Saint-Chinian is an unforgiving place. In the summer, the sun beats down on the steep hillsides while violent winds thunder through, overpowering all but the most tenacious shrubbery. The soil, a mix of marl and limestone, is scattered with jagged rocks that are in no way welcoming. Amid all this desolation lies Mas Champart, where the charming Isabelle and Mathieu Champart have somehow coaxed this landscape into producing one of the most elegant white wines of the south of France. Generous yet restrained, it shows layers of creaminess and tender, honeyed fruit, with pretty floral tones leading to a clean minerally finish. It will warm you up on a cold winter day just as well as it refreshes in the heat of summer. Their passion to create a great dry white is inspiring.
Isabelle and Mathieu Champart were relatively new to winegrowing when they took over Domaine Bramefan in Saint-Chinian in 1976. For nearly 12 years they sold their grapes to the local cooperative. They waited until 1988 to bottle under their own label, but won almost instant acclaim. Mathieu tends to the vines, and Isabelle makes the wines. While the domaine started from just a humble, stone farmhouse, they’ve added a winery and expanded holdings from 8 to 25 hectares. Though the wines are easy to appreciate now for their inky complexity, they age extremely well. Kermit wants to add that Isabelle is also one of his favorite cooks. He always tries to land 11 a.m. appointments on the off chance they’ll invite him to stay for lunch.
Ask wine drinkers around the world, and the word “Languedoc” is sure to elicit mixed reactions. On the one hand, the region is still strongly tied to its past as a producer of cheap, insipid bulk wine in the eyes of many consumers. On the other hand, it is the source of countless great values providing affordable everyday pleasure, with an increasing number of higher-end wines capable of rivaling the best from other parts of France.
While there’s no denying the Languedoc’s checkered history, the last two decades have seen a noticeable shift to fine wine, with an emphasis on terroir. Ambitious growers have sought out vineyard sites with poor, well draining soils in hilly zones, curbed back on irrigation and the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and looked to balance traditional production methods with technological advancements to craft wines with elegance, balance, and a clear sense of place. Today, the overall quality and variety of wines being made in the Languedoc is as high as ever.
Shaped like a crescent hugging the Mediterranean coast, the region boasts an enormous variety of soil types and microclimates depending on elevation, exposition, and relative distance from the coastline and the cooler foothills farther inland. While the warm Mediterranean climate is conducive to the production of reds, there are world-class whites and rosés to be found as well, along with stunning dessert wines revered by connoisseurs for centuries.
Trust the great winemakers, trust the great vineyards. Your wine merchant might even be trustworthy. In the long run, that vintage strip may be the least important guide to quality on your bottle of wine.—Kermit Lynch
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