Despite being made an appellation in 1982, St-Chinian has remained relatively unknown. But that is about to change, writes JAMES LAWTHER MW.
About 30km northwest of Béziers, the vineyards of St-Chinian nestle in the foothills of the Cévennes. This is the Mediterranean hinterland; a region between mountain and sea, where dense, bush- covered maquis meets sparse, rocky garrigue, and green oak gives way to olive and thyme. Viticulture is part of the setting: as much a way of life as hunting wild boar. It is also an economic necessity and one that has had to bend with the times.
St-Chinian’s viticultural history parallels much of the rest of the Languedoc. Benedictine monks planted vines here in the ninth century and, with olives, chestnuts (for flour) and vegetables, wine became part of an early subsistence economy. Sales of wine were first monopolised by the church, then the local nobility, before falling into the hands of négociants in Béziers and Sète. The rail link to Paris in 1860 helped expand existing markets for meridional vin de table and the situation for St-Chinian remained relatively stable despite the ensuing crisis of phylloxera. The depression of the 1930s and two world wars changed this. Demand for cheap table wine and blending material slumped and the only way out seemed a more qualitative approach. The coops – then as now, the economic force of the region – were obliged to show the way forward. Two new cooperatives, Berlou and Roquebrun, both equipped for making fruity red wines by carbonic maceration, were established in the 1960s. It was these that led the way to the establishment of St-Chinian as an appellation in 1982.
Originally known as the ‘Côtes de l’Orb et du Vernazobres’ after the two principal rivers, St-Chinian covers a delimited area of some 3,000ha, producing red and a little rosé wine. It encompasses 20 communes including the town of St-Chinian, and stretches from Minervois in the west to Faugères in the east. Most significant are the two different soil types, which have an important influence on the style of wine. In the north of the region, in the maquis country around the villages of Berlou and Roquebrun, the soils are schist and the wines are more accessible with a fresh, aromatic style and fine tannic structure. Soils in the southern sector are clay- limestone and the wines tend to be fuller and firmer and benefit from bottle age. If the first stage of St-Chinian’s modern metamorphosis was technical, the second has been viticultural. Since the 1970s, and particularly over the last dozen years, the vineyards have gradually been replanted with cépages améliorateurs. Carignan is still the principal grape variety, covering some 40% of the vineyard area, but it has bowed to the steady increase in Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. In the commune of Roquebrun between 1988 and 2000, 46% of new plantings were Syrah, 31% Grenache and 23% Mourvèdre. In the divergent terroir of Berlou, 59% of new plantings were Grenache. Neither Carignan nor Cinsaut were replanted during this period. This has resulted in a number of changes. Trellising has been used more for new plantings of Syrah and Mourvèdre, in contrast to the gobelet-trained Carignan and Grenache. Most significantly, though, the blend has altered to the extent that, officially from 1998, St-Chinian must have a minimum of 60% Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre in the wine. It is not unusual to find top cuvées containing a high ratio of Syrah or, occasionally, of Mourvèdre. Which brings us to the next stage of St-Chinian’s development. Encouragingly bottle sales (as opposed to bulk) are on the increase, rising from 25% to 50% over the last five years and to nearer 70% or 80% in terms of export.
An application has been made to the INAO (Institut National des Appellations d’Origine) for the right to a white St-Chinian label (from Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Rolle or Vermentino). And in the same way that La Livinière has been elevated to ‘village’ status in the Minervois, there is a move to do the same for Berlou and Roquebrun. There are two themes, though, that could have greater consequences than either of these projects. The first relates to Carignan. The grape was originally decried as a poor-quality, dull variety. It is, however, now clear that old-vine Carignan, with restricted yields, produces good-quality fruit that adds character to a blend. There is a growing awareness of this in the appellation, but to maintain the ‘old vine’ level will entail a steady programme of replanting with the right clone and this has yet to come into operation.
The second issue concerns the visibility of St-Chinian’s top domaines. As has been stated already, the cooperatives are still the economic force in the region (66% of production) and the better ones – Roquebrun and Berlou – continue to invest to maintain quality. However, they are still heavily geared to producing wine by carbonic maceration, to my mind a limitation.
St-Chinian Leading by example
It is generally the better domaines that make a region’s fame. In this respect St-Chinian has often been surpassed by its Languedocien neighbours despite the growing number of producers worthy of wider recognition. Two examples are Domaine Navarre and Domaine Rimbert, on the schistous slopes of Roquebrun and Berlou. Thierry Navarre took over the 13ha family estate in 1988 and produces two cuvées: the fruity, good value Le Laouzil and barrel-aged Olivier, from low-yielding vines. Both have varying blends of Carignan (the oldest vines date from 1905), Syrah (originally planted in 1975) and Grenache. Progress has been made through the vinification, notably with a longer period of maceration.
Jean-Marie Rimbert also has experience of the land from when he was vineyard manager at estates in the Luberon and Languedoc. He was drawn to St-Chinian in his search for a ‘strong and characterful terroir’ and acquired 20ha in 1996. Initially he did everything by hand, only buying a tractor in the second year. He immediately knocked yields down from 50 to 35hl/ha – ‘a lot of fertiliser was used in the past’ – and the grapes are harvested by hand. He makes a more accessible cuvée, Les Travers de Marceau, but my favourite is the more refined and tongue-in-cheek Le Mas au Schiste from Carignan, Syrah, Grenache and Cinsaut, part aged in barrel.
Several other producers have recently installed themselves in St-Chinian. In 1998 Jacques Lesineau sold Château Haut-Gardère in Pessac-Léognan to buy the Moulin de Ciffre, and in the same year, Cyril Bourgne relinquished his job as cellar master at Château de Fieuzal to buy 13ha Domaine La Madura. His wine is firm and structured, the Grand Vin produced from 58% Mourvèdre grown on clay-limestone soil, and aged in one-year-old oak barrels. But the undoubted stars in St-Chinian are Mas Champart and Domaine Canet-Valette. Isabelle and Matthieu Champart bought their first parcel of land near the town of St-Chinian in 1976 and have since created a model estate. The old Grenache and Carignan vines have been maintained and new plantings of Syrah and Mourvèdre made on specific sites. The vineyard is tended like a garden. There are three cuvées: Côte d’Arbo and Causse du Bousquet are both Syrah-dominated, while the more serious Clos de la Simonette is made from a Mourvèdre-Grenache blend. Marc Valette has compromised little or nothing in his desire to make a great wine. He planted most of the 18ha clay-limestone vineyard between 1988 and 1992 and it is cultivated along strict organic lines, with yields kept to as little as 20hl/ha. In 1999 he built the new cuverie which enabled each winemaking operation, from the entry of the grapes to the bottling, to be gravity-fed. Valette has introduced destemming in 1997 to add finesse to the wines, which are bottled without fining or filtration. The cuvée Une et Mille Nuits is made from the five permitted varieties, while Maghani is made from Syrah and Grenache. These producers are the way forward. St-Chinian’s star can only rise if more producers continue along the same path.