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