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During my trip to the Languedoc last fall, the number of outstanding bottles I tasted made it clear—once again—that the region is underappreciated for the quality of its wines, and unrivaled in their value. Visiting Mas Champart in Saint-Chinian drove the point home poignantly: with outstanding terroir expressed in all three colors, including serious, age-worthy gems, this appellation is truly a treasure hiding in the shadow of its more prestigious Provençal and Rhône neighbors. Isabelle and Matthieu Champart farm vineyards of rocky limestone, which plays a critical role in this hot, dry, wind-whipped climate. While Saint-Chinian is also home to large swaths of schist, limestone’s sponge-like qualities are crucial to providing the vines with water in periods of drought; in the glass, this translates to a welcome mineral freshness. Indeed, this is the trademark of the Champarts’ wines, along with a southern generosity and the inimitable aromatic footprint of the wild garrigue surrounding the vineyards. Mourvèdre thrives in these conditions, and this noble Mediterranean grape features prominently here. Hand-harvested, spontaneously fermented rosés are a rare breed nowadays, but this bright, fleshy example has the herbal complexity and refreshing crispness to match many a Bandol—at a fraction of the price. Similarly, the inky “Clos de La Simonette,” a blend of Mourvèdre with Grenache and hundred-year-old Carignan aged in demi-muids, rivals any top cellar-worthy red from southern France. The wine that most piqued my curiosity was a rare white the Champarts bottle, from a vineyard of pure limestone rubble planted in 1900 to Terret and Grenache Gris. Once valued for its productivity, Terret has an unfortunate history of being overcropped in the Languedoc’s fertile flatlands, and few plantings remain today. These ancient hillside vines, on the other hand, yield very little, giving an intensely concentrated juice with great acidity and a textured finish. This trio from Mas Champart makes for a superb introduction to the limestone riches of Saint-Chinian. Skilled artisans drawing the most from an exceptional terroir—now that’s something we can all get behind.
2016 Pays d'Oc Blanc • Mas Champart $27 2018 Saint-Chinian Rosé • Mas Champart $18 2016 Saint-Chinian Rouge “Clos de la Simonette” • Mas Champart $39
This trio from Mas Champart makes for an superb introduction to the limestone riches of Saint-Chinian. Skilled artisans drawing the most from an exceptional terroir—now that’s something we can all get behind.
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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