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Jefford on Monday: Birth of a Landmark?

"This rain," said winegrower Thierry Navarre, staring cheerfully out of his cellar windows at the forbidding clouds swirling around the mountain opposite, "couldn't have come at a better time." It was exactly two weeks before the spring equinox. The pruned vines were tense, crouched like cats, ready to leap into life as the sun returns for its next northern circuit. The river Orb roared under Roquebrun bridge, spinning and eddying through its gorge, swamping the riverbank trees and turning the old watermill into a tall stone island.

(picture: Thierry Navarre’s vineyard full of Rybeyrenc (an old rare variety, widely planted before phylloxera)

Up in Navarre’s vineyards, rain blackened his ancient Rybeyrenc vines. “It’s good we’re in the schist sector of the appellation,” he said, lifting an unmuddied sole from the free-draining rubble by way of illustration. “If we were in the clay-limestone part, you’d be wearing 6-kilo boots by now.”

That day of heavy rain made for perfect tasting weather. We’d spent the morning in St Chinian’s Maison des Vins, surveying at the appellation’s most ambitious wines. As rumours swirl that Pic St Loup and La Clape will finally join the Languedoc AOC club a little later in 2013, so this seemed as good a moment as any to ask what St Chinian, an AOC since 1982, has to offer. Is it now a Languedoc landmark?

Before I answer that, let me share a conviction with you. I’ve spent a quarter of a century visiting vineyards around the world. It’s rare, I promise, to see land which seems to insist on a wine vocation with the same force that the hill vineyards of the Languedoc do. There are hundreds of secret tracks and paths up here which will take you over a rocky shoulder or through a tunnel of holm oak and pine forest to reveal stone-strewn terraces of old vines which can take your breath away with the force of their beauty and their rightness. It’s vineyard, or it’s wilderness: you know there’s no other choice.  

Of course, you need bottles for proof. Over the past three years, I’ve had repeated opportunities to compare, over dinner at home, Languedoc wines with those from around the wine world. The best perform magnificently: rich, plush, textured yet naturally balanced, but more importantly uniquely perfumed and effortlessly characterful, seemingly saturated in the ‘placeness’ which many wine-growing locations struggle to express. They are great wines in the most innocent, least laborious sense of all. And they’re usually just a fraction of the price of the wine alongside them which, in drinking, they quickly eclipse.

That said, two big challenges remain, and both were encapsulated by my day in St Chinian. The first is that a clear identity still eludes most Languedoc AOCs: I doubt there is a taster in the world who could, blind, unerringly and repeatedly distinguish St Chinian from Faugères, from Terrasses du Larzac, or from most Pic St Loup. The hills, remember, form a near-continuous strip between Alès and Carcassonne. They all lie within the same climate zone, even if they are geologically and topographically diverse.

The second challenge is that making even good wine here is oddly difficult, and so many of the customary gestures (a little more ripeness, a tweak of the blend, another few months of élevage) seem to rob the wines of their thrilling expressive force and throw them off balance and into excess. New oak in particular seems to me almost a weapon of mass destruction; if I was Lord of Languedoc, I’d try taxing it towards oblivion. (For red wines, that is. It often works very well with whites.) My brett squad would be kept busy, too.

Here’s a short list of outstanding current wines from St Chinian (some illustrate that oak can be successful if used with extreme care). St Chinian is fortunate, by the way, in having some excellent co-operatives, notably that of Roquebrun itself — historically, a hugely successful performer in the Decanter World Wine Awards as well as last year’s inaugural Asia Wine Awards — and the Cave de Vignerons de St Chinian, so there is plenty of value to be sniffed out. A landmark? Well on the way, I’d say.  

Domaine la Linquière St Chinian, 2010 La Sentenelle 310
A new domain to me, but this was my star red wine from the recent tasting. The vineyard quality (high-sited schist at 310 metres) is evidently superb: perfume saturated, with a palate of poise, concentration, complexity and diagnostic wildness.

Domaine Moulinier, 2009 Les Terrasses Grillées
A gorgeous snapshot of the garrigue: armfuls of herbs; bacon sizzling over juniper twigs.

Domaine La Madura, 2009 Classique
Fresh and charming, with very gently expressive, milky fruits; a lushly drinkable wine with a liquorice-spice finish.

Mas Champart, 2010 Causse de Bousquet
Sweet, warm, tender: few St Chinians manage the kind of compositional harmony which Isabelle and Mathieu Champart achieve.

Borie la Vitarèle, 2010 Midi Rouge
Astonishing wine: profound, tight-sewn, explosive and brooding, this wine begs for cellar time in a way that few of its peers do.  

Clos Bagatelle, 2011 Le Clos de Ma Mère  

A brilliant blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Carignan Blanc, Viognier and Vermentino: packed with blossomy scents, and with a deliciously languid, mellow finish. Fine white from the skilled brother-and-sister team of Luc Simon and Christine Deleuze.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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