Andrew Jefford salutes a Russian renaissance in the Gassac valley...
Jefford on Monday: All change at Capion
In January this year, I received a short message from the former governor of Perm.
I won’t often have the chance to write a sentence like that. As an unconditional fan of Gogol, Chekhov, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Turgenev, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Shostakovich and Tarkovsky, this email (on January 23rd) was a treat. The former governor of Perm wasn’t, however, contacting me to discuss the setting of ‘Three Sisters’, Pasternak’s years in the chemical factory near Perm, or even Murchison’s naming of the fateful and ultimately catastrophic period between the Carboniferous and the Triassic – but Ch Capion, the Languedoc property he had bought a year and a half earlier.
Scroll down for Jefford’s tasting of Capion wines
Oleg Chirkunov, let me point out, is not an oligarch investor. It wasn’t a PR who got in touch with me. He did. When I visited Capion in April, the former governor of Perm and his wife were waiting outside at the appointed hour. We walked the vineyards, together with estate director Rodolphe Travel; their plans came tumbling out. The Chirkunovs are thoroughly, personally involved; they care. The wines were impressive, especially considering the short time the new team has been in place. Nothing is certain any more (and it never was anyway), but my guess is that this tenure will be greatly to Languedoc’s benefit. The neighbouring Guibert family has been helpful and welcoming.
Chirkunov is the third Russian to buy a major Languedoc estate after Dmitry Pumpyansky purchased Prieuré de St Jean de Bébian in 2008, and Boris Pakhunov of the Russian wine and spirits group Praskoveyskoe bought St Martin de La Garrigue in 2011 and then the Corbières property Ch de St Louis in 2012. Capion, though, may be the most significant property in Russian stewardship: it shares the Gassac valley with Mas de Daumas Gassac, and its vines lie not far from those of Grange des Pères, too. Gratifyingly, at least one of the Capion wines is going to market under the Terrasses du Larzac appellation – Aniane’s true AOP identity. Since 1996, Capion had been owned by the Swiss Bührer family, owners of Saxenburg in South Africa but, despite initial ambitions, the wines failed to make much impression in recent years, and the necessary vineyard investments had not been forthcoming. Chirkunov is changing that.
Perm is a city of just under a million people 1,400 km to the northeast of Moscow, lying close to the Urals. Having been governor between 2004 and 2012, Chirkunov now runs a chain of 82 supermarkets in the region – and imports wine to Russia, too (laboriously, via Lithuania, in order to meet challenging Russian labeling requirements). He’s an art lover who struggled to give Perm an artistic and cultural identity during his governorship – and he now has similar plans for Capion. It already hosts summer concerts; there is a gallery project.
His first purchase in France, in 2014, was the Domaine de Montplaisir, a cloth magnate’s mansion up in Lodève with just a few small parcels of vines; he now has plans to expand plantings in that much higher and cooler location. Bureaucratic difficulties in obtaining residence rights mean that the Chirkunovs divide their time between Perm, London, Switzerland (where their sons are based) and France – but Oleg insisted we spoke French together, not English, and he has faced so many obstacles down the years that he is philosophical about the frustrations which all those who chose France become familiar with.
Claude Bourgignon has surveyed the vineyards, and Rodolphe Travel — now full-time at Capion — and consultant Claude Gros complete the team with full-time winemaker Nikola Zebic. (Gros and Travel formerly worked together to make Rob Dougan’s La Pèira the outstanding Languedoc reference it is; another celebrated Gros consultancy is Ch La Négly in La Clape.)
Capion has 45 ha planted at present, and Chirkunov plans to bring this total up to 56 ha. The soils are mixed, with limestones as well as alluvial soils and gravels, sited between 100m and 250m, sometimes with cool northern expositions. Yields have come down; the vineyards are being run organically, and biodynamics are a possibility; harvesting (by machine in the Bühler era) is now by hand, with fastidious fruit sorting. Gros, who says this is one of the coolest sites he has worked in, is looking for a delicate touch in the winery: “this is the spirit of how we want to go forward at Capion”. The 2017 frosts were a setback, slicing production in half, and 2018 has begun with a very rainy spring, but hopes remain high for the third vintage later this year. As you might expect from an art collector, the labels are beautiful – and that’s still rare in Languedoc.
A taste of Capion wines:
Added on 3 July 2018
After writing this article, I was contacted by Fiona Bührer of Saxenburg; we spoke by phone about her family’s involvement in Capion, which began in 1996 and not 1994.
The property was entirely derelict when the Bührers took over. They restored all of the buildings and replanted most of the vineyards; the wines won a number of awards (including from Decanter World Wine Awards) in the years preceding the transition of ownership. Viticulture throughout most of the growing season for the Chirkunov team’s debut vintage in 2016 (for which tasting notes are given below) was undertaken by the Bührer team, and Fiona assures me that there had been no lack of investment.
Only two of five Bührer successors wished to pursue viticulture, though, and the commitment to Saxenburg and to Vincent Bührer’s retail wine business Port2Port in South Africa meant that no family member was available to live at Capion – so the family sold Ch Capion, which Fiona says they loved dearly, with great reluctance.