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04.26.2014

Château de Beaucastel: The Difficult Vintages

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For most lovers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Château de Beaucastel needs no introduction. One of the largest, most storied, and most respected estates in the region, its documented history goes back to the 16th Century, and its history as a wine estate, back to the 19th Century. As a modern wine producer, its reputation remains inseparably tied the Perrin family, who began shepherding the estate in 1909, and continue to do so today, three generations later.

Farming 291 mistral-swept acres in the northernmost portion of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation, Beaucastel remains one of the largest domaines in the appellation. The Perrin family has farmed their land organically since 1950 and began experimenting with biodynamics as early as 1974. They remain strictly dedicated to using all thirteen (or 15 or 18 depending on how you count mutations) of the permitted grape varieties in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, as well as to cultivating many old vines, in particular Roussanne and Cunoise.

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For many years Beaucastel's red wines included a much higher percentage of Mourvedre than most other producers in the region, thanks in no small part to the friendship between Jacque Perrin and the Tempier family in Bandol. Many more producers have been increasing the amount of Mourvedre in their blends in the past 10 years, partially as a means of moderating the alcohol level of their wines, as Mourvedre tends to ripen at lower sugar levels than the more popular Grenache grape.

Winemaking at Beaucastel involves harvesting many separate parcels of different grapes and fermenting them separately. Those red grape varieties that tend to oxidize quickly, such as Grenache, get fermented in cement tanks, while grapes that need more oxygen, such as Syrah and Mourvedre, get placed in wood tanks. Occasionally the Syrah will include some whole clusters and stems, but generally most of the red grapes are destemmed, while the white grapes are whole-cluster pressed.

Fermentations are generally inoculated with a strain of yeast that the Perrin family continues to select and cultivate, and each tank is dealt with as an individual, whole batch of wine to be made without a recipe or template. After fermentation, the wines age in a combination of large oak casks and smaller oak barrels of varying age and size.

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Beaucastel has become quite well known over the years for a rather unique process that involves flash heating of the freshly crushed grapes before fermentation, in particular Grenache. Contrary to popular belief, this technique is not used in all, or even most vintages. This process, which both breaks down cell walls of the grape and kills some of the enzymes that contribute to oxidation, speeds extraction of color and flavor from the grape skins. Some years, in particular the most challenging vintages, a faster extraction process can reduce the presence of undesirable flavor compounds and keep the fresh qualities of the Grenache fruit.

My recent visit to Chateauneuf-du-Pape wouldn't have been complete without a stop at Château de Beaucastel. I sloshed up the driveway on a frigid, rainy day at the end of January to be met by general manager Marc Perrin, who suggested we do something a little different when it came to tasting that morning. Instead of tasting the new releases, he offered the opportunity to taste a few of the worst vintages on record.

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It was an offer quite in keeping with the weather outside, and just the sort of thing I would enjoy doing on such a morning. Before we we tasted, Perrin, who came back to work in the family business in 2002 after a career in marketing and Internet design, walked me around the winery while we talked about where Beaucastel and the appellation as a whole were headed.

"I started blending with my father when I was 15, and back then harvest used to be around September 15th," recalled Perrin. "Now we are beginning August 25th. The last 20 years have been about serious climate change for us. Where we used to rush to bring grapes in before the rain, now we have summer, and then another summer after that. This is quite favorable to Mourvedre, in particular, since that grape always used to be difficult to ripen."

When I suggested that perhaps the decision to plant so much Mourvedre might have been somewhat prescient on the part of his grandfather, Perrin laughed. "My grandfather was doing yoga in 1970. He made so many great decisions here. He planted Cunoise when no one else was, and now we have 60 year-old Cunoise. You need a great place, and smart ancestors, and then you try hard not to mess it up."

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"I'm not sure I'm the best person to ask about trends in our region," admitted Perrin. "We are more Beaucastel than we are Châteauneuf-du-Pape, if you know what I mean. I definitely see people using more Mourvedre, and that's good, because Grenache can be excessive. It's also quite advantageous. In 2013 Grenache had a lot of shatter. If you are mostly Grenache, then in 2013 you were in trouble. The balance of grapes lets you balance the climate."

When prompted for other trends, Perrin suggested that "whole cluster is definitely a trend now, I think in part due to people like Jamet in Côte-Rôtie. What's funny is that a lot of people are just claiming they do whole cluster. It's kind of chic now for journalists."

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We paused for a moment in the depths of the winery's cellar for Perrin to explain an entirely new program that the winery will begin bringing to market this year.

"Starting at the end of the 1980s we began keeping at least 20,000 bottles of each vintage," said Perrin. "Provenance is so key when it comes to quality, we decided that we wanted people to be able to experience older vintages under the best possible conditions." Now the estate has begun to release back vintages of their wines, primarily to restaurants, bearing the label "Beaucastel Oenotheque." In addition to the vintage date, the label bears the specific date the wine was removed from the Beaucastel cellars.

This program provides consumers with a remarkable opportunity to experience pristinely cellared wines at a level of condition that has become exceedingly rare in the marketplace. As a larger producer with a wide distribution, Beaucastel's wines often pass through many hands before they get to consumers, and not all those hands treat the wines with equal care.

The tasting that followed our tour was evidence enough of just how much perfect cellar conditions can mean for a wine's performance.

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1989 Chateau de Beaucastel Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France
Perfectly medium ruby in the glass, this wine smells of bacon fat, cedar, and garrigue, with a hint of redcurrant fruit. In the mouth gorgeous flavors of exotic woods, smoked meats, raspberries, cherry and wet stones swirl in a beautiful melange. Incredible breadth and length, with a phenomenal seamlessness and balance. Stunning mineral and cedar finish. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $240. click to buy.

1990 Chateau de Beaucastel Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of bacon fat, cedar, and exotic incense with a hint of dried flowers. In the mouth the wine has fine grained tannins that have a supple tension to them. Still coiled tight, the cedar, cherry and sandalwood flavors are more linear than the '89 but no less compelling. Gorgeous acidity and balance. Great length and poise. This wine has a long way to go yet. The finish is deeply mineral and resonant. Stunning. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $200. click to buy.

1991 Chateau de Beaucastel Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France
Pale ruby in color, with bricking towards the rim, this wine smells jaw-droppingly of lilacs and other dried flowers, with a hint of smoked meats. In the mouth the wine has a tangy redcurrant and cedar quality with a gorgeous wet stone and forest floor note that lingers through the finish. The tannins are supple and woody, with a hint of bitterness. The year was widely regarded as a poor vintage, as it was quite cold. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $??

1997 Chateau de Beaucastel Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France
Medium ruby in color, this wine smells of beautiful cherry and raspberry fruit, wet stones, and a bit of crushed green herbs. In the mouth the wine is still a bit compressed, more narrow, with mineral and wet earth character along with cherry and raspberry fruit that are all held firmly in the grip of powdery tannins. The finish is a little shorter, but the acidity is excellent, and the deep minerality of the wine shows through. 1997 was a cold, rainy vintage, and widely dismissed as a poor year. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2001 Chateau de Beaucastel Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France
Medium to dark ruby in color this wine smells of wet stones, bright cherry and raspberry fruit, with a hint of woody forest floor and dried flowers. In the mouth muscular, but supple tannins wrap around a core of cherry and raspberry fruit scented with cedar and crushed green herbs. Gorgeously balanced, with mineral and earth on the one side, and bright juicy acid and fruit on the other. Long finish, outstanding purity. Wow. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $100. click to buy.

2008 Chateau de Beaucastel Red Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France
Medium to dark ruby in color, this wine smells of mulberry and wet stones, with a hint of dried fennel seeds and crushed herbs in the background. In the mouth, tight tannins wrap around an equally compact core of raspberry and cherry that sits on top of a deep earthy and mineral core. Good length and breadth. A cold and rainy vintage with yields down roughly 50% from normal. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $70. click to buy.

2009 Chateau de Beaucastel Vieilles Vignes Blanc, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône Valley, France
Light to medium gold in the glass, this wine smells of honeysuckle, lemon curd, and wet stones with a hint of chamomile. In the mouth the wine is powerfully rich, with nearly-sweet lemon curd, honeysuckle and chamomile flavors. A minerality sings underneath the wine, and the acidity, like in a hermitage blanc, is quite subtle and filigreed, but beautiful and does exactly what it needs to as a balance to the ripe fruit. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $140. click to buy.

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