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Profile: Domaine Camus Père et Fils (Gevrey)

Everyone has heard the name Camus, truth be told, today mainly with a hint of innuendo to the quality of the wines; but where is the first hand information to support this innuendo? There was only one way to find out, and having spent the time to pay a visit, the more I think about it, the more I believe that consumers are being short-changed by reviewers’ lack of engagement. More of that later!

A little history

Today you are most likely to be met at the domaine by Melle Camus; her father (Joseph) Hubert Camus is still working hard in the cuverie, despite his tender years – 1937 is his vintage. Hubert started full-time at the domaine after completing his military service, taking over from his father in 1974. He was the founding president of the BIVB and took on the presidential role twice more; he is and was a member of many other ‘syndicats’ besides.

On paper the domaine already existed in 1732, indeed it existed even earlier but there is no official trace of that now. The family like many others decided to abandon their vines during phylloxera – towards the end of this epidemic when many more were abandoning their land, great-grandfather Joseph Camus decided it was time to buy – the vines they own have changed little since that time – 18 hectares 2/3rds of which are grand cru. The family have occupied the same premises for generations now, though they have cellars dotted around Gevrey; ‘recent’ updates were the replacement of the old wooden fermentation vessels with enameled steel (in 1965) and the slightly more recent addition of air-conditioning to the cuverie.

Joseph is now helped now by one of his two daughters, Melle, who I found a delight to spend time with, indeed she even gave me a masterclass in how to remove the cork with wax-sealed bottle – though I still think I will still make a mess – she does a good line in jokes too!

Vines and winemaking
Chambertin 1.694 ha
Mazy-Chambertin 0.374
Latricières-Chambertin 1.511
Charmes-Chambertin 3.03
Mazoyères-Chambertin 3.87
Gevrey-Chambertin 5.528

“These photos show the first two ‘vine straddling tractors’ to leave the factory” says Melle as she proudly shows a folder of old photos – “that one was taken in 1956.” We never use fertilizer and like to plough the vines – the weeds being returned to the soil by the ploughing tractor, a natural fertilizer says Melle, but never with herbicides. The domaine is not biodynamic but uses many of their ‘treatments’. They still need to use the ‘Bordeaux mixture’ but it depends on the sanitary state of the vines – there is no systematic treatment. Melle says biodynamic would anyway be a dream because it cannot be achieved if your neighbours are not also ‘en bio’. One might be able to take exception with that statement given the larges blocks that they own, but anyway Melle describes their approach as lutte raisonnée, also respecting the phases of the moon for some actions.

At harvest time it is almost the United Nations amongst the vines with pickers from all over the world. There are two triages before everything is de-stemmed and placed in the fermentation tanks, with one the added twist; that there are oak slats in the bottom of the tank that allows some of the first-run juice to be eliminated – for instance that part contaminated by mud or clay on the skins of the grapes says Melle. With some mobile cold-water ‘radiators’ and aided by their air-conditioning they cool the fermenters to slow down the fermentation. Some remontage is done to help extract colour plus some automatic (pneumatic) pigeage.

The wine is then pressed through an old vertical press before being reassembled so that the malolactic fermentation can be done in bulk before putting the wine into barrels. There are some new barrels in the cellar but the total is relatively modest “we want to taste the wine, not the wood” Chambertin and Mazy take a little more, Charmes and Mazoyères less and the Gevry-Chambertin practically none – even the Chambertin will never see more than 70% new wood of which Tronçais and Alliers are the main sources. The wines are racked into tanks about one month before the bottling and receive an egg-white fining.

Thirty percent of the harvest is sold as grapes to a number of high-profile producers, the rest is commercialised by the domaine – seventy percent of the ensuing wine is exported.

The wines

The prices at this domaine are down-right reasonable; €23-47 for the grand crus, Chambertin, unsurprisingly occupies the top spot. The bottles look fine in their easy to recognise black and gold labels, topped with bright-red wax – yellow if you buy some aligoté or even pink if you want the rosé!

Tasted at the domaine as a ‘family’, each wine is interesting and follows the hierarchy – there’s a clear difference between cuvées – both good things. Subtly complex I would happily drink any of them. Throw in a few reference wines and the picture begins to change: these are old-school wines, for sure, and even the younger wines have little to do with bright or overt fruit. They seem quite clean and offer nice aromatics and a good finish – the mid-palates, however, generally feel clipped when compared to the wines of other producers.

The work in the vines is clearly not a limiting factor, at least not significantly so, as in other hands, the grapes of Camus deliver some very fine bottles indeed – but at much higher prices. Clearly it is a question of selection, extraction or elevage (or all three!) that renders the Camus bottles a little less endowed – the wines are not particularly dark coloured but that is a poor indicator of anything.

I see two ways to look at the wines of Domaine Camus:

  1. Value.
    That the wines of Camus are overlooked by reviewers is seriously to the disadvantage of the consumer. With ‘acceptable’ grand crus costing as little 23 or 26 Euros (respectively 2008 Mazoyères and Charmes ex domaine), such bottles would certainly be my preference versus a 30-40+ Euro bottles of concentrated but comparatively characterless villages wine from ‘Domaine à la Mode’ – both might receive a Burghound ‘89’ but that is where the similarity would end. I would go as far as to say that the wines are underpriced, even the Chambertin.
  2. Absolute Quality.
    Camus has something very special in Burgundy, and becoming ever-more special as the price of land reaches uneconomic proportions – at least from a conventional business perspective. What is so special is not just their twelve hectares of Gevrey grand crus, rather that they are such large concentrated blocks of vines – in this respect, Camus have few peers in the Côte d’Or. From such a perspective, you cannot be anything other than disappointed in the absolute quality of the wines – the best vineyards should deliver the best wines, and these bottles are ‘merely’ average to good in the company of their peers.

So what’s the right path? Clearly, if the wines were near the top of the ‘absolute quality’ scale, the domaine could easily triple the price of their bottles – though that would significantly reduce the number of people who could experience those bottles. Do they have the expertise in the family that could deliver such a step-change in quality? I don’t think they do, but there are always options such as consultants. For the moment, they have relevance to far more consumers than many domaines I could mention, but I remain sad when I think of that unfulfilled potential.

Those wines:
Tasted in Gevrey, 29th September 2011. By their own choice, the domaine is not yet commercialising the 2009 vintage, choosing instead to show older bottles. “We make in a traditional way, we have no wish to force anything.” Says Melle Camus.

2008 Camus, Bourgogne Rouge
The aromas are very nice and show a little musk. Round in the mouth with nice but not bright acidity. Certainly quite nice wine here.

2001 Camus, Gevrey-Chambertin
An assemblage of multiple parcels dotted around the village. The colour looks quite mature. The nose shows some herbs and just a hint of volatility. In the mouth this is sweet and tasty – indeed very good. The acidity is penetrating without being sharp and long too. Blind I would have guessed a ‘ready to drink’ late-1980’s wine.

2006 Camus, Charmes-Chambertin
The nose is mineral and understated – yet there is quite some depth. In the mouth, this has a nice racy stance with good texture and a nice depth of flavour that slowly expands before decaying in the finish. This wine has much to commend it – it is neither simple nor ‘fruity’, but it is engaging.

2001 Camus, Latricières-Chambertin
The colour is similar to that of the Gevrey – mature looking. The nose showing a musky, textured, almost cushioned depth. In the mouth this has a growing intensity and whilst very linear it quietly impresses with its length. There are no fireworks, but they’re not needed – this is very tasty.

2008 Camus, Chambertin
Very nice, deep, almost textured nose that’s complex and shows a little undergrowth – no facile fruit here. In the mouth there is more fat here than the Latricières and understated yet underpinning acidity. More complexity, and a wide road of flavours into the finish. This is actually very good.

2008 Camus, Mazy-Chambertin
This was drunk in the evening in the company of other producer’s wines. Understated aromatics of herb and soil – interesting and not without depth. In the mouth this is quite linear but with good acidity – nothing tart about any of the 08 Camus range – quite long and interesting too. In the mid-palate there is no sparkle but there is a hint of muscle.

Domaine Camus Père et Fils
21 rue Mal de Lattre de Tassigny
21220 Gevrey-Chambertin
Tel. +33 (0)3 80 34 30 64
Fax. +33 (0)3 80 51 87 93

2 responses to “Profile: Domaine Camus Père et Fils (Gevrey)”

  1. harvest 2012: a basic summary

    [...] Biodynamic practitioners were particularly made to suffer, but not just them – the grapes of Camus (for instance) in Charmes-Chambertin, and they have a lot, were almost wiped [...]

  2. ERNST BROSSMANN

    I TOTALLY AGREE WITH YOU BILL!! THIS OVERT NEGLIGENCE TOWARD THIS VERY GOOD DOMAINE IS AGAINST THE INTERESTS OF THE WINE CONSUMERS. I HAVE TASTED THEIR WINES AND FOUND THEM, OF COURSE, SHOWING THE DIFFERENCES OF THE VINTAGES, VERY GOOD TO EXCELLENT.
    SOME VERY SMART DEALERS IN THE USA IN NEW YORK, CALIFORNIA AND SOUTH CAROLINA, JAPAN, GREAT BRITAIN (UK), CHINA AND OTHER COUNTRIES HAVE ALREADY DISCOVERED THE QUALITIES OF CAMUS WINES AND ARE ORDERING OF WHAT IS LEFT SINCE THERE IS PRACTICALLY AN EXTREME SHORTAGE OF GRAND CRUS AND PREMIER CRUS AND EVEN VILLAGES OF GEVREY-CHAMBERTIN OF THE VINTAGES 2009 AND 2010 ACCORDING TO SOME PRODUCERS. SEE ALSO THE WARNINGS OF THE BIVB (BUREAU INTERPROFESSIONNEL DES VINS DE BOURGOGNE) REGARDING AN UPCOMING SHORTAGE OF BURGUNDY WINES. IT SEEMS THAT GASTON ROUPNEL THE FAMOUS FRENCH WRITER, LOVER AND PROMOTER OF HIS BIRTH PLACE GEVREY-CHAMBERTIN IS CELEBRATING A REVIVAL OF HIS THOUGHTS.

    IN ADDITION, I WOULD LIKE TO CONGRATULATE YOU, BILL, ON YOUR EXCELLENT BOOK: “THE FINEST WINES OF BURGUNDY – A GUIDE TO THE BEST PRODUCERS OF THE COTE D’OR AND THEIR WINES” – WITH ABOUT 100 TOP PRODUCERS AND SOME 77 PAGES OF MEMORABLE INTRODUCTIONS. IT HAS HELPED ME ALREADY SEVERAL TIMES IN EVALUATING AND BUYING BURGUNDY WINES.

Agree? Disagree? Anything you'd like to add?