Excellent Value from Minervois: Chateau St-Jacques d'Albas

The other day I tucked into a Syrah-dominated bottle of Minervois made by Chateau St-Jacques d’Albas, and was reminded exactly why I love Minervois. The bottle, from the 2015 vintage, was all juicy black fruits with structure and a sexy smokiness at an excellent price. And this is what good Minervois can do: knock your Tuesday night out of the park. I’m always on the hunt for an imminently drinkable companion to everyday life that will be more delicious than precious. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time and place for precious wines, but I love a wine that punches way above its weight class. And Chateau St-Jacques delivers.

In addition to their red blend, we have their 2017 Coteaux de Peyriac Blanc on the shelves—a fun blend of Vermentino, Viognier, and Roussanne that results in a crisp, fresh wine while maintaining a good amount of body and creaminess. Their 2018 La Chapelle en Rose rosé is bright and fruity with a hint of savory garrigue underneath the watermelon notes. It’s dangerously easy to drink.

Located in the Languedoc, the region of Minervois was once maligned as a major contributor to the infamous Wine Lake of Southern France (meaning its output was mainly cheap bulk wine). But, during the last 20 years, with thanks to energy from winemakers such as Graham and Andrew Nutter of St-Jacques d’Albas, Minervois has switched its focus to quality production at superb value. In fact, Jancis Robinson called Minervois “France’s best value region.” 

When Graham bought the chateau in 2001, he extensively replanted much of the Carignane to Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, and converted to organic farming and lowering yields. He and his team cultivate biodiversity in flora and fauna on their 90-hectare property, which is full of forests and garrigue and wildlife, with a restored 11th-century chapel. They harness the over 300 days of sunshine in the Mediterranean climate with solar panels to generate electricity for their winery. They also use heat pumps, water from their ancient wells, and a restored windmill. They’re heralds of the modern era in Minervois, where good, conscientious farming means modern winemaking.

When I reached out to Graham he told me the story of the domaine, and his journey from financier to winemaker:

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I initially got kicked into the wine thing while at Cambridge University in the late 60s. A friend of my father, a senior employee of Trinity College, invited me to dinner at his house, where I was regaled by a Haut Brion 1959 and a Leflaive Puligny Montrachet. I was hooked! No more cheap beer and teeth enamel-destroying Spanish plonk for me! Postings by JP Morgan to Paris in the 70s and weekends spent at vineyards solidified my ambition to make wine-making a long term dream.

Scroll forward waiting for the children to leave to university and, in 2001, I purchased a run-down wine estate in the south of France in the hills near Carcassonne (a medieval walled city) in the Minervois, one of the numerous sub-appellations of the Languedoc. We were charmed by the beauty of the region and in particular St-Jacques d’Albas with vines surrounded by luxurious forest, of course the sunshine, and had vaguely heard about the Minervois (which only received its appellation independence in 1985), recognising that it had excellent wine-making potential.

Only then did the fun (and financial obligations) start. The whole place had to be renovated (including the creation of a winery and digging out of an underground cellar), the existing fields of vines replanted with superior varietals, thousands of tonnes of manure and other natural nutrients added to the soil, and a sales network built up, as the prior owner sold all the grapes to the local co-operative to make entry level wine. I had bought a wine estate with 75% high yielding, poor-quality Carignan, but now producing predominantly Syrah and Grenache for the reds and Viognier and Vermentino for the white (both latter varietals regionally unusual but growing in popularity). Fortunately, we immediately found the right team, taking an organic approach and doing things unconventionally for the region, earning us a string of medals. Rather than spend time and money trying to sell Minervois wine into a Bordeaux- and Burgundy-obsessed market, we focussed on exporting to countries, including the USA, where acceptance of South of France wines was easier. We now export  20% of our wines to North America—and importantly to California. We even have a few Californians come to stay with us after finishing a few bottles back home.

How things have now changed! The Languedoc and the Minervois are now recognised as producing excellent "value for money" wines (when compared to the prices of Bordeaux & Burgundy offerings) and the wine lakes of yesteryears have disappeared under programmes of ripping up small and uneconomic plots and replanting of lower-yielding but better quality rootstock. Minervois wines are now prevalent even on Parisian wine lists.

But it's been a long journey and there are no short-term miracles in this business. We’ve had to contend with neighbouring cows running amok through the fields, drought (we have to follow certain rules, including no irrigation!), floods, French red tape, even a man on a donkey on a pilgrimage demanding we give him shelter and wine. Rather, it's a long-term investment—with an emphasis on the "long-term". Ripping up vines, letting land lie fallow for 6-7 years, and waiting for new vines to produce is a 10-year wait. Yes, 10 years! And we believe there is still a huge amount of potential for our wines.

"What's any unexpected benefit we've received over the years," I'm often asked? Lifestyle aside, surprisingly, it's been from restoring an 11th-century chapel on our grounds (which you can see in the photos), located on a spot the Druid priests at that time defined as having "magical powers" and which, in practice, are still to this day displaying active magnetic forces (known as a lay lines). Whatever your beliefs on the topic, we are confident that it manifests a form of "feng shui" at St-Jacques d'Albas and contributes to healthy and robust vines and our wine.

Exciting things are happening in Minervois, and Andrew and Graham are at the heart of it! Good wine from good people at good prices—there’s so much to love from this domaine. These are wines to buy by the case!

- Kate Soto