Calgary Wine Life: Bin 905 Chateau de Beaucastel Tasting @ Divino, Part I

30 04 2012

[Cross-posted at www.calgaryisawesome.com]

Divino's Stone Cellar, a.k.a. Tasting Central.

I had fully intended that this monthly post would showcase a different player in the Calgary wine scene every month, highlighting the incredible depth of industry talent we have at our disposal locally.  And yet here I am, in CIA post #4, writing about another tasting put on by Bin 905, hosts of the Jim Barry Armagh tasting I covered back in February.  I know we have a remarkable array of wine stores out there, and I know many of them are doing great things with their event schedules, but I can’t say that I feel bad about the Bin 905 duplication because the tasting I went to on Saturday was just that cool.  Held at Divino restaurant’s Stone Cellar, it was a 12-bottle vertical tasting of one of the best and most historic producers of the famed Chateauneuf-de-Pape region in France’s Southern Rhone Valley, Chateau de Beaucastel.  A vertical tasting provides a unique opportunity to track the progress of a wine as it ages and lets you see the impact that a given year has on the style and flavour of a bottle, since you taste the same producer’s wine over a number of vintages; in this case, we tried Beaucastels from the mid-90s through the late-oos (whatever you call that decade), as well as one particularly special bottle from the tremendous vintage of 1989.  The initial tasting program featured far fewer bottles, but Bin 905 had the ingenious idea of offering people a free seat at the tasting if they brought a bottle of Beaucastel from a year that wasn’t yet in the lineup.  Thanks to a number of philanthropic volunteers, we all got treated to the most complete vertical tasting I’ve ever been a part of…which isn’t saying much, since I’ve only been a part of two, but it was still impressive.

Chateau de Beaucastel is a legendary producer in Chateauneuf-de-Pape:  along with a handful of others, it represents the creme de la creme of the region’s growers and winemakers.  CNDP stands out as a wine region because it permits 13 different grape varieties (combined red and white) to be included in its wines, a number that is dramatically higher than most other European wine-growing areas.  Beaucastel in turn stands out as a producer because, in almost all of its bottlings of red CNDP, it incorporates all 13 varietals into the mix, even the whites.  Like most other wineries from Chateauneuf-de-Pape, Beaucastel’s blends rely mostly on the big three red Southern Rhone grapes — Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre — but Beaucastel again takes a particularly individual approach to its winemaking by incorporating much more Mourvedre (usually around 30%) and much less Syrah (usually around 10%) in its blends as compared to most of its brethren.  The result is a deeper, thicker, more complex wine that ages very well and that spawns a host of secondary flavours after a few years in the bottle.  I had only ever had Chateau de Beaucastel from a recently-released vintage, and it was so knotted and closed upon opening that I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about until about 2 hours later, when I came back to the wine to find an absolute labyrinth of tastes and smells just starting to stretch their legs.  At the time I thought:  how great would it be to try one of these after it has had a proper chance to age?  It turns out I went one better, sitting down to this amazing event that brought a dozen bottles of Beaucastel from 5 to 23 years old into my grasp.

The lineup, mood-lighting style.

After that admittedly extensive lead-in, it’s time to get to the drinking.  What follows are expanded renditions of my actual tasting notes that I hastily transcribed over the course of the evening.  The tasting unfolded in two tranches (’89 to ’99 and ’00 to ’07), so to save you from a 3,000 word monolith I’ll write up the first half dozen vintages below and save the last half dozen vintages for a subsequent post.  We certainly kicked things off on a high note:  the 1989 Chateau de Beaucastel red CNDP was Wine Spectator magazine’s Wine of the Year in 1991 (97 points).  I can almost guarantee you that I’ll never have a chance to try this wine again.  Game on!

1989

This was an exceptional year in the Southern Rhone, considered the best of the 80s.  Looking at this wine, you would never guess that it’s 23 years old:  still solidly opaque at its core, it gradually lightened to a medium garnet at the rim, but it remained one of the thickest and darkest wines of the night (which is, frankly, insane).  The nose was all about the calm sophistication found in a fine aged wine:  some primary fruit remained (raspberry, black cherry, cranberry), but it was in the background, underlying more prominent aromas of dark rum/molasses, red flowers and the barnyard aroma (dirt, farm and, yes, manure) characteristic of many Chateauneuf-de-Papes.  It was on the palate that the 1989’s age began to show, as the flesh has clearly started to fall off the bones of the wine, leaving a thinner, peppery, slightly tart shadow that only hinted at the bottle’s former glory.  That’s not to say that it was totally over the hill:  there was still some notable tannin structure, still a decent helping of sour cherry fruit, and still a remarkably long silky finish.  This is why you go to tastings like this.

91-94 points

1995

Fast forward six years and you hit a wine that’s right in its glory.  Although the 1995 Beaucastel was slightly more purple than the ’89, it was also much more translucent, to the point where you could (barely) see through the core of the wine.  This bottle’s fruit aromas were much more on the dried side, with raisin, prune and fig matching up with prominent barnyard smells, leather and brambly notes.  And it hit the gas pedal when it hit the tongue:  it was thicker, bigger, rounder, fuller and more vibrant than the ’89, with tons of secondary flavour that you almost can’t believe comes out of fermented grapes.  Tar, black pepper, pavement and earth may not sound like an approachable flavour combination for a drink, but when it’s packed into a 17 year-old CNDP, it somehow works perfectly.  Tremendous wine.

93-95 points

1996

It’s hard to describe in typed words just how DIFFERENT this wine was from the previous year.  Same producer, same land, same grapevines, similar blend, but different vintage = polar opposite wine.  1996 was a REALLY bad year in Chateauneuf-de-Pape, with thoroughly uncooperative weather that challenged ripening and led to lighter, thinner wines.  The difference was immediately apparent in the glass, as the ’96 was so pale it was almost salmon-coloured and was completely transparent from rim to core, looking much more like a Pinot Noir than a Rhone Valley blend.  I would have expected a wine without Beaucastel’s standard heft to smell limp and tired after 16 years, but instead my glass was bursting with bright pure red fruit, candied strawberry and an almost bubble gum sort of sweetness — a gorgeous nose, if not an overly complex one.  I had my biggest surprise of the night taking a sip of this, as it almost tasted like a rosé, with a fruit palette that could only be described as “tropical”:  mango, watermelon, pineapple.  It was unbelievable.  Call this the easy-drinking patio Beaucastel.

87-89 points

1997

Another very difficult vintage (thanks to spring frosts and hail) led to another thinner set of wines than usual.  Perhaps in response to this, Beaucastel upped the percentage of Mourvedre, a big-bodied, thick, meaty red grape, in the blend of the ’97, and the resulting wine, while still translucent, was nowhere near as clear as the ’96.  Hugely interesting nose featuring a tang almost like sweat on top of the more standard leather, raspberry and cherry notes and an underlying floral perfume almost like potpourri.  The same flavours carry through to the palate, also picking up flavours of violet and sweet pickles; usually when I use “pickles” in a wine’s flavour description it’s a bad sign, but in this case I quite enjoyed this bottle.  It didn’t quite have the stuffing of the ’95, but it was still delicious.  I can’t get over the level of variety between these bottles…vertical tastings rock.

90-93 points

1998

Ladies and gentlemen, meet the best of flight 1.  1998 was a stunning vintage, and Beaucastel took full advantage, crafting a wine that was showing tremendously well at the tasting but that was built to easily go another couple of decades if you felt like it.  Deeper and more purple than any other wine so far, but in no way inky, it was a brilliant ruby in the glass, amazing to look at.  Brambly and wild on the nose, with aromas of black fruit, brown sugar and that now-familiar sweat tang, you could tell the wine was still a little tight and holding back some of its complexity.  It was an absolute mouthful to taste, with huge waves of nearly untamed tannin, luscious blackberry and currant fruit, big acid and an extended finish.  Quite simply a blockbuster.  I could drink this every night.  I would be very poor, but I could do it.

94-96 points

1999

The last of the introductory set of Beaucastels that Bin 905 put in front of us unfortunately ended the first act of the tasting on a down note.  It was starting to become apparent that the wines were getting younger, as this one was nearly opaque and nearly black in colour.  But there was a distinct mustiness on the nose, a mouldy bathroom/wet basement sort of smell that covered up notes of blackberry, copper and wood trying to break through.  While the other wines saw their aromas shift and evolve as they sat in the glass, this one stayed more or less the same throughout the 2+ hours of the event, and it tasted flat and unexpressive.  I think the wine was corked, affected by a bacterial taint that mutes flavours and replaces them with a wet-newspaper, musty-basement aroma that doesn’t go away.  Opinion at the tasting table was mixed about whether this wine was flawed, but based on the others I tasted, I can only think that it was.

82-84 points (but probably corked)

That’s the problem with a 12-bottle tasting:  halfway through and I’m already 1700 words in.  Time to sign off and give you a bit of a breather before the play-by-play of the tasting’s second half. Next time, the 2000s!

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7 05 2012
Calgary Wine Life: Bin 905 Chateau de Beaucastel Tasting @ Divino, Part II — Calgary Is Awesome

[…] For Part I of this mammoth tasting write-up, click here. […]

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