Calgary Wine Life: Thomas Perrin Beaucastel Component Tasting

23 02 2016

FullSizeRender-242I’m having myself a bit of a tasting month here.  A week after sitting down to some incredible 50, 51 and 52 year old Taylor Fladgate Ports, I was treated to one of the most memorable experiences of my wine life:  a chance to taste through the individual varietal component wines of the unparalleled Chateau de Beaucastel with proprietor Thomas Perrin, the first time such a tasting had ever been held in Alberta.  Beaucastel is the legendary estate of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the top region in France’s Southern Rhone Valley and the first area declared to be an Appellation d’Origine Controllee (AOC – now Appellation d’Origine Protegee, or AOP) in 1936, known for producing rich, dense and complex reds and whites of remarkable quality and longevity.  The Perrin family has owned Beaucastel for over 100 years, having purchased it shortly after most of the vineyards were ravaged by the phylloxera louse and just before the scourge of World War I. Two wars, 100 hectares and five generations later, Thomas Perrin and his family members carry on the legacy of the Chateau and the Perrin name.

Beaucastel’s winemaking philosophy was created and entrenched largely by Thomas’ grandfather Jacques Perrin, whose name graces the estate’s top wine, Hommage a Jacques Perrin, released only in top years.  The elder Perrin converted the entire estate to organic viticulture back in 1962, when almost nobody would even have known what that meant and the prevailing wisdom pushed hard the opposite way, toward the increased use of vineyard chemicals and pesticides.  Chateauneuf-du-Pape permits the use of an astounding 13 different grape varietals, 14 if you count the white version of Grenache (reds – Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Counoise, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Vaccarese; whites – Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette, Picpoul, Bourboulenc, Picardin), which is way more than your standard high-end rigid French appellation; Beaucastel makes a special point of using them all, white and red, in every vintage of its CNDP release.  They plant, harvest, vinify and mature each varietal separately, as each has a different growth curve and ripeness window, but in all cases they aim to tell the harmonious story of grape, soil, climate and region, of terroir, in their wines.

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The exact blend of Chateau de Beaucastel’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape changes every year, but it follows a unique formula of being lighter than usual on Grenache (usually around 30% of the blend, whereas it forms the bulk of most CNDP), heavier on Mourvedre (a Jacques Perrin favourite, and a personal champion grape of mine too) and much lighter on Syrah (which Thomas Perrin is not convinced is ideally suited to the region).  Blending 14 separate wines into one Chateauneuf-du-Pape is a yearly family endeavour, and we got a rare peek into the thoughts that went into that decision process.

There were 10 wines on the table:  9 freshly vinified single-varietal component wines from the 2015 vintage, pulled from their maturation in barrel and prematurely bottled for this tasting, and then the 2012 vintage of Chateau de Beaucastel, the sum of all the parts.  We tried three whites and six reds leading up to the finished product, a tasting experience I still struggle to believe actually happened.  My notes on all the wines are below, but I have not scored any of the component wines, as they were tasted in embryonic form and were never meant for individual public consumption.  (Most were still awesome though.)

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2015 VINTAGE COMPONENT WINES

Grenache Blanc

Harvested on September 12, 2015, and (like all the other component wines below) bottled as a cask sample without filtration or the use of any sulphur dioxide, this wine was slightly bubbly in the glass, a greenish lemon colour.  Yeasty aromas mingled with pineapple, crystallized ginger, herbal and floral notes, and although it was lush and somewhat bready on the palate, it was still incisive and cutting, flashing bright citrus and finishing green and tight.  Whites make up less than 10% of the overall Chateau de Beaucastel CNDP blend.

Roussanne (Young Vines)

What passes for “young vines” in Chateauneuf would count as old vines in Canada:  these were between 20 and 50 years of age.  This wine may still have been fermenting, as it was a crazy cloudy, hazy lemon colour, not remotely transparent at any point.  (After maturation, in the final blending process, the wine would be filtered and would lose the haze.)  Despite the unappetizing view, it unleashed amazing cinnamon, roasted apple and parsnip aromas, nutty and complex.  There was lots of everything on the palate:  acid, alcohol, even some tannin, with a rich mouthfeel, lemon juice tartness, an almost Parmesan cheesiness and grapefruit Radler yeasty flavours.  So expressive.

Roussanne (Old Vines)

Roussanne was one of Jacques Perrin’s favourite grapes, and the old vines on the estate, averaging 92 years of age, go into Beaucastel’s only single-varietal wine, the white Vieilles Vignes that is 100% Roussanne and 100% majestic, one of the best whites I’ve ever had in my life.  The 2015 unfinished, still-hazy, not-remotely-ready version of this wine could still have been immediately bottled and sold for triple digits.  Take the presence and structure of the younger Roussanne above; add star anise, butterscotch, celeriac and some tropical fruit; inject salinity and electricity on the palate; elongate the finish by an order of magnitude; and you get this wine.  If you see any 2015 Vieilles Vignes Beaucastel Blanc lying around in a few years, buy immediately and don’t ask questions.

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Terret Noir

I will admit:  I had never heard of this grape before this tasting.  I could probably have listed about 11 or 12 of the 14 CNDP grapes without assistance, but this one completely escaped me.  It makes up less than 1% of CNDP plantings and is 1-2% of the Beaucastel blend.  Thomas Perrin candidly admitted that Terret was “not a very interesting grape” (it’s low in tannin and moderate in everything else), but it’s used “like salt and pepper” in the overall blend, to add seasoning.  It was nearly opaque and vividly purple in colour and smelled amazingly primary, a sweet cherry bomb, but then tasted way earthier, drier and more rustic than the nose promised, all dust, dried fruit and pavement.  “Nondescript” about sums it up.

Cinsault

Cinsault is mainly known as a pink wine star:  it rocks in a rose.  This red came from 80+ year old vines, which tends to result in concentrated, complex grapes, but memorability wasn’t a prime asset of this component.  It was a fully translucent ruby hue and much less intense aromatically than anything that had come before, with faded red fruit and earth but little else coming through.  It tasted pleasant and honest, a little scratchy, strait-laced raspberry and pepper with mouth-drying tannin.  This is usually about 5% of the final blend.

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Syrah

You would think we were getting to the big dogs, but Syrah is actually also only around 5% of the final Beaucastel blend.  Thomas Perrin called it the “medicine grape” because its powerful colour helps build the visual depth and cure any paleness deficiencies in a blend, but he felt the grape excelled in the cooler, hillside-planted Northern Rhone, where it was protected from wind and sun, as opposed to the flat, hot and windy Chateauneuf, where it tends to overripen.  This one was a deep, potent purple and supported Perrin’s point with a richly sweet, almost Port-like nose, all brown sugar, blackberries and spice.  It was lush and shiny, spicy, full and dense, but still retained clear tannic structure and some sense of sharpness to its dark fruit flavours.

Counoise

This was the grape that supplanted Syrah in the Beaucastel hierarchy, elevated to around 10% of the blend when Syrah was dropped down to 5%, bringing many of the spicy, peppery elements of Syrah but with a much later ripening period that allows it to stay together better in the roasting Southern Rhone heat.  It’s probably safe to say that this was the surprise star of the tasting, with no fewer than three people asking if it could ever be bottled and sold separately (Counoise Revolution 2016!).  I agreed with the consensus:  this wine rocked.  It was measured in colour but beamed out strikingly pure black licorice Wine Gums, cherry Halls, black raspberry and celery aromas, packing long-lasting dark fruit, spice and white pepper flavours into a deft medium body.  Quite possibly the top component red, believe it or not.

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Grenache

The star of Chateauneuf-du-Pape (comprising 72% of all plantings in the region) but just part of the company in Beaucastel, this component was surprisingly dark in colour and featured prominent legs suggestive of its high (15.1%) alcohol content.  Blackberry and black cherry were pleasantly dirtied by charcoal and topsoil on the nose, but the story of the wine was its utterly silky, luxurious, weightless texture on the palate, effortlessly carrying flavours of sweet fruit and hot stones.  This didn’t steal the show at the tasting but it certainly cemented its CNDP street cred.

Mourvedre

We saved the most Beaucastel component for last.  Mourvedre is in many Chateauneuf blends to add structure and aging potential, but here it is one of the first ingredients in the recipe, at 30% or so tied with Grenache for top billing in the finished blend.  It was Jacques Perrin’s favourite grape (and comprises around 60% of the top-level Hommage bottling in his honour) and is the backbone of Chateau de Beaucastel.  Thomas Perrin said that Mourvedre has to have its feet in the water and its head in the sun, and CNDP’s moisture-retaining clay soils and scorching skies accommodate this perfectly.  This component was basically a purple-black blanket in the glass and smelled utterly Mourvedre, a swirling mix of hot rocks, sauna, pot roast, warm oven, copper and blood, with some red fruit leaking through.  It tasted savoury and dank, but in a good way, more roasted meat, coal and topsoil, tannic and still closed but hinting at greatness to come.  How so much complexity could already exist in a wine that was no more than 5 months old is insane.

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THE FINAL PRODUCT:  2012 CHATEAU DE BEAUCASTEL CNDP

The 2012 vintage of Beaucastel’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape was what Thomas Perrin called a “classic blend”:  30% Grenache, 30% Mourvedre, 10% Counoise, 5% Syrah, 5% Cinsault and a 20% mixture of the other 9 varieties, of which 8% was white grapes.  The finishing and maturation time afforded to this wine as compared to the others was immediately apparent:  it was polished and almost regal, a mostly transparent ruby-garnet colour leading into an explosive, red-fruit-driven nose that matched the exuberance of youth with remarkable poise and depth.  The soft and lush texture on the tongue is interrupted after a couple seconds by the sudden clamp of tannic grip, but not before an array of cherry, hickory, black tea, incense, smoke, cured meat, anise and Indian spices unfold in rapid succession.  This is amazingly integrated but still just scratching the surface of itself.  And now that I have had a peek into how it came about, I’m all the more impressed by it.  Thank you, Monsieur Perrin.

94+ points

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