Sometimes the wine gods conspire against you. I actually knew something like this was coming. Things had been going too well for too long. I recently thought about the roll I was on, nary a corked bottle in months, and even some suspect oldies had showed well recently, rotted corks and low fills be damned. And then there was this.
What should have been a wonderful evening was marred by misfire after misfire, and sadly we suffered a 50 percent hit on rate on my favorite Chateauneuf du Pape, the always reliable and often awe inspiring wines of Chateau de Beaucastel. Now you might have read that I am not a particularly enthusiastic fan of Chateauneuf, which is true since I am usually the one writing that, but the truth lies more with Grenache
than with the wines of Chateauneuf.
The truth is I think I am fairly well-aligned with many of the more traditional producers in the region with their reliance on the art of blending to make a better wine. Of course there are exceptions, stunning wines produced exclusively from Grenache, but they are few and far between. For me, Grenache rarely produces a complete wine, instead it offers up enticing perfumes of red fruit and herbs while delivering a relatively high alcohol, low acid mouthful of red fruit that can be mouth filling, yet at the same time a bit hollow. That’s where varieties like Syrah
come in, not to mention all 13 allowable varieties in the wines of the application.
For my palate, the magic happens when the big ball of red fruit is filled, like a toy chest, with the complexity afforded by these other varieties. Some black fruit, olives, bacon fat, leather gloves, dirty boots and hung game, all mixed around adding depth, structure and nuance to the explosive core of Grenache. That’s when things get interesting, and of course that is what Beaucastel specializes in.
One of the few and perhaps only producers to use all the allowable varieties in their wines, Beaucastel has historically allowed Mourvedre to share the spotlight with Grenache, each grape making up roughly 30 percent of a typical vintage of Beaucastel. The results show in the wines, in their youth as added textural component and a more complete mouthfeel, and on to older age when the nuance really begins to show. In many cases I would tend to recommend drinking Chateauneuf du Pape rather early as opposed to later, not because the wines don’t age well, but rather because they don’t seem to improve significantly with age. Change, yes, but for the better?
In the case of Beaucastel the opposite tends to be true. These are wines that reward aging, the early exposition of Grenache fruit inevitably yields towards the layered complexity that I look for in aged wines. Simplicity is supplanted by detail, at least that’s how it’s supposed to work. In the case of this flight of wine, simplicity was too often supplanted by crapola. Not necessarily the chateau’s fault of course, who knows where some of these wines have been, mostly in cellars since it's close to release, and one hopes that quality control for corks is predictably better today, but while there were some pleasant surprises here, the tasting did little to further my thesis. That thesis being that it might be better to buy older vintages today that sell at or close to the release price for the current vintage.
That should be sage advice, and if the wine gods did not conspire against me this evening, punishing me for my recent good fortune, this last bit might well have been completely different. Consider that of the vintages we tried, 1995-2005, all can be had for less than $100 a bottle. I tasted the 2010 last night, a truly lovely vintage for Beaucastel, and the price for that is pushing $100 in most places. Given the option of laying a wine down for a decade of buying one ready to drink, I would usually opt for the latter. As it turns out I might be mistaken, but frankly not withstanding the sequence of unfortunate bottles here, I would tend to stick with that advice with the obvious caveat that you tend to get what you pay for and working with a reputable retailer is essential. I recommend that people seek out some of these vintages of Beaucastel because I love the wines and think that they offer good value, when they are showing well of course.
So how were these wines? The 1995’s, we actually opened a back-up bottle, were corked and then cooked. A shame in light of the fact that this slow-to-evolve vintage had been showing promise of opening up just two years ago. This was followed by a corked bottle of the 1996! But then things took a turn for the better with a wonderfully over performing bottle of the 1997, a vintage I have dismissed in the past. Certainly not a great vintage, but one at peak, silky, lighter bodied, but open and expressive.
In contrast was the 1998, a vintage which showed great promise in its youth but one that has been nothing but trouble for the past several years. Gone is the explosive fruit, but there’s not much seemingly replacing it. It’s worth noting that this vintage included an unusually high percentage of Grenache, a departure for the estate due to the weather conditions that year. One has to wonder if this change in routine might be responsible for the wines awkward behavior or if it is in fact going through just an awkward phase. I’d put my money on the fact that this wine is not going to be better than it is today and would opt to drink up my remaining bottles sooner, rather than later.
With the 1999 we are back in form, rather classic form, Chateauneuf
that shows excellent balance and restraint, even elegance. I really liked this wine, it doesn’t knock you out but keeps you thoroughly engaged. The 2000 was quite the contrast, totally fun and full of fruit, plump and short, and not terribly complex, yet a wine that you can’t help but smile while drinking. 2001 returned us to the doghouse, turning our nose down at a heat-damaged, grey market import. 2002, the last truly bad vintage for the region was, as far as I know, not produced so we moved onto the 2003.
Now I am not a warm climate wine lover, and while this wine had all the pruny, high alcohol traits of that scorching vintage. It was better than I had expected, though still not I would want to return to. In many ways it’s qualitatively on par with the 1997, just at opposite ends of the spectrum, so I am sure there will be people out there who react to the 2003 as I’ve reacted to the 1997: a nice wine with a few faults but at it’s peak it will be a fine bottle.
Moving on to the 2004 we are treated to another cork tainted bottle, though one where one can get a sense of what lies beneath. A vintage probably similar in style to but notable better than the 1997, I would love to try this again in five years but expect it will be drinking quite well today and has a lovely ten year window to enjoy it in. And that brings us to our final bottle, the 2005. Up until this point the wines had all been notably clean, brett-free, though brett had been a trademark or sorts at Beaucastel. That barnyard smell was one of the things that made Beaucastel a love it or hate it wine, and in truth the high percentage of Mourvedre with its gamy, earthy aromas only helped to reinforce this aromatic profile, but Beaucastel cleaned up the brett issues that they had, or did they?
Not with this bottle, which opened with decidedly meaty, leathery aromas but morphed into a poop-a-thon with a few hours of air. I expect some will say this is just the Mourvedre, but I would have to disagree, this was old school brett and absolutely freaking delicious. This is a great vintage for Beaucastel; powerful, complex, rich and with impeccable balance. This was classic Beaucastel, and brings us back to the point of this article. If I were to be buying Beaucastel today I might be tempted by the 2010 tasted last night, but this 2005 is simply a better wine in my opinion, and at the same price a better deal. If you’re like me and enjoy austere, firm wines you might even want to backfill with some 1999, but this 2005 should be a must-buy for any Beaucastel lover out there.
So in the end this was a lesson of mixed messages. Yes, buying older wines can be a risky proposition, but at times they offer such compelling value that they can’t be missed. And it should be worth noting that most, in fact nearly all of the wines we tasted this evening were purchased within a year or so of release, so buying the wines young is no guarantee of quality either. Ah, the life of the wine lover.
For more information on Beaucastel, and tasting notes from 2008 please check out: A Beaucastel Vertical