Jefford on Monday: Tasting the Virtuosi

Jefford on Monday: Tasting the Virtuosi

Andrew Jefford looks at St Chinian’s statistical stars.

Time, and time alone, will tell: a hundred vintages (or more) is the only way we can discover where the greatest sites in a particular wine-growing zone lie.  That, alas, is well beyond a single working lifetime.  It’s therefore tempting to try to speed the process along.  No French appellation I know has set about doing this in a more practical way than St Chinian – via its annual ‘Vins Virtuoses’ competition.

Yes, it’s a tasting, but the clever bit is that it is much more than that, too.  Those submitting samples (which must have a retail price of over 12 euros) have to fill out an extensive dossier providing information about soils, altitudes, aspects, slopes, wind exposures and row orientations, as well as age, yield, pruning method, planting density, cultivation practices and winemaking methods.  All of this information goes into a now-extensive data bank, where it is available for multi-purpose crunching.

The competition has now run for five years, and been judged in Languedoc itself, Paris, London, New York and Montreal by a total of 125 mostly non-local tasters (including importers, journalists, Masters of Wine and sommeliers).  All vote for their top wines in a blind tasting.  Following the five competitions, a Top Ten group of wines has emerged achieving the best scores on aggregate, and I had a chance to taste these in St Chinian itself in late January: tasting notes on the current commercial release of each follows.  I also, though, had a chance to look at some of the data assembled on the Top Ten.  Can we draw any conclusions about terroir in St Chinian from this?

As readers will know, one of the features of St Chinian is that its 3,100 ha of vineyards are divided into limestone and schist-soiled sectors; indeed I will report on what should be a fascinating blind tasting in March where producers with parcels on both soil types will be submitting samples made in a similar way to see if this fundamental differences emerge in sensual analysis.

Evidence from the Top Ten, at any rate, suggests that wines made from schist-grown fruit may be more appealing than that grown on clay-limestone, since 33% of all the wines submitted to the competition over five years were grown on schist soils, but 41% of the Top Ten had a schist origin.  (Analysing my own recent scores below, the schist wines got an average of 91.50 points whereas the limestone and mixed soils got an average of 90.16 points.)  In the appellation as a whole, by the way, there are 1,203 ha of schist vineyard (39%) and 1,842 ha of limestone vineyard (61%).

Vins Virtuoses judges tended to prefer wines grown between 100m and 200m (69% of the Top Ten) to those grown between 200m and 300m (31%), though both figures represent a lift on the total submission rates of 61% and 28% respectively; lower-sited vineyards fail to impress (10% of the total submitted, but none retained in the Top Ten).  Some 78% of the Top Ten wines come from vineyards on moderate to steep slopes.  These are in general ripe wines: the average pH of the Top Ten was 3.83, and the average alcohol level was 14.49%, exactly reflecting the averages for all submitted wines.

Syrah was the most popular variety in blends (56% of the Top Ten) – though there were two wines which contained no Syrah at all. Some 16% of the Top Ten came from vines over 30 years old, and 15% over 40 years old, and almost all the Top Ten wines came from un-irrigated vineyards (97%) given organic fertilizer alone (96%).

No Top Ten wine was made from yields of over 40 hl/ha, and a quarter of the Top Ten came from yields of less than 20 hl/ha: this would represent markedly lower yields than for the Médoc’s Crus Classés in most vintages.  A large majority (83%) of the wines were hand-harvested, and 85% were completely destemmed.  Only 15% were fermented with wild yeasts, and average maceration times were 26.63 days.  Oaked wines proved popular with tasters, though to be fair they also dominated the total submissions: 84% had spent time in barriques and 11% in larger demi-muid casks, with an average of 19.09 months in wood (31% new wood).  Only 5% of the submissions were unoaked.

What, finally, of the bottom line?  Prices varied to a greater extent than I had expected: 46 euros for the most expensive Top Ten wine and 12 euros for the cheapest (these are retail prices from the excellent shop at St Chinian’s Maison des Vignerons).  I tasted and scored the wines without reference to price; two of my favourites proved to be amongst the least expensive.

Tasting St Chinian’s Top Ten Vins Virtuoses 2013-2017

St Chinian wines

Credit: Gaylord Burguière

Congratulations, in particular, to two producers: Clos Bagatelle and the modestly priced Ch de la Dournie, both of whom had two different cuvées in the Top Ten.  Winemaking skill cannot be entered as data on a form, but unquestionably plays a major role in the emergence of successful wines.  That, in essence, is why the long perspective (which evens out winemaking differences) is in the end necessary to understand where the greatest sites of a zone are to be found.  Wines are listed in alphabetical order, and were tasted sighted.

Borie La Vitarèle, Les Schistes 2015

My joint top-scoring wine in this tasting is one grown on steep schist slopes at a higher altitude than most (300m to 350m): Cathy Izarn’s Grenache and Syrah cuvée, with a tiny dash of Carignan.  It is very lightly oaked – the Syrah gets a year in three- to six-year-old demi-muids, while the Grenache is only aged in stainless steel.  The scents are delicate, pure and finely etched, suggesting stone and herbs.  On the palate, too, it’s attacking, vivid, fresh.  There is ample flesh and ripeness, but it’s nervy and poised, and the textures are fine-milled.  More fruit’s evident on the palate than the nose sketched out (a mouthwatering combination of blackcurrant and blackberry); look out for a touch of chocolate at the end.  Wholly admirable.  93 points / 100 (15,50€; 14.5%)

Clos Bagatelle, Je Me Souviens 2014

This ambitious cuvée from the brother-and-sister team of Luc Simon and Christine Deleuze is a Mourvèdre-dominated blend grown on mixed soils in several different sites given 20 months in new barriques.  Black fruits, coal and a little box leaf makes for a fresh, green-toned scent in which the oak is not obtrusive.  On the palate, the wine has that same faintly green-toned, box and holly freshness (the full ripening of Mourvèdre in the Languedoc hills is not assured every year, and these are in general cooler sites than Bandol’s restanques).  Ample mid-palate blackcurrant and sloe fruit has plenty of zest and chic poise to it, and there are soft, well-rounded textures without abrupt tannins.  90 (46€; 14%)

Clos Bagatelle, La Terre de Mon Père 2014

Luc Simon and Christine Deleuze’s second Top Ten achiever is a classic St Chinian blend of 60% Syrah with the balance coming from equal portions of Mourvèdre and Grenache; once again it’s a parcel selection from different soil types given 18 months in new barriques.  The scents, like those of the Je Me Souviens cuvée, have a green cast to them: Darjeeling tea-leaf freshness over dark plum fruits in this case.  On the palate, this is smooth, deep and pure St Chinian, with the same blend of vivacious dark plum and first-flush tea-leaf flavours.  90 (26€; 14%)

Mas de Cynanque, Cuvée Nominaris 2015

‘Fac Bene Semper Nominaris’ is the Latin tag at the origin of this wine’s name, meaning ‘do well and you’ll always be considered’.  Xavier and Violaine de Franssu’s organically grown blend of 80% Syrah with the balance from Grenache comes from clay-limestone soils scattered with blocks of red sandstone; it’s aged for two years in barriques of which one third are new, one third one-year-old and one third two-years-old.  A saturated black-red in colour; scents of dusty rose as well as fresh blackcurrant fruits; and, on the palate, creamy black fruits (not merely blackcurrant, but the wealth of plum and damson and the greater austerity of sloe) surge into the foreground; the acidity is fresh and clean and the tannins smooth and toothsome.  91 (25.50€; 15%)

Ch La Dournie, Elise 2014

Véronique Etienne’s 45-ha domain includes 20 ha of schist slopes; this dark red-black, schist-grown wine is a blend of 90% Syrah with the balance from Grenache, given a year in oak and another year in tank before release.  Syrah sings out of the aromatic profile, in the citrus-blossom and thyme-flower style so typical of moderately warm but not hot Languedoc sites.  On the palate, there lots of fresh black fruit in similarly pure and lifted style, with a pungent, holly-leaf finish.   90 (16.50€; 14%)

Ch La Dournie, Etienne 2014

Another very dark wine, this blend of 60% Syrah with 25% Grenache and the balance from Carignan is also grown on Dournie’s schist soils; the wine gets a year in larger 400-litre casks and a year in tank, and has been a triple Silver Medal winner in former editions of Decanter’s World Wine Awards. Enticingly mellow, earthy scents are built around a core of liquorice-spiced plum compote; on the palate, too, this is a deep, spicy, rich, dense and long-flavoured wine in exuberant style.  There’s impressive density of fruit and perfume here, supported by fine-buffed tannins: terrific value.   91 (12€; 14%)

Domaine les Eminades, Vieilles Canailles 2014

Patricia and Luc Bettoni’s ‘Old Scoundrels’ cuvée is essentially a pure Carignan, planted in 1902, with just a dash of Syrah, both organically grown up on the high sited limestones of the Causse de Montmajou, and given 18 months in wood and a year in tank.  It seems to me that the vines have struggled for full ripeness in 2014, with ample sweetly grassy characters in both the aromas and on the flavour.  The attractive textural finesse of the blackcurrant fruits may be a typical limestone trait, though, and the wine has a juicy, vivid brightness and deliciousness to it just now.   88 (28€; 14%)

Henri et Laurent Miquel, Larmes des Fées 2014

This beautifully labelled, deeply coloured Syrah-based wine is grown on the limestones of Ch Cazal-Viel, the largest single wine-producing property in the zone (140 planted hectares, with 64 ha of AOC plantings and even more planted to IGP varieties, especially Viognier).  It’s a sumptuous, lavishly rich wine from top to bottom, with sweet plum and prune scents and exciting, generously fruity plum, blackcurrant and damson flavours, too.  Concentrated and full-throttle, with its 18 months in new oak adding extra layers – but there is plenty of limestone finesse to the wine as well, and a totally satisfactory structural and textural presence.  The 2014 vintage has left its fresh hallmark on the fruit, but without any green tones.  A commanding effort.   93 (43€; 14.5%)

Ch du Prieuré des Mourgues, Grande Réserve 2014

This is another schist-grown wine based on a core of Syrah (75%) with 20% Grenache and 5% Mourvèdre, given around 14 months in 25% new oak, 50% one-year-old oak and 25% two-year-old oak.  It has exceptionally complex, satisfying aromas: plush, sweet red fruits with a honeyed, mimosa-like top note, but also a savoury, earthy, tobacco-like gravity, too.    The palate is lushly fruited yet also stony and deep.  Fresh acids give its red fruits further brightness and brilliance; there are soft, smooth tannins; there’s savoury warmth in the finish.  Another remarkable effort for the vintage, and fine value.   92 (13€; 14.5%)

Domaine de Sacré Coeur, Cuvée Jean Madoré 2013

This blend of 35% Syrah with 30% Grenache, 25% very old Carignan and 10% Mourvèdre is grown in limestones at 300 m and has a year in new wood.  It’s a little lighter in colour than some of its peers (though it’s a year older, too), with sweet dried-fruit scents and smooth, soft, graceful flavours.  It’s a gentle, classic mouthful of drinkable style and secondary, finishing nuance.  88 (16.50€; 13%)

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