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CHÂTEAU DE BEAUCASTEL EVENTS IN THE INDIAN OCEAN

Two Châteauneuf-du-Pape Château de Beaucastel dinners were held at the Hilton Iru Fushi Spa and Resort in the Maldives in late May, 2011. Pierre Perrin flew out, and took the chance to tune up his kite surfing skills in the winds of the Indian Ocean, while I preferred snorkelling and swimming. Kite surfing is for the relatively touched members of society, I can assure you. Having a 13 metre sail carry you where it pleases is not my idea of fun, or logistics.

The first dinner featured the red Beaucastel in a vertical comprising the 2007, 2006, 2005, 2003, 2001, 1998 and 1990. It was held at The Trio restaurant, like all the restaurants on this resort which has 225 rooms, a lacquered wood affair on stilts above the sea waters. The chef Josef Nagy, half Hungarian (birth), half Australian (location since 10 years old), had devised a menu to accompany the mixture of robust young reds, parading power and tannin in some cases, and the mature, reflective tones of the older wines.

Shipping wine to the Maldives only works if it is done in refrigerated containers. No other method will allow the wine stability and care. In the glass, the wine temperature can rise by up to 5°C in five minutes, for instance, so pouring is in small amounts. As there has also to be transhipment from the capital Malé, where there is a bonded warehouse, wine - and fresh vegetables, meat, fruit - can all be ruined if sitting in the hot tropical sun for anything over 45 minutes. The Beaucastel importer, Sanjay Menon, based in Bombay, had set up this system with Sunny Chuang, Hilton Group Cellar master for the Maldives a few years back. So we were confident about the safe care of the wines we were drinking.

Beaucastel itself now has 70 hectares in production, along with 42 hectares of Côtes du Rhône that provide Coudoulet de Beaucastel and parts of the Perrin range Côtes du Rhônes. Overall, the family now owns 240 hectares in the Southern Rhône, and work a total of 350 hectares, the extra 110 hectares referring to close partnerships with selected vignerons across the region. Their involvement at Vinsobres also runs to 12 hectares of apricots which are sometimes sold, sometimes given to their neighbours.

The 2007 was its usual robust self, with the "spark" in the active fruit encouraged by the presence of Mourvèdre and its acidity. Pure Grenache wines struggled for poise in 2007, with the risk of being too much at times. The 2007 is going well now, and as testament to its crispness, it made an extremely good companion for the Legine, aka Patagonian tooth fish, aka Chilean sea bass - a dish that comprised garlic and chilli infused olive oil confit of Legine, with mild flavoured stuffed leeks.

"2006 was less rich and tannic than 2007," declared Pierre, "and needed a high selection of grapes." This is less of a long distance wine than the 2007, and some Châteauneufs, such as the 2006 Vieux Télégraphe, have been showing freely and well when drunk recently. This is a versatile wine for different foods: it would be a great ally to lamb - it is fat enough for that, but in the instance at Iru Fushi, it was very ensemble and rich with the Maldives yellow fin tuna, which brought out its elegant length. The yellow fin is caught on rod and line, not trawled for, so its fishing is not an abuse of the other occupants of these waters, including often seen dolphins. The tuna was seared, and served with smoked belly and a saffron cauliflower crème.

The 2005 was a star, and very true to the vintage. It holds the bright, dark tannins of the vintage, while Pierre remarked that this year they had worked hard to keep the alcohol under control. It is not yet demonstrative, but is proceeding steadily on its long journey, into the mid-2030s, I would say. It is very long, and was well accompanied by a grilled duck breast that had been marinaded for 16 hours, with a risotto of porcini mushrooms.

The 2003 was no doubt helped by being served in magnum. I have noticed the best Southern Rhône 2003s as starting to make stealthy progress towards being more rounded, and notably more complete on the finishes. Food matching remains challenging, though, even though the Beaucastel gras or richness extends further along the palate than it used to. The baked areas at the end suggest perhaps a beef stew, for instance. Here the sweetness of the pork was a tricky texture combination for it, it has to be remarked. The dish was entitled crispy baby pork Neichel style (Neichel is a Spanish chef) with green apple and vanilla mousse, braised shallots.

The 2001 was the disappointment of the evening. I tasted from two bottles, and found one superior, but behind the other wines of the evening. "2001`s ripening was balanced, and the wine came in a very Grenache style when young," stated Pierre - "the red and black fruit was juicy, but then the wines rather fell down." I actually found Brett, about which I am not a severe policeman, on the first bottle, which lacked precision, and the crisp polish of the preceding wines. The second bottle was clearer, and maybe the wine is in a trough for the time being - that has been known with Beaucastels around the age of ten.

The final two wines were excellent, both of them. The 1990 did dip around ten years ago, leading me to sell some, but the wine I have retained bounced back. Here the 1998 was naturally more vigorous, and it was that vintage, which has failed to age well in many instances at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, that really delighted me. I put the 1998 in its context, however. The Beaucastel has a low percentage - 30% - of Grenache. The year was hailed as a mighty one for Grenache, and growers were frothing with excitement about its quality, pushing on for extreme ripeness.

At this time oenologues and wine school junkies were all enthusing about just how much could be taken out of ripe to super-ripe grapes, and extractions were merciless. I feel that 1998`s woes are down to human error, with excess cellar handling, possibly similar to some of the troubles experienced by white Burgundy that now often fails to age for its usual twenty-plus years (though at least Châteauneuf was not a no sulphur dioxide, or SO2, zone then, or now).

The Rossini of Australian Wagyu beef was rich, and both wines sat well with it. I shaded the 1998 in front of the 1990, but both were worthy 6 star holders - the 1998 an impressive Grand Vin, the 1990 showing a more mature, floating aspect, which after three hours had advanced to a more sweaty leather, grounded nature - its origins from lands near the Mediterranean in a sun-filled vintage showing through.

BEAUCASTEL ROUGE - 7 VINTAGES 2007-1990

****** 2007 Château de Beaucastel red  2034-37 
****(*)  2006 Château de Beaucastel red  2027-30 
******  2005 Château de Beaucastel red  2034-37 
****(*)  2003 Château de Beaucastel red  2030-33 
****  2001 Château de Beaucastel red 2027-29 
******  1998 Château de Beaucastel red 2029-32 
******  1990 Château de Beaucastel red 2026-29 
     

FAMILY HEIRLOOMS: ROUSSANNE & MOURVÈDRE

The second dinner was held in the Cellar, the air conditioned part of the stilt restaurant round the point from The Trio restaurant. Here the theme was more directed towards Asian cuisine, flavours and aromas.

The opening was the recent duo of Roussanne Vieilles Vignes whites, the 2009 and the 2008. The Perrin family bought Beaucastel in 1909, and the Roussanne is the most lasting legacy of their enterprise and individuality. The vineyard lies west of the Château, and dates from the five years after the purchase. At that time, Clairette - in white and pink versions - and the odd Grenache blanc were the typical white vines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, so a block of Roussanne represented left-field thinking for those days before the First World War.

"We harvest the Roussanne grapes when they turn from green to brown - that is our judgment call," declared Pierre. The south-facing vines turn brown first, the north-facing vines follow about three to four days later. It is a wine where we care more about the body of the wine than its acidity, so a small yield allied to a late harvest is the formula for more body." The original vines from pre-First World War years have been supplemented by 1930s and 1960s blocks as the founder vines have perished or wasted.

This wine has long been the Montrachet of the Southern Rhône in my view; its class is conveyed through two essential features - its subtlety and its texture. It also lives an extraordinarily long time, passing through a determinedly closed phase after about six years, and sometimes even discolouring to the extent that it resembles a shade of mahogany in the bottle. And yet, the wine can and usually does revive from that, lightening its colour once more to a rich gold, at ages that can range between fifteen and eighteen years` old. The Perrins themselves are at a loss to explain this change of pigmentation in any orderly way.

The 2009 was harvested between 18 and 20 September, 2009. If you recall the extreme late August heat, it shows that the Roussanne at Beaucastel can be waited for. Yields hover between 15 and 17 hl/hectare, extremely low, but naturally so for such an old vineyard, which was planted at a higher density than today`s, however, because of the horse passing between the vines rather than a tractor or machine. "Unlike red vines, white vines do not thrive on stress," commented Pierre Perrin, "which is why we keep their soils impeccable, to avoid that stress."

The 2009 is a lovely wine, a real complex, varied achievement, one that has developed in the past three months since I tasted it at the Château, when it had been in bottle just six weeks. It is never over oaked - not more than half is subject to oak, and the discretion of its richness was striking on the nose. It is a Grand Vin, one to look out for, enhanced by its faithful liaison with its vineyard, meriting the STGT (Soil to Glass Transfer) tag. Here it was successfully paired with abalone, the dish entitled abalone nigiri with seared foie gras, also a good friend to the wine, and soy jelly. In truth, it is capable of showing well alongside many fine flavours, and Asian dishes that include coconut sauce would also be possible.

The 2008 stems from a much more difficult vintage, so its acidity is greater. "We lost 50% of the crop," remarked Pierre Perrin, "and the Roussanne was picked a bit less ripe than usual; rarely, we also only did 60% to 70% of the malo to keep its freshness (a sign of the relative degradation of the crop). It is less exuberant than the 2009 Roussanne."

I found the 2008 lining up for its hibernation. I compared it to a 1991 - another rain-afflicted year - when tasting it in June 2010, with which François Perrin agreed. Having also found it like a  white Hermitage, I now travelled north, finding similarities with a sturdy white Burgundy. Air brought out that robust side, and it worked well with a challenging dish - quails eggs that were presented in different colours and aromas - the title being marinated egg and vegetable textures, tastes - which included beetroot and saffron. It would also do well with white asparagus and the Northern Rhône vegetable of cardoon. Its saltiness was typical of Roussanne, a freshness that always contributes to good balance.

We then had an intermezzo wine - the 2003 red Coudoulet de Beaucastel - as a bridge before the  robust challenges of the Hommage à Jacques Perrin reds. The 2003 was an outlier, in that hopes were not especially high from that scorched vintage, which is not the sort of year that people tend to go back to very often. This presented a good surprise for its elegance, and had, like the better 2003s, stood up well to time, and improved the second half of the palate. This went very well later with goat cheese, and was first paired with poached scampi and steamed oxtail wontons with ginger, hoisin essence and Japanese aioli - its maturing softness suited to that dish of contrasts.

The Hommages were served "most gentle" first - so the order was 2000, 2001, 2007. The origin of this wine was Jacques Perrin, whom I met and interviewed a few times before his untimely death in 1978. He was a challenging person, a mind like a Swiss watch, and a manner of some austerity to the young, gangly Britannique before him. But he was an educator, an encourager, and that is the main impression I hold of him.

Jacques was great friends with the Peyraud family, notably Lucien, of Domaine Tempier at Bandol, home of the Mourvèdre, and shining star in those post-war years. From there he took the cuttings to start the plantation at Beaucastel, in a 2.3 hectare block called Courrieux, which is also where the Grenache for Hommage grows.

"We don`t like too many super-cuvées," stated Pierre Perrin, "so as not to decrease the quality of the regular Beaucastel red. We only make Hommage in years when the Mourvèdre has been fantastic. We are at the northern extreme of the Mourvèdre`s ripening, which follows the principle of vines doing best when they grow at such a limit, with a natural stress to perform, like Pinot Noir in Burgundy or Syrah in the Northern Rhône."

Hommage is made up of 60% Mourvèdre - the oldest is late 1940s, 1950s, plus subsequent hand grafted replacements from the Courrieux vineyard that is near the château of the Châteauneuf-du- Pape village. It is supplemented by 20-30% Grenache also from Courrieux, and then 5-10% of the best Syrah and 5-10% of the best Counoise of the year. Until the early 2000s, Hommage held more Mourvèdre - 70%, with 10% each Grenache, Syrah, Counoise. As a one-off, the 1998 Hommage contained 60% Grenache.

Mourvèdre has been controversial because it is associated with the stale yeast bacteria of Brettanomyces, and Beaucastel has had its share of criticism from robust American and New World voices about that stemming from their cellars (Brett is in the vineyard naturally, but can be found in larger amounts in cellars. I have even known it introduced via decorative wooden beams or wooden pallets).

Whatever the Brett spotters say, Hommage provides one of the great wine drinking experiences. Take the 2000. What galaxy did that come from? Where is the reference point for this Big, Bad Wine? Talk about action in the glass, Big Action! The variety of stimuli was immense, and while there were farmyard and saline, leather influences, so, too were there herb, garrigue, blackberry essence and floral, spiced companions in the wine.

The 2000 and 2001 were set alongside a dish of quail and one of beef. The 2001 was more reserved than the outgoing 2000, delivering fruit in the direct, clear nature of the vintage. It benefited from decanting, and was still en jeunesse, as shown by the strong emergence of licorice influences - closely attached to the Mourvèdre - after two hours. In other words, it has still to integrate and deliver a concerted gras richness. I would leave it until 2014. "We had the time to wait in 2001, given the fine autumn, and the acidity level is higher than that of the 2000" commented Pierre.

The quail was a dish of aromatic salt rubbed, stuffed quail with pork belly/shiitake and pistachio, served with miso braised leek, the vegetable touch very successful. The beef was an Australian Wagyu tenderloin, with fondant potato, pressed beef shank (juicy, good), smoked tuna butter and enoki mushroom. Both held sufficient depth to accompany these undoubtedly big wines - only 13.5°, low by today`s standards (the 2007 Hommage is 15.5°) - but themselves packed with flavour and character.

La Lanterne Rouge, bringing down the curtain on this two day Beaucastel celebration, was the 2007 Hommage. "This was a very hot vintage, with a lot of structure and texture," stated Pierre. My firm theory about 2007 is that it is a Châteauneuf vintage that benefits from the presence of at least 20% Mourvèdre, to contribute freshness and length to the otherwise riskily baked wines.

It is an enormous wine, but its balance means it will live a very long time - even towards 2040. Waiting for this is imperative, and I certainly would not touch it until the late 2010s. The next duo of Hommage goodies coming our way will be the 2009 and 2010, with the wine being offered in both those contrasting vintages, one solar, the other more based around freshness.

******  2009 Château de Beaucastel Roussanne Vieilles Vignes white  2033-35 
****(*)  2008 Château de Beaucastel Roussanne Vieilles Vignes white 2032-34 
***(*)  2003 Côtes du Rhône Coudoulet de Beaucastel red  2016-17 
******  2000 Château de Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin red  2028-31 
*****  2001 Château de Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin red 2034-37 
******  2007 Château de Beaucastel Hommage à Jacques Perrin red  2038-41 

The grande surprise of the trip for me was just how high the quality of food and wine was during the trip. The Maldives are clearly not just a sea, sand and swimming paradise - there is plenty of excellent cuisine and drinking to be done, in idyllic conditions. As the Guide Michelin would counsel: Gastronomy in the Maldives - vaut le détour - worth the detour.