25 April 2016

n.d.p. in beaujolais: xavier benier, saint-julien

Saint-Julien vigneron and négoçiant Xavier Benier has long been an enigma to me. His unsulfured, unfiltered range of wines are well-represented around Paris, and nearly always offer excellent value for money. But for various reasons Benier's winemaking defies easy categorisation. The wine range seems to change every year; he has no website; the labels are a heterogenous hodgepodge; and Benier himself doesn't quite belong to any particular social group of like-minded winemakers, à la the 'Microscope Gang' of Villié-Morgon, or the wayward cult gathered around Philippe Jambon up north.

Until my visit to his cuvage last October, I didn't really know what to make of Benier.

I was to learn that part of the distance between Benier and his peers is merely geographic. Saint-Julien is quite far removed from the crus; it lies where the granite of Beaujolais-Villages cedes to the clay-limestone of Beaujolais tout court. Habitation is sparser and many mustard-yellow buildings evidence the proximity of the quarries of the pierres dorées. Benier is from Saint-Julien, and in something like the way libertarianism increases as one heads into the emptiness of the western US, his character reflects his surroundings, evincing a fierce independence that belies his diminutive, office-clerk figure. Over a glass of his remarkably good négoçiant Régnié, in the course of an anecdote about a dispute with the appellation, he'll casually recall arming himself with a sledgehammer.

Benier began his career as a négoçiant in 1993, after studying oenologie in Beaune. "Where I learned nothing," he adds."I lost time." He simply bought and sold finished wine until 2001, when the retirement of his family's métayer allowed him to take on 4ha of the Benier family's Beaujolais-Villages vines in Saint-Julien.

"I had a négoçiant business, and I didn’t manage to find the wines I wanted. So I said there’s just one solution."

A steep parcel of Beaujolais-Villages near his house.

The family vines remain the bulk of Benier's vine holdings. He's since added a parcel of chardonnay in Ville-sur-Jarnioux, and has recently planted some pinot noir nearby, bringing his total surface to around 6.5ha. 

Benier purchases grapes for négoçiant wines he makes from the Côte de Brouilly and Régnié.  In leaner years he also supplements his primeur and his Beaujolais Blanc production with purchased grapes. In the past he has made a pinot noir from purchased grapes, but the relationship with the grower soured, hence his new plantings.

In his cuvage that day I mentioned having seen a Brouilly with his name on it, but it turns out that cuvée is the last holdover from Benier's former business. It's a conventionally-produced wine he buys in finished form. 

"When I launched, I realised I had a range of just Beaujolais-Villages. And people, when I went to see them, they said 'Well, you have nothing else?' And so I went to see this vigneron who works entirely conventionally," he explains. He still has clients who want that wine. "I don't hide it. But it's a standard wine, without interest..."

The irony here is that arguably Benier's grandest wine derives from his old-vine parcels of Beaujolais-Villages. His chewy, foudre-aged cuvée "XB" derives from 75-year-old vines that he considers unplowable. "Some of the oldest vines are planted at 12,000 / hectare," he says. (Between 8,000 - 10,000 vines / hectare is more common.) Besides that parcel, all farming has been organic since 2005.

Benier cites the work of Jean Foillard as an early inspiration, and like Foillard, he eschews organic certification as simultaneously too constrictive (for the négoçiant business) and not rigorous enough. Benier indeed vinifies more rigorously than many just-organic winemakers: his wines are unfiltered, and in many cases unsulfured during vinification and at bottling. He avoids pumping-over, and fermentation remains relatively cool and long - a whopping 12 days for his primeur, and usually 15-18 for his other reds.

Stylistically Benier departs from Foillard et al in that he does no pre-refrigeration of the harvest before vatting, and takes a somewhat less analytical approach to vinification, often conducting no analyses at all.

"I leave my glass in the air throughout the day, if I see that in thirty minutes the wine tends to quickly oxidise, I put sulfur in," he explains. "If not, if I see that in a day the cuvée doesn’t move, I don’t put any in."

The exception is his primeur, production of which is too delicate and rushed to take risks that could cause commercial delays. (It was during one spat over 0.08g residual sugar too much in his Nouveau one year that Benier had recourse to his sledgehammer.) I found the 2015 a bit rich and astringent, for a primeur, but to be fair it was 2015, and the wine had just been bottled.

Benier's cuvée "Vieilles Vignes," which he curiously bottles as Vin de France despite its provenance from Beaujolais-Villages parcels, was showing better when tasted from tank, with a brightness to the black cherry fruit and long tannic poise. Other cuvées can sometimes wear the guesstimation style of vinification less well, showing orange-rindy oxidative notes, or a sort of leftover fruit-basket aroma. 

In October that day the clear winner was the 2014 Régnié, one of the best wines of that cru I can remember tasting.*

Reduced at first, it quickly opened into refined, sanguinous, mineral form, with a wonderful grain to its stark red fruit. I was later pleased to learn that, alone among Benier's grape purchases, those for the Régnié are organically-farmed. The vines are situated between Lantignié and the village of Régnié. 2014 was the first vintage Benier made the wine.

I later had a bottle back in Paris with a magnificent steak my friend J cooked.

Also of note chez Benier is his Côte de Brouilly, which derives from the same parcel as that of fellow négoçiant Christophe Pacalet. Négoçiants in Beaujolais historically have an interest in concealing their grape sources, a habit that has the effect of preventing appreciation of the region's terroir. So I light up when I learn Pacalet and Benier share a source of Côte de Brouilly, for it allows a much greater perspective on the terroir of that particular Poyebade parcel, as well as on each winemaker's vinification style: Pacalet's precise and often spotless, Benier's bassier, more rustic.

Transparency, alas, remains relatively rare. 

Twice during our conversation there arose moments where Benier asked me to avoid mentioning certain information on the internet, which is of course his right. But it highlights the fact that even as the internet affords consumers the chance to understand wine and terroir with a greater degree of precision, those same communication channels incur, to winemakers, a greater degree of oversight from outmoded or maladroit appellation authorities. Benier's perennial headaches with the Beaujolais appellation derive from the necessarily majoritarian nature of appellations.

If in 2016 the average Beaujolais wine remains filtered, yeasted, over-sulfured, over-chaptalised, acidified, and chemically-altered, well, those are norms the appellation authorities implicitly support, to the chagrin of more enlightened winemakers.

But Benier's towering disdain for regulation is matched, and even tempered, by his loyalty to his customers. In discussing filtration, a practice he abandoned shortly after his debut, he recalled a conversation with a longtime client called Vincent Pivot, who runs a hopelessly conservative wine shop and restaurant in Villefranche called Midi Vins

"Before I used to mark on the labels: 'unfiltered, vinified without SO2, on natural yeasts.' And Vincent says, 'Xavier, you're being provocative.' I said, 'Why? It’s just transparency for me.' And he says, 'I find you provoke the other winemakers.' I said, 'If you feel that way, I’ll remove it.' So I removed it after a discussion with him."

With the result, of course, that Benier's work remains rather enigmatic to many. I wouldn't have prioritized things in this way myself, were I in his shoes. But it's still nice to know there are rogues like Benier at at work in the Beaujolais, skirting the law to everyone's benefit.

* It even has a nice label, designed by his friend Vincent, a former employee at Lyon's renowned Antic Wine shop who is now preparing to open his own cave in Lyon. (I wound up meeting him by chance at a lunch earlier this spring.) 

Xavier Benier
Chemin de Côtes
69640 Saint-Julien
Tel: 04 74 60 51 41
Related Links:

On the page of his US importer, T. Edward Wines, a profile of Xavier Benier that places strange, mistaken emphasis on his "youth" and his "welcome" of vintage variation. Sometimes I read language about wine that appears to have been written in an alternate universe. 

At Vin et Chere, more alternate universe about Xavier Benier, this time with one of those charming French digressions about wine mark-ups and how expensive things seem to them. 

Beaujolais, Winter - Spring 2016:

La Fête des Conscrits, Villié-Morgon
Domaine Leonis (Raphael Champier & Christelle Lucca), Villié-Morgon

Beaujolais, Autumn 2015:

Jean-Gilles Chasselay, Châtillon d'Azergues
Marcel Joubert, Quincié
Nicolas Chemarin, Marchampt
Anthony Thévenet, Villié-Morgon
Romain Zordan, Fleurie
Yann Bertrand, Fleurie
Domaine Thillardon, Chénas
Sylvain Chanudet, Fleurie
Patrick "Jo" Cotton, Saint-Lager
Pierre Cotton, Odenas
L'Auberge du Col du Truges, Le Truges
Julie Balagny, Moulin-à-Vent
La Cuvée des Copines 2015
Beaujolais Harvests 2015

Beaujolais Bike Trip, Summer 2015:

Georges Descombes, Vermont
Jean-Paul Thévenet, Pizay
Jules Métras, Fleurie
Rémi et Laurence Dufaitre, Saint-Etienne-des-Ouillières
Jean-Claude Lapalu, Saint-Etienne-La-Varenne
Benoit Camus, Ville-sur-Jarnioux

Beaujolais Bike Trip, Summer 2011:

Karim Vionnet, Villié-Morgon
Café de la Bascule, Fleurie
Isabelle et Bruno Perraud, Vauxrenard
Le Coq à Juliènas, Juliènas
L'Atelier du Cuisiner, Villié-Morgon

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