Andrew Jefford looks at St Chinian’s statistical stars...
Time, and time alone, will tell: a hundred vintages (or more) is the only way we can discover where the greatest sites in a particular wine-growing zone lie. That, alas, is well beyond a single working lifetime. It’s therefore tempting to try to speed the process along. No French appellation I know has set about doing this in a more practical way than St Chinian – via its annual ‘Vins Virtuoses’ competition.
Yes, it’s a tasting, but the clever bit is that it is much more than that, too. Those submitting samples (which must have a retail price of over 12 euros) have to fill out an extensive dossier providing information about soils, altitudes, aspects, slopes, wind exposures and row orientations, as well as age, yield, pruning method, planting density, cultivation practices and winemaking methods. All of this information goes into a now-extensive data bank, where it is available for multi-purpose crunching.
The competition has now run for five years, and been judged in Languedoc itself, Paris, London, New York and Montreal by a total of 125 mostly non-local tasters (including importers, journalists, Masters of Wine and sommeliers). All vote for their top wines in a blind tasting. Following the five competitions, a Top Ten group of wines has emerged achieving the best scores on aggregate, and I had a chance to taste these in St Chinian itself in late January: tasting notes on the current commercial release of each follows. I also, though, had a chance to look at some of the data assembled on the Top Ten. Can we draw any conclusions about terroir in St Chinian from this?
As readers will know, one of the features of St Chinian is that its 3,100 ha of vineyards are divided into limestone and schist-soiled sectors; indeed I will report on what should be a fascinating blind tasting in March where producers with parcels on both soil types will be submitting samples made in a similar way to see if this fundamental differences emerge in sensual analysis.
Evidence from the Top Ten, at any rate, suggests that wines made from schist-grown fruit may be more appealing than that grown on clay-limestone, since 33% of all the wines submitted to the competition over five years were grown on schist soils, but 41% of the Top Ten had a schist origin. (Analysing my own recent scores below, the schist wines got an average of 91.50 points whereas the limestone and mixed soils got an average of 90.16 points.) In the appellation as a whole, by the way, there are 1,203 ha of schist vineyard (39%) and 1,842 ha of limestone vineyard (61%).
Vins Virtuoses judges tended to prefer wines grown between 100m and 200m (69% of the Top Ten) to those grown between 200m and 300m (31%), though both figures represent a lift on the total submission rates of 61% and 28% respectively; lower-sited vineyards fail to impress (10% of the total submitted, but none retained in the Top Ten). Some 78% of the Top Ten wines come from vineyards on moderate to steep slopes. These are in general ripe wines: the average pH of the Top Ten was 3.83, and the average alcohol level was 14.49%, exactly reflecting the averages for all submitted wines.
Syrah was the most popular variety in blends (56% of the Top Ten) – though there were two wines which contained no Syrah at all. Some 16% of the Top Ten came from vines over 30 years old, and 15% over 40 years old, and almost all the Top Ten wines came from un-irrigated vineyards (97%) given organic fertilizer alone (96%).
No Top Ten wine was made from yields of over 40 hl/ha, and a quarter of the Top Ten came from yields of less than 20 hl/ha: this would represent markedly lower yields than for the Médoc’s Crus Classés in most vintages. A large majority (83%) of the wines were hand-harvested, and 85% were completely destemmed. Only 15% were fermented with wild yeasts, and average maceration times were 26.63 days. Oaked wines proved popular with tasters, though to be fair they also dominated the total submissions: 84% had spent time in barriques and 11% in larger demi-muid casks, with an average of 19.09 months in wood (31% new wood). Only 5% of the submissions were unoaked.
What, finally, of the bottom line? Prices varied to a greater extent than I had expected: 46 euros for the most expensive Top Ten wine and 12 euros for the cheapest (these are retail prices from the excellent shop at St Chinian’s Maison des Vignerons). I tasted and scored the wines without reference to price; two of my favourites proved to be amongst the least expensive.
Tasting St Chinian’s Top Ten Vins Virtuoses 2013-2017
Congratulations, in particular, to two producers: Clos Bagatelle and the modestly priced Ch de la Dournie, both of whom had two different cuvées in the Top Ten. Winemaking skill cannot be entered as data on a form, but unquestionably plays a major role in the emergence of successful wines. That, in essence, is why the long perspective (which evens out winemaking differences) is in the end necessary to understand where the greatest sites of a zone are to be found. Wines are listed in alphabetical order, and were tasted sighted.