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08.29.2006

1988 Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France

beaucastel88.jpgWine, when at its most triumphant and expressive, nearly defies description. Some people speak of "perfect wines" which is always a problematic moniker, because the appreciation of wine is always contextual and always subjective. But there are some wines that have a magic to them -- from the instant they touch your lips to the residual memories that linger for days after their consumption. These wines bafflingly seem to be more than the sum of their parts, as if someone added two and three and got six -- they shine brighter and deeper than it seems possible for a simple splash of liquid in the glass.

This, for me, was one of those wines.

Chateau de Beaucastel, by anyone's measure is one of the worlds most prestigious wine estates. It is certainly one of, if not THE top producer in the Southern Rhone valley, known for its rich history, dedication to quality, and for the longevity and personality of its wines.

The estate which lies outside of the town of Courthezon, has been run by the Perrin Family since the early part of the 20th Century, and under the hands of the late Jacques Perrin and now his two sons, it has risen to greatness. The Beaucastel name goes back much farther than that (to the early 16th century to be exact) and the estate has been a prominent wine producer since the 19th century, but in the last fifty years it has produced some of the most profound and interesting wines from the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region.

Like many great wine producers, the Perrins have a singular vision for their wines which is not exactly "the standard approach." For starters, Beaucastel is one of the few producers whose vineyards are still planted with all of the 14 allowable varietals that make up the legendary composition of Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines. For the record, these are: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Muscardin, Vaccarese, Picpoul, Terret Noir, Counoise, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, Roussanne, and Picardan. However traditional they may be in their devotion to the allowable vine varieties, the Perrins are decidedly iconoclastic in their own blend of these varietals, favoring a much higher concentration of Mourvedre in their wine than any other producer. While in most wines of the region Grenache is the highest percentage of the blend, in their standard wine the Perrins usually offer equal percentages of Grenache and Mourvedre (usually about 30% of each).

Chateau de Beaucastel farms all of its 272 acres (one of the largest estates in the Southern Rhone) organically and with an emphasis on cultivating the low yields of their old vines. Through a careful system of replanting, they miraculously manage to keep the average age of their vines around fifty years old, though some of their vines are between 60 and 90 years old. These older vines are used to produce some of the special cuvees made by the estate, including the one named after the late Jacques Perrin, which has become the flagship wine of the estate in the past couple of decades.

This wine is a blend of 30% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 5% Cinsault, 1% Cunoise, and smaller amounts of Vaccarese and Muscardin. It is hand harvested and destemmed and after crushing, undergoes fermentation in cement tanks for three weeks before being aged up to 18 months in large, old oak casks known as foudres. It is lightly fined with egg whites before bottling, but never undergoes any filtration whatsoever -- filtering being one of the chief evils of modern winemaking according to the Perrin family tradition.

They say there are no great wines, only great bottles of wine, and especially with wines of this region, from this era, there can be considerable variation from bottle to bottle. The one I sampled, at the gracious generosity of a friend who purchased it upon release, was stored impeccably and clearly represented the best that this wine could be. It outshone several other incredibly impressive wines, including a 1995 Romanee St. Vivant, a 1986 Ducru-Beaucaillou, and an 1982 Beychevelle, as well as several other stellar wines. This was truly a fantastic wine.

It does not matter to me in the slightest, but it may be interesting to others to know that my evaluation of this wine differs considerably from those of other critics, whose last scores place it in the high 80s and low 90s.

Tasting Notes:
A medium ruby color in the glass, with very little brick or orange highlighting to betray its age, this wine has a nose of bacon fat, raspberry, mud, and the mix of Provencal herbs that the French call garrigue. There is also a savory umami character to the aromas of the wine, which with more air add a soy note to the overall composition. In the mouth the wine is perfectly balanced with an acidity that makes it pop in the mouth with juicy flavors of raspberry and redcurrant fruit. The wine has gorgeous texture and a light tannic structure which supports deeper more resonant elements of flavor that lean towards the herbal and ever-so-slightly leathery side. The finish simply goes on forever, and like most wines of this caliber, both compels awestruck contemplation as well as immediate additional consumption. Phenomenal.

Food Pairing:
While certainly expressive standing alone, this wine would go beautifully with these roasted veal chops, shallots and a jus.

Overall Score: 10

How Much?: currently $65 - $110 depending on the retailer

This wine is available for purchase on the internet.

Comments (11)

08.30.06 at 8:22 AM

One note about the fermentation, another feature that really sets Beaucastel apart from the crowd, is the practice of "vinification a chaud;" after crushing, the must is flash heated to roughly 150 degrees fahrenheit, then rapidly chilled back down to ambient temperature, using a set of heat exchangers. The primary reason that I've heard for this is to kill off the polyphenyloxidase, a precursor for oxidation, because of the extreme propensity for the tannins in Grenache to oxidize. The Perrins believe this practice permits the wines to remain fresh for a much longer period in the life of the wine.
By the way, Counoise is the only way I've seen that grape spelled; I'm not sure the way you spelled it wouldn't change the way the French would pronounce it.
cheers
Steve

Alder wrote:
08.30.06 at 9:08 AM

Steve,

Thanks very much for the comments. That process almost sounds like the flash pastuerization that kosher winemakers use to make wine "mevushal." Ans thanks for the spelling check on Counoise. Just an error on my part.

Geoff Smith wrote:
08.30.06 at 10:15 AM

Not only was the Beaucastel rouge great in 1988, but their second wine, Coudelet was top-notch, and a bargain to boot.

Geoff

lagramiere wrote:
08.31.06 at 10:49 PM

From what I understand, the reason they heat the must is so that they can vinify without adding SO2. I'm sure it does exactly what Steve said, thus permitting them not to use sulfur, though it's all Greek to me!

Jim Kay wrote:
09.03.06 at 4:32 PM

I remember reading about the hot temperature treatment in an article in "The Vine" by Clive Coates. It struck me at the time because recipes for making grape jelly include a period of heating the must to both sterilize the fruit and extract more flavor. This was confirmed by an old USDA Farmers Bulletine (no. 1075) from 1919 titled "Unfermented Grape Juice: How to Make It in the Home." It describes two methods of making juice - cold-pressed and hot-pressed. Hot-pressed grapes are curshed, heated to 175 degrees F "as quickly as possible" after crushing then cooled. This is done "to extract the acid, color, and flavoring matter present in the skins."
If it adds flavor to jelly and juice, it probably also increases the flavor compounds in wine. I don't know this, but I suspect it serves the purpose of the prolonged pre-fermentation cold-soak many winemakers use to enhance flavor extraction, but doing it in far less time and without the risk of bacterial contamination by delaying the onset of fermentation.
It would be fun to know if any other wineries use this method.

Joel wrote:
09.07.06 at 3:36 PM

I tried to visit Beaucastel without an appointment at the end of a trip to France in 1992. My wife and I waited outside on a hard cement bench for a host on the instructions of the BC office staff. Apparently, production was on the longest lunch break in history and we finally gave up and left to drive back to Paris for our flight early the next morning.

I wonder if this heating process also kills the brettanomyces yeast responsible for spoiling (in my opinion) so many Rhone wines. I guess I just don't like the smell of sweaty saddles (as brett is often described although I have pulled a saddle off the back of a horse to snarf as a point of comparison).

In fact, I know what bret smells and tastes like, I hate it and I consider any bret to be a flaw...do others agree? Alder, have you ever addressed this? To me allowing bret to form just seems like lazy viticulture and winemaking practices.

Alder wrote:
09.07.06 at 10:09 PM

Joel,

Not everyone agrees that brett is a flaw. Some people have a very high tolerance for it. I actually don't mind small amounts that are well integrated with the rest of the wine, but at a certain point it becomes too much for me.

I'm not an expert on winemaking chemistry, but some people consider brett a "stylistic" element in a wine, others consider it a scourge, like TCA to be wiped out of cellars. I think it's a bit of a stretch to attribute it to lazy winemaking, but you're prefectly right to avoid those wines that have it if you don't care for the effects.

As for whether the heat kills brett, I have no idea. Perhaps Steve will know.

Joel wrote:
09.08.06 at 10:35 PM

I found the following article at Wineanorak very interesting. It is well written in that it addresses the science (which appeals to my engineering brain) while being readable for those not so scientifically inclined.

In some ways it supports my feelings about brett but in other ways supports the assertion that some brett (or rather the right molecule) is an advantage. In truth, I think it will always be subjective but there is no doubt that picking riper grapes opens up the door to residual sugar which can allow brett to flourish. It also seems to indicate that heat would exacerbate brett, even using Beaucastel in the article.

http://www.wineanorak.com/brettanomyces.htm

09.17.06 at 2:28 PM

Do you know that pasteurisation by mister Pasteur was first tried out on wines? Then also it’s nice to know that written records about heating sake to pasteurise it, dates back to 1100 in China and 1600 in Japan. Well then you know now. Cheers and thanks Alder

Geoff Smith wrote:
10.11.06 at 2:33 PM

A great trade tasting took place yesterday in SF in which various bottlings of Beaucastel Hommage, Beaucastel rouge (including the 1988) and Beaucastel Roussanne Vielles Vignes, were showcased. Great wines!

Geoff

07.31.14 at 10:03 AM

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