele. Securing a tasting with young fringe-natural winemaker Benoit Camus was difficult for something like the opposite reason. He has almost no commercial operation to speak of, instead selling his finished wines wholesale to a few négoçiants willing to sell it for him. He has practically no direct clientele at all, and next to nothing for visitors to taste.

Camus lives in the southern Beaujolais town of Cogny, a short drive from Villefranche-sur-Saône, the riverside town north of Lyon where I commenced a bicycle trip this past spring with two novelist friends. In our initial communications, I sensed it embarrassed him to receive visitors when he had almost no wine to show. He rather gallantly kept proposing we go see a winemaker friend of his further north instead, until at last accepting to have lunch together at his house in Cogny, rather than at his cellar in nearby Ville-sur-Jarnioux.

Ordinarily I would have taken his suggestion to visit elsewhere, but Camus was located right on our itinerary, and I'd been keen to meet him since tasting his wines in Paris. As it was, over the course of a very short tasting that turned into a jam session, we got a small peek into the life of a promising, eccentric winemaker at the semi-anonymous outset of his career.

Camus among some notably unplowed Chardonnay vines.

Camus is from Lyon originally. A lifelong saisonnier agricole (migratory farmhand, seems to be the best translation), he's been working vines since he was sixteen years old, in regions ranging from the Drôme, to the Rhône valley, to the Jura. He began making his own wines in Beaujolais in 2006. Asked how he became interested in natural vinification, he said it was a financial issue. "Even a packet of levure costs 10€."

More seriously, he cited a small association of young organic Beaujolais winemakers called Cep et Charrue who had helped put him on a path towards organic production.

Although not certified organic (again, he cites costs), Camus practices organic methods in his vineyards, all of which are in the Terre Dorées, south of the crus of Beaujolais. The area is known for possessing more limestone and clay soil, and less granite than further north, but Camus describes it as a very varied terroir. From this he produces about 4-6 cuvées per year, though he has produced 12 (!) different cuvées overall, including three reds, a white, a rosé, and several sparklers. (I suppose you might call this the Philippe Jambon school of incomprehensible marketing.)

The first wine of his I'd tasted had been a brawny Beaujolais Nouveau bottled as Vin de France, at L'Entrée des Artistes' Beaujolais Nouveau party two years ago.

Later I saw that he'd sold wine to Philippe Jambon, who bottled the resulting rugged, soulful Vin de France cuvée as "Dense Avec Une Tranche." Then my eccentric neighborhood semi-Italian wine shop SQUATT (sic) surprised me by carrying numerous cuvées from Camus, at slightly high prices.

The pricing was news to Camus, who, it turns out, had bottled those wines specially for SQUATT and one other Belgian wine merchant. I think the Belgian did the schoolboyish labels.

Camus' front room belies his status as family man and father of two; it is bare save a computer and a panoply of musical instruments. We munched on slabs of thick bread covered in a surprise dip, resembling a rich Thousand Island dressing, that Camus later revealed was made from mayonnaise, wild bear's garlic, and tinned shellfish.

Ail des ours

All he was certain to have available for us to taste that day was a 2011 pét' nat' gamay vinified en blanc, with zero sulfur. Brownish, unruly, and cidery. I can't say it was one of his successes. He scoffed that he'd been unable to sell it at 4,50€ / bottle wholesale, but when he asked 8€ / bottle, he sold out. We all shook our heads.

Thankfully, among his kitchen cabinets, he turned up two more bottles. A 2011 "Dense Avec Une Tranche," with which I was already familiar from Paris, was unfortunately damaged by a defective cork. In a turn of the baleful irony that seemed to characterise Camus' operation, the wine that redeemed the tasting was a brut de cuve sample from 2013 he had lying around.

It possessed all the characteristics I'd found so striking in Camus' wines in Paris: a bristling, rooty richness, long on the palate, with notes of violets and iron. Here, I thought, is a Terres Dorées wine with its own indubitable personality, one that doesn't merely emulate, in a lumpen fashion, the grace of the crus up north. Rather unusually for the region, Camus doesn't employ carbonic maceration, instead fermenting his reds whole-cluster in open-topped vats for about three weeks, with pigeage. The results are muscular Beaujolais that embrace the coarse, burly tendencies of the Terre Dorrées, to fine effect.

From what I understand, Camus sells the majority of his unsulfured vinified juice to Philippe Jambon and Cyril Alonso. The latter winemaker's wines all bear the label "vinifié par PUR," which seems a shame, given that not all Alonso's purchases are as rigorously natural as what he gets from Camus. I've also heard rumours I cannot substantiate to the effect that Camus has sold wine to a star winemaker from the Jura.

It's Jambon's imprimateur, says Camus, that has helped him the most. Whatever I might feel about Jambon's marketing practices, I certainly credit him with helping organise and promote the work of some of the most quixotically natural young winemakers of the region. Asked why he doesn't simply bottle and sell his own wines, which amount to about 190HL on an average year, Camus says he doesn't have the time to develop the commercial network, label everything, and so forth, before adding, significantly, that he strongly prefers that his work remain pas cher.

I have the feeling that among back-to-the-landers in America, socialism died out in the 1980's. Here in France one finds the two impulses still intertwined, and occasionally, as here, mutually self-defeating. Camus could probably sell all his wine himself (all the reds, at least) if he were slightly more willing to let it become a luxury.

After the tasting and some curry, Camus, upon learning that my friend S played piano, plucked his violin off the wall and treated us to real luxury - a short concert, before we hopped back on our bikes.

Benoit Camus
Trève Fontoin

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