The Languedoc's oldest winemaking region could historically be a minefield in terms of style and quality. Today wine lovers can buy with far less trepidation, as the wines have never benten better, writes James Lawther MW.
Area under vine (2012) 3,100ha, including two crus: Roquebrun (125ha) and Berlou (60ha)
Red: Grenache, Syrah and/or Mourvèdre (minimum 70%), Carignan, Cinsault (maximum 30%)
White: Grenache Blanc (minimum 30%), Marsanne, Roussanne, Vermentino (Rolle).
Additionally, Clairette, Viognier, Bourboulenc, Macabeo, Carignan Blanc permitted to a maximum 10%
Maximum yield 45hl/ha Annual production 110,000hl (85% red, 13% rosé, 2% white)
Producers 106 independent wine growers and eight cooperatives (67% of production)
The Languedoc is still a wonderful source of characterful, good-value wines and none more so than Saint-Chinian at the western end of this Mediterranean tract. Nestling in the foothills of the Cévennes, northwest of the town of Béziers, Saint-Chinian offers generous, dark fruit, spice and garrigue-scented red wines that are underpinned by a refreshing mineral edge. Quality and style vary, but low yields, an equable climate (so less vintage variation), a judicious blend of Midi grape varieties and a growing number of reliable producers have made Saint-Chinian an increasingly sound bet.
The vine was planted in Saint-Chinian as early as the 8th century by Benedictine monks, and along with olives, chestnuts (for flour) and vegetables became part of an early subsistence economy. The village in fact takes its name from a canonised monk, St or ‘Santch’ Anian. The church continued to monopolise the vinous economy until the 15th century when the local nobility took over. They, in turn, were supplanted by the négociants in Béziers and Sète. The creation of a rail link to Paris in 1860 and limited damage from phylloxera kept the region buoyant until the end of the 19th century.
The depression of the 1930s and two world wars changed this. The demand for cheap table wine dried up and the only way forward for low-yielding hillside regions such as Saint-Chinian seemed to be a more qualitative approach. A VDQS (Vin Délimité de Qualité Suppérieure) designation was created in 1951 known as Côtes de l’Orb et du Vernazobres after the two principal rivers. Then, led by the cooperatives, as ever the economic force in the region, the appellation Saint-Chinian was established in 1982. Twenty communes are included within it.
Today the vineyards cover some 3,100ha, producing red, rosé and (since 2005) dry white wines. These stretch from Minervois in the west to Faugères in the east. As in the latter, the soils in the northern part of the region are principally schist, whereas to the south they are mainly clay and limestone. This is visibly discernible from the contrast in vegetation and landscape; the north defined by its dense pine, chestnut and heather-covered hills, the south by the more open rosemary and thyme-carpeted garrigue.
There is also a reputed contrast in wine styles: the northern schist produces a fresh and finer- grained, readily accessible red, while the southern clay and limestone result in a fuller, more powerful rendering that benefits from a touch of bottle age. In this there is a grain of truth, but as usual the puzzle is less straightforward than depicted. The soils are more mixed than portrayed and there are also sandstone and site selection to throw into the equation. Of more consequence, though, are the winemaking and blend of grape varieties.
Carignan, Cinsaut and Grenache were the original varieties planted in the region, but since the creation of the appellation, Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre have been more enthusiastically embraced. When I last visited Saint-Chinian in 2001, Carignan was the principal grape variety, covering 40% of the vineyard. The make-up today is Syrah 41%, Grenache 32%, Carignan 15%, Mourvèdre 7% and Cinsaut 5%. Indeed, the appellation rules now stipulate a minimum 70% Grenache plus Syrah and/ or Mourvèdre in the blend.
Syrah, with its spice, violet, rose petal and dark fruit notes, has clearly been a success, particularly from the schist soils. As has Grenache with its red fruit flavours and rounded tannins, making it an ideal component for entry-level cuvées. Mourvèdre needs careful site selection and cultivation but seen at its best as part of a cuvée such as La Madura’s grand vin (30% to 40%) offers length, structure and freshness. ‘I like wines that are fresh and balanced so favour Mourvèdre and Carignan,’ says Madura’s Cyril Bourgne.
Carignan’s steady slide from grace has apparently been halted, but new plantings are limited due to the absence of government subsidies for this variety. There is the realisation, though, that it is well suited to the Midi’s hot, dry summers and when yields are lowered offers acidity, colour, spice and structure to a blend. The new (2005) cru Saint-Chinian-Berlou stipulates a minimum 30% and winemakers such as Jean-Marie Rimbert and Vivien Roussignol of Les Païssels (See Decanter’s July 2013 issue panel tasting for their 2011 wine, which received an Outstanding score) embrace it wholeheartedly in their blends. Others are more sceptical. ‘I’m not particularly keen on Carignan but use the vines that are the least productive,’ says Pierre Salvestre of Domaine La Linquière.
The winemaking features that have the most bearing on style are carbonic maceration and ageing in (new) oak barrel. The former is used to soften fruit (particularly Carignan) and enhance the aromatics. The Roquebrun cooperative is a practitioner, as are individual domaines such as La Linquière. Barrel ageing needs to be handled with care as the stamp of oak can crush the vivacity and fruit expression of these wines. Many are still aged in tank or older, larger oak, while the new oak is left to the more expensive ‘special’ cuvées that often need a bit of bottle age.
In terms of production, eight cooperatives are responsible for 67% of Saint-Chinian’s output, a figure that has remained constant over the past 15 years. In the vanguard is the go-ahead Cave de Roquebrun, which bottles 95% of its production, exports 50% and in the UK supplies the likes of Direct Wines, Majestic and Sainsbury’s. There is also a healthy list of reliable individual growers, the more established being Borie La Vitarèle, Canet Valette, Cazal Viel, Château de Ciffre, Clos Bagatelle, Mas Champart, Milhau Lacugue, Navarre, Rimbert and Viranel.
What is encouraging is the newer names that can now be added to this list. Pierre Salvestre at La Linquière, Olivier Pascal at Les Terrasses de Gabrielle, Xavier Franssu at Mas de Cynanque, and Philippe Bordes at his eponymous domaine are all names to watch. The most exciting, though, are Joël Fernandez at La Grange de Léon and Vivien Roussignol at Les Païssels. The latter started with only a hectare in 2008 but now has three, so is beginning to match quality with greater volume.
It’s difficult to define Saint-Chinian typicity within the context of the Languedoc, as styles do vary. The generosity and exuberance of fruit are definitely there, as are the notes of spice and herb. It’s perhaps that mineral note (rather than acidity) that offers a grain of distinction.
Written by James Lawther MW
St-Chinian: Six producers to watch
Borie La Vitarèle
This is one of Saint-Chinian’s iconic domaines. Cathy and Jean-François (Jef) Izarn launched it in 1990 and since 1998 have run the 19ha vineyard biodynamically. Sadly, Jef was recently killed in a tractor accident while working on a steep slope. The different cuvées correspond to the various soil types found at the Causses-et-Veyran based property: the fruit-driven Terres Blanches from limestone, vibrant Les Schistes from schist and the more powerful Les Crès from a parcel strewn with galets roulés or large stones. All are rich and expressive with a mineral edge that provides balance. (For a tribute to Jef Izarn see the ‘Jefford on Monday’ blog: Farewell Jef ).
Domaine La Grange Léon
Joël Fernandez is one of only four independent growers based in the village of Berlou. His grandfather Léon, and father were members of the cooperative and he still delivers part of the grape harvest there but since 2008 has been making his own wine. The low-yielding (25-35hl/ha) vines are all located on schist soils and emphasis is placed on the purity and expression of fruit. All three red cuvées (L’Insolent, L’Audacieux, D’Une Main à l’Autre) are good, so keep an eye out for this domaine.
Domaine La Madura
After nine years in Bordeaux working as the technical director of Château de Fieuzal, Cyril Bourgne returned to his native Languedoc to launch La Madura in 1999. He has restructured the 13ha vineyard, which had been exempt from chemical treatments. The mix of grape varieties on different soils gives complexity to the wines, the ageing in five year-old barrels a polished Midi style. The Classic cuvée places the emphasis on Grenache, the longer ageing grand vin on Mourvèdre and Syrah.
Domaine La Linquière
Established in 2001 by Robert Salvestre, today it is run by his son, Pierre, a sixth- generation vigneron. The cellars are located in the southwest corner of the appellation at Villespassans but the parcels of the 20ha vineyard are dotted around St-Chinian, ensuring a mix of different soil types. The Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan are vinified by carbonic maceration. The top two cuvées, Le Chant de Cigales and Sentenelle, are Syrah-dominated, the latter uniquely from schist soils.
Discreet but always on song, Mas Champart is, in my opinion, the leading domaine in St-Chinian. Isabelle and Matthieu Champart created it in 1976, planting the 15.5ha vineyard on clay and limestone soils and making their first wine in 1988. The white wine is the most serious and complex in the appellation while the reds range from the racy, fruit-laden Côte d’Arbo to the more powerful Mourvèdre- dominated Clos de la Simonette.
Les Terasses de Gabrielle
Olivier Pascal’s 7ha-Berlou domaine is still a work in process. Like Joël Fernandez, he used to supply the cooperative but in 2008 produced his first wine in a garage located outside the commune. A percentage of the vineyard has been replanted but there is still some 30-year-old Grenache and Syrah, 100-year-old Carignan and a rare parcel of Lladoner Pelut, the furry-leafed version of Grenache. The wines are rich and powerful and receive a lengthy maturation of up to three years in tank and barrel.
Top 10 St-Chinian wines
Les Terrasses de Gabrielle, 12 de la Noche en la Habana 2012
A white St-Chinian produced from Roussanne and Grenache Blanc and partly aged in acacia barrels. Lovely honeyed, floral scent. Palate rich and opulent. Better acidity and balance than the 2011.
Price: N/A UK +33 (0)6 31 77 11 38
Borie La Vitarèle, Les Schistes 2011
Syrah and Grenache. Powerful but complex wine with blueberry, plum, spice and black pepper notes. Ripe and round on the palate with fine, silky tannins. Firm, persistent finish.
Price: £17.50 H2Vin
Domaine La Madura, Grand Vin 2010
Mainly Mourvèdre and Syrah with a little Grenache and Carignan. Ripe but fresh and vibrant with black fruit, liquorice and smoky notes. Firm and intense on the palate but approachable as well. Splendid length and balance.
Price: £21 (2009) Flint Wines
Domaine Navarre, Cuvée Olivier 2010
Old vine (70-90 years) Grenache and Carignan plus Syrah. Great depth and intensity. Red fruit aromas with a note of local brush and herbs. Full, round and ripe on the palate.
Price: £15.50 Stone Vine & Sun
Vivien Roussignol, Les Païssels 2012
From old vines (30-60 years) on schist soils. Dark and ripe but balanced. Palate round and full with dark fruit flavours to the fore. Freshness despite the alcohol.
Price: £13.90 Pierre Hourlier
Domaine La Grange Léon, L’Audacieux 2012
50% Mourvèdre with Syrah and Grenache. Minerally and fresh with lovely fruit behind. Spice and garrigue aromas. Tannins present but sweet and fine. Long and balanced.
Price: N/A UK +33 (0)4 67 89 73 61
Mas Champart, Côte d’Arbo 2011
Impressive for an entry-level wine. Fruit driven but with substance. Dark fruit (cherry, plum) notes with a touch of herbs behind. Fresh finish. Good value.
Price: £12.50 Berry Bros & Rudd, The Wine Society
Domaine La Linquière, Le Chant des Cigales 2011
Aromatic wine with Syrah (70%) clearly to the fore. Dark fruit, liquorice and violet notes. Palate ripe and full but with a hint of the minerally, schistous soils. Vintage freshness on the finish.
Price: £14.45 (2010) Berry Bros & Rudd
Domaine Rimbert, Mas au Schiste 2010
A third each Carignan, Syrah and Grenache. Ripe and round with notes of cherry and kirsch but schist minerality evident as well. Firm finish.
Price: £13.41 (2009) The Sampler
Cave de Roquebrun, La Grange des Combes 2011
Syrah (50%), Grenache and Mourvèdre. Ripe and aromatic with cherry, plum and chocolate notes. Schist soils impart freshness on the palate.
Price: £12.99 Majestic