One of the most pleasurable parts of my vocation is getting the chance to visit some of our winemakers in situ. Although sadly curtailed over the past couple of years, these visits are invaluable to gain first-hand knowledge, and provide an in-depth insight into the unique terroir, micro-climate and vinification techniques of individual vineyards. They enable one to discover the various snippets of information that each make a contribution to the wines as a whole. Literally, to feel the soil and see the nearby hills and mountains gives a detailed sense and understanding of a place.
Château Milhau-Lacugue is located in the tiny hamlet of Milhau, north of the the village of Puisserguier, west of Beziers. The Milhau-Lacugue Estate comprises of some 160 hectares in total, and is managed separately by Jean Lacugue and his brother. Jean looks after a 100 hectares, 60ha of which are under vine, with 10 ha of olive groves, with the rest being made up of fields and the locality's famous garrigue scrubland. The vines are distributed between AOC Saint Chinian (35 ha), AOP Languedoc (15ha), with IGP Coteaux de Fontcaude and some Vin de Pays D'Oc (10 ha).
If ever anyone's thoughts were to picture a classic Southern French vigneron, I'd be betting it would be something like the photo below!
We met vineyard owner Jean Lacugue and export coordinator Michel Maréchal at the chai, before being taken on a drive through the vineyards. Jean explained that the origins of the property are Roman, from the 1st century BC, and most of the vineyards are located on rolling hillsides and plateaus where two geological plates met and pushed up a lower strata of rock. The soils range from very stony with clay, the classic red minerally soils, and he also has some schist and sandstone, but nearly all with access to underground water sources. The vines are planted between 90 and 200 meters, to take advantage of the winds, which give a freshness to the finished wine. Jean qualified as an oenologist in 1980, and has worked at the estate since 1982, and took over full responsibility from his parents in 1993. He introduced several changes in viticulture such as changing most of the vines to trellised rather than gobelet bunch vines, as this allows for better air circulation, and started to de-stem the grapes in 1985 to accentuate the fruit quality and balance.
After seeing the AOC Languedoc vineyards, we drove to see some of the Saint Chinian vines, which showed a marked difference in soil. Then, one of those edifying moments when you open the car door and are immediately aware of the overwhelming aroma of the 'garrigue'. The scrubland was full of wild thyme, rosemary, mint and fennel, which totally makes sense when we tasted the wines later on. Classic terroir-driven wines.
We returned to the tasting room to taste through Jean's whole range of wines. All were very aromatic and commendably have a bit of bottle age before release. Here's my thoughts on a few:
AOC Saint Chinian, Cuvée Magali 2018 (14% ABV)
Named after his daughter, as a 20th birthday present. Unique 'gift'! The cepage in 2018 now includes 10% Mourvèdre, which was added to this vintage as the Mourvèdre grapes are now mellowing nicely after 15 years, along with Syrah (48%), Grenache (23%) and Cinsault (19%). Ripe, warming nose of red berry fruit, black cherry and garrigue hints. Soft, rounded palate (meatier than the 2015) with pepper and spice, and gentle heat. Wine has 5 years bottle age (unoaked) make it supple and readily accessible now. Very decent, versatile Languedoc red. Match with pork, spicy sausages, lamb with rosemary.
AOC Saint Chinian Rosé 2020 (13% ABV)
Darker coloured rosé and very flavoursome. Cepage of equal amounts of Grenache and Cinsault. 70% free-run juice. Red berry and raspberry fruit with a fresh palate of redcurrant. A creaminess (Cinsault) yet enough body and savoury hints to get your teeth into. Hint spice/earthy. (Grenache) Nicely balanced food rosé. Pair with olives, charcuterie, paella and garlic based dishes. Very good.
AOC Saint Chinian Les Truffières 2017 (14% ABV)
From the highest vineyards, at between 120 and 205 metres, near some truffle oaks. (hence the name). 75% Syrah and 25% Grenache. Ripe, warming black hedgerow-fruit nose, damson. Rounded and ripe with spice hints. Rich, full bodied, garrigue (rosemary/thyme/mint) flavours to fore, meaty, gamey hints. Good length and depth. Great with any meaty fare and will stand up to strong flavours.