Recently I was on a trip to the Saint-Chinian area of France’s Languedoc-Roussillon region. I had always been aware of the place and the wines that bore its name, but was unaware of what sets them apart from all the other wines of the Languedoc.
In many ways I still am. All the appellation / A.O.C. / P.D.O. wines from this part of the world have much in common. There is huge overlap in the palette of grapes they use, so the flavours of the grapes are often similar as are the terroir characteristics. Wild herbs aromas and flavours are often quite dominant in this part of the world – the French call these flavours garrigue, which is the name of the dense scrubland found all around the Mediterranean area. Garrigue includes lavender, thyme, sage and rosemary amongst other things and it is true that these characteristics are often found in the wines of the Languedoc, as well as the Southern Rhône. The grapes used for the red wines are Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. So even now I would be hard put to single out what makes a wine taste like a Saint-Chinian – as opposed to a Faugères say, but I did find many of the wines to be very good indeed.
It was wonderful to immerse myself in a pretty small wine region and to taste a large number of the wines from this beautiful landscape. As you might imagine, some were finer than others, some were more exciting, but all of them were acceptable or better. At the top end they were very fine indeed and there was some wonderful innovation going on too.
My trip was really to see how wine tourism was coming along in the region, which is something that Europe is really only just beginning to take seriously, so it was marvellous to experience what was happening. It was quite marked how many of the trail blazers in this field were from outside the region, and many from outside France. I stayed in the Irish owned Chateau Les Carrasses, which is a perfect Second Empire mansion set amongst the vineyards. It is a very beautiful place and incredibly restful with an excellent restaurant, lovely bar, an amazing pool and sumptuous rooms, as well as gîtes – whole houses in fact – available for rent. They even have their own wine and can organise wine visits for their guests.
Many of the wines impressed me. There were excellent everyday examples – and far finer too – from the local cooperatives and the flashes of brilliance were not exclusively reserved for the boutique producers, some of the larger wineries were excellent too. Laurent Miquel‘s Cazal Viel makes superb and widely available wines both as part of the Saint-Chinian appellation and outside. Another large producer in the region is Lorgeril, whose wines I have admired for many years – I used to love selling their wonderful Château de Pennautier from nearby Cabardès and Domaine de La Borie Blanche Minervois La Livinière – who now also make some superb Saint-Chinian at 2 estates. I was also hugely impressed and excited by Domaine du Mas Champart, Domaine du Sacré Coeur – especially their Cuvée Charlotte made almost entirely from 100 year old Carignan vines – and Château Soulié des Joncs which was one of the very first organic producers in the Languedoc. Equally exciting, in a completely different way, is the Belgian owned Château Castigno, which is suitably surreal and Magritte-like, but whose wines are magnificent.
Incidentally although the place is best known as a red wine region, I found the white wines to be really exciting too, especially Domaine du Mas Champart and Château Castigno, Clos Bagatelle and Château Coujan. The whites are blends of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and Vermentino.
Whilst there I heard about an outfit called Calmel & Joseph, who operate as a micro-negociant, buying fruit from privately owned vineyards across the Languedoc and crafting them into an impressive line up of wines. Laurent Calmel and Jérome Joseph have been in partnership since 1995 and not only have all the wines that I have tasted from them been delicious, but they also seem to have a charmingly irreverent and quirky style – which is quite unusual for French wine.
The first wine I tasted from the Calmel & Joseph stable was the Saint-Chinian, which strikes me as being a superb introduction to this exciting wine region, so I have made it my Wine of the Week:
2012 Calmel & Joseph Saint-Chinian
I haven’t tasted all their wines yet by any means, but Calmel & Joseph claim to select cooler vineyards to ensure their wines have freshness and elegance and I must say the wines that I have tasted from them have been very drinkable as a consequence. This 50% Syrah, 30% Grenache Noir and 20% Carignan wine is unoaked, but aged for 18 months in concrete vats.
The colour is a bright, deep vivid purple like a cassis coulis.
The aromas delivers lots of ripe, fresh fruit, like a rich compete and also offers herbs, spices and brambles and fresh earth.
The palate is a revelation! Sumptuously fruity with a lovey touch of freshness lightening the load. Delicious, fresh and lively but with rich, ripe, deep blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, black cherry and dark plum fruit. There is a little dark chocolate too. It really delicious stuff and sinfully drinkable – 88/100 points.
Available in the UK for around £10 a bottle from Daniel Lambert Wines (Bridgend), Red & White Wines (Devon), Press Wine Services (Canterbury), Underwood Wines (Warwick), Vino Wine Shop (Edinburgh), Perfect Friday Wine (Maidenhead), Art is Vin (Eastbourne), The Smiling Grape Company (St Neots) and Richard Granger Wines (Newcastle).
You can also order Saint-Chinian wines direct from France here.
If you cannot get to any of the stockists listed for the Calmel & Joseph Saint-Chinian, then never fear, you can still try one of their other lovely wines, which will be a Wine of the Week quite soon. Waitrose stock their superb Languedoc Terrasses du Larzac wine – the place is marked on my map, just to the West of Montpellier.