Prieuré de St Jean de Bébian
One day last summer, I wandered into the rather smart tasting room at St Jean de Bebian the other day and struck lucky. The new owner, Benoit Pontenier, had just returned from holiday and had time to spare for a tasting. It was early August and I think he was under-staffed. He also explained that he had literally just acquired the property, which the Russian owners had made over to a neutral party, so that it could be sold. It had entailed five months of negotiations and he had signed the deal the previous Saturday Even though the Pumpyansky family are strongly against Putin, their assets would be seized in France.
I had not tasted at Bébian since Karen Turner was making the wine. She left in 2018. In fact she and Benoit had worked together since 2011. but he was essentially the estate manager rather than the wine maker. Benoit studied in Bordeaux and then Montpellier, and then worked in Australia for a year before setting up as a consultant, which brought him to Bébian - and he stayed. As you will see, he is not afraid to express his ideas and opinions.
Benoit talked about the differences, considering that he has a different concept of wine-making to Karen. He thought her less risk adverse than he is., saying that he favours the simplest of methods, as natural as possible with the minimum use of sulphur. He thinks that sulphur blocks the wine, that wines will have more of an identity without sulphur. Of course hygiene is paramount; you clean with water, but you can also have problems, with yeast and bacteria if you sterilise. Benoit thinks that without sulphur, there is more freshness in the wine, and may be a little more volatile acidity, but that is not a problem.
He criticised many of the Languedoc wines for being over-extracted, so that they lack elegance and refinement. 'You simply cannot drink them'. The range has changed slightly, from his first vintage in 2019. 1135 is no longer made, nor is the rosé. Les Poupées Roses. He has replanted some Cinsault and Grenache and Counoise, and has doubts about Syrah. It is not ripening well in 2022 in the heatwave. Bébian currently totals 22 hectares, but Benoit is aiming to reduce that to 15 - 18 hectares. He will gradually pull up the Syrah and concentrate on Grenache and Carignan. Basalt soil is good for Syrah, but the problem is drought and the high temperatures. If he wants to plant other varieties, he would need to leave the appellation. Currently his wines are all appellation Languedoc. They could be Pézenas, but he does not like the cahier des charges as it insists that the vines should be a minimum of eight years old. He also feels that the appellation is overwhelmed by a couple of big names.
2020 Chapelle de Bébian Blanc - 40€
A blend mainly of Roussanne and Vermentino, with some Clairette, Carignan Blanc and a little Grenache Blanc. Vinified in 15 hls. foudres, with 12 months on the lees, but no bâtonnage, as it would makes the wines too dense. Benoit has bought a Vermentino vineyard, which he thinks is a great variety, with flavour and acidity. If you pick it at the right moment, it is fresh and aromatic. It can be very ripe on the sunny side and quite green on the shaded side. It grows well in basalt, which is the youngest soil in the area, about 1 million years old, and there are also galets, and limestone which is older, and gives acidity. Basalt is more fertile and makes for minerality so that the wine was fresh with firm acidity, and some appealing mouthfeel.
Benoit talked about his work in the vineyards. He is working on lowering the alcoholic degree, by picking a little earlier, but the grapes must be ripe. The vines must never stop ripening, and never get blocked. He has stopped tilling the vineyards and is sowing different cover crops, making little changes each year, and considering varieties that can cope with drought. He talked about micro perforations in the soil; if the soil is hot, the rain simply evaporates, rather than seeping into the soil. You need to find a balance. He has a rolafaca that destroys the ground covering at flowering. Until a vine has flowered, it takes nutrients from its own reserves, but after flowering it needs nutrition from the soil, so there should be no competition from June until the harvest.
Benoit also talked about frost, making the observation that vines surrounded by high vegetation, higher than the level of the buds, escaped frost damage, as the frost stops once it reaches a vegetal cover. It is not scientifically proven, just an observation. So the consultants who say: remove grass are wrong. Soil with grass is natural; don’t fight the grass. If you don’t till, the carbon will be fixed and you will capture more carbon. And you should plant other plants to increase the biodiversity.
2021 La Croix de Bébian - 12.00€
A blend of 50% each Grenache Noir and Mourvèdre, kept in concrete vats for four months and blended shortly before bottling. Very fresh fruit on the nose, cherries. Elegant and fresh on the palate, with a streak of tannin. The Mourvèdre is vinified by carbonic maceration, without any sulphur. The Grenache is partially destalked with a more classic fermentation. The grapes are cooled to 4 - 5ºC and the destemmed grapes added to the vat first, as they will provide carbon dioxide. It is very laissez-faire with no work on the cap, and the juice is left for 15 - 17 days, until the grapes are pressed and the wine put into a foudre to finish fermenting. Benoit talked about adding sulphur at the end of the fermentation, suggesting that it can make the wine taste bitter and short. 'Most chemical SO2 is crap' - he does not mince his words. Volcanic SO2 is better.
2020 La Chapelle - 20€
A blend of Syrah and Mourvèdre, but no Grenache. Kept for 12 months in 30 hectolitre foudres. Good élevage is very important for Syrah. Medium colour. About a 20 day maceration, with a similar method to La Croix de Bébian. Peppery red fruit. Elegant. Quite tight structured with fresh fruit. More tannic as Mourvèdre has thicker skins, and is quite powerful. Whole bunch fermentation suits it well.
Benoit considered 2022 to be like 2003, another heat wave year, but plus plus plus …. making for thick skinned grapes which may also be high in acidity, if the vines block. Benoit planned to start picking in early August. He buys his barrels, second-hand, from an Italian cooper. There is usually no problem, but he did send one back that was tainted with TCA.
2018 Prieuré de St Jean de Bébian - made by Karen
70% Grenache and 30% Syrah, no Mourvèdre. Demi-muids. 14.6º Good colour. Quite sturdy, quite a solid ripe and intense palate. Quite a firm dry finish, with quite obvious oak.
The same wine in 2019 made by Benoit. - 40€
60% Grenache Noir, 20% Cinsault. 20% Syrah. The Cinsault makes for more juice, less alcohol and less tannin, even in a very hot vintage, though still a heady 14.7º. 12 months in demi-muids and 12 months bottle age before sale. Initially some reduction before the wine starts to develop.
Quite a deep colour. Quite fresh fruit. Quite spicy, rounded red fruit, with layers of flavour. Nicely balanced. Quite fragrant. Sturdier than Benoit’s other wines, with more ageing potential. Good length. A comment about the volatile acidity - in this wine it is 0.76 gms/l and in Karen’s wine 0.55 gms/l. Benoit said he plays with the VA, He never ferments Cinsault in whole bunches as the grape skins are too fragile. And he ferments each plot separately, with 43 different plots and vats altogether.
2018 Lestang - 30€
The name of a lieu-dit and plot of vines at Nizas. Chardonnay, with 48 hours skin maceration, destemmed. Foulé by foot. 48 hours in the vat and then into the press.. A light orange colour. Quite rounded nose; on the palate some tannin and some orange notes, with hints of honey and lots of nuances. Fresh acidity and tannin. An intriguing note on which to finish.
Benoit enthused about the wines of the Jura; the Pumpyanksy family had also bought an estate in the Jura, 'where they have a very good understanding of oxidative wine. We can learn something. You need convictions, not certitudes'.