In the long coastal arc from Nîmes to the final, and now ruined, refuges of the Cathars in the mountains of Fitou, the Languedoc encompasses the largest viticultural region in France and by extension, the entire world. Yet its relative obscurity in comparison to other wine growing regions is due to what Andrew Jefford calls, “a lack of locomotives.” These are benchmark estates with a long history and established reputation that define the possibilities of a region and also raise the profile of the terroirs from which they make their wines. Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian, according to Jefford and many other keen observers of the Languedoc, is just such an estate.
Its very name contains two chapters in the story of this property. Bébian refers to Bebianus, the retired centurion who was granted these lands upon his retirement from the Roman legions in the 1st century CE. By this time Pliny the Elder had already written praise for the vineyards in the vicinity of Béziers, the Roman town closest to Bebianus’ new estate. With the fall of the Roman Empire Bebianus’ lands returned to obscurity until they were rediscovered by the Cistercians who built the priory church of Saint Jean in 1152 and began replanting the vineyards. By the 17th century the vineyards of Bebian passed into the hands of merchants based in Pézenas, the wines from which caught the attention of the Prince of Conti and his retinue including the famed playwright Molière. Handed down from generation to generation, Bebian eventually came into the possession of Alain Roux who replanted many of the vines of the property sourcing the best massale selections of Syrah from Chave, Grenache from the Rayas and Mourvedre from Tempier. Alain also established the early reputation of Prieuré Saint Jean de Bébian with his iconoclastic wines and temperament. In fact, we were an early importer despite the fact that Alain was “charmingly” difficult, stubborn, opinionated and fond of brandishing his shotgun at inopportune (for us) moments. Currently under the stewardship of Karen Turner, an enologist from Australia who came to Bébian in 2004, the wines from this estate are more elegant and winsome than ever and she’s never once threatened us with bodily harm! We are happy to have them back in our portfolio.
Karen farms over 43 plots of vines totaling 32 hectares. There are three primary terroirs on the estate: gravelly clays reminiscent of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, paler and chalkier limestone soils similar in structure to Chablis and sandier clays from weathered basalt and travertine. The estate grows mainly mediterranean varieties: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Roussanne, Clairette, Picpoul, Viognier, Bourboulenc, and Grenache Blanc with a smaller amounts of Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay. Their oldest vines, head-pruned Grenache, date back to the 1920 but the majority of the vines are about 30 years old. Each variety is matched to the appropriate terroir – reds on the heavier, gravelly clays and volcanic soils and whites on the chalky, pale limestone.
Harvests are conducted by hand. Each variety is fermented separately. The whites are pressed immediately upon arriving at the cellar are are fermented in barrel or tank. The reds are fermented in 18th century cement tanks and see long macerations ranging from 3-9 weeks depending on the variety. Aging takes place in tank, 600L and 228L French oak barrels depending on the variety and expression. Generally Grenache and Cinsault are kept in tank to preserve their fruitiness while Syrah and Mourvedre are aged in barrel.