Re-discover St Chinian
Re-discover St Chinian was the title of a webinar and tasting presented by Patrick Schmitt, the very articulate editor of Drinks Business. He began his comments by explaining the title, considering that St Chinian used to be much more prominent on supermarket and wine shop shelves than it is today, and it deserves a revival in its fortunes. Patrick talked about the history of the region, of the Languedoc in general, with the Romans and the Benedictine monk of St Aniane from whom the name St Chinian evolved. St. Chinian, and also Faugères, were recognised as appellations in 1982, before Minervois, Corbières and Coteaux du Languedoc in 1985, but after Fitou in 1948.
Essentially the appellation comprises 3100 hectares in 20 villages around the tiny market town of St Chinian, sandwiched between the Minervois and Faugères. The appellation divides into 80% red, 15% rose and just 5% white. The grape varieties for red wine are the usual Languedoc five, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, accounting for a minimum of 70% of a wine and Carignan and Cinsault, and also Lledoner Pelut, with a maximum of 30%. And for white wine, the grape varieties are a minimum of 30% of Grenache Blanc, with Marsanne, Roussanne and Vermentino, and with Clairette, Viognier, Bourboulenc, Macabeo and Carignan Blanc considered secondary varieties.
The vineyards are dominated by the hills of the Massif Central and in particular the Caroux, which is also known as la femme allongée, for its silhouette. The climate is Mediterranean; drought can be an issue, and the prevailing north wind, the Tramontane, can blow hard. One of the points of discussion about St Chinian is the soil, for essentially the appellation divides into two, with schist in the northern half, above the river Vernazobre, and to the south clay and limestone. There is a suggestion that wines from schist have less acidity, but more freshness, while those from clay and limestone, a less acidic soil, have more acidity and weight, but the differences are often blurred, with sandstone coming into the mix, as well as winemakers’ preferences coming into play.
Apparently, a earlier idea was to create an appellation based on schist, running from St Chinian through Faugères to Cabrières, but the wine growers of St Chinian preferred to work together, irrespective of the different soil types. There is a high percentage of organic winemakers in St. Chinian, and if they are not yet organic, they are very likely to favour lutte raisonnée or sustainable viticulture.
So, this is what we tasted: Most of the names were new to me. There are 90 independent wineries, as well as eight village cooperatives. Prices are French retail prices
2020 Domaine de Saint Cels, Combe Longue - 9.50€ 13.5°
A blend of Grenache Blanc, with some Roussanne and Vermentino, grown on clay and limestone soil, and planted in 1992. The wine sits on its lees for six months. Light colour. Quite a fresh lemony note on the nose and on the palate, some citrus fruit, with a refreshing salty tang, with what the French call un joli amer, a nice bitterness on the finish. Medium weight, with some satisfying texture.
2019 Domaine Canet Valette, Une et Mille Nuits - 13€ 14.4°
An estate created in 1992, and organic since 1999, in the village of Cessenon. A blend of 40% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 20% Mourvèdre and 10% Carignan. Grown on clay and limestone. Half the wine was aged in demi-muids. Medium colour. Rounded ripe red fruit on the nose. Quite perfumed with fleshy fruit and a balancing streak of tannin. Medium weight. Very appealing ripeness without being heavy.
2019 Domaine la Croix Ste Eulalie - 12.50€ - 14°
A blend of 55% Syrah, with 18% Carignan, 15% Grenache Noir and 12% Mourvèdre. Grown on schist. Deeper colour. If the previous wine was very Grenache, this was very Syrah with rounded black fruit, balanced by quite firm tannins. The palate was much denser and the wine altogether more powerful. It needs time, whereas Une et Mille Nuits is drinking beautifully today.
2018 Marie de Lauzerda, Second pas sur la Lune - 9.00€ 14°
A blend of Grenache and Syrah, 60/40 grown on limestone and clay, on the Villespassans plateau lying at 250 metres. Deep colour. Quite a soft perfumed nose, and perfume on the palate too, with some pepper. Some fresh fruit, with an elegant balance. Easy drinking and very appealing.
2017 Domaine Pech de Lune, Equinoxe - 9.50€ 14°
A blend of 40% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 30% Carignan. Grown on clay and limestone. Quite a deep colour and a solid firm nose, with dense black fruit. Very tapenade and black olives from the Syrah, with firm tannins and a hint of vanilla and oak. A solid mouthful of wine. Needs time.
2020 Domaine des Mathurins 8.00€ 13.5°
A blend of 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah, grown on clay and limestone. A 26-hectare estate, organic since 2012. Mechanically harvested. Medium colour. A fresh fragrant nose. Very juicy, fresh strawberry fruit. Medium weight. A touch of pepper and a streak of tannin, but essentially an explosion of fruit.
2018 Domaine La Linquière, le Chant des Cigales 10.50€ 14.5°
A blend of 70% Syrah, with 15% each of Mourvèdre and Carignan, and perhaps unusually no Grenache. From clay and limestone, and also sandstone, and schist. Some whole bunch fermentation. Twelve months in oak. Quite a deep colour. Rounded black fruit and olive tapenade on the nose, with a dense rounded palate, with a fresh note of acidity, as well as a streak of tannin. A juicy finish. It belies the 14.5°alcohol level with an attractive freshness.
2015 Château Pech Menel - 15.00€ 14.5°
A blend of 75% Syrah and 25% Grenache Noir, grown on all three soil types. Deep colour, and quite a dry leathery nose, with some hints of the garrigue. A rounded harmonious palate beginning to mature very nicely. Rounded fruit and nicely balanced. Some old vines, grown at quite a high altitude, for pech means a hill in Occitan. The estate totals 20 hectares of vineyards. And this wine was included to show just how well St Chinian can age.
On reflection, clay and limestone seems to have outnumbered schist, but the geology is much more confusing than a simple line through the appellation, and winemakers also determine the style of the wines. I was left thinking that there was much to discover and enjoy in St. Chinian and that I agree with Patrick, it does indeed deserve a revival in its reputation.