10 vintages of its red wine, from 1978 until 2001, held at the Aberdeen Marina Club, Hong Kong, 21 November 2007, courtesy of the Hong Kong Wine Society
Beaucastel fans are dotted around the world, but always have one thing in common. They squirrel away vintages high-born or modestly reared, and just adore a good old vertical perspective. Stephen Browett, co-founder of Farr Vintners in London, is one such person, and so is Nigel Bruce, one of the administrators of the Hong Kong Wine Society.
The Wine Society was set up in 1981, and is an English-Sino affair, limited to around 40 members. They are privy to fantastic visitors and wines, sitting as they have for so many years on the threshold of mainland China, the PRC. All the glamorous Bordeaux châteaux pass through town, and the Rhône`s main ambassador for many years was the late, and much lamented Gérard Jaboulet of Paul Jaboulet Aîné.
I conducted a great Châteauneuf tasting in the early 1990s at the Aberdeen Club, with the wines flown out from the French village expressly for the event. We tasted vintages such as 1981 that evening. It ended with Welsh singing, and the following day I achieved the rare feat of falling into Hong Kong Harbour, disembarking from an old wooden-hulled sloop belonging to Baring Brothers. I rang my friend Doctor Gene Tsoi, then a Wine Society member and noted turfiste, who recommended that I drank the one remaining bottle of red Châteauneuf with my hamburger in the hotel that night. Never an anxious after that, as they say.
Beaucastel has always been on the outside of the mainstream Châteauneufs, given its grape blend and the techniques instituted by the Perrin family in the 1920s. It has always been organic, for instance, with no fanfare attached to that now much-marketed word. Egg whites for fining, sheep droppings for manure - these are my early recollections when talking to Jacques Perrin in the 1970s.
The family bought Beaucastel in 1909, and in those days lived off sheep raising, cherries and olive oil. The great-grandfather of Jean-Pierre and François, Gabriel Tramier, had been a merchant of olive oil first in Algeria and then in the nearby Vaucluse village of Jonquières. Grandfather Pierre Perrin was a scientist, but in marrying Hélène Tramier, was told by Gabriel that he had to look after Beaucastel as well his daughter. So he went off to an oenology station in Beaune to learn about wine, and returned to the estate in 1925.
That was the era when today`s oldest vines were planted, notably the Roussanne that stand beside the domaine buildings and compose the Vieilles Vignes Roussanne white. Pierre also instigated the heating of the harvest, given that no sulphur was used in the vinification process in those days: this was a technique that he had picked up in Burgundy. It is relevant to bear in mind that in the 1920s, France was incredibly parochial, so a southerner going to learn his trade in Burgundy represented an extremely open mind. The flash heating of the crop prior to fermentation was therefore for sanitation reasons, but also to extract as much fruit as possible.
Born in 1922, father Jacques Perrin was a great chum of the Peyraud family of Domaine Tempier at Bandol, which brought alive his awareness of the Mourvèdre grape, not then fashionable at Châteauneuf. Thanks to its properties of colour, length and longevity in its wines, Jacques Perrin planted more of this than anyone else at Châteauneuf, and today it makes up 30% of the wine. In vintages of coulure or poor fruit formation on the Grenache, such as 1981 and 1983, the Mourvèdre content rose to nearer 40%, by the way.
Beaucastel reds traversed a period during the 1980s when a learning critical public deemed the wines dirty, farmyardy, stinky, and finally appeared the magic word, Brettanomyces, an ignoble yeast that is not shaken off or absorbed during vinification. Brett incidence rises if there is little or no application of sulphur during the crushing of the crop pre-fermentation, or if extremely ripe grapes are picked, those that verge towards over-ripeness. To complicate matters, the Mourvèdre grape is often associated with a sort of farmyard, gamey character during a secondary phase of its ageing, after the first flush of fruit has worn off. To complicate matters a minor stage further, Jacques Lurton, travelling winemaker with interests in Australia and Chile, remarked to me at the Hong Kong tasting that his Grenache in Fitou took on a Brett side after 4 to 5 years, and did not lose it thereafter - "it seems to be in the Grenache from there," he commented.
So any review of old Beaucastel has the Brett police out in their shiny laboratory uniforms, waiting to pounce. Much more interestingly from this review of ten vintages, was the conscious change of style between the older flight of five wines - the 1978, 1981, 1983, 1989 and 1990 - and the younger flight of 1994, 1995, 1998, 1999 and 2001. The first flight held more rusticity, the tannins possessing a coarser grain than the later group, but was also notable for its acidity and freshness of demeanour, especially given its two decades or more in age. The aromas also grouped together, often showing spices and Asian cuisine airs. In short, this flight had character, a real one-off set of aromas and flavours, not to be reproduced elsewhere.
The later group, which came after the big Brett debate had raged around Beaucastel, were a much safer, more international bunch of wines. Their fruit was more rounded, their tannins sleeker, and generally there was more on-display bounty in the wines. Notes of strawberry in the fruit, and of oiliness in the texture, were obvious signals of a change of emphasis.
The change of emphasis also came at a time when Beaucastel were becoming involved in Tablas Creek, their Californian vineyard venture with importer Bob Haas that produced its first wine in 1994, and the younger generation led by Pierre Perrin were becoming active in the family business. The Perrin & Fils merchant wines or local joint-ventures were also on the increase: new cellar space, storage space was being built - in short, a heck of a lot of expansion. Maybe the winemaking played it more safe than in the past.
All the wines were tasted blind. When the members of the Wine Society voted on their favourite vintages from the tasting, the result favoured the older wines (lowest points best): 1st 1981 with 68 points; 2nd 1978 with 96 points; 3rd 1989 with 99 points; 4th = 1983 and 1998 with 106 points; 6th 1990 with 112 points; 7th 2001 with 126 points; 8th 1999 with 145 points; 9th 1994 with 157 points; 10th 1995 with 166 points (1 bottle corked, variable).
Beaucastel remains one of the prize wines of the south of France, and the 2005 has delivered a beautiful wine, ideal for cellaring in magnum or even jereboam form. Whether drinkers will meet such personal wines as those of its exceptional decade of the 1980s, as well as the 1970s (a lovely wine in 1971, for instance, real class) in future is highly unlikely, but I would expect these modern vintages to live pretty well, with the Mourvèdre continuing to drive longevity. Where the modern set post-1994 will do exceptionally well will be to match the 1980s` crispness of content and spiced mystery when they in turn arrive at twenty years or older.
2001 ***** bright and live dark red robe; has a bonny, mild, honey-toned nose with interesting caramel in it, and lightly mulled, ripe red fruits - the aroma continues well and persists, with some sideways movement. There is a little rounded yeast, also. The palate holds red, plum fruit of good heart, which is at a very enticing stage now. There is live, tannic content here, with a more oily texture than is usual for a Beaucastel. Ends roundly and widely, although the fruit withdraws a little. Generally good length here. It is about to enter a quiet phase, and reveals some late raisin, plum and spice. Decant if drinking now to 2010-11, and choose a high pressure day. Tasted blind. Once revealed, a note of change in the vinification compared to the 1980s with their brisk acidity comes through via its more supple texture. 2026-29 Nov 2007, Hong Kong
1999 ***** pretty, bright red, a British Post Office red at its heart. Has a honey, nutted aroma with a nice breadth oiliness in it, and a little black raisin, as if this came from a ripe year. The aroma moves securely, and has even a mild plumpness - which denotes the more recent style of Beaucastel here. Has a rich, tending towards the gourmand start to the palate, and once more a slightly oily texture comes through, though there is some good, little fresh acidity. It runs on well, with late plum notes and even strawberry, a most unusual Beaucastel fruit association, at the end. There is very good fruit quality here - it is oily, and red-toned. Tasted blind. 2021-24. On knowing its ID, it clearly possesses the fresh quality of this underrated vintage. Nov 2007, Hong Kong
1998 ***** the robe still holds a good red core, and is very bright. Has a muted, even, very knit red fruit aroma, with a pretty bit of toffee, and a declaration of ripe fruit hanging in the air. Is promising, with red fruits offering potential for more variety. There is a good, tight attack, a real intense weave on this. The flavour comes in a soaked red cherry style with abundant richness inset. It is reaching a measured stage, but is wholesome and still primary. The red fruit softens up towards the finish. Given its abundant energy, it can move along and evolve very well. There is a little late heat. As the air enters it, it loses some of its acidity, and takes on a more soft and sweet nature. 2024-26. Tasted blind. Again, a supple, oily texture and fruit notes such as soaked red cherry denote the shift of style from the later 1990s here. Nov 2007, Hong Kong
1995 ***** 1 of the 2 bottles suggests cork. The robe has reached a plum-red stage. The nose is a little pointed, as if this is from a less ripe, more austere vintage; there is plenty of space and air in the bouquet, and with breathing, a crisp, vegetal note emerges. There is some red plum jam in a low key expression today. The palate is very well-knit, and there is a lot of wine here. It has good, fresh uplift with sound matter. Beyond the early fruit, plenty of tannic exuberance comes out, completing a good length on the palate. This is another Beaucastel delivered in what I term a more Bordeaux style, a wine that lives on its reserve. There is sound late richness, and pretty late fruit. The texture is still grainy. From 2009 for its real flourishing. Tasted blind. No surprise to find this is a 1995 - a vintage that was tannic from the dry year, and needed patience. 2023-26. Nov 2007, Hong Kong
1994 ***(*) pretty, soft red with a ruby top line. Has a really bonny, fragrant nose - black coffee, raisin, a little Christmas cake, and lurking red fruit. There is quietly sustained breadth to it. The palate is a measured, mid-weight affair, with great elegance of red fruit. It is still squeezy in texture, until some late tightening. Has a good finale, where it remains gently broad and stylish. Tasted blind. Has come good, as I hoped it would. 2016-18 Nov 2007, Hong Kong
1990 ****** red tints in the ruby robe. Holds warm, soft red fruits aromas that travel sideways with assurance and are still compact: is at an interesting, end of primary stage juncture, that evokes the smooth warmth of early summer`s days. There is a thread of spice in the red fruits, and later come licorice and pepper. This is warm and rich wine, with a late kick of attitude. It is still young, its length is good, and it is in prime form now. To think it was very curly and seemed to be receding around 2003. Tasted blind. 2021-24 Nov 2007, Hong Kong
1989 ***** red and ruby mix in a bright robe; the bouquet is fresh and bouncy - shows cinnamon, mild spices, mature plum, with a little menthol and a wee snapcrackle of pepper. The palate is still enclosed by some lithe, live but now yielding tannins. It is still a wine from the military academy, carrying the upright shape of the vintage. It grows a little in emphasis, and acquires a concentrated burst late on, as it moves actively along both sideways and forward. There is a lot of life on the palate, and plenty of future here. Tasted blind. Once ID known, this does not surprise me - the 1989 has always been the wild child against the more padded shoulder 1990, but the depth has certainly been sufficient to take care of its vigorous tannins. 2019-22 Nov 2007, Hong Kong
1983 ***** sound ruby robe; the nose bears a little coffee, with a quiet breadth of ripeness, spiced black jam here: the aroma sustains well. The palate has mellowed early on, and is followed by light spice and a red jam, quince flavouring, with a honey infusion. Has a good, measured round finish - it is now at a mature, harmonious stage. There are some indications of its youth via its grip and some pepper-tannic briskness. This is in good shape. Tasted blind. 2016-19 Nov 2007, Hong Kong
1981 ***** holds a still good, quite full ruby colour, with a pretty maturity about it. The bouquet is just emerging from a damp woods stage, and out float plum and light cinnamon aromas delivered in a pretty, wide and warm way. There is a speckle of spice and black peppercorns and some funky, down-home in the air. As it breathes, a bit of high tone creeps in. The palate still retains some meatiness, and juice in its red fruits. Good, pertinent acidity at the end makes it finish cleanly and beau. The length is good - this is very bonny wine. On the finish it is broad, and cinnamon-flecked, but is not yet at the coffee, drier stage. Has balance and complexity, and with its local character and grass roots appeal, and some technical defects, it brings to mind a meeting with a rough type in an alley way, who hasn`t washed for a few days, but who then greets you in Latin. Salve, indeed! This remains a famous Beaucastel, from awkward, prickly youth onwards. Tasted blind. 2016-18 Nov 2007, Hong Kong
1978 ****(*) the robe is in good shape - shows a pretty full ruby tone. 1st bottle is corked. 2nd bottle: has a fungal, broad, rather high tone nose, varnish on the outside, but an intrinsically soft warmth and a little coffee. The palate`s red berries have a live skip to them: this comes from a ripe year (tasted blind) with still plenty of freshness in it. The length is good, refined, and even on a delicate path. This is a measured Châteauneuf, out of the general loop thanks to its Bordeaux-style refinement. 2017-20 Nov 2007, Hong Kong