Three ways to discover the wine and wonders of Saint-Chinian, Languedoc-Rousillon…
If you’ve ever spent time in the Languedoc then you’ll know that it has a habit of surreptitiously slipping into your soul. Is it the mile upon mile of fragrant, rocky hills wrapped in vineyards? Is it the passionate people who seem to have such an affinity with this rugged terrain and an ability to bring it to life in their soft, smooth wines? Or is it the peppering of little French villages, with their shimmering rooves and narrow cobbled streets under the ever watchful gaze of the Caroux and the Espinouse hills to the north west and the Black Mountains and the Pyrenees to the south?
Nestled in the very heart of this sumptuously compelling region is the up and coming wine appellation of Saint-Chinian (AOC Saint-Chinian). Spread across some 3,300 hectares and home to 450 wine producers including 110 wineries and 8 cooperatives, there are rich pickings here for the wine connoisseur with an abundance of different grapes, blends and processes. Historically producing red and rosés but more recently producing classified whites too, whether you’re a serious and informed wine drinker or just an enthusiast starting out on your wine journey like myself, there is a great deal in Saint-Chinian for you to sniff, savour and absorb. And it’s not just the wine that you come here to enjoy.
There really is no more logical place to start a visit here, than the village of Saint-Chinian itself. There’s a local market here on Sundays and Thursdays, set in the shade of the typically arboreal village square and once your basket is flowing over with local temptations such as goats cheese, figs, meats and honey your next stop has to be the Maison des Vins, just across the road. Apart from the fact that you can try or buy some 300 wines of the region here (and if you buy, it’s at cellar door prices ranging from €6 to €40), the Maison des Vins is owned by the AOC Syndicate. The staff (who include a very talented photographer Gaylord Burguière) have an encyclopaedic knowledge of their wines and an obvious passion for their landscape and here is the place to taste, plot and plan the different wineries that you’d like to visit during the course of your stay. They can help you with maps, arrange tastings and organise for you to meet the vignerons or wine producers, and for the novice like me, they’re more than happy to talk you through the different grapes and blends.
(The Maison des Vins is open every day from Monday to Saturday 9.am to 12 and 2pm to 6.30pm and during September it’s open on Sundays from 10 am to 1pm.)
There is no escaping the hints and flavours of the garrigue in the wines of the AOC Saint-Chinian and so for the next step on your journey what better way to understand the scents of the region than by spending a little time in the surrounding landscape.
From May to October the region organises a programme of guided walks which will take you around the various villages and vineyards or for something very simple, from Saint-Chinian itself there’s a 2 km walk up from the village through the garrigue to the “villages des capitelles”, a cluster of dry stone huts with a panoramic view down across the valley.
Head north from Saint-Chinian to the village of Berlou and the co- operative there also hosts a variety of walks and if you’re lucky enough to visit in May, they organise a wine tasting ramble (the Randonné de Bacchus) for about €30, which is a great way to meet the producers, try their wines and soak up the stunning surroundings.
Berlou is an important stop on the wine trail in itself, because it was granted its own local appellation status in 2005 and it produces some really earthy wines. Stop here after your walk for lunch at the delightful Le Faitout in the village square and try if you can to arrange in advance a tasting at the renowned Domaine Rimbert. It has a name for producing some of the best wines in the region and the charismatic and ever so slightly maverick Jean-Marie Rimbert is a fascinating and charming host. (Berlou Tourism website)
Transport: The region is served by a number of airports and Easy Jet fly from the UK to Montpellier and Béziers. Other airports are Perpignan, Nîmes and Carcassonne.
Plan your visit – Get the app: The AOC Saint-Chinian have a great little app where you will find details of the wine producers, routes for local walks, details of other tourist attractions and even recipes. Visit their website www.saint-chinian.com or your app store.