Thirty-something Martin Perolari has recently taken over the management of the estate founded by his parents in 2002, specifically by his mother Annick, nearby the small village of Berlou (roughly 200 resident souls) where the backdrop is dominated by Mont Caroux. This is the heart of the Saint Chinian appellation in the western Occitanie part of the Languedoc. As reference points Beziers is located 35 km in the south west direction and Narbonne sits 45 km down South.
The vineyard patchwork is set amidst a Mediterranean biodiversity that changes color and atmosphere according to the seasons. Domaine de Cambis produces yearly around 30.000 bottles on its 15 hectares vineyard planted. This is one of the rare domaines to have resisted drought thanks to its old vines of Carignan and Cinsault averaging 50 years with some of them reaching 80 years. This advanced age offers a deep root system that allows you to fetch underground water and obtain a very interesting wine concentration and moderate yields. La lutte raisonnée means ‘the reasoned struggle’ and Cambis agricultural practices are within this range.
Nestled in the valley of the Rieu Berlou creek, Cambis’ vines benefits from a unique climate as they were planted facing north-west and south-east in order to be less impacted by the northern winds furies that often hit the region. The second aspect is that being in this south oriented valley allows to get maximum of sun hours and also limits the temperature drops.
Elevation here oscillates between 250 and 400 meters above the sea level. Schists soils are really different from the other types like limestones for example, for two main reasons: their scarcity and their acid nature. To give a few examples of other vine growing areas schist can be found in Languedoc in Faugères and Banyuls, as well as in Corsica too. Abroad there are some in the famous Spanish Priorat and also in South Africa. The brown schists that compose the Berlou soil are one of the oldest and date back to the Ordovician era which is a geologic period, the 2nd of six periods of the Paleozoic Era. The Ordovician spans 41.2 million years from the end of the Cambrian Period 485.4 million years ago to the start of the Silurian Period 443.8 Mya.
To make it clear, Cambis vineyards are sitting on a poor and acid soil which is very brittle and looks like a mille-feuille (a thousand leaves cake patisserie).
On the other hand all these aspects that makes viticulture more difficult than elsewhere, allows the Domaine to produce fine and elegant wines with great minerality, so yes, it’s worth it!
Often crowned with the title of the most famous AOC of Languedoc, Saint Chinian is located in the heights of the plain of Hérault, in the foothills of the central massif and a few kilometers from Béziers. It was recognized Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in 1982 and in 2005, with the rapid progress of the AOC’s quality, two “terroir driven denominations” were established: Roquebrun and Berlou.
Saint Chinian is also famous for its typical and unique wines in Languedoc. The vines were planted on poor soils, shale and limestone, and especially very well exposed. Man has gained ground on the scrubland to be able to plant Mediterranean grape varieties such as Carignan, Syrah and Grenache. The new denominations Roquebrun and Berlou with schistose soils give wines with a weak acidity with the very dark color, tannins and especially with smoked and roasted aromas.
We always hear that Saint Chinian is famous and gaining more critics and wine fans attention, but why this appellation is considered as such? What is the particularity of this terroir? Martin responds and his reply is pretty logical: “The core of the appellation’s soil here is one of the oldest in the region, it has millions of years. The schist fragmented rock gives the wines aromas of smoke, roasting without even having to raise the wine in oak barrels. It must be admitted that it is a great asset in order to bring aromatic complexity to the wines”.
In addition to having a magnificent terroir, Berlou village is less than 50 kilometers from the sea marked by a landscape that is truly breath-taking and dominated by the Mediterranean garrigue and the deep blue of the sea. Just imagine yourself in the vineyards with an incomparable view of the Mediterranean. Martin wants to go even further as he is working, altogether with other artisanal producers, to implement a more efficient enotourism route which will increase the brand awareness of both the sub-denominations of Berlou and Roquebrun.
In 2002 when his mother Annick got her eyes on this domaine, she found out that the owner kept all the old cépages and moreover really old vines! This implied a lot of work to put them back on the track of the good production, but today Cambis hard work paid its dividends as the vines average 50 years old and the oldest one just turned 110!
During all these years she wanted to keep these old-fashioned kind of grapes (Carignan & Cinsault) producing and now the work is paying off because nowadays everybody is looking again at Saint Chinian AOC for these varieties. At the same time Cambis grows also grows Grenache and Syrah that are slightly younger, however now reaching 30 years old. Following local tradition, basically all the red varieties sum up to the 85% of the total hectares planted.
Referring to the white wines, Annick had nothing at the beginning, but she bought back plots little by little. The domaine now owns vineyards planted with Viognier, Roussanne and has planted White Grenache and Vermentino as well. White varietals are scarce in the Berlou area, so the Perolari family decided to plant them because schist brings a lot in terms of finesse and great minerality.
Martin’s conclusion is clear: “The current trend shows that the rise of the wines of Languedoc and Saint Chinian allows to reach customers that are now looking for more affordable wines compared to the big league ones like Bordeaux, Burgundy and CdP. Saint Chinian in this sense is a great option”.
The pruning is the very first task of the year and one of the most important. Depending on how you prune, it will change the form in which the vine is going to evolve, its longevity as well as the quantity of branches that will grow.
This last parameter includes the amount of grapes and leaves which is the most important. There are various rules to respect like the ones imposed by the AOP but amongst all, the ones that we impose to ourselves.
Quoting Annick and Martin: “For example we decided to practice short pruning to increase our vine longevity while keeping in mind that more grapes/leaves require more water. And this last resource is really rare here between May and October. It’s all about making the good decisions while being aware of any parameters”.
And what about soil working? This part of the job takes a lot of time and has to be well thought. Just combine the steep slopes to the schist soil and it is pretty much easy to realize that the work is definitely more difficult than the usual and possibly dangerous. Some plots can’t even be mechanized because of this. Whereas there are no steep hills, the soil management is evaluated according to the single plot’s nature and evaluating the risks is essential for the domaine. The other problem with this kind of soil is the erosion and working it doesn’t help at all. This is an important parameter to keep in mind for the vines longevity and the preservation of the nature around us.
On the other hand grapes’ protection is certainly the most important and sensitive task in terms of repercussions on the quality of the harvest as well as the environment. It starts from mid-May until mid-July and is the moment of the year where the vineyard requires 100% of attention.
Some other local domaines still follow treatments calendars given by chemical industries, whereas Cambis concentrates itself at knowing by heart the plots, the diseases’ symptoms and controlling every single day the plants evolutions in order to bring the needed treatment at the right moment. This allows us to bring three times less chemicals than conventional domaines. Cambis for sure makes artisanal wines by protecting the environment at the same time.
Last step of the process, the harvest is the outcome of the year. It’s the most crucial time of the year as healthy hand harvested grapes picked up at the right time is the base of a successful winemaking process.
While the vast majority of the worldwide vineyards are machine harvested, Cambis team still picks up everything by hand. Despite the high cost, it provides several benefits: first the pruners can choose to eliminate bad grapes (due to disease or lack of maturity) in order to provide us with only the best ones. The second aspect is getting the grapes entire (and not smashed or ruined) in the tanks so to prevent the bad effects of oxidation on the juices. Last but not least, the vines are much better preserved this way and can last much longer.
The winemaking process is definitely the most technical, sensitive and stressful part of the job. From the beginning of September and till mid-December, it is a day to day job including permanent control on the evolution of the wines in the tanks. Cambis has no special tricks or special recipes in doing its wines. Currently the production includes two whites, one rose (named La Vie en Rose) and 5 reds.
The white and the rosè are basically tank fermented, while the reds are totally destemmed and concrete fermented. Destemming avoids vegetable tannins which don’t get along with the nature of the soil here.
At the moment there is a lot of talk about natural wines and wines without added sulfur and it is interesting to ask Martin his opinion about it, especially since many French winemakers part of this movement are based in the South: “Personally I really welcome the idea to produce natural wines, but I cannot be considered part of this movement as I rarely have found so far wines perfectly stable. This derives sometimes from mediocre winemaking, but sometimes even with perfect winemaking all the climate and vintage conditions are not present accordingly. I do not want 4 out of 6 bottles of my wine to referment while shipped in the case. Well … clear enough.
He reassures on the other hand that he was keen to remain very reasonable using no chemical fertilizers in the last 2 years: “I prefer a simple and natural treatment of the vineyard just by observing daily the vines’ conditions. I like observation rather than plain prediction. Schist soil composition certainly gives us an advantage in terms of aromas and palate, but it is impossible to plant grass between the vines because the soil is acid.” To finish on this subject Martin tells me that it is well below the maximum sulphites used by other growers as his vineyards are tended perfectly producing healthy grapes.