Thu 23 Oct 2014

Châteauneuf-du-Pape: Beaucastel Reflections


When the autumn arrives, matters inevitably turn to the Rhône. At least they do in my world. And so recently I took the opportunity to join others in the wine trade to meet up with Marc Perrin and eat, drink and talk Château de Beaucastel.


Nowadays considered iconic, this estate has a quite extraordinary history which in some ways is separate to that of Châteauneuf-du-Pape itself: viticulture here is truly ancient, predating the time of the Avignon popes who gave the region its name by a thousand years.

There was a Pierre de Beaucastel who bought a barn with adjoining land nearby and another Pierre de Beaucastel who created the estate in 1687. King Louis XIV had given him the right to collect local taxes as a reward for renouncing Protestantism. The Perrin stewardship began in 1909 and today there is a large, and busy, 5th generation of which Marc is a part, actively in charge of all the different aspects of this extraordinary estate.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape's famous pudding stones (photograph: Claes Lofgren)

Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s famous pudding stones (photograph: Claes Lofgren)

Beaucastel is 130 hectares of which 100 are planted with vineyard. It is located at the extreme north-eastern end of the appellation where the Mistral is as constant a feature as the ‘pudding stones’ (pictured) that seem to cover so much of the vineyards.

The Perrin family made some quite remarkable decisions in the early part of their tenure. For a start there was a decision to plant two grape varieties in particular. First, there was roussanne, a white variety better known in Hermitage, and then there was the red mourvèdre, much better known as the variety behind the extraordinary wines of Bandol. Beaucastel was among the first to plant these varieties, preferring them in some ways to the more ubiquitous grenache.

The other quite extraordinary development at Beaucastel came in 1950 with decision to adopt organic farming, and again in this they were pioneers in the region. Vineyard holdings have since expanded to other appellations such as Cairanne, Gigondas and Vinsobres, all of which are run and farmed in the same way.

Like The Wine Society, who back in 1981 first bought a wine from Vinsobres, the Perrins saw the potential here, even before the onset of climate change. They have invested heavily here, buying nearly 100 hectares of vineyard and planting a good deal of syrah, which, among other things, is used in their Côtes-du-Rhône blends, including a blend made exclusively for The Society which is released as part of our en primeur offer in January.

The Perrin family

The Perrin family

We talked about climate change, which is certainly having an impact in Châteauneuf. What has changed? Marc seemed to think that the real change has come with a perception of what constitutes a great vintage. Years ago, he said, great vintages were those when grapes ripened perfectly and, even down in Châteauneuf, that happened not too frequently. So one tends to remember years like 1961 or 1978 when the wines really did stand out. Achieving ripeness today, however, is not so difficult; the minimum alcohol level of 12.5% being easily exceeded. Full tannin ripeness is harder to come by but is usually achievable with patience.

Today, he claimed, a great vintage is based on balance between all the elements in the wine. The decision made a long time ago by the family to plant all 13 grape varieties permitted at the time is seen as crucial in achieving this. I have been lucky in not only visiting Beaucastel, which I do at least one a year, but also of tasting each of the grape varieties separately. Every one of them has its place, though of course each vintage is different and each of the varieties will act a little differently. For the reds, mourvèdre is the key, amounting to about a third of the total. Syrah is important, as is cinsault, though one of my favourites is the counoise, a variety with increasing prominence and undoubted potential at Beaucastel.

The first wine we tasted was not in fact Rhône at all but the fruit of a new venture with Hollywood stars Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. They bought a fine estate high up in Provence behind the town of Brignoles. The Perrins were called upon to assist – Beaucastel is a Brad Pitt favourite. Marc Perrin went to visit and recalls first seeing it and marvelling at the site, the terroir and the potential. We tasted their Château de Miraval Rosé 2013 which was delicious. None left but we will have a look at 2014 next year.

Châteauneuf-du-PapeThen came the Châteauneuf Blanc 2011 from old vines of roussanne. Perfect balance here with flavours of honey, lemon, sweet almond and crushed pear. Still so fresh and pure. Would have been a dream with lobster or ginger crab.

We began a quartet of reds with a fascinating 2008 Châteauneuf Rouge. At the time, so much had been written about this vintage, most of it misinformed and wholly negative: this 2008 from Beaucastel told of a different story. Brightly coloured, youthful with a lovely fruity bouquet, the wine was in perfect balance with no hint of dryness and an abundance of fruit on the palate. It screamed for roast lamb and lots of friends around a generous table.

The next pair showed two very contrasting vintages, both ready to be enjoyed now. 1999 is classic Beaucastel, in as much this is a wine built upon foundations of ripe mourvèdre. Marc said it smelled of lavender and it did! I had never noticed that before. Rounded, full-bodied and concentrated, it smelled of lavender with a touch of spice.

The 1998 served alongside was on the other hand very un-classic. This was a growing season for grenache to shine, and it forms most of the blend in this vintage. Wonderful it is too, and no longer shrouded under sun baked tannins. The colour had a more orange-like tint and the nose and palate were distinctly leathery and spicy with hints of dry figs. What a wonderful contrast from the same estate!

To finish, we had the 2000 Hommage à Jacques Perrin, a very limited cuvée made from mourvèdre and only released in certain vintages. This lovely too but more closed and in need of more time.

And what of 2013, about to be released en primeur?

That’s another story to be told when I get back from my next Rhône travels!

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer for the Rhône


  1. C G Adams says:

    Many years ago I was lucky enough to purchase a bottle of 1978 and several other vintages. I expected more from the 1978 while the other vintages, while not glorious, were very enjoyable. Whilst studying at Newcastle I visited Paso Robles where all 13 varities of Beaucastle cuttings were planted. And at the Tate Britain I was priviliged to taste a red wine from these planting compared with a bottle of Vieux Telegraph. It was unfair to attempt a judgement as the vineyard was very new but the wine was enjoyable. Unfortunately I suffered a serious stroke which my medication and my ability to swallow has sadly curtailed my dinking of wine from the Perrins and others that I have enjoyed in the past.

  2. Jim says:

    There’s no question that Chateau Beaucastel is a dominant (if not THE DOMINANT) CdP producer in the area. Of course, the wines have difficult years, but this winery seems able to coax the best out of the 13 grapes and produce some great wines. Pricey? Sure, but very nice. After our visit to Perrin this summer, we have a new appreciation for the work and passion involved.

  3. Ben says:

    Strange not to mention the other disitinctive feature of Beaucastel: flash pasturisation?

  4. Ken Ivin says:

    I have been a convert to the Rhone for many years and I blame Parker. Been there seen it and bought the T shirt for over 35 years.

    The Perrin family have now even taken over the restaurant in the main square in Gigondas and it has gone downhill.

    I am sorry but I think the Beaucastel is over rated. When Jacques of Rayas was about he every year lost Beaucastel. Also Clos de Pape is better in my opinion and VT. This has now become a commercial enterprise years ago it was both commercial and artisan-al. Not for me I am afraid. If I were to invest in up market wines I would go north to Guigal or to Chave who has been about family wise since 1481.

    • Marcel Orford-Williams says:

      Thanks for your comment, and whilst your opinion differs from mine saying that the Perrin family are commercially astute is not wrong, as they are indeed very successful. I don’t believe Beaucastel is overrated, but the wines can take a dickens of a time to come round. I don’t remember ever tasting another 1999 vintage as complete and fresh as Beaucastel (admittedly this was a vintage that greatly favoured the mourvèdre grape). Clos des Papes are Vieux Télégraphe are both exceptionally good in 2013. Best regards.

  5. Stuart Calder says:

    I’ve enjoyed Beaucastel very much over the years, and I still have one bottle of 1978 remaining in my cellar, and four bottles of the 1985. I must confess that I preferred these wines to the more recent vintages. The combination of a good dollop of Mourvèdre and some Brettanomyces produced a wine that was quite distinctive within a tasting of Châteauneufs. I find that the modern wines are much “cleaner” now, but as a result less individual, complex and interesting when mature. In a way, by making their wines more modern and commercial, it is a bit like making Fino Sherry without the Flor, to make it more appealing to a larger audience…

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