I like Tim Atkin’s attitude. When he said that wine lovers should turn to the seriously underrated wines of St Chinian and forget about the botoxed Bordeaux beauties (well those weren’t the words he used but that was his general message), I’m sure he meant it. I like the fact that the superstars of the wine trade actually appreciate low-budget art movies more than Hollywood blockbusters. To me one of the most important things about a wine is character. A wine ought to have a personality, a story to tell. The wines of St Chinian are like that.
St Chinian is a wine region / appellation in the Languedoc, in southern France. It produces some white wines but mainly reds. What makes it interesting is its diversity of styles, mainly thanks to soil differences. The geographical area of the appellation is cut into half more or less horizontally by the River Vernazobres. The land south of the river has calcareous (limestone) soil, and the areas north of it have mainly schist. In the tasting masterclass I attended, we started with some lime soil wines and then moved to schist ones to bring home the differences. Why does soil matter? Because different soils behave in different ways and therefore the growing environment they provide for the grapes will also be different. So limestone, for instance, retains water more than schist does. This means limestone soils will be damper and cooler than schist soils. Schist wines, coming from a warmer soil, will tend to have higher alcohol, more flesh and density. Can you close your eyes and tell what soil the wine came from? Probably not, but as we tasted a flight of wines, some character differences did become apparent.
Let’s now look at some funky facts about St Chinian wines. Something I was particularly happy to learn is that this wine region has a surprisingly high number of woman winemakers. Secondly, they are by law required to produce blends. Blends are good because different grape varieties have different strengths and weaknesses and may perform better or worse in different years, so for a winemaker it’s great to be able to play around and combine and create a whole that’s greater than the sum of its parts. I also like the fact that the main grape variety used in the St Chinian blends is Syrah (because I have a soft spot for Syrah), and that a lot of the wines are organic. But what I like most are the wines themselves, as they have a lovely, unique flavour profile that really speaks to me. With all their differences, they share a strong herbal, perfumed character, which apparently echoes the herbs and plants growing all around beautiful Languedoc.
The wines come from a warm terroir that sees little rain, and this is reflected in their ripe, even confit-like, fruitiness. Many have a creamy, soft, gentle texture (which often comes from carbonic maceration) and an underlying sweetness from the ripe fruit. But all this is combined with an exciting, fragrant nose and spicy, herbal flavours. Some wines don’t taste that fruity at all but have a predominantly leathery, meaty character. With the wines of Chateau Pech-Ménel (run by two sisters!) I felt, for instance, that they didn’t have a strong fruitiness to them – partly because I tasted older vintages – but just as well because who wants fruit when you can have spice! The older the vintage, the more I had an urge to keep quite literally biting into the wine, it had such savoury, aromatic richness. Other producers that impressed included Chateau Ladournie and Chateau Milhau-Lacugue.
The wines of St Chinian, we all agree, are much underrated, but there’s one good side to this sad fact: they are not pricy. You’ll be hard-pressed to find one over £20, and most cost around £10 a bottle. That’s a lot of spicy value for your money!