IT IS SAD, that chateauneuf du pape, the best known wine of the Rhone valley in France, produces so mant innocuous, bland, and one-dimensional bottles of wine.
Far too many estates are producing their wine by the carbonic maceration method, like the vignerons in Beaujolais. The result is a light, fruity, soft, sometimes jammy wine which is meant for early consumption, and rarely ever exhibits any improvement in the bottle. Economically, this method pays off, as the wines require little aging and wood, can be bottled within one year of the vintage and can be sold at the same prices as the old-style chateauneuf du pape made by a dwindling number of conscientious producers who go to great pains and expense to make their wine ageworthy, majestic and multi-dimensional.
If you want a chateauneuf du pape that has that stunning array of scents, textures and flavors, and can take up to 15 years of cellaring without falling apart, you cannot do any better than a bottle of wine from the impeccably operated estate of Chateau Beaucastel.
The Beaucastel property, almost 200 acres, is situated well to the north of the village of chateauneuf du pape, and approximately 15 to 20 kilometers from the ancient, walled papal seat of Avignon. To most fanatics of grand, old-style Rho ne valley wines, Beaucastel produces the best red wine of the appellation, although proponents of the Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe and Chateau Rayas have some serious arguments on their side. Certainly, Beaucastel lives as long in the bottle as any other chateauneuf du pape and while it can be drunk as young as four or five years old, it is an absolutely glorious tasting experience with 10 or more years of bottle age.
Beaucastel's success and high quality are a result of a number of factors. The estate was brought to prominence by Jacques Perrin in the 1950s and '60s, although the property had been producing wine since 1832 when it was owned by a French Huguenot, Pierre de Beaucastel. The production at Beaucastel per acre is among the lowest in the region. The vines average 35 to 40 years old, and the vineyard is only fertilized with natural compost. In addition, no pesticides are used.
The selection of grapes to go into Beaucastel is especially rigorous, which no doubt accounts for the success of Beaucastel in miserable years such as 1968 and 1973. Chacques Perrin died several years ago. The estate is now capably managed by his youngest son, Francois Perrin with advice and consultation from his brother, Jean-Pierre Perrin, who also manages the very successful production of budget-priced Rho ne valley wines sold under the Vieille Ferme label.
In chateauneuf du pape, different varieties of grapes are permitted to be used in the blend or assemblage of the wine. For practical purposes, most estates today rely heavily on the alcololic and fruity grenache grape, with most wine makers utilizing 75 percent or more of this grape in the blend. The result is a big, alcoholic wine with plenty of fruit, but not much complexity or staying power.
At Beaucastel, 50 percent of the blend is grenache, but more importantly, Francois Perrin blends in 15 percent syrah for its rich color and aromatic scent, 15 percent mourvedre for body, firmness and color, and 10 percent cinsaut. The fermentation is quite traditional and usually lasts 15 to 20 days at fairly warm temperatures, which extracts life-giving tannins and plenty of color and fruit.
The wine is aged in large oak barrels for up to two years and then bottled. The wine is rarely filtered; consequently Beaucastel will show a natural sediment after several years in the bottle. Consumers should be aware that sediment is a very healthy sign in a great red wine.
The wine of Beaucastel is quite dark in color with a very intense and powerful bouquet which suggests exotic herbs and spices, violets, cassis, and occasionally truffles. It is a full-bodied, perfect winter wine which is ideal with game, especially venison and pheasant.
In a good vintage, Beaucastel will live for 25 to 30 years, although it will be excellent drinking at age 10. On a quality scale, the wine is as good as virtually any French burgundy or bordeaux, and it sells at a fraction of the price of a top-flight burgundy or bordeaux, usually for no more than $8 to $14 a bottle, depending on the vintage. Beaucastel is widely available in the local market.
Here are my tasting notes for recent vintages of Beaucastel. The 1978 and 1979 are excellent choices for the consumer to buy with the 1978 being one of the truly remarkable wines of the entire Rho ne valley, although it needs a good five to eight years of aging. The 1979 is very concentrated and very lush and ready to drink within the next three to four years.
The 1979 Beaucastel, $10 to $12 -- 1979 is very dark ruby/purple with a big, cassis, blackberry, oaky aroma which is first-rate. Full and rich on the palate with concentrated, lush fruit, moderate tannin, full body, a fine long finish, this voluptuous wine will be fully mature in four to five years, but hold for another five to ten years.
The 1978 Beaucastel, $12.95 to $13.95 -- 1978 was an extraordinary vintage in the Rho ne valley so one would expect the best from this fine property. This wine continues to show improvement in the bottle after tasting somewhat travel-sick upon arrival at these shores. Dark, ruby/purple with a peppery, cassis, blackberry-scented bouquet.
On the palate, the wine is very full-bodied with intense flavors currently submerged behind tannin. It is a rich, very concentrated wine which should develop magnificently and be one of the few classic chateauneuf du papes now made.
The 1977 Beaucastel, $9.99 -- is a good commercial wine which is already mature. Medium to dry ruby with a pleasing peppery, ripe fruity bouquet. Full-bodied with good flavor and a moderately intense spicy feel on the palate. Drink now and over the next seven years.
The 1976 Beaucastel, $11.95 -- I have never cared for this wine, although the Perrin brothers claim that it only needs time in the bottle to come around. Tasted numerous times, this medium ruby wine has an undistinquished cardboard aroma. High in both acidity and tannin, but underendowed with fruit, this is one of the few disappointing wines one will ever encounter from Beaucastel.
The 1973 Beaucastel, $9.99 -- This wine is still available, and while not as deep or as tannic as the 1978, it is a lovely, supple wine which is fully mature. From a mediocre vintage, this wine is medium to dark ruby with moderately intense spicy fruity bouquet. Light tannin and good savory fruity flavors dictate drinking over the next one to two years. If I were ordering a wine at a restaurant, I would love to see this wine on a wine list.
As for the 1972 Beaucastel, $14.95, although a bad vintage for most of France, 1972 was an excellent in the Rho ne valley. This dark ruby wine has an expansive, rich, spicy, tarry bouquet which is absolutely superb. Highly flavored with medium tannin still in existence, this full-bodied wine has considerable complexity and aging potential of at least another five to six years. It is an excellent example of a Beaucastel.
The 1970 Beaucastel, $15 (if it can be found) -- This is one of the most exquisite wines I have ever tasted. Its bouquet is reminiscent of truffles and spices and fills the glass. It is extremely concentrated, and it is still tannic with the promise of excellence if held for another two to three years. It will be one of the few, perhaps the only chateauneuf du pape that will reach the year 2000 in excellent condition.