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Châteauneuf on a roll: Beaucastel vertical tasting
La Vigneronne
30th November 2000

There's no doubt about it, Châteauneuf is on a roll. With the year 2000 looking like it's going to complete a triumvirate of very good vintages since 1998, and increased interest in the appellation from enthusiasts in the USA, prices have already begun to rise. Added to this, availability is likely to be a problem, with the 1998s from the top producers now mostly sold out.

Château de Beaucastel is one of the leading lights of Châteauneuf du Pape, with a reputation for producing ageworthy wines with a higher than average proportion of Mourvèdre and, to a lesser extent, Syrah and Counoise. In fact, all thirteen permitted grape varieties are grown on the property, although not all make it into the Grand Vin each year. The main wine is labelled simply Château de Beaucastel, and in the best years a super-cuvée 'Hommage à Jacques Perrin' is also made. In addition, there's a second label, Coudoulet de Beaucastel, which is a Côtes du Rhône mostly made from grapes grown outside the Châteauneuf appellation.

Some controversy has surrounded Beaucastel in the past. First of all, there's been a lot of discussion about Brettanomyces (or 'brett', for short). This is a wild yeast that often affects wineries where cellar hygiene is less than perfect. At low levels in a wine brett can add a gamey complexity to the wine (in fact, it's pretty widespread in Rhône wines); at higher levels it's a contaminant that makes the wine smell strongly of animal manure. Certain vintages of Beaucastel, particularly the 1991, have been shown to have very high brett levels to the degree where many have considered them to be flawed. A possible complicating factor here is that some clones of Mourvèdre can themselves have a gamey, animal like character. From this tasting, it seems that the brett problem is very much under control at Beaucastel, with none of the recent vintages having much if any at all. The second area of controversy surrounds the unique and unorthodox heat treatment that the Perrins use. Before crushing the grapes pass through a Heath-Robinson-esque device that flash heats them to about 35 °C. No one has any idea what this process achieves, and some people object to it as 'unnatural'. However, it doesn't seem to be a problem to me -- the results speak for themselves, after all. It's nothing like the Pasteurisation process adopted by Louis Latour in Burgundy, which is alleged to strip the wines of some of their character.

I was deeply impressed by the consistency and high quality of all these wines -- they really do age superbly in most vintages. However, I was also intrigued by the marked differences between each vintage. This makes a mockery of the oft-asked question, 'which is the best wine?'. Take the comparison between 1985 and 1988 as an example, both of which I would rate as excellent. They are both superb wines, but both substantially different in character: I preferred the 1998, whereas many others preferred the 1985, but to call one 'better' than the other would seem to me to be slightly daft. Part of the appeal of these wines was that each was brimful with character, and likely to be drinkable over a long window of time: how I wish I had a cellar full of them. My favourites? It's too early to call the 1998, which will need substantial cellar time, and the 1995 is undoubtedly great but also needs a few more years, so I'll plump for both the 1988 and the delicious 1981 for current drinking.

1998 Coudoulet de Beaucastel
Coudoulet, the second wine from this estate, is back on form after several weaker vintages. This is an impressive Châteauneuf du Pape look-alike displaying good concentration and an attractive, ripe herby nose with a touch of caramel. On the palate this is clean (no gaminess), peppery and shows a firm tannic structure, suggesting it will age well. Very good+ (£10.95)

1998 Château de Beaucastel
Deep coloured, this isn't giving much away on the nose: there's just a whiff of herbs and spice. It's gorgeously full and ripe on the palate, with firm, spicy tannins. Very clean, with no animal notes, and chunky and dense, this has a promising future. Very good/excellent, but with the potential to be excellent in time. Availability may be a problem, with purchases from the cellar door limited to three per person, and you're unlikely to find much on merchants' shelves. (£35)

1997 Château de Beaucastel
Full, complex, open nose with bright, herby fruit and some of the gamey, animal character often associated with Mourvèdre. On the palate this is medium bodied, herby and complex, with spice and leather notes. This is drinking quite nicely now, but evidently has some way to go. Delicious. Very good/excellent. (£25)

1996 Château de Beaucastel
Showing more Grenache character, and a little austere, but still a very good wine. Warm, spicy, but slightly muted nose. Dense and peppery on the palate, with high acidity, firm tannins and a very dry, dusty character. Quite different from other vintages, but still very attractive, perhaps without great ageing potential. Very good+

1995 Château de Beaucastel
This is a class act, but it's currently going through quite a closed stage. The nose is initially muted, opening up with time to reveal some peppery, somkey complexity. On the palate it is firm, tannic and spicy, and obviously needs some time to show its best. Very good/excellent, but with a few more years will probably be excellent.

1994 Château de Beaucastel
Quite open on the nose with nice balance and complexity: it's herby, slightly medicinal, smoky and with a bit of animal character. On the palate this is tannic, herbal and complex. There's some sweetness to the fruit, which has a bit of stewed character. Very good+

1988 Château de Beaucastel
This has a beautiful full and evolved nose: minty, chocolatey and with a burnt toast character. Tannic, rich and dry on the palate; complex and full with a firm structure. Lovely balance. Firmer than the 1985 and not as sweet -- and better for it in my opinion. Excellent.

1985 Château de Beaucastel
A lovely, expressive, warm Southern wine. Distinctive, sweet caramelized flavours with ripe, almost stewed fruit. The nose is raisined, and there's tobbacoey, herbal fruit with good complexity and a dry finish. Still quite tannic and balanced. Excellent, but I prefer the character of the 1988.

1983 Château de Beaucastel
Still very deep red/purple colour, with only a slight brick red tinge at the rim. Herby, gamey nose. On the palate it is firm and tannic: there's a slight metallic edge to the fruit, which is beginning to dry out. There are also tobacco and tea notes. It's firm and complex, but a little to austere. Very good +

1981 Château de Beaucastel
Lovely stuff, drinking beautifully now. Full, balanced nose of spices and herbs with a touch of caramel and some gaminess. Balanced and full on the palate, with firm tannins and good spicy complexity (tea, leather and herbs). Gamey and rich with some time yet to go. Excellent

1979 Château de Beaucastel
Rich, mature nose of herby, sweet fruit. Softly fruited and sweetly spicy on the palate. This is complex and shows an appealing tobaccoey maturity; drinking well now. Very good/excellent

See also: Tasting the wines of Beaucastel, including the 2000 and 1999 vintages

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