Interview with Philippe Cambie, consultant winemaker

Philippe Cambie, photo from his Facebook page


Philippe Cambie, who sadly died on 28th December 2021, spent his life working in wine and was the best-known winemaking consultant in the Rhône, having worked at ICV Groupe since 1998. He lived in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and worked with some of the biggest names in the appellation. He also co-owned Domaine Calendal in Plan de Dieu with Gilles Ferran of Domaine des Escaravailles.

The following is an interview I conducted with him on 21st May 2020 via Zoom, and is edited for clarity and brevity. Rest in peace, Philippe.

Have you noticed a change in style over the course of your career?

The evolution of the appellation is also the evolution of the people. Before, there weren’t many vignerons who had travelled and discovered the wines of the world. Now there’s a lot of young people that have studied, worked in wine elsewhere. They have discovered great wines, experienced them. And the new generation of winemakers – all of whom want to do better, to improve their viticulture, to improve their winemaking – have produced even more great wines and further revealed the quality of the appellation. And Robert Parker – he opened people’s minds. He didn’t change the wines. He simply changed the impression that vignerons had of their own appellation.

Does getting a good score with critics such as Robert Parker increase prices?

Less and less now, that was mostly in the 2000s; in 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 it really helped sales. Today it’s not the same but it does boost things a bit. In Châteauneuf we’re distant from the capital, from Paris. And we’ve never had a big commercial presence in Paris, unlike some regions that are closer, so we’ve always relied more on export markets.

Ten years ago, we didn’t talk much about the importance of the oenologist, but it seems we hear more and more about them these days.

I think because the job has evolved. The first oenologues were just pharmacists that helped winemakers manage any problems. It’s a bit like medicine; originally it was to treat, but now it’s more about prevention. Oenologues today are there to accompany the winemaker, to walk alongside them. And now domaines all have in-house winemakers, whether children of the owners or staff, so there’s already a scientific base. I’m not there to say do this or do that, the role is more to offer advice, to give opinions and to accompany them along their own path.

I suppose there are different levels at which you can work with a consultant winemaker, starting just with sample analysis.

Yes, that’s obligatory now. Everybody works with a lab and an oenologue on that level – or you can work more closely, like a member of the domaine. But it’s not the same work with someone starting out as with someone that has 30 years’ experience. I’ve learnt a lot from the older generation of Châteauneuf winemakers myself. André Brunel was someone that taught me the most. I teach and guide, but I’m still learning.

Is it true to say that all oenologues have their own particular style of making wine?

If it’s a smart person with a good relationship with the winemaker, he’ll accompany the vigneron to develop their own identity. Not all oenologues are the same. Some can be dictatorial. That’s not my philosophy. I’ve always said if you look in my cellar, you’ll see 200 different wines. It’s like a taster or a journalist, they’ll prefer one style of wine over another. It’s human. The closest style to what I like is Calendal.

So is that the Cambie style?

It’s not the Cambie style, it’s the style of wine I like. If you taste Calendal, it’s got nothing to do with any other wine. Elegance, finesse, not too concentrated. But I like all styles of wine, California, Washington, Spain, Burgundy… Cabernet isn’t my thing so much, but old Bordeaux can be magnificent. What I don’t like is brett, anything animal. That I can’t stand. Or very oxidative styles, outside of Jura.

Do winemakers say to themselves ‘I want to work with Philippe because I like his winemaking style,’ or is there no such thing as the Cambie style?

No, I don’t think so. I’ve worked with most of my domaines for 20 years or so, it’s a collective effort. And if you taste the wines that I work with, Clos du Caillou, Clos Mont-Olivet, Vieux Donjon, Vaudieu, they’re not at all the same style.

Some people say that oenologues can have something of a standardising effect on wines.

There are some oenologues that choose the same recipes in terms of barrique, extraction, élévage. My estates won’t necessarily make the wine the same way every year – different maceration time, different extraction. I’ve seen some Bordeaux oenologues give vinification instructions in April – but by that time the grapes aren’t even out yet. Work will be different at yields of 10hl/ha or 30hl/ha, one parcel might have mildew, it might have to be sorted differently, it might not be possible to use whole bunches… that’s why I’m not taking on new clients. You can’t perform well if you’re not always available.