I have been collecting and drinking Ch. de Beaucastel for many years, but it had been a few years since I had put together a long vertical so as to be able to examine the differences between the vintages and investigate any changes in style that might have taken place over the last coupe of decades. It was time to give it another look.
Beaucastel is both the longest lived and one of the most atypical wines of the region, and both come from the insistence on the part of Jacques Perrin (the father for whom the famous selection ‘Hommage’ was created) on maintaining a consistently high (usually around 30%) level of Mourvedre in the wines. Of all the southern Rhone producers, only La Nerthe exceeds them in this.
What that means is that not only has Beaucastel traditionally been a long lasting wine, but that you also need to give it at least 6 – 10 years for the Mourvedre ‘pong’ to settle down and the wine to come into focus, and then to enjoy it for the following 10 -12 years or more. This was all explained by the Perrins when I first visited Beaucastel in 1991, and I have observed that their wines have tended to follow this path. What it also meant was that the wines usually went through a closed stage where they were relatively inexpressive, and then came out the other end into full bloom at their plateau of tasting, where they would hold, usually for many years.
This didn’t account for some of the newer vintages that I hadn’t seen going at all dumb or shutting down, and I wondered if the recent winemaking had changed, another topic to be informed by this tasting.
I started out by offering one white, the best in the Southern Rhone, made from old vines Roussanne in small amounts (around 4000 bottles per year):1993 Ch.de Beaucastel Roussanne Vielles Vignes
– a light amber colour, and a honeyed nose almost with some Riesling characteristics. The noses seemed slightly sweet and the wine also seemed to be slightly sweet on the entry although it really wasn’t. Full and long in the mouth, it smoothly slid toward a long slow finish. I always enjoy these wines and can’t really relate them to any other wines I’ve tasted.
Then the reds – first up, with Fresh Chanterelles, Salt Spring Goat Cheese, Chives, Polenta2004 Ch.de Beaucastel
– cherries and smoke in the nose, and on palate deep, full bodied and tannic, still very primary and grapy, a serious wine in fist stages. Not closed, but not developed quite enough for prime time yet.2001 Ch.de Beaucastel
– well, this one was no longer purple, and in fact almost looked a tad bricky in comparison to the sappy 2004. Nice fruit, nice sweetness, a good blueberry impression, but if it had one fault it would be that it finishes on the hot side. Nonetheless a good wine.
With Fresh Pan Seared Sweetbreads, White Beans, Hazelnut Crust, Bordelaise Sauce2000 Ch.de Beaucastel
– Quite dark in colour and the berries in this nose were of the blackberry sort. An attractive wine that drinks very well now, showing excellent fruit levels, and with no rush at all as it should coast for years. Very harmonious pleasing wine.1999 Ch.de Beaucastel
– The nose on this wine was also quite decent but I observed a hint of sourness that was slightly off putting. Not sour as in spoiled o as a flaw, but simply a hint of something that you weren’t sure but didn’t think it should be there. Nonetheless it had a good mouth feel with a slightly sweet fresh entry and typically long finish. Perusing RPs notes he gave both this and the 2000 the same longevity prediction. I would not expect this to drink as long as the 2000 will.
With Duck Confit, Beluga Lentils, Port Reduction1998 Ch.de Beaucastel
– nice nose, quite ripe, with meat and olives, good stuffing on palate with bright acidity and a nice sweetness in midpalate, finishing long. A good wine.1997 Ch.de Beaucastel
– aha! The first hint of brett, but in balance (didn’t put me off, anyway), but then on palate something I have noted before in brett affected wines – a muting of the more complex nuances you hope to detect, and the wine ends up simpler than it might. This wine had very good fruit levels, and it was well balanced and had decent length, but it didn’t stand out as the best examples do.
With Braised Short Ribs, Fettucine, Truffle Sauce 1996 Ch.de Beaucastel
– our first poor showing. While the nose was fruit driven, with spice and black pepper, the wine was lean and austere and lacked fruit on palate.1995 Ch.de Beaucastel
– an old favourite of mine, this showed well, a dark wine with a nose of mellow cocoa with a tiny hint of something minty, and big fruit on palate, with very good length, lingering on palate for quite awhile. Unlike other tastings in recent years, this shows that this wine is finally coming into drinking range and I shall un tut my stash to slowly start opening a bottle every year or two. Very good wine.
With Grilled Venison, Wild Boar Potato Galette, Sour Cherry Sauce1994 Ch.de Beaucastel
– More brett in this nose but the wine was full bodied, juicy and attractive, smooth on palate and still firm at the end. A pleasant surprise.1990 Ch.de Beaucastel
– now we get into the end game where the big guns resided, and opinions varied about which wine they liked best, but not about the fact that they liked them all. A lovely nose of cedar and mocha with a hint of brett, and on palate a sweet fruit entry, with concentrated black fruit in the middle, berry, wood and anise flavours mingled, balance excellent and good length. I opted for this one as being slightly sweeter fruit and slightly more approachable and less hard, but the 89 was a nice partner for it.
With an Assorted cheese plate 1989 Ch.de Beaucastel
– still pretty dark. A funky bottle stink nose that brought murmurings of the word ‘corked?’ to the fore took 5 minutes to fade away and we were left with a wine in very good shape, showing significantly more tannin than the 1990. All sorts of dark fruit and anise in this nose, and a slightly more austere presentation on palate. Big and long lived, I have to wonder if this wine has yet peaked. I am in no rush after this and will leave mine a few years more.1988 Ch.de Beaucastel
- I have none of this in my cellar and that is a shame as it showed very well. A lovely mature colour and nose, clean and brettless, supple fruit on palate and given the still evident tannins and ample levels of fruit, no rush at all on this.
Conclusions? While there did indeed seem to be a change in the wines, it came earlier than I’d have thought. Pre 1995 the wines were firmer and needed time, after that they seemed more friendly and ready to drink than the older wines were at the same age. Don’t hold me strictly to that dividing line; arguments could be made to shift it several years either way.
The winemaking was consistent, with the ever present specter of Brettanomyces hovering over the feast. Generally accepted as a sign of unclean winemaking practices, this rogue yeast is very hard to eradicate once it gets into a winery. Although people (often the people trying to sell the wine) say that it adds character, on the whole I’d prefer to live without it, and I think that was the sentiment of most (except one brett fan that looked like he wanted to roll in the wine rather than taste it the first time we got a good whiff of this). I can take it or leave it, and have pretty good tolerance for it, but I have this nagging suspicion that whenever I detect it, it may be affecting the other things I value in a wine, like fruit level and brightness.
Beaucastel consistently make excellent wines in their own way and to their own pattern and ideal and I have to admire that. They will never take the place of more traditional Chateauneuf du Papes, but the region would be much duller without them.