The Languedoc-Roussillon wine region in Southern France remains the one that keeps calling me back, most recently, specificially Saint-Chinian AOC, situated around 60km east of Carcassone, 35km north of Narbonne. My first visit to the vineyards of Languedoc-Roussillon was in May 2014, where I spent some time amongst the old Carignan vines of the rolling hills of Minervois with negociant Calmel and Joseph, tasting a comprehensive selection of some of the best Languedoc-Roussillon red wines around. I was back in January 2015, this time to charismatic Montpellier to visit Natural Wine Fest Milleseme Bio and meet some of Languedoc’s most enterprising independent wine producers ‘Les Outsiders‘.
But, this side of the summer, I was lucky enough to spend a few sunny days visiting many vineyards, meeting even more wine producers and tasting a vast amount of Saint-Chinian AOC wines all accompanied by my very lovely guide from the St Chinian tourist office, Nelly.
Saint-Chinian isn’t just one appellation, but three. The areas around the highly regarded and very picturesque villages of Roquebrun and Berlou, hold their own appellation statuses, Saint-Chinian Roquebrun AOC and Saint-Chinian Berlou AOC. Although the wines aren’t necessarily better than a straight Saint-Chinian AOC (most is grown in similar ‘terroir’ and tastes just as good), the village named wines are guaranteed to come from high quality grapes grown on the sought after hilly, schisty, less fertile soils north of the river Vernazobre and the village of Saint-Chinian itself.
I like a lot about these Saint-Chinian appellation wines. From a practical standpoint, I like that most actually have a back label, often so lacking in French wine, telling you what’s in the bottle. It should tell you about grape varieties and, something to look out for, likely to mention the ‘schisty’ soil and ‘foothills’ or altitude, important factors distinguishing the AOC wines from the lower-quality, bulk, non-appellation wines of the flatter plains further south.
I like the blends. The whites are dry and tend to have a bit of body, some tropical fruitiness and some minerality. Tending to contain Viognier (the oakier ones are the best in my mind), Vermentino (or Rolle, as it is known locally), Rousanne and Marsanne, the main player is Grenache Blanc, which has to be at least 30% of the blend.
Like most AOC Languedoc wines, nine out of ten Saint-Chinian AOC wines are however red wines, blended from Carignan (often old vine, low yield – of which I am particularly partial to), Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, and must contain 70% of the latter three. More Mourvedre makes for a heavier wine, Syrah brings spice, Grenache; juiciness. More Carignan tends to produce, a very palatable, more medium bodied, lower tannin, versatile wine which works well without food (just like the Calmel and Joseph Saint-Chinian).
But just as importantly, I like the personality and charm of these wines and that the vast majority of the wine producers, whether they are negociants, co-ops or independent, really seem to care about the wines. They care about the vines in the vineyard and the fact that the grapes take on flavour characteristics of the ‘garrigue’ of lavender, bay, thyme, rosemary situated amongst the vines. Many wines are ‘organic’, even if they are not formally labelled that way with many winemakers choosing not to bother with the cost or faff of registration, concentrating of the actual wine rather than paperwork. Most care about how and when the grapes are harvested, the way the wine is fermented, blended and aged. This is pure and precise wine making without pretension but from a passion and love of wine, very much in harmony with the beautiful region that they are made in.
Not only are these producers making some of the best wine from Languedoc-Roussillon, whilst Saint-Chinian remains relatively unknown, these wines are relatively inexpensive compared to some of their better known French relatives therefore offer real value, although that that may not remain the case for long!
Feel the love!
* An appellation is the French term for a designated wine producing area whose wine meets a certain number of criterior e.g. yield, grape varieties, blend. AOC stands for ‘Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée’ or Controlled name of Origin.