Making a mark in the Minervois


Ahead of the latest release of Hegarty Chamans’ top cuvée, Black Knight, we caught up with Winemaker Jessica Servet to find out more about what makes this secluded vineyard in the hills of the Minervois so special

Winemaker Jessica Servet has certainly been busy since our last visit to Hegarty Chamans, an enchanting vineyard in the hills of the Minervois. The winery’s success over the last few years and conversion to biodynamics has earned them an enviable reputation – both abroad and locally. Servet has since been elected deputy mayor of the local village and asked to take the lead on environmental sustainability issues in the wider district.

Once a team of outsiders – with the estate founded by Englishman Sir John Hegarty and his wife Philippa, they are now increasingly influential in the region. But this wasn’t always the case: Hegarty Chamans has always seen itself as the “black sheep” of the Minervois. From the outset it had a very clear goal to promote organic principles, which back in 2002 was 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 Servet 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.

“People want the wines very ripe but with acidity,” Servet explains, “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 southern French heat, it can be tricky to produce wines that are fully ripe, while also keeping the alcohol in check and retaining freshness. Servet 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 to 90 hl/ha 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 hl/ha to find that natural balance.” She goes on to explain this approach produced a wine style that initially was deemed “not Minervois enough”. Their wines had even been rejected by the appellation at tasting (to carry the appellation’s name, wines have to be presented to a tasting panel).

The irony is that their purist attempts to reflect the vineyard were seen as atypical of the region. This rejection, while 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 has seen their approach become influential in what is a true representation of Minervois, or perhaps what is more important for Servet, a true representation of the Hegarty Chamans vineyards.


The secluded woodland vineyards of Hegarty Chamans

It is a very particular site and not dissimilar to the likes of the secluded wineries of Ch. Rayas, further north in Châteauneuf-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 biodiversity 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 ecosystem that protects soil health and the vine’s natural resistance to disease, extending its natural life. The ultimate goal is to have a vineyard in perfect self-sustaining health.

Servet believes this rich biodiversity is key to the vineyard working with its surrounding environment. Animals are a fundamental part of this: the estate raises a small flock of sheep which eliminates the weeds which grow between the vines and provides natural fertiliser, supplemented by other organic manures. They also keep bees and 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 Servet believes is at the source of the strong terroir expression found in the wines.

Beyond Hegarty Chamans, Servet is also encouraging others to employ a sustainable approach. 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. She’s also been elected a board member of the Demeter France group (a leading organisation that promotes organic, biodynamic and sustainable agriculture). One of her roles is part of a committee to keep on top of new products, identifying whether certain new products coming onto the market should be allowed to be used by winemakers under Demeter principles.

Hegarty Chamans’ top cuvée, Black Knight, comes from the estate’s finest vineyards and is made only in the best vintages. We were fortunate to taste the 2016 on a number of occasions earlier this year, from barrel and following bottling (which is exclusively in magnum). We were blown away by the quality, the textural richness of the wine, the layering of the tannins and the purity of fruit – which is really special. It certainly has the signature elegance the winery has always promoted above anything else, but there is Minervois power too.

Servet knows in the run up to harvest whether there will be a Black Knight cuvée – and in 2016, it 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,” she explains.


The vineyard in autumn

The cuvée 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,” says Servet. 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, 60 to 70 years in age and offering consistency every year. The Grenache, however, is not always from the same site, and is often 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,” explains Servet.

Using only natural yeast, the grapes go through fermentation and undergo a four-week maceration with gentle extraction, with the wine kept at a low temperature to retain aromatics. Only the free-run juice used for Black Knight – 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 Séguin 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,” Servet says.

As I push further to understand the secret behind this cuvée, Servet 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. Servet 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 – as you can feel in the wine. The 2016 Black Knight is the finest cuvée we have tasted from the property, and it is fast becoming one of the most exciting wines from the south of France.

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