Behind The Bottle: Black Knight 2016

By Gavin Smith

Jun 30th, 2020

Head winemaker Jessica Servet has certainly been busy since our last visit to this enchanting vineyard in the hills of Minervois. Following the success of the winery over the last few years, their reputation for producing some of the finest wines in Southern France after adopting biodynamic farming has become infectious in the surrounding area. Jessica has since been elected deputy mayor of the local village and asked to take the lead on environmental sustainability issues in the wider district following the success of the Hegarty Chamans vineyards.

In anticipation of the latest release of Black Knight – produced only in top vintages and made from their finest sites – we caught up with Jessica to find out more about the 2016 vintage and what makes this secluded vineyard in the hills of Minervois so special. We have been fortunate to taste the 2016 both in barrel and now in bottle and it proves to be a landmark cuvee for the winery, a clear step up in quality from previous releases and a new benchmark for the potential of this vineyard.

The secluded woodland vineyards of Hegarty Chamans

Whilst the domaine's reputation has grown not just internationally but locally too, this team of once outsiders has become increasingly influential in the region. This was not always the case; Hegarty Chamans has always seen itself as the "black sheep" of Minervois. From the outset it had a very clear goal to promote organic principles, which back in 2002 was certainly seen as radical for the region. The estate was also keen to produce wines of a certain style, wines that were elegant and very pure, resisting what Jessica describes as “the make-up” of products that can be (and are) widely used in the region to affect the style and flavour profile of the wines. Jessica states,

“People want the wines very ripe but with acidity, so they simply pick late and add acidity in the winery, this is something we are strongly against. We want to produce a balance in the wine without manipulation”

In the this hot region of Southern France it can be tricky to produce wines that are fully mature whilst keeping the alcohol in check and retaining freshness. Jessica explains the key to their success is “not to push the vines too hard. You look around and some vignerons are willing to push their vines to the extreme to maximise yield, 80 -90 hectolitres per hectare is not unusual for the region, the vines are weak, susceptible to uneven ripening and disease and finding balance in the wine is not easy. We realised we had to drop right down to 25 to 30 hectolitres per hectare to find that natural balance.” She goes on to explain this approach produced a wine style that initially was deemed “not Minervois-enough... our wines in the past had even been rejected by the appellation at the tasting stage” (under appellation law all wines must be presented to a tasting panel to be certified). The irony being that their purist attempts to reflect the vineyard in those days was seen as atypical of the region. This rejection, whilst unhelpful, did not steer them off course. Thankfully in more recent years their philosophy and the success of the wines both locally and further afield have seen their approach become influential in what is a true representation of Minervois, or perhaps what is more important for Jessica, a true representation of the Hegarty Chamans vineyards.

The vineyard in Autumn

It is a very particular site and not dissimilar to the likes of the secluded wineries of Chateau Rayas, further north in Chateauneuf du Pape, or even the secluded vineyard of Soldera in Tuscany. What they all have in common, alongside low yields, is a belief that great vineyard sites need a fully functioning biodiverse environment to produce great wine. All these vineyards are surrounded by forests that not only protect the vineyard from chemical infiltration from neighbouring sites but benefit from a rich biodiversity that protects soil health and the vine’s natural resistance to disease and prolonging vine age. The ultimate goal is to have a vineyard in perfect self-sustaining health.

Jessica believes this rich biodiversity is key to the vineyard working with its surrounding environment. Animals are a fundamental element for the biodiversity of the domaine. The estate raises a small flock of sheep which eliminates the weeds which grow between the vines and provides a natural fertiliser, supplemented by other organic manures. They also practice beekeeping, to preserve pollination. They also prepare their own composts which are energised using specific biodynamic preparations. After spreading on agricultural soils, they encourage microbiological life and the mineral and organic richness which Jessica believes are at the source of the strong terroir expression found in the wines.

Beyond Hegarty Chamans, Jessica's role as deputy mayor of Trausse is to encourage others to take up the sustainable approach in agriculture. In the region all three of the main wineries are now organic and her latest domestic project is to organise a communal composting system for all residents living in the region.  Not only that but she has been elected as a board member of the Demeter France group (a leading organisation that promotes organic, biodynamic and sustainable agriculture). One of her roles is to keep on top of new products, identifying as part of a committee whether certain new products coming onto the market should be allowed to be used by winemakers under Demeter principles. It is an ongoing debate explains Jessica, “there are new products coming on to the market all the time, aiding winemakers with problems they may face in the vineyard and winery and it becomes hard to keep on top of all the products out there. Demeter is strict and its approach is very much against using additives in wine. For instance, many organic wineries use a commercial yeast to ferment wines. At Demeter fermentation can only be carried out via natural yeast in the vineyard."  

Jessica pumping over in the winery

Black Knight 2016

We were fortunate to taste this wine on a number of occasions earlier this year from barrel and following bottling (exclusively in magnums). We were blown away by the quality, the textural richness of the wine, the layering of the tannins and the purity of fruit is really special. It certainly has the signature elegance the winery has always promoted above anything else, but there is Minervois power too.

Leading up to harvest is when Jessica knows whether there will be a Black Knight cuvee made that year and 2016 proved to be a very easy decision: “we had enough rain in the spring to see us through the summer with very steady weather, no heat spikes and very even ripening, it was the most relaxed season I can remember”. The cuvee is made typically from the same favoured plots. Syrah, which makes up 80% of the blend, always comes from the “Rabbit” vineyard – “It's special due to the particular exposition of the vineyard and the effects of a distinct red and white clay in the soil. It produces an unbelievable freshness to the Syrah from this site”. The Carignan (typically around 10% of the blend) always comes from the oldest vines on the entire property, high up on the hill above the winery – “The vines are 60-70 years old and have fantastic consistency each year”. The Grenache is not always from the same site – “The Grenache in the assemblage is chosen after vinification. I know the flavour profile I am looking for and when I find it, it goes in. The best expression of Grenache is based on picking it at exactly the right time. It gives you incredibly pure strawberry jam flavour with white pepper. When you capture both that sweet and spicy flavour in the wine you know you have got it right.”

Jessica Servet with owner Sir John Hegarty

Using only natural yeast, the grapes go through fermentation and undergo a four week maceration with gentle extraction and the wine kept at a low temperature to retain aromatics with only the free-run juice used for the Black Knight cuvee – again retaining the elegance in the wine. The wine is then aged in a mix of one, two and three-year-old 300 litre barriques Stockinger and Seguin Moreau barrels for 22-24 months. It is this long élevage that creates the wonderful layered texture in the wine. “There are lots of tannins in the wine and it needs this time to fully integrate in barrel”, Jessica says.

Whilst I push further to understand the secret behind this cuvee, Jessica admits there is always a sense of mystery in winemaking. A lot of the time her work is done on instinct and how she feels. Jessica explains that if she is in a bad mood, she doesn't go near the wines:

"There is energy here and I trust in that. I feel it in the vineyards and I feel it in the winery.”

There is certainly a bit of magic that goes on in winemaking and the vineyards of Hegarty Chamans are certainly special and you undoubtedly do feel this in the wine. Black Knight 2016 is certainly the finest cuvee we have tasted from the property and is becoming one the most exciting cuvees coming from the south of France. Watch out for the limited release in the next few weeks.

Tasting Notes:

Black Knight 2016

"The wine is wonderfully rich without being hot or aggressive, with copious aromas of violets, camphor, liquorice, tobacco and unsurprisingly wonderful lavender notes. It is textually multilayered with stewed small berry fruit flavours and whilst undoubtedly rich there is freshness too. The wine is still unfinished and is to be bottled later in the year but it is drinking beautifully from the barrel." - FINE+RARE, Barrel Tasting, June 2019

"Deep fragrant lifted nose, scented sweet and savoury spices (vanilla, roasted cloves), with lovely peppered cured meat and roasted blackberry fruit tones. Spicy forest fruits, and a more savoury grilled meat and thyme notes on the palate intertwine with long, fine, silky tannins, the texture of the wine really stands out. The purity and spectrum of fruit is also noticeable from roasted strawberry, blueberry, black berry fruit with floral violets, lavender and liquorice notes. The balance is exceptional. Vibrant, fresh and an energised pulse on the finish with the delineated fruit flavours lingering long on the palate. Drinking window 2021-2035 - FINE+RARE, Bottle Tasting (July 2020)

Black Knight 2012

"The 2012 is more herbaceous than the 2016, the syrah much more overt in the blend – sage and thyme fragrance similar to northern Rhone with a warmer liquorice tone. Oak spices less overt, fully integrated. Medium bodied, silky, soft tannins with roasted blackberry, spicy strawberry fruits and distinct garrigue and seaweed flavours. Noticeable freshness, mouthwatering on the finish. The spectrum of fruit and intensity and weight is more measured in the 2012, compared to the 2016. Drinking window 2020-2030 - FINE+RARE, Bottle Tasting (July 2020)" FINE+RARE, Bottle Tasting (July 2020)

Black Knight 2009

"The 2009 has a beautiful fragrant nose. The beginnings of tertiary development add savoury tobacco and earthy complexity. Lots of charred embers and spice and rich roasted blackberry and currant fruit. Tannins fully integrated, lovely candied red and blackberry fruits, sweet liquorice, aniseed and pepper spice. The acidity certainly less present in the mix although wine beautifully balanced and drinking well now. Riper fruit than 2012 and not as vibrant as either the ’12 or ’16 at 11 years old. 2016 sits in between this riper fruit profile and the freshness of the 2012. Drinking window: 2020-2024 - FINE+RARE, Bottle Tasting (July 2020)

Black Knight 2007

"Lots of tobacco and savoury spice and perfumed violets on the nose with primary fruit aromas less present. Simpler in fruit profile, less textured and less breadth than 09, 12 or 16. Fruit spectrum also less delineated. There is plenty of energy to the wine and freshness despite now in its mid life. Drinking now. Drinking window: 2020-2022" -FINE+RARE, Bottle Tasting (July 2020)  

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