I was at the Saint-Chinian Tasting at the Maison de la Région Occitanie in London’s Cavendish Square this week. It was quite a small tasting, just fourteen producers present, with a few of the names I know being absent. I didn’t see any fellow wine writers during the three hours or so that I was present. I’m not wholly sure why, for example, Spain seems to have leaped in popularity recently, yet Languedoc seems to plod on without exciting the wine writing fraternity, on the whole, right now? Well, I think such a view might be a mistake, but more of that later.
THE SAINT-CHINIAN APPELLATION
St-Chinian, located just northwest of Béziers, was created as an AOC in 1982. It is spread over twenty villages, from Vieussan in the north to Cruzy and Quarante in the south. St-Chinian itself sits about in the middle, on the River Vernazobre, a tributary of the Orb as it flows south to Béziers and the Med. It is this river which broadly divides the appellation. To the north of the Vernazobre is largely schist (apart from the eastern sector), whilst south of the river is all argilo-calcaire (basically limestone with clay to you and me). North of the river the land is more rugged as well, with vineyards reaching 600 metres, often protected by quite mountainous terrain.
As well as AOP St-Chinian, two Crus have been created for the villages of St-Chinian-Roquebrun and St-Chinian-Berlou. These are both in the northern (schist) sector, one on either side of the north-south flowing River Orb. There is also a preponderance of Vins de Pays d’Oc (IGP). Some of these are for grapes grown just outside the AOP area, but many are wines made from varieties not permitted for St-Chinian red, pink and white. Some are made from international varieties, others from rare or not so rare local varieties that have been excluded from the appellation wine.
The permitted grape varieties for St-Chinian AOP are Grenache, Lledoner Pelut, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Carignan (red), and Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Rolle, Clairette, Viognier, Macabeu and Bourboulenc (white). St-Chinian is the Languedoc’s fourth largest appellation, and a massive 83% of the annual production of 110,000 hectolitres (off 6,000 hectares of vines) is red wine. 13% is rosé and just 4% white.
If this tasting demonstrated anything, it is that one should emphatically not look for typicity in this AOP. Surely that flies in the face of the whole idea of the AOC/AOP philosophy? Well, perhaps, but we’ve already seen that St-Chinian is based on two very different types of soils and sub-strata. Terroir is one of those difficult concepts. I think sometimes terroir comes through, and at other times we see the influence of winemaking much more strongly. On the evidence of this tasting, there are quite noticeable differences between the wines on schist and the wines on clay-limestone. But such differences may well be enhanced, or indeed lessened, by other factors such as altitude and viticulture, and winemaking.
One good example of the former is the decision when to pick, with several producers picking some varieties very early, for freshness. An example of the latter would be the use of carbonic maceration on some specific varieties (often Carignan in particular), which can have quite a pronounced effect on the softness of the resulting wines in some cases.
There are some broad generalisations to be made about the producers whose wines were on show. They are all family run, with between 30 to 50 hectares being the average land holding. There is certainly a focus on trying to make good wines, which comes from a pride in the AOP, and a belief that this land is capable of quality. Many of them are also organic. As more than one producer said, the climate here means that pests and other diseases are not a problem most of the time. As one of them said, as well, “we don’t own the land, we rent it from our children”.
So why are we not talking more about St-Chinian? It does after all have the potential to establish its uniqueness. Well, first of all the split between schist and limestone doesn’t help. The story which some would like to tell is all about the schist, where journalists could draw parallels with Priorat, over the border in Spain. First of all, things are never that simple. If it were, we wouldn’t have the differences between the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune, nor between the Médoc and St-Emilion. Second, Priorat has built its fame on Grenache. Grenache has become, if somewhat surprisingly, a fashionable variety. St-Chinian is a blend of grapes, and not always the same blend. Many of the top wines are based around Syrah.
As the Languedoc as a whole moves inexorably towards classifying its individual crus as separate AOPs, Saint-Chinian needs to be able to find something to shout about that is unique. Having a spread of different styles is not a bad thing in any way, but it does mean that a simple message for the journalists is hard to find.
Saint-Chinian is a region of hard working family estates, many of whom have been working the land for several generations. This is actually quite a contrast to one or two neighbouring sub-regions, where incomers are getting all the publicity, perhaps because they learnt self-promotion in their former careers, or they have the money to invest in such self promotion. The buzz always seems to be around outsiders, and in the UK of course, there is always a focus on our own nationals when they have set up wine estates, as one or two have done down here.
I think this is still an appellation finding its way. There are a lot of (top) cuvées which are very much as you might expect, especially the Syrah dominated reds from the schist. Such wines need a bit of age, and food. There is little if any new wood being used, but the tannins are still big, if ripe. They are without doubt impressive wines. But it is true to say that there are many such wines across the Languedoc, so they have plenty of competition.
These type of wines were certainly in the majority over any easy drinking reds, but there were one or two pleasant versions from that camp as well. They often contrast with the prestige wines in their alcohol content. It should be remembered that the wine world is now moving away from high alcohol, and producers should be wary of equating 14.5% alcohol and tannin with something which will necessarily gain recognition in Paris and London. Freshness and balance are key to wines with higher alcohols, and it was nice to see that this quality shone through in the best wines.
I am also increasingly impressed with Languedoc’s whites. The best from St-Chinian, here, showed that when the producer knows how to retain freshness without merely picking too early and losing concentration, then they have a lot to offer. Rolle and, perhaps counter-intuitively Viognier, both seem to bring something to the table. I hope to see more of these whites.
And although the IGP (former Vins de Pays) category is not a sure fire guarantee of an inexpensive but tasty wine, when it comes to the general “d’Oc” designation, we did at least see some signs that producers might fashion something of genuine interest, not merely bland Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay.
Overall the best wines, those chosen below, were very good. Anything I have said above should be viewed in that context. The freshness and balance of the best reds is the key to future success, but making some more lovely white wines will only serve to complement, not distract from, the appellation’s potential to win friends. Could it be that all St-Chinian needs is one or two younger names to spice things up a little, to add a little energy and draw attention to the terrain and the wines?
Perhaps St-Chinian is an appellation which is hard to pin down? Let’s see. I won’t profile all of the producers present, even though there were just fourteen. Those below include my personal, subjective, favourites overall, along with one or two where I felt individual wines are worth highlighting.
Chateau La Dournie
I begin with La Dournie because they are the St-Chinian producer I know best (they are imported into the UK by Leon Stolarski Fine Wines). They make a nicely refreshing salmon-pink rosé from Cinsault, but their red wines are much more serious. All their vines are on schist, north of St-Chinian itself. There were three cuvées on show. Classic is 50% Syrah with equal proportions of Grenache and Carignan. Tannins are soft, so it is approachable now or over two-to-three years in the 2015 vintage. Etienne 2013 ups the Syrah to 65%. It’s a good step up, with a spicy finish contrasting with quite intense, crunchy, berry fruit. Elise 2013 is a beauty, a selection of the estate’s best Syrah (90%) with Grenache. The fruit is soft (cherry with brambley crunch), but the complexity comes via flavours of garrigue herbs and tapenade. This has a good decade before it, and is impressive.
Domaine Les Eminades
Another organic estate, in the village of Cébazan, south of St-Chinian, 14 hectares run by Patricia and Luc Bettoni. There’s a nice white made from Grenache Blanc and Marsanne, and four reds. This domaine has a range of soil types, and their top cuvées are well differentiated. Le Sortilège 2014 had a lovely nose, fresh acidity and a mineral texture, but was trumped by Vielles Canailles 2014. The cuvée is so named “old rascals” because the vineyard is planted with Carignan dating from 1902. Only 2,600 bottles of the 2014 were made. The Carignan here is so different to the soft-fruited carbonic version we see in some of the other wines. A wine of real interest.
This Cessenon domaine is based on the River Orb. It’s a very old estate dating from the 1750s, organic since 1972. The soils are clay/limestone. All the wines I tasted were red, all of varying levels of interest, and alcohol. The top wines will age, and need food. My main reason for mentioning Bousquette, though, is for their cheapest wine, Mas des Huppes. This 2015 blend of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre smells a little tough on the nose, and you get 14% alcohol. But there’s a nice softness on the palate. The ex-cellars price for this wine is just 6.50€. It shows that whereas some estates are all about ambition when it comes to extracting tannins, structure and concentration, there are gluggable bottles out there which cost very little, and perhaps over deliver as a result.
Domaine Boissezon Guiraud
This is a Roquebrun domaine, with 58 hectares based on schist in the north of the AOP, and with sandy clay and limestone at Causses et Veyran, where their white wine is produced. It was current owner Michel Guiraud’s grandfather who planted most of the vines in 1900. Their cuvées are particularly apty named. Les Petits Cailloux 2015 is a fresh, saline, wine fashioned out of Roussanne/Marsanne in equal proportion. I really think you would place it as a Côtes du Rhône on the nose. There’s a bright salmon-pink rosé, and a red, Les Cerises 2015, which not only smells and tastes of concentrated cherry, but even looks like bright red cherry juice.
Their best wine is named Comme à Cayenne (2015). Cayenne was a big prison in the region. The vineyard is very hard to work, and the label depicts the ball and chain of the chain gang. This is a blend of Grenache and Carignan, 80-year-old vines, and built to last (they recommend to 2023).
Domaine des Jougla
The Jougla family farm this 30 hectare organic estate near Prades-sur-Vernazobres. Situated pretty much at the centre of the appellation, their vineyards are mainly on schist, but also limestone. This estate was also planted in 1900, and boasts five wooden casks dating from this time. It is fair to say that this is one of the best known addresses in the region.
Thus far, the whites of St-Chinian have only had a passing mention, but here things are different. As we saw above, only 4% of St-Chinian’s overall production is white wine, and in fact whites didn’t get AOC status until 2005, well over 20 years after the appellation came into being. So far then there has been little focus on white wine, yet there is potential.
Jougla’s white, Les Tuileries (2015), is intense and floral. Although it contains Grenache Blanc, these qualities come from Rolle (the intensity) and Viognier (a rich, in some cases almost tropical, fruit and florality). Harvesting is early, and the result tastes both fresh and very complete, nice to drink now. It was the best white wine of the day.
The reds from the estate begin with Initiale 2014, schist grown Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah plus carbonically macerated Carignan to add softness. Simple smooth fruit, but nice. Ancestrale 2013 is, by way of contrast, off limestone. It blends the first three varieties from Initial without the Carignan. They began making this cuvée in 1986 and are proud that it will see its 30th anniversary. Here we get much more complexity with deeper and darker fruits. With the top wine, Signée 2013, we are back on schist. It is blended from Grenache, Syrah and Carignan, aged in wood (used). 14% alcohol, harmonious and complex.
This is a 35 hectare domaine beside the River Vernazobres at Pierrerue, just east of St-Chinian. The Belot family’s wines seem to boast quite a worldwide distribution, though they are not one of the best known St-Chinian domaines in the UK. The most interesting wine here was called, appropriately, Best of Belot (2013) (in English). Made from 90% Syrah and 10% Grenache, with equal use of carbonic maceration and traditional vinification. The key here is very gentle handling and care – no pumping over for example, just light pigeage. Ageing is in larger demi-muids. This vintage showed some maturity, and I liked it.
Mas Champart is another of the domaines which you may have heard of. They are based in St-Chinian but their 15 hectares of vineyards, in the southern sector, are mainly on limestone and clay. The top wines here are pretty good. Côte d’Arbo 2015 has a fresh and savoury quality, and Clos de la Simonette 2014, at 14.5% alcohol, is a big wine from low yields which has power and fills the mouth. But they also make two lesser wines of interest, which show a different side to what some producers are doing.
The Vin de Pays/IGP category has not been much in evidence so far in this tasting, but Mas Champart makes a couple. The white is made from Terret Blanc and Grenache Gris, grapes not permitted for the AOP. Terret was once widely planted in Southern France for producing grape spirit. It is very resistant to drought. Here, harvested late and undergoing malolactic fermentation, it has a lot more on the nose than the Terret wines I remember decades ago, and it’s also fresh, and rounded.
The red Vin de Pays is different again, using a grape variety we would describe as “international”. Cabernet Franc forms 70% of the blend (with the more common Syrah and Carignan – although Syrah itself is an interloper in the Languedoc, lest we should forget that). This wine has spice and a bitter touch on the finish. The Cabernet Franc is very much in evidence.
Château du Prieuré des Morgues
Another estate which I’d not heard of, they have 12 hectares of Pays d’Oc and 24 hectares of St-Chinian. The two IGP wines, both white, were nice and fresh. The Domaine des Aspes 2015 is 55% Chardonnay/45% Viognier (yes, freshness in Viognier, achieved by early harvesting). Domaine des Aspes Cuvée La Mouline 2015 is 100% Viognier, with a touch more richness but nicely restrained. These are simple yet well made.
The red St-Chinians are under the Château du Prieuré des Morgues label. The 2013 was a run of the mill decent St-Chinian, the Grande Réserve is composed of 70% Syrah with Grenache and Mourvèdre made from 40-50 year old vines aged in one- and two-year oak. Smooth and rich, though with a touch of alcohol on the nose. This 2013 hinted at the more powerful style of red which some people might expect from St-Chinian.
Domaine de Pech Ménel
I thoroughly enjoyed these wines. I’d never heard of the estate and, when asking others for names (both good and less good) in the region, Ménel didn’t come up. First, the white, labelled simply Blanc de Pech Ménel. Fresh but with a touch of richness, this was not trying too hard. The blend is Grenache Blanc, Rolle, Roussanne and Viognier. The best St-Chinian whites do seem to end up being a careful blend, where different varieties are harvested at different times. And the role of Rolle (which we know better as Vermentino, but naturally the French wish it to go by its French name), and Viognier, seem significant in those better examples. The Viognier is often harvested very early, but sometimes with a green harvest too. It gives concentration but helps avoid high alcohol levels.
The reds here were nice, in ascending order of quality. The Château Vallouvières 2009 tasted like it has potential with a bit of maturity, but was trumped by Château Pech Ménel 2009, a blend of 60% Syrah, 23% Grenache and 17% Carignan. It was one of the “Vins Virtuoses” which I shall mention next. It was virtuous indeed.
VINS VIRTUOSES DE ST-CHINIAN
This is a group of wines judged by a panel of outsiders each year (since 2011) which are intended to express the best of the appellation. They are all top wines from the selected domaines, so that they do express one side of St-Chinian. As we have seen, there are several sides to this region, which has more to offer than just big structured reds.
There is no doubt that the 18 wines selected are impressive. There were quite a lot of similarities between them, and I don’t claim to be sufficiently expert in these blends to be confident in my judgements, but there were three wines I liked more than the others.
Clos Bagatelle “La Terre de Mon Père” 2014 is rich, with sweet ripe fruit. 60% Syrah with Grenache and Mourvèdre cropped at just 20 hl/h from chalky clay and schist.
Château Milhau Lacugue “Les Truffières” 2014 is even fruitier, softer, perhaps slightly less structured. 80% Syrah, plus Grenache, from chalky clay. This is imported into the UK by Yapp (Mere, Wiltshire). Yapp call this blend “hedonistic” and they are quite right. But the fact that these virtuoso wines don’t say everything that’s to be said about St-Chinian is exemplified by the absence of this domaine’s Cuvée Magali. This particular wine, which I have tried, is quite accurately described (again) by Yapp as “lip-smacking”. Definitely not complex, but great value at a little over £11 (2016 prices), as versus £15 for the Truffières.
Domaine Canet Valette is one of the stars of the appellation. “Cuvée Maghani” 2014 (don’t confuse with Milhau Lacugue’s “Magali”) is pretty tannic at the moment, but has both the potential for great age, and to develop as one of the most complex wines of the day. An equal blend of Syrah and Grenache cropped at just 20 hl/h again.
FOOD PAIRING EXERCISE
An interesting food pairing exercise was devised by Fiona Beckett, offering two or three different wine matches for four regional ingredients – anchovies, artichokes, spicy chorizo and Roquefort cheese.
Anchovies are intensely salty and you’d guess they need a clean white or a rosé. The wines provided here were okay as matches, but neither inspired me as wines. Not wishing to upset Fiona, nor show myself as ignorant, I’d nevertheless reach for Manzanilla.
Artichoke apparently contains cynarin which reacts badly with oaked whites and reds (I shall remember this). In any event, the star match was a wine I know, Clos Bagatelle Blanc 2016. It’s a nice and clean £10+ white, which I think Vino Vero in Leigh-on-Sea (Essex) stock.
Spicy Chorizo did demand a red, and one with oomph!…and freshness. Domaine Rimbert is another well known St-Chinian estate, and their Travers de Marceau 2015 was grippy and young enough not to be cowered by the spice, but with plush soft fruit and without the hard tannins that chillies fight with. Try The Sampler (South Kensington or Islington).
The surprise here was the Roquefort pairing. Naturally we will be thinking sweet wine here, Sauternes or similar. I’m not sure too many Brits will think of red wine with Roquefort, though I guess some might have been interested by the Canet Valette “Maghani” I tried among the Vins Virtuoses. One of the several local cooperatives, the Cave de Saint-Chinian, makes a cuvée called “Le Secret des Capitelles Blanc (2015). As Fiona said, this wine would go well if using the cheese in a salad, or with pears (a combo I’m known to enjoy, matching a certain fruit sweetness with the lactic bitterness of Roquefort). This wine is dry, but it has a real softness to it, and something almost pear-like. It worked well, and it’s cheap too.
Merchant plug – I have no connection with this merchant, other than as an occasional customer, but probably the most interesting specialist range of Languedoc-Roussillon wines available in the UK can be found at Leon Stolarski Fine Wines, online only at lsfinewines . Well worth checking out.