Layers of colour in the sky before me: indigo, peach, salmon. In the rear-view mirror, the gold was catching fire. As I drove down through the lonely, Mistral-chilled vines of Babeau-Bouldoux towards nearby St-Chinian, I was thinking about what Christine Deleuze of Clos Bagatelle had just said.
‘When you came to visit 10 years ago,’ she reminded me, ‘you said we needed to wait another decade for a market breakthrough. Today you’ve said we need to wait another decade or two. So when, exactly, will it happen?’
St-Chinian’s growers had asked me to judge their Vins Virtuoses competition this year, as I had helped do back in 2013. I’d just given them an account of the tasting and of my thoughts on the challenges faced by the Languedoc region more generally, as well as the role of St-Chinian in the region as a whole. Christine’s question was fair. The growers keep trying; the wines keep improving. The market stays put.
It’s unlucky for Languedoc that its appellations stretch from east to west rather than north to south – so there are no clearly graduated distinctions of climate to explore, just a muted drift south from Pic St-Loup to Corbières. It is the still-opaque subtleties of soil and topography that nuance these Mediterranean appellations from one another.
Unlucky, too, that the region is so vast, with so much wine and so many actors: the rarity factor is elusive, and building reputation a long march. Aesthetics counts. It’s taken time to realise that small oak containers and new oak don’t meld well with Mediterranean grape varieties and their ripe, heady wines. The search for flavour, texture and intrigue beyond fruity flamboyance and thyme-perfumed charm is underway, but it’s new. The weathervane of fashion (more important in wine than drinkers realise) has swung Languedoc’s way in the past, but not of late.
France’s wine legislators haven’t helped. Languedoc’s chaotic appellation system is a spaghetti of regulation, and the insistence that growers produce blends, as well as using certain grape varieties in specified proportions, is too controlling. Languedoc shouldn’t be locked into a historical iteration which may have made sense in the 1980s and 1990s but does so no longer. The rapid advance of climate change ups the ante: Syrah, once an ‘improver’, is becoming a liability.
How to find a way out of this maze? Allowing self-determination for every appellation would emulate, I’d hope, the original Châteauneuf-du-Pape model. No more obligatory blends: single variety wines should be allowed. And extend the range of possible varieties, to include the often forgotten indigenous ‘modest varieties’ (such as the Ribeyrenc which St-Chinian grower Thierry Navarre has championed for years). Reclamations of this sort are underway elsewhere in France’s south, of course, notably in Châteauneuf itself (where rare varieties are growing in importance) and on the island of Corsica.
By now the gold in the rear-view mirror had become a hearth of warm embers; night was drawing on. I thought of the two bottles whose leftovers I had taken with me from the tasting, as well as the other wines which had emerged towards the top of the Virtuoses classification (this year topped by Clos Bagatelle). These are among Languedoc’s best: rich, arresting and generous but without vulgarity or excess, and backed by some of the tastiest, fleshiest tannins the entire region can offer.
The Virtuoses pantheon is established not simply via the latest vintage, but via a trio of wines including two older vintages. These older vintages showed that St-Chinian can indeed age, modulate and change with time, acquiring added beauty: the point of ageing. The Sir de Roc 2009 from the Cave de Roquebrun, Mas de Cynanque’s Acutum 2013 and the stunning 2011 from Les Païssels all made the point.
I can say, hand on heart, that there are many wines on sale in the global wine market that are twice the price of the best St-Chinian, but only half as good. The breakthrough will come, Christine. One day.