By: Lauren Cross
I arrived in Paris with two bags. One small bag was full of camera equipment. A second large suitcase held a few clothes and lots of packaging material. I had come with the intention of taking France home with me to California, bottle by bottle and image by image. While I cannot share with you the wine I brought back, I can share a few images and thoughts which I hope will get you into the spirit for a trip to your local wine merchant if the Rhone itself is out of reach.
As I rolled south from Paris on France's wonderful high-speed train, the scenery through the windows transitioned from flat green meadows dotted with red brick villages to the rolling hills, tall trees and beautiful rivers of southern France. I rented a car in Avignon and followed directions to the tiny winding streets of the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It was clear that these passageways -- and those similar in the other ancient villages of France -- were not intended for vehicular travel, but dated from the days when horsepower had a more literal meaning.
When you decide to visit Château de Beaucastel, take my advice and don’t follow the directions of your GPS, however well-intentioned its electronic voice may sound. It was an absolute miracle I finally found the vineyard and made it to my appointment with Cesar Perrin on time.
Château de Beaucastel is more than vineyard, offices, winery and cellar. It remains the spiritual center of the Perrins' work in the Rhone, and has been a literal home for the Famille Perrin since 1909. César’s grandmother Marguerite, widow of Jacques and father of Jean-Pierre and Francois, lives there still.
We started our tour in the vineyards that surround the winery. I had heard about the “rocky soil” of Châteauneuf-du-Pape but I was not expecting this! Large rounded rocks, rolled down by the Rhone River from the Alps, cover the vineyard, storing up the sun's warmth during the day and radiating the stored heat late into the evenings. There are vines here that are over 80 years old. It looks like a miracle that anything grows at all!
There were more similarities than differences when comparing the wineries of Tablas Creek and Beaucastel. Both use large barrels, foudres and stainless steel for whites. Uniquely, Beaucastel uses concrete vessels lined with porcelain tile for some of their reds where Tablas would use steel. Why don't we use tile-lined concrete here in California? One word: earthquakes.
At Beaucastel they have entire huge halls of foudres. These large aging vessels are the same size as -- in fact, made by and built in the same place as -- those that we have at Tablas Creek. They have one larger foudre almost double the size of the others.
Down a winding staircase, below the winery and offices, is the aging cellar of Chateau de Beaucastel. Winding hallways are stacked unimaginably high with unlabeled, unboxed bottles. Bottles ranging back a decade and more are piled on sand-covered floors, awaiting the special event for which they'll be labeled, boxed and shipped away. Since Beaucastel is sold in nearly 100 countries, each with their own language and labeling regulations, it's best to store the bottles unlabeled until they know their final destination.
The highlight of my trip was the cellar tasting. I sampled the newest 2012 Beaucastel Blanc and 2011 Beaucastel Rouge (both delicious). Then we tasted the 2009 Rouge and a very dusty half bottle of 2007 Rouge (very reminiscent of their Tablas Creek sisters but with unmistakable flavors of the Beaucastel terroir- deep, earthy and spicy). Finally, Cesar asked me what else I wanted to taste. I was so blown away by this time that I left it in his hands. He dug around for a while and returned with another very dusty half bottle and after pouring me a taste asked me to guess the vintage. He gave me a hint, that this was the vintage Château de Beaucastel was named #1 wine of the year by Wine Spectator….drum roll please… I guessed 1989 correctly! (I did my homework, you see. It was incredible! The wine was silky smooth with unparalleled depth and additional aging potential.)
My visit done, I headed back north to begin my homeward journey. As I traversed the crowded Paris subways with a suitcase loaded with wine, I decided that drinkable souvenirs may be cumbersome but are worth every exhausting step and sideways Parisian glance. I had the adventure of a lifetime and feel even more connected to the wine and wine loving people that give Tablas Creek its unique connection to France.