Other Wines We've Loved: 2007 Beaucastel

Last night, with my sister Janet in town, we decided to grill. I got a lovely two-inch-thick, two-pound boneless ribeye from our local butcher J&R Meats. I don't normally cook such thick steaks, but think I'm going to in the future. I seasoned it with salt and pepper and set it over a grill in a technique I've been using more and more, where I heat the briquettes and then pile them on the sides of the grill, leaving an area in the middle that's heated from two sides but doesn't have any briquettes there to flare up should fat drip onto them. I grilled the steak for about eight minutes on each side, over a hot but not scorching fire, and then pulled it off the coals to rest for five minutes when the internal temperature hit 135°F. 

To accompany the steaks, I sautéed up some mushrooms we'd gotten from our farm share with white wine, parsley, and garlic (working off an old Mark Bittman recipe), baked some potatoes, and made a salad. It was a meal that showed why the classics are the classics. The steak came out a perfect medium-rare, juicy and with excellent steaky flavor. The tanginess and umami of the mushrooms were a great foil for (or accompaniment to) each bite of steak. The potatoes were fluffy and soaked up the juices. And the salad, which we ate at the end in the French style, was refreshing and tasty. 

To accompany the meal, I wanted a wine with enough fruit and tannin to stand up to the robust flavors on the plate and enough complexity to add to the night's experience. I chose a 2007 Beaucastel, which I remember thinking was one of the greatest young wines I'd ever had when I tried it at a dinner in 2010. Our Controller Denise Chouinard remembered my talking about the wine when I came back to the winery, and got me a case of it later that year. Those bottles have been sitting in my cellar ever since. I decanted the wine to give it a bit of air:

2007 Beaucastel Bottle
 The wine was every bit as good as I'd remembered. I jotted down some notes as we were finishing the bottle:

Still a lovely dense purple-red. Nose of licorice and smoky chaparral and minty currant and black cherry. Flavors of bakers chocolate and black plum, graphite and baking spices. Still youthful and powerful at age 16, with plenty of tannins to go another two decades. 

The five of us finished every drop of wine, and every bite of food, and sat around the table talking for another hour. It was a great reminder of the magic of a great bottle of wine: that it brings people together, evokes past gatherings, reminds you of the traditions you're a part of even as you create new ones. I'm grateful I have several more bottles of this, and can't wait to be reminded of this meal the next time I open one.


A lovely Vermont summer dinner of lamb, tomatoes, potatoes, and old Beaucastel

My family and I spent most of July in Vermont. I grew up there, and each year we try to go back and give our kids the chance to discover the streams and forests, fields and ponds I spent my childhood exploring. My sister and her family make their home next door, and my mom still spends half the year there, in the house I grew up in. I know that the setting hasn't changed much in the last 50 years. It probably hasn't changed much in a century:

Vermont House

When we go back, we're a group of nine, five adults and (this year) kids aged 18, 15, 13, and 9. Everyone likes to eat, and a many of our most memorable moments of each trip are spent around the table. To keep it from being too much of a burden on any one person, we share out the tasks of cooking, setting, and washing each evening, and always designate a few people each evening to be Riley (think "life of...") so they can relax without guilt. If you're in a rut on your vacation meal planning, I highly recommend this system.

As our time in Vermont wound down, my mom and I were signed up to cook one night, and we decided to make a meal that would allow us to explore some of the treasures my dad accumulated in the wine cellar there. Earlier in the trip we'd opened some old Burgundies and a few old Tablas Creeks, but this time decided to dive into the stash of Beaucastel. That stash included two of my favorite vintages: 1981 and 1989. To pair with the wines, we decided on racks of lamb (sadly, not Tablas Creek, since we were on the other coast, but delicious racks from the local co-op grocery). My mom cooked them according to this favorite David Tanis recipe in the New York Times, where the racks are rubbed with a blend of mustard, garlic, anchovy, salt, pepper, and herbs. These racks are then roasted over par-cooked potatoes, which have been boiled then crushed. As everything roasts in the oven, the potatoes absorb the juices and flavors of the lamb and its rub. As a side dish I made a variation on roasted tomatoes from a favorite Barbara Kafka recipe, where small tomatoes are rubbed in olive oil and salt, then roasted whole at high temperature with peeled cloves of garlic scattered around. When they're removed from the oven, you scatter some strips of basil over the top. A few photos, starting with the lamb, which turned out perfectly:

Vermont Dinner - Lamb Racks

The potatoes were meltingly delicious:

Vermont Dinner - Potatoes

I love roasted tomatoes with lamb, because their brightness helps cut the richness of the meat. The garlic pieces are great for spreading on crusty bread.

Vermont Dinner - Tomatoes

And finally, the wines, which were definitely worthy of all this fuss. The cool, damp underground cellar where the wines have spent the last four decades is great for the wines' evolution, but (as you can see) less than ideal for their labels:

Vermont Dinner - Wines

As for the two wines that night, both were excellent, and the 1989 truly outstanding. My sense was that the 1981 was a little past its peak, and starting a graceful decline, while the 1989 is still at the top of its game:

  • 1981 Beaucastel. A nose of truffle and balsamic, sage, graphite, leather and a little juniper. On the older side but still quite present and intense. On the palate, still intense and firm, with good acids, flavors of meat drippings and plum skin, coffee grounds and pencil shavings. The finish is still persistent.
  • 1989 Beaucastel. Plusher and more powerful on the nose, aromas of mocha, black cherry, mint chocolate, and soy marinade. The mouth is fully mature but still has lovely fruit: cherry and currant fruit, new leather, meat drippings, sweet baking spices, and chocolate covered cherries. Long and luscious but still somehow weightless. 

It was a fitting conclusion to a wonderful three weeks. And I couldn't help thinking that my dad must have been smiling down at us all witnessing it.


Francois and Cesar Perrin lead us through a vertical tasting of Beaucastel Blanc and Roussanne Vieilles Vignes

Last year, when Cesar Perrin was in town for blending and the Hospice du Rhone celebration, he made use of some of the extra bottles he had after pouring at their library tasting and some of what we had stashed here at Tablas Creek to host an impromptu vertical tasting of Beaucastel reds with the team here. It was a treat. So I was excited when he asked before his visit this year if I wanted to dive into a different part of the Beaucastel repertoire. When he suggested looking at Beaucastel's white wines, I jumped at the idea.

Beaucastel is rightly famous for its reds, but its whites are icons in their own rights. More than a decade ago, we hosted a producers-only symposium on Roussanne in which we dove into its history, growing, winemaking, and marketing. We began the three-day event by asking the 25-or-so producers there why they first set their sights on this famously difficult but lovely grape. Probably two-thirds of them mentioned having had Beaucastel's white as a formative moment in their appreciation of the Roussanne grape. And they weren't alone. No lesser authority than Robert Parker called Beaucastel's Roussanne Vieilles Vignes "a staggering wine of extraordinary complexity and richness" which "offers a nearly out of body wine tasting experience" while giving the 2009 vintage a perfect 100 point score.

Beaucastel makes two white wines from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Their main Beaucastel Blanc is composed of 80% Roussanne for core depth, richness, and ageworthiness, 10% Grenache Blanc and Clairette Blanche which offer a balance of texture, freshness, and minerality, and 10% Picpoul, Bourboulenc, and Picardan for bright acids and spice notes. This is aged in mostly one- and two-year-old barrels. They also make a 100% Roussanne from a 3-hectare (7.5 acre) block planted in 1909 that they call Roussanne Vieilles Vignes (old vines), 50% in new oak and 50% in one-year-old barrels. The lineup:

Beaucastel Blanc Vertical

We tasted six vintages of each, starting with the Beaucastel Blanc. My notes from each are below. The links will take you to the wine's page on the Beaucastel website:

  • 2021 Beaucastel Blanc: A lovely luscious nose of honey and sweet spices. The mouth shows flavors of spun sugar and citrus pith, gingersnap and a hint of sweet oak, with appealing brightness emerging at the end and giving relief to all the rich flavors. From a cool vintage.
  • 2019 Beaucastel Blanc: A nose of lemon custard with notes of wet rocks and fresh pineapple. The mouth is clean, with flavors of preserved lemon and sweet spice, cracked pepper and mandarin. From a heat wave vintage but you'd never know it; the wine was so fresh.
  • 2017 Beaucastel Blanc: Starting to show a little age on the nose, with notes of peppered citrus and creme brulee. The texture is dense but still bright, with flavors of grilled pineapple, caramel, and a little pithy bite on the end. Concentrated and rich, from a dry, low-yielding year.
  • 2015 Beaucastel Blanc: Showing more savory notes on the nose than the three younger vintages: sage, spun sugar, and candied white grapefruit peel. On the palate, lanolin, cumquat, orange blossom, and pineapple core. In a lovely place, with both aged and youthful aspects. From a warm, dry, windy year.
  • 2013 Beaucastel Blanc: A nose of orange blossom, creme brulee, oyster shell, and fresh pineapple. Seemingly younger than the 15 and even 17. Beautiful focus on the palate with notes of fresh honey and sweet green herbs and a mandarin peel bite on the finish. From a wet, cool year.
  • 2011 Beaucastel Blanc: A nose of roasted nuts, menthol, honeycomb, and tarragon. The palate had sweet-but-not-sweet flavors of vanilla custard, drying hay, and crystallized ginger. The finish showed more nuts, mineral, and a lemongrass herby note. Beautiful.

Cesar then presented six vintages of the Roussanne Vieille Vignes, again from youngest to oldest:

  • 2020 Roussanne Vieilles Vignes: An intense nose of new honey, white tea, and honeydew melon. The palate shows sweet lemon custard flavors with a rich mineral character that combines with the wine's remarkable texture to create an experience Francois described as "salted butter". The finish shows more of that vanilla bean custard character held in check by a little pithy bite. From a year Cesar described as a "classic Provence vintage".
  • 2018 Roussanne Vieilles Vignes: A more savory nose of lacquered wood and petrichor, with a floral honeysuckle note emerging with time in the glass. On the palate, flavors of sweet orange and tarragon, honey, and a little sweet oak. Elegant and lingering, from a terribly wet year when they lost 60% of their crop to downy mildew after a summer monsoon. Amazing that what was left is so good. 
  • 2016 Roussanne Vieilles Vignes: A nose of honeydew, lime leaf, and sweet spices, with a complex prosciutto-like meatiness lurking underneath. On the palate, graham cracker and fresh melon, sweet cream butter and fresh almond notes. From a California-like vintage with warm, sunny days but unusually cool nights. 
  • 2014 Roussanne Vieilles Vignes: A nose of sweet spices: clove, candied pecans, and creme caramel. On the palate, flavors of salted caramel and citrus leaf, amazing rich, creamy texture but still fresh. The Perrins said this was amazing with sea scallops and I'm sure they're right. From a cool year which produced wines with good focus.
  • 2012 Roussanne Vieilles Vignes: A nose showing its decade of age in a pretty way: cedar, jasmine, menthol and poached pear. The mouth shows flavors of caramel apple, complete with the bite of apple skin. Clean and lingering on the finish with notes of juniper and creme brulee.
  • 2009 Roussanne Vieilles Vignes: We broke out of the every-two-vintages pattern because Cesar wanted to share the wine they made for the Roussanne block's 100-year anniversary. A nose of graham cracker and white pepper, spicy and rich. On the palate, vanilla custard and toasted marshmallow, satsuma and fresh tarragon, showing a lovely line of clarity amidst all the richness. The finish is long and clean, with a continued pithy note.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The level of consistency across these wines was amazing. There were cool, wet years and warm, dry years represented, and yet the flavor profile was relatively consistent. The hot years still had freshness, while the cool years still had weight. That's a testament to the resilience of old vines, but also to the expertise of the Beaucastel vineyard and winemaking team. I feel like we get more vintage variation here at Tablas Creek.
  • The wines showed a very reliable, gentle aging curve that showed why Roussanne is famous for aging gracefully. The oldest wines we tasted were nearly 15 years old, and none felt even to middle-age, let alone toward the end of their lifespans. I've had Beaucastel Roussannes that were nearly three decades old. The character changes at that phase, losing much of the weight and gaining a lovely nutty mineral focus. That's wonderful too. If you're looking for a white that will reward your choice to lay it down, this is a great choice. 
  • The character of Roussanne just jumped out of the glass. That's probably not surprising given that the Vieilles Vignes was 100% Roussanne while the Beaucastel Blanc was 80%, but if you are wondering what heights the Roussanne grape can get to, I felt like any of these bottlings would give you a good sense. They're not easy to find, as whites represent just 7% of the acreage at Beaucastel, but they're worth the search. Who knows... it might even inspire you to start a winery.
  • Finally, what a treat to be led through this tasting by Francois and Cesar. My dad wrote an appreciation of the Perrin family back in 2014, when Jean-Pierre and Francois received Decanter's "Men of the Year" award, which I reread recently and felt encapsulated why we're so happy to be their partners. They're classic yet innovative, relentlessly focused on improving each year yet grounded by five generations of tradition and experience. What a great foundation for our work here at Tablas Creek.

Francois and Cesar present Beaucastel Blanc

Thanks, Francois and Cesar. What a treat.


Back from the Rhone Valley and Our Mediterranean Cruise

[Editor's Note: With this blog, we're pleased to introduce a new author. Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm has been a vital part of the Tablas Creek team since 2013. He grew up in Templeton, CA, on the Muscat vineyard his father owned. He recently returned from leading the 2019 Tablas Creek cruise, along with Winemaker Neil Collins.]

By Craig Hamm. Photos by Craig Hamm and Annika Sousa.

In June, our Winemaker Neil Collins, his wife Marci, my wife Annika and I shared the truly amazing experience of visiting the southern Rhone and cruising the Mediterranean. Now that a little time has passed and we've begun preparing for the upcoming harvest, I am reflecting back on the trip.

The first part of my trip began before the cruise, and even before the pre-cruise visit which brought guests to Beaucastel. Neil wanted to give me a couple of days to explore the many projects of Famille Perrin, so we arrived in France a few days early. Cesar Perrin met us at the hotel and we headed to Beaucastel. Upon approaching the Chateau we stopped on the side of an overpass looking at a road that split the Beaucastel estate in two. On one side, Chateauneuf du Pape. On the other side, Cotes du Rhone, whose grapes form the Coudoulet de Beaucastel. There were no fences to protect from deer or to delineate boundaries. Cesar pointed out several small cypress trees used as markers for the property line. Not like the Central Coast!

Beaucastel

There were tractors running through this rocky soil known as “galets”. I'd seen seen pictures of the vineyards in Chateauneuf, and I knew there were going to be some rocks but in person these things were tough to walk on. I imagine the days of working this land would really strengthen one's ankles.

And yet, a continent away, there were reminders of home. We were able to see bloom taking place on the Grenache vines and remember that same smell that we had just left in Paso Robles, and we stopped to pay our respects to the rows of mother vines from which our vineyard material is derived.

Mother mourvedre

Driving up to the Chateau was an exciting moment. Cesar opened up two grand doors and walked us downstairs to a quiet and dark cellar, lined with red brick floors and large oak casks. As we wound through the cellar, Neil would point to things he remembered using during his stint at Beaucastel in 1997, like sulfuring the bank of concrete tanks we passed, smooth with tiles on the inside. Deeper in the cellar, where the bottles age, we meet up with Cesar's brother Charles and a small group of tasters from Bordeaux. We tasted through different decades of whites and reds then sat together for a family style meal. It was just a hint at the start of what would become a wine lover’s ideal getaway.

After lunch, we visited Le Grand Prebois, the main cellar for the wines of Famille Perrin. This cellar was a mixture of a Gothic Cathedral and Chateau de Beaucastel:

Grand Prebois

After a short visit, we headed off to the village of Gigondas, at the foot of the Dentelles de Montmirail ridges. Past the village, up a track traversing a steep mountainside covered with terraced old vines, we found ourselves at the top looking over the entire Rhone Valley. It was patchwork of different shades of green from oaks, pine, and of course grapevines. Walking the vines we were shown some of the spots so precarious that they have to plow the vineyards by horse. Back down the hillside we met back up with the same group we had tasted with earlier that day to enjoy some freshly made pizza along with a selection of 1975, 1985, 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2015 Chateau de Beaucastel whites. Yes, white wines can age. Several other amazing bottles were opened at the table that night, but none as special as a 1974 Chateau de Beaucastel -- the last vintage that family patriarch Jacques Perrin made from start to finish. That's Cesar (left) and Charles (right), with Neil and the vertical of Beaucastel Blanc.

Cesar Charles and Neil

The whirlwind of the first day left me speechless but also grateful for the Perrin family’s hospitality. Day two began with similar intensity with a tour of vineyards, this time led by Claude Gouan (Beaucastel's long-time Oenologist, recently retired, below left, with Neil). First stop was atop a small hill in the parking lot of an old church, with a panoramic view of the Cotes du Rhone, the vineyards a collage of small parcels, each with its own slight difference in row orientation, growth, or age. It was wild to see so many vines with such age. Using passing cars on the road as markers for the property outlines was a fun challenge in itself.

Claude and neil in Vinsobres

We clambered back into the oversized passenger van that we'd been using and headed north to Vinsobres. Since the van was too big to fit into some of the village's tiny streets, we parked outside the ancient town walls and walked in for lunch. Vinsobres was one of the most fragrant places on the trip with flowering vines and small parcels of lavender fields and wild red poppy flowers dotting the landscape. The soil types ranged from sandy to heavy limestone that mirrors our most western block on the Tablas Creek property. On this site we were able to see 80 year old Grenache vines, still producing great canopies and clusters. Claude turned onto a dusty dirt road with lavender and oak trees neatly lined up. I asked his reason for this in my attempt at broken French, and he replied simply “truffe” -- French for truffles.

Continuing our whirlwind tour of Rhone regions, we crossed the Rhone river and stopped in at Domaine des Carabiners to taste their Lirac and Tavel wines. The fifth-generation producer, Fabien Leperchois, who is married to Claude's daughter Anaïs, achieved organic certification in 1997, and Demeter biodynamic certification in the vineyard as well as the cellar in 2009. The fact that they farm Biodynamically on a similar acreage to Tablas Creek got Neil fired up to see how they set up preparations and the equipment they used. Fabien joined us, we all piled back in the van, and headed to the road (below) that separates Lirac and Tavel.

Lirac and tavel

Fabian pointed out that the rocky soil contains the same stones from the Rhone River, and Claude tossed me a small “galet” as a souvenir. We tasted their wine on an overlook, above the vineyards in the area. We continued our tour to the little town square of Tavel, where there is an ancient Roman washing station that leads into small personal gardens that are fed by aqueducts, where we tasted a couple more Tavel biodynamic wines. We finished the night around a big family table outside the Gouan family home nestled amongst the vines of Beaucastel for dinner along with more wine.

Group at Tavel

Our own tour complete, the next morning we headed south to Avignon to meet up with the team of Tablas Creek cruise participants for the wine dinner that kicked off the cruise festivities. From this point we were following the cruise itinerary like all the guests, beginning the next morning with a group tour of the Chateau de Beaucastel vineyard, cellar and library. We got to taste several of the vintages of white and red Beaucastel in the library. There is nothing more you could ask for than sipping Chateauneuf du Pape in the cellar of one of the region's most storied estates. From there we whisked up to Gigondas for a wine paired lunch at Clos des Tourelles with Charles Perrin.

Clos des Tourelles Meal

We had a nice walk about the village, then back to the bus and to our next destination Aix-en-Provence, where we checked in to the hotel and had the opportunity to take a guided walk into town, ending at a beautiful Gothic church. When we settled in for the night, we'd earned our good night's sleep.

The next morning, we continued south toward Monaco, where the cruise ship waited for us, stopping on the way at Chateau Font du Broc, a beautiful winery in Provence to taste some Vermentino and of course rosé, enjoy a delicious lunch, and admire the views of vines running down towards the valley and an expansive horse paddock.

Chateau Font du Broc

This was my first time on a cruise. It was wild to see this 10-story ship that we would call home for the next week.

Ship

On embarkment in the evening we got to enjoy some Tablas Creek on our terrace with the lights of Monaco, its sailboats and yachts as our backdrop. Truly a great way to see the city off.

Patelin rouge monaco

When we awoke the next morning, we were in Italy. Portofino is a picturesque little fishing port that looked to me a movie set, with everything just perfectly placed and lit up by the bright blue sea.

Portofino

Next stop was Corsica, the Mediterranean island that is a part of France, but with a culture that owes nearly as much to Italy. We were the first American group to visit Domaine San Micheli, owned by the gracious Phélip family. The visit was a family affair, with the grandson opening the wines as the grandmother and grandfather poured the wines, alongside the winemaker.  We went through a little geography of the region and continued to try wines from all over the island in a wine-education-style lunch.

Lunch in the shade

Next, on to Sardinia, the larger island south of Corsica that belongs to Italy. In Sardinia Annika and I walked through a church that had been built on ancient Roman baths that were later discovered during renovations. We also walked around the Bastione Saint Remy for the expansive views:

Bastione San Remy

The cruise ship made its next stop on the southern Italian island of Sicily, before turning west toward Spain. In Trapani we had a great day swimming in the Mediterranean to rest our feet, which had covered a lot of cobblestoned kilometers over the last week. The water was clear and shallow for hundreds of yards. Side note: watch out for jellyfish. I got stung.

The beach in Trapani

The next day we spent at sea, making the long trip from Sicily to the Spanish coast. This was the occasion of our winemaker(s) dinner, where we poured magnums of Esprit and Esprit Blanc with the main course. But it wasn't the only on-board wine activity. We had a couple of wine receptions, and Neil and I hosted a seminar where we broke down the blending process, tasting all the components and the final blend. And, of course, wine at dinners. There was plenty of wine on this trip, even on days we weren't visiting wineries.

Blending seminar

Finally, we arrived in Spain, the last of the four countries we'd visit on this trip, and where we'd spend the longest. In Almeria (below left), we got to visit a Moorish castle. In Cartagena (below right), we ate enough tapas to feed a small army.

Moorish castle 2

Pork legs

But this being a wine cruise, we continued our education too. At Bodega Mustiguillo, in the Utiel‐Requena region, we dove into Bobal, a grape long thought to be good only for bulk wine that is being rediscovered as a quality wine making grape, used for rosé sparkling and several different blended wines. It was an interesting wine and reminded me of Tannat, in that the goal was to not have the tannins overpower the fruit. We got to try one from 95 plus year old vines. A cool learning experience for me, and a reminder that there are tons of grapes with the ability to make fun and delicious wines.

Our last day excursion was on the Spanish island of Mallorca, to tour a couple more wineries. They were a great contrast, with Bodega Ribas the oldest family owned winery in Spain and Mesquida Mora an up and coming producer, and biodynamic. The wines were amazing.

Lunch At mora

As good as the wines were on the whole trip, my take home from the cruise was that the company was even better. I started out not knowing a large majority of the guests but in the end after bus rides and shared dinner tables, beaches and of course evenings in Horizons Bar I felt like we were all family. I now know people who champion Tablas Creek from Virginia, Florida, Texas and all sorts of other places. For myself, as a first trip to Europe this is one for the books. Thank you to everyone that made this possible.


Back from the Rhone River Cruise

I am in Vermont, relaxing for a short time after a wonderful cruise up the Rhone River. And what an experience it was. We (Meghan and I, as well as our winemaker Neil Collins and his wife Marci) led a group of 62 up the Rhone, from Avignon in the south to Lyon in the north, with a short extension up the Saône to Macon for a little Burgundy experience to cap it off. From this floating home base, we made shore excursions each day to cultural, historic, culinary or oenologic destinations, reconvening each evening for a dinner paired with wines from Tablas Creek, Famille Perrin, Chateau de Beaucastel, and Maison Nicolas Perrin.  For those who made it, I wanted to share some photos. For those who didn't, but are considering coming next time (and yes, there definitely will be a next time) I hope this will give you a taste of what to expect. 

Our Home Base

Our home for this eight day trip was the Uniworld S.S. Catherine. This ship is one of the newest in Uniworld's fleet, named after Catherine Deneuve and showing much of the same glamour and elegance as her namesake. The exterior:

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The interior was beautiful, but the highlight for me was the roof deck, from which you could watch the countryside go by, the moon come up, or the sun go down:

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The Focus Visit: Beaucastel and Clos des Tourelles in Gigondas

Most of the itinerary of the cruise was that of the Uniworld ship we were on. However, we worked with our travel partners Food & Wine Trails to create two special experiences just for our group. A visit to Chapoutier, including both a tour of their Hermitage vineyards and a focused tasting and lunch in their cellars, was amazing. I'll dive into that more below. But the centerpiece of the trip for us (and, speaking to the attendees, for most of them) were the twin visits to the cellars at Beaucastel and to the Perrins' newer property in Gigondas: Clos des Tourelles. So that both visits could be more intimate, we divided the group into two. One half visited the first day of our trip, and the other half the second. We started with a tour of Beaucastel's Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards, with head-trained vines growing out of what looks like a moonscape of rounded river stones. That's Beaucastel's Hospitality Director Kirsty Manahan speaking to the group:

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Kirsty then brought us through the remarkable cellar, with stacks of bottles aging gracefully and big wooden tanks identical to those we use at Tablas Creek:

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We then moved to a tasting of the wines, including vintages back to 2001:

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One of the cool discoveries for me was a photo of my dad and Jacques Perrin from 1973: the beginning of the Haas-Perrin collaboration that ultimately resulted in Tablas Creek:

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From Beaucastel, we continued by bus to Clos des Tourelles, the Perrins' property in Gigondas. A former monastery -- the first permanent structure built outside the town's medieval city walls -- Les Tourelles is being renovated as the headquarters of the Famille Perrin umbrella, and is just a few months away from opening. We got to enjoy a reception on the property's patio, overlooking the walled vineyard that is the appellation's only "Clos":

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Charles Perrin joined us there, which was a treat for the guests:

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We walked up a short stairway to the town center, where the Perrins' restaurant l'Oustalet is located on a pretty shaded patio. I would submit Gigondas as one of the most picturesque villages in the south of France.

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The meal was delicious -- summer truffles, anyone? -- and the wines equal to the challenge:

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From there, fully sated, we continued to the first of our shore visits, a walking tour around the ancient town center of Arles.

The Shore Excursions

Each day, the participants in the cruise got a choice of ways to explore the towns and countryside we were passing through. Because it was a river cruise, and because we didn't have massive distances to travel, we woke up each morning in port, so the shore opportunities were daily and varied. Some were more sedate, like walks through quiet towns like Viviers (in which we also got to hear a short performance on the basilica's pipe organ):

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Other shore visits offered more activity, like the chance to kayak down the Gardon River to and under the remarkable Roman aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard. This was one of my top highlights of the trip, and a bucket list thing to do:

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One nighttime excursion was a bus tour of Lyon (the "City of Lights"), serendipitously as the full moon was rising:

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And, at the end of the trip, we spent a lovely day in Beaune, including a visit to the weekly market:

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And a tour of the lovely, historic Hospices de Beaune, a hospital for the poor started in 1433:

Hospice de Beaune

Focus Visit #2: Chapoutier and Hermitage

As we made our way north, we watched the landscape change from the southern Rhone's broad valleys and pebbly soils to the northern Rhone's steep terraced vineyards. When we reached Tain l'Hermitage, we stopped for the night. The next day, we were greeted at the ship by two representatives from Maison M. Chapoutier, the historic wine family who have farmed their vineyards in Hermitage since 1808.  We walked through the town and into the vineyard blocks at the foot of the hill which forms the town's northern border:

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The small size of the appellation was striking, as was knowing that this hillside has been the inspiration for a high percentage of the world's producers of Syrah. The tasting in Chapoutier's cellars was equally convincing, as we got a chance to taste wines from Hermitage (both red and white), Cote Rotie, and even Chapoutier's Chateauneuf du Pape, which was particularly interesting given where we'd just come from.

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We finished with a lunch in their cellars, which was a remarkable way to end a great day.

The Towns

We were docking in a new town each night, which meant new places to explore. Some of these I knew well (Avignon, for example) so I skipped the planned tours in favor of some simple wandering.  Others I'd visited, but rarely or not for a while, and in these cases I very much enjoyed the more formal narrative on the town's history and culture. Arles was one of these. The remarkable Roman amphitheater is one of the best preserved anywhere in the world, and was actually hosting a bull race -- the Camargue version of the "running of the bulls" famous from the Spanish city of Pamplona -- that day.

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The small town of Tarascon, just south of Avignon, has one of the best-preserved medieval castles in the south of France. 

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The castle had been converted to a prison during the French Revolution, which saved it from destruction. It also meant that the rooms had graffiti (largely from 18th & 19th century English prisoners) carved into their walls, which I found fascinating:

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It's particularly nice, I found, approaching these towns from the river. Unlike the typical entry points of railway station, airport, or even outside-of-town road sprawl, the river typically shows a historic face, and the docks were all in the middle of town rather than the outskirts. And it seemed like our schedule meant that we often arrived at dusk, which is hard to beat:

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The Onboard Program

As our group represented more than two-thirds of the passengers, whether we were mingling at breakfast, taking in the views of the river topside, or exploring the differences between pastis and pernod in the lounge, the ship's activities became group activities. And the length of the stay meant that after the first day or two everyone felt like family. But we did add a few enhancements to the ship's program. We sent over (or procured in France) special wines for each night's meal, doing our best to mirror what we were drinking to what we had seen that day or the parts of the Rhone we were passing. That meant wines like Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape and Miraval rosé in the south (and the Tablas Creek equivalents), Famille Perrin Gigondas and Vinsobres as we made our way north, and then the wines of Maison Nicolas Perrin in Tain l'Hermitage and Lyon.  It was a particular treat to be sipping on the (delicious) Nicolas Perrin Condrieu with dinner as we passed the tiny village of Condrieu on our way north from Tain to Lyon.

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Neil and I also hosted a seminar, where we got the whole Tablas Creek group together during a longer sail and deconstructed our flagship Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends, tasting these wines and varietal bottlings of each of the grapes that go into them. Coming toward the end of the journey, this also gave Neil and me a chance to put the visit into context:

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The River

But the star of the show was ultimately the Rhone. The engineering on display as we traversed 13 locks, each bringing us 60 vertical feet higher, was a recurring highlight of the trip. We would slow down and the windows would get dark as we entered the lock, massive yet barely larger than the ship. Then, after a pause, we'd begin to climb out of the manmade canyon, up to a new landscape at a rate of a foot every few seconds:

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It was equally impressive watching the technology required to pass under the low bridges, with the ship's awnings, railings, and even the captain's wheelhouse retracting into the deck:

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Wherever we were on our journey, we had the Rhone's patchwork of grain fields, vineyards, lavender and orchards on display, with the honey colored building stone of the old towns sprinkled in. That landscape was the constant backdrop of the many visits, and a lovely reminder of what draws millions of visitors to the south of France each year:

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If you joined us on this journey, thank you. I'd love you to share your own highlights in the comments. If you weren't able to join us this time, we'll definitely be back. And we look forward to sharing this experience with you then. 


On the Rhone: a Post-Cruise Appreciation

By Robert Haas.  Special thanks to Jeffery Clark, who provided most of the photos.

I’m back in Vermont, basking in the afterglow of our Tablas Creek cruise of the Rhone. It was a ten-day celebration (including the optional three-day visit to Paris and Champagne) of great food and wine, organized by our partners at Food & Wine Trails.  By the end, new friends felt like old friends, and our 120-person group had made the S.S. Catherine ours.  On a personal level, I very much enjoyed sharing with the group the homeland of the Rhône varieties that we have nurtured at Tablas Creek Vineyard. 

About one half of our large group of adherents opted for the Paris-Champagne addition, July 30th-August 1st.  The Bel Ami Hotel was comfortable, nicely air-conditioned (needed in the hot weather France has been seeing this summer) and well placed around the corner from Paris landmarks on the Boulevard St. Germain, such as the Brasserie Lipp, and the cafés Deux Magots and Café de Flore.  

For the trip to Champagne, we arrived in Vrigny at the property of Roger Coulon, propriétaire-récoltant on the Montagne de Reims, with an hour and a half bus trip.  Coulon produces only about 90,000 bottles from his own vines.  His cellars were straightforward, simple but modern.  We tasted his wines.   They had an artisanal terroir character that I loved.  We enjoyed an excellent champagne lunch at his close-by restaurant, Les Clos des Terres Soudées.  He paired his various cuvées of champagne with each course.  We then visited the cellars of Taittinger -- quite a contrast -- with traditional old cellars cut deep into the Champagne chalk under Reims, followed by a tasting of their wines.  The visits were enjoyable and educational.  Some of us preferred the artisanal drier, richer style of Coulon and others the traditional "grande marque" style of Taittinger.

We had some time to spend on our own in Paris and then took the TGV from the Gare de Lyon in Paris to Avignon on the 2nd to join the rest of the cruisers boarding the ship.  On my first visits to pre-autoroute France in the 1950’s, that trip down the N7 took 10 hours.  The TGV made it in 2. 

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The famous Pont d'Avignon

The voyage began with a short overnight sail to Tarascon, a little south of Avignon, from where there were interesting shore visits to Tarascon, a city that dates back to the late bronze age.  It has a riverside castle from the 15th century that is known as "The King's Castle" (Château du Roi René).

There was also a visit to Arles, which is close-by.  Arles is a fascinating city.  It was a Phoenician port by about 800 B.C., taken by the Romans in 123 B.C., and still is home to some of the best-preserved Roman remains outside Italy.  In modern times it was an attractive abode for Vincent van Gogh, who arrived there in 1888.  Many of his most famous paintings were completed there, including The Night Café, the Yellow Room, Starry Night Over the Rhône, and L'Arlésienne.

Arles amphitheater
The Roman amphitheater at Arles 

The centerpiece of the cruise was the stay in Avignon, which provided a base for twin cellar visits and delicious open-air lunches in the court of Château de Beaucastel.  It was fun to share the Beaucastel secrets with our group.  We were too large a group to all go at once so half the group went on the 3rd and half on the 4th.  Everybody got to taste from barrels and visit the old spotlessly clean cellars, as well as learn about Beaucastel's wine making.  Each day, those not on the Beaucastel visit got to tour the old city of the Popes with its palace and crenelated walls.

Cellars at Beaucastel
The cellars at Beaucastel

Lunch at Beaucastel
Lunch in the gardens at Beaucastel

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The lunch menu

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Barbara Haas, Robert Haas, and Francois Perrin at lunch

From Avignon we sailed north to Viviers, and then on to Tain- l'Ermitage. This stretch was during the day, so most of us assembled topside to enjoy the views and the passages through the écluses (locks).  I was fascinated by the ship's design, from the ballast tanks below that fill with water to the to the retractable pilot house, railings and awnings, all to lower the ship's profile in order to pass under low bridges across the Rhône.  

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The lock at Viviers

On deck
Mind your heads!

Tain- l'Ermitage was a second highlight.   We received a very good tour of the Hermitage vineyard and a sit-down tasting of Chapoutier wines. We were also treated to an excellent lunch served with northern Rhône wines.  I was interested to see the upright cane and spur pruning of the Syrah, a pruning we have adopted at Tablas on "Scruffy Hill."

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The remarkable hillside vineyards of the Northern Rhone

From there, we continued north to Lyon, passing the vineyards of Côte Rôtie and Condrieu on our port side just as we were served a dinner on board paired with wines of those very appellations from Maison Nicolas-Perrin

On day 5 of the cruise (August 7th, for those keeping track) we got to tour Lyon, a center of classical French gastronomy, and home to the remains of two side-by-side spectacular Roman amphitheaters: one for music and the other for drama.   In the evening we reconvened on the Catherine for a nice Tablas Creek cocktail party in the ship's lounge, followed by dinner in the dining room. 

Lyon marks the northern edge of what France thinks of as the Rhone Valley (though the river originates in Lake Geneva, in Switzerland).  But the cruise continued north to dock in Macon on the Saône, for an excursion to nearby Burgundy.  Many guests took a bus to Beaune, toured some of the vineyards of the Côte de Beaune, and visited the 15th century Hospices de Beaune, scene of the annual wine auction of wines from its vineyards.  We heard this was all wonderful.  However, Barbara and I, along with Neil and Marci Collins, instead took a car and drove through the vineyards of Pouilly-Fuissé and Beaujolais to visit an old friend Claude Geoffray, the 7th generation proprietor of Château Thivin in the Côte de Brouilly. 

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Radishes in the market in Beaune

From Macon we all sailed overnight back to Lyon where we debarked August 9th and went our own ways. 

Although the unusually hot weather was noticeable on shore visits, no one seemed daunted, and they proceeded as planned and seemed to be enjoyed by all.  The ship, of course, was well air-conditioned and the cabins very comfortable.  The food and service aboard was excellent, far exceeding my expectations, and the wines from Famille Perrin, Beaucastel and Tablas Creek set the scene.  We were definitely on a Food and Wine Trail.  Lots of good conversation flowed in the Leopard Bar before and after dinner. 

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The view from inside the cabin

We are already looking forward to our next cruise in 2017.


On the Road: a Rhone Pilgrimage

By Darren Delmore

I had the distinct pleasure of tagging along last week on a trade visit to the Perrin family's holdings in the Rhone Valley.  Our odyssey began with our thirsty quintet of wine professionals packed into an undersized rental car like foie gras terrine as we traversed from Dijon to Valence. I sat shotgun with GPS in hand and snails in my belly as we watched the landscape change from the sunflowers and Charolais beef pastures of Burgundy to the lavender fields and olive groves of the Rhone.

I had been on three surfing expeditions to the old country -- relic of an earlier life -- but I had never visited an AOC. I had been waiting years to see the land where my favorite grape varietals hail from and experience the Tablas Creek mothership of Château de Beaucastel for the first time.

An hour into the southward drive, Côte-Rôtie stretched out to the west, with its expansive south facing range planted densely with vines. Between the hills and our American automatic transmission predispositions, our unfortunate rental car received the name “Le Clutch Fumé” about this time.  “The Hill of Hermitage should be popping up like a Jack in the Box next,” our driver advised.

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We were first scheduled to meet with Nicolas Jaboulet and taste the wines he is making and selecting for Maison Nicolas Perrin. Having the last name of Jaboulet in a burg like Tain-l'Hermitage is like living in Hollywood with the surname of Hitchcock: it’s billboarded on the hill of Hermitage itself, which at one time his family owned a coveted 30 percent of. When he started Maison Nicolas Perrin (in partnership with the Perrins) in 2009, he used his many key connections to source fruit and wine for the project, the range of which includes Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, St. Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, and Condrieu. We met up with Nicolas at a brand new tasting bar in the main square of Tain-l'Hermitage, where you can buy all of the Famille Perrin wines and taste a range of them too. 

IMG_0719Nicolas Jaboulet

“Crozes-Hermitage is the wine we want to be known for,” Nicolas pointed out during the tasting. His 2013 certainly makes a case for it. We learned that 85% of the Crozes-Hermitage plantings are Syrah, with the balance being Marsanne and Roussanne. “Many growers have taken out Roussanne,” he said. “They only wanted Roussanne if it could be co-harvested and fermented with Marsanne. Growers didn’t want to wait to have two different picking dates for the whites.” 

IMG_08312014 Nicolas Perrin wines resting in foudre and barrique.

At the tail end of the tasting we met Benoit Busseuil, Nicolas' assistant winemaker. He drove us up onto the top of Hermitage to see the labyrinth of Syrah plantings stretch out below us to the banks of the Rhone river. Seeing the tiny parcels and gnarled vines, the price tag on the rare bottles to hail from the hill instantly made sense to us. 

Benoit  - 1Benoit and Syrah vines in Hermitage.

We piled back in the car and headed south where Nicolas met back up with us and treated us to lunch at Michel Chabran in Pont de l’lsére. The wiser of us followed Nicolas’ lead and opted for the Tapas Dégustation menu, along with tastes of the 2013 Hermitage Blanc, 2012 Cote-Rotie, and a rare 2013 St. Joseph Blanc from Domaine Bernard Gripa. 

Northern rhone lunch - 1Lunch at Michel Chabran                                                           

*    *    *

In a way, the region of Vinsobres reminds me of Mendocino County in Northern California. The most northernmost appellation in the Southern Rhone, the vines perch on hills up to 1200 feet elevation with plenty of wooded areas between the steep hillside plantings. Vineyard blocks of all different sizes, unmarked and unfenced, with little trellising, must require institutional knowledge or government intervention to keep straight who owns what.

Vinsobres - 1Vinsobres' name originates from the Latin words "vin sobre" meaning "dark wine". The dark color comes from the high percentage of Syrah in the appellation: higher than any other in the southern Rhone.

In a small cluster of houses -- might we call it a Patelin? -- a few kilometers outside of the village of Vinsobres, the Perrin Family guest house is notoriously difficult to find.  That said, I take full responsibility for typing in the incorrect address on the GPS.  We pulled up at the wrong house, unloaded our bags and even entered a place that kind of looked like it could be the Perrins' house (with the exception of dirty dishes in the sink, shoes and socks at the door and a desk with documents and an adding machine in place). Paul drove off to see if we’d overshot the address, leaving four of us to roam the grounds. Soon an engine sputtered its way up the drive and I encountered a 60-something couple and their terrified faces upon the sight of four dudes and my beard in particular, plus all of our luggage sprawled out on their driveway. They handled it well enough, especially since they had no idea what we were saying and vice versa. Paul reappeared with word that we were two kilometers short of the destination. We hoped they didn't lose much sleep over the knowledge that we were still somewhere in the vicinity.

IMG_0762The real Vinsobres house.

The Perrin guest house at La Vielle Ferme de Vinsobres would have author Peter Mayle reaching for an advance. They carefully restored this centuries-old five-bedroom farmhouse over a decade, adding a modern kitchen, bathrooms, swimming pool and wi-fi.  Well-manicured lavender and rosemary line the property, with old vines above and below and no neighbors in range. A well stocked wine cellar on the ground floor awaited us, and we’d shopped heavily in Tain for the night’s provisions, which one of my fellow travelers (a chef in real life) attacked with aproned vengeance.

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With Merguez sausage from the grill, steak, cheese and jambon d’Ardeche, plus the biggest salad we’d ever seen, we enjoyed an extended evening on the outdoor balcony, eating and raving about the day, with some major anticipation for the next day's agenda. 

IMG_0765 Five bottles of Famille Perrin for the five of us… seems about right!

*          *          *

Kirsty Manahan is the hospitality director for Famille Perrin. Born in England but raised in the south of France, she arrived the following cloudy morning with the property caretaker Mohamad to guide us around. The weather had changed dramatically, and she pointed out that we were due for a code orange weather day, which includes heavy rain, thunder and some lightning. As we took our positions in Mohamad's pickup truck for a vineyard tour, the luckier ones got in the four-seat truck cab, while the rest of us hopped in the back of the pickup with two umbrellas. A roar from the sky above had us looking at each other as "Momo" hit the gas. The drops soon followed. 

Truck tour - 1Code Orange storm tour of stony Vinsobres via pickup truck.

We bounced up along a clay terrace and climbed a good 400 feet past Syrah vines and an interesting patch of Clairette Gris. It wouldn’t have taken much to roll right off of the tailgate with the speed and rocks we were pounding along. The landscape would vary from cobblestones to fluffy clay then to pure pink sand. At the top of the hill the gusts of wind whipped away at us and in spite of the umbrellas, we were now officially soaked, even before a gust imploded one umbrella, leaving it looking more like a weapon than anything useful in the rain. For the last half hour left on the tour, our wonder at the rugged scenery provided our only shelter from the elements. 

Umbrella - 1Our ex-umbrella. 

Once we thawed and dried out, we followed Kirsty to Gigondas for a tour of Clos des Tourelles. In my previous life as a cellarhand, this micro, single vineyard operation would be my dream winery. Built to only produce the one estate wine, it’s compact, clean, historic, and simply appointed with open-top cement tanks for fermentations and French oak foudres for the aging process.  The Clos des Tourelles is the only clos (walled vineyard) in Gigondas, and the Perrins have been rehabilitating the buildings since they bought it a few years ago.  Construction was actively going on, with the goal of making it the centerpiece of the Famille Perrin holdings. The views are incredible, and the tasting room and guest rooms (scheduled completion: 2016) should be an instant landmark when they open.

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16th Century architecture at Clos des Tourelles | One of a mere four foudres in the cellar.              

From the Clos you can walk directly up to L’Oustalet which is the hotel and restaurant the Perrins opened a couple years ago. 

IMG_0801L'Oustalet in the village of Gigondas.

The sleek restaurant was fully booked for lunch service and chef Laurent Deconick was in the house. We started with a splash of Miraval Rosé then had an incredible menu of Mushroom Risotto with 2011 Beaucastel Vielles Vignes Roussanne, chicken prepared three ways with a dense, powerful Famille Perrin L’Argnee 2010 Gigondas, and then -- we still had work to do, after all -- Rhubarb sorbet and espresso. I made a mental note to spend a few more days in Gigondas next time around. 

IMG_0821Ancient Grenache vines for L'Argnee in Gigondas. 

L'oustalet lunch - 1A very happy table at L'Oustalet.

The clouds clamored as we approached the four o’clock hour and the town of Courthézon near Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In case we were uncertain of its historic significance, there was actually a sign for Beaucastel on the main roundabout along with major cities and highways. People were snapping pictures outside of the Château as we parked. This was it. We’d finally made it to mecca. We took turns taking cell phone glory portraits of us standing on the stones while Kirsty gave us some backstory on the viticulture laws in the region (no irrigation, head trained low to the ground). 

IMG_0846Chateauneuf's famous galets (river stones) in the vineyards at Beaucastel.

We toured the cellars and I wasn't entirely surprised to see the same bladder presses, destemmer and French oak foudres that we use at Tablas Creek. Cesar Perrin -- who worked harvest at Tablas in 2011 -- appeared at one point pushing a bottle cart to collect some wines to label for sale. In the foudres, 2013 and 2014 lots of Coudoulet de Beaucastel and Château de Beaucastel slumbered, while the rain hammered on outside.

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Seguin Moreau Troncais Forest oak foudres.                                                                                                                      

IMG_0858  Bottles of 2012 Château de Beaucastel Rouge. 

Kirsty had arranged an impressive array of Famillle Perrin wines to taste above the cellar, starting with 2014 Les Sinards Blanc, followed by Coudoulet de Beaucastel Blanc and Rouge, three wines from Gigondas, and a powerful foudre sample of 2013 Chateau de Beaucastel Rouge. "And I have some surprises for you," she announced near the end, as if the tasting needed surprises to keep our interest. These treats included a stellar 2001 Hommage à Jacques Perrin, a lively and ethereal 1970 Beaucastel Rouge, and a 1985 Vieilles Vignes Roussanne that at 30 years old was clear, precise, and full of life.

IMG_0862The Southern Rhone, only slightly abridged. 

It was clear to all of us in two days of touring that the Perrins are not only the ambassadors of the Rhone Valley, but they have achieved that difficult balance between tradition and modernity with their wines. Their vision, their experience with their terroir, and their commitment to making wines of place have produced a range of different village cuvees, each with its own identity and well-defined personality. And their commitment to converting each parcel they take over to organic farming means that over time these personalities will only become clearer. 

For our last hurrah, we met Marc Perrin afterward for an early dinner in the village. He arrived from Provence where he'd been meeting with Brad Pitt and looking at vineyards and sources to grow the Miraval brand. Why not? If we needed a reminder of how the Perrins are always looking for new good ideas, Marc provided it. One of the guests brought up at dinner that they thought Miraval rosé half bottles -- which haven't been produced yet -- would have potential in the Los Angeles market. As if Marc didn't have enough going on in both the Northern and Southern Rhone, his eyes widened with interest at the suggestion, and you could see his mind immediately begin working. "If I can find the glass, we will try it," he offered. I can't wait.


A first timer's visit to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Château de Beaucastel

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.

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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.

PicMonkey Collage Village

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.

PicMonkey Collage_Outside

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. 

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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!

PicMonkey Collage_Winery

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.

PicMonkey Collage_Foudre Room

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.

PicMonkey Collage_Cellar

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.

PicMonkey Collage_Tasting

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.


Congratulations to Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin, Decanter's 2014 Men of the Year

By Robert Haas

Congratulations to Jean-Pierre and François Perrin, "Men of the Year" in the current issue of the venerable English wine magazine Decanter.  I cannot think of any French wine family with better credentials.  We love them.

Perrins men of the year

My first encounter with the Perrin family was with Jacques in 1967.  It was during my short (1967-1970) period at Barton Distilling trying to create a wine division.  I was there to buy bulk Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine to be shipped to a négociant bottler in Bordeaux.  Barton had the idea of creating a line of French AOC wines under the André Simon brand for which they had the rights.  The whole thing eventually fell apart. The execution failed because, among other things, Barton's barons in the field didn’t dig anything under 80 proof.  Recognizing the futility of trying to create a wine division at Barton, I resigned in 1970 and went on to form Vineyard Brands shortly thereafter, taking all my suppliers with me.

Jacques and I had hit it off together.  He took me under his wing and showed me around other wineries and cooperatives in the Vaucluse to emphasize how far there was still to go in producing quality wines in the Côtes du Rhône.  I admired Jacques’ openness and the frank discussions with his family that took place around the dinner table.  I returned to Beaucastel in 1968, 1969, and 1970 to ask for U.S. representation of the domain because I thought it unique in Châteauneuf-du-Pape in its use of high percentages of Mourvèdre and Roussanne in its blends and because it was inaugurating organic farming in its vineyard.  I finally achieved success in 1970 and became importer for Château de Beaucastel.  That was the beginning of the deep family relationships that followed. 

In 1971 Jacques introduced me to his son Jean-Pierre, who had graduated from oenology school in Dijon and had started a small négoce in Jonquières with the brand La Vieille Ferme Côtes-du-Rhône.  We imported the first ever export (100 cases 1970 vintage) and sold it to Sherry-Lehmann in New York.  Today it is an international brand selling cases in the seven figures.

Jean-Pierre and I became friendly.  We had kids of similar ages and we visited back and forth as families.  Vineyard Brands started representing the early “boutique” Napa wineries, Chappellet, Freemark Abbey, Clos du Val, and Phelps in the early 1970’s.  Jean-Pierre accompanied me to Napa on one of my supplier visiting trips and was impressed by the amount of activity (“even the streets are made out of stainless”) and surprised that there were no Rhône varieties being grown even though the climate was more Mediterranean than Bordeaux or Burgundy (think chardonnay).  It was at that point that the germ of the idea of “doing something together” in California came to us.  It was not until 1985, however, that we started to act on it.

Vineyard Brands continued as importer for Château de Beaucastel and François came on the scene just before Jacques’ tragic early death from cancer in 1977.  Thereafter, all three families became good friends, frequent visitors, and business partners.

In 1985 Jean-Pierre, François and I decided to “do something” in California.  We started looking for property to start a vineyard and winery partnership.  We looked for high pH soils and a southern Rhône climate.  After scouring the state for five years looking and tasting, we came upon the then practically unknown Paso Robles area on west side of highway 101, the Las Tablas district, in which we found a 120 acre piece laced with calcareous clay soils and we bought it jointly.

In our travels around looking for property we discovered that there were no reliable cultivars for Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Roussanne, Counoise, and Grenache Blanc, the principal varieties that we planned to plant, so François arranged for supply of cuttings with his nurseryman in France.  The California USDA station for reception, quarantine, testing for viruses, and clearance was closed in 1990.  The USDA station in Geneva, NY accommodated us instead.  The vines cleared in 1993 and were shipped to California and multiplied and grafted in our own nursery.  Planting began in 1995.  We have continued importing cuttings from Beaucastel recently, bringing in the balance of the 13 Châteauneuf-du Pape varieties through USDA Davis and will make all available to US growers as we have in the past.  Ironically, the Foundation Plant Service in Davis will be the only facility in the world able to supply virus free all 13 (14 if you count Grenache Blanc and Grenache Noir separately) accepted varieties of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation.

The availability of authentic vine material from our collection and the attention drawn to the Rhône idea by our partnership led to a wave of plantings by new wineries focused on Rhône blends, which in turn led to a new focus for the new Paso Robles community of adventurous growers, which in turn led to over 600 American wineries that planted, promoted, and marketed Rhône variety blends.

From the beginning our farming and style of wine making, were inspired by the Beaucastel model: organic farming going to biodynamic and wines with power, but with elegance and a respect for our terroir.  Contrary to most current California practices, all reds and some whites are vinified and aged for the most part in large (45 to 65 hecto) French oak.  We ferment with native yeasts to maintain our feeling of place.

Our wine maker, Neil Collins, spent the year of 1997 at Beaucastel.  Early on Jean-Pierre was the most frequent Perrin to be involved in the decision making, with François being involved in the blending and the vineyard most recently.  Jean-Pierre’s son, Pierre spent the year here in 2001, working in the cellar and son Marc is also involved, and François’ son César has been working in the cellar this last year. The style of wine making, as at Beaucastel, is classic, not trendy modern.

We are proud to be an important part of the Perrins' world adventures.  Without them Tablas Creek Vineyard never would have happened.


A great dinner, an amazing restaurant, and a wine that marks the beginning of Tablas Creek

Last weekend Cesar Perrin and I were honored to host the keynote dinner at the Bern's Winefest.  Hosted by Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Florida, the festival included dinners, seminars, and a grand tasting.  So far, nothing unique about this.  The dinner that we hosted was excellent, five courses and eight wines, including side-by-side flights of Tablas Creek and Beaucastel, library vintages from both wineries (1996 Beaucastel and 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel, and the remarkable 2000 Hommage a Jacques Perrin).  Terrific, but still not unique.  It was a wine dinner, masterfully prepared and expertly paired, with a selection of wines going back a decade and a half.  At Bern's, that's routine.

If you're unfamiliar with Bern's, it's Mecca for wine lovers.  Opened in 1956 by Bern Laxer and run today by his son David, the restaurant boasts a wine cellar of nearly a million bottles, much of which was purchased by Bern on his annual trips to France and has never been inventoried.  The working cellar of over 100,000 bottles is staggering in its own right, and the wine list (183 pages in the 62nd Edition) is legendary.  It includes big names from Burgundy and Bordeaux, but it's more than trophies.  It encompasses the deepest collections of old wines from California, Spain, Australia and the Rhone Valley that I've ever seen.  And the sommeliers there keep finding more.  When Bern's shipments of wines would arrive from France, the entire Bern's staff would be called on to grab a hand-truck and help move the new arrivals the two blocks from the end of the rail line to the warehouse across the street from the restaurant.  Thousands of cases would be packed into the warehouse, with the only master plan in Bern's head.  To this day, the sommeliers treat a visit to the warehouse like a treasure hunt, and estimate that there are 200,000 bottles, most from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, not on any inventory list. These discoveries keep the list from getting picked over, as there is a steady supply of treasures to uncover.

Even more remarkable, the restaurant does not mark wines up based on how long they've held the inventory.  So browsing through the list will uncover any number of unbelievable values.  I could choose between a half-dozen California wines from 1973 (my birth year) including names like Parducci, Louis Martini, Souverain, Franciscan, and Trentadue for between $45 and $70.  Had I been born a year earlier, I could have chosen a magnum of 1972 Inglenook Cabernet, an icon from one of the greatest vintages in Napa Valley, for $129.  A year later and I could have had a 1974 Ridge Zinfandel for $72.70.  The list goes on and on.

Knowing that the winemaker dinner would have a set menu, with wines that we knew, Freddy Matson (the Vineyard Brands manager for Florida's Gulf Coast) made a reservation for Cesar and me the night before our wine dinner.  When we arrived, we put ourselves in Sommelier Brad Dixon's hands, and enjoyed an amazing string of wines, beginning with a 1954 Rioja, continuing with great Burgundies from 1978 and 1961, and including not one but two different wines from 1973, both from Souverain of Alexander Valley: one a Zinfandel and one a Pinot Noir.  It was one of the great epicurean experiences of my life.

On the wine list, Cesar and I noted a curiosity: half-bottles of 1966 Pierre Perrin Chateauneuf du Pape.  Pierre Perrin was Cesar's great-grandfather, Jacques Perrin's father, but there are other branches of the Perrin family in Chateauneuf and -- until the Hommage a Jacques Perrin debuted in 1989 -- we weren't aware of the Perrin name appearing on a Beaucastel label.  When we asked Brad about the wine, he didn't know anything about its story, but brought us a bottle:

1966_Perrin_CdP

More than the Perrin name, the Leeds Imports strip label identified it as a wine of interest.  My grandfather created Leeds Imports because New York law at the time prohibited retailers (he owned M. Lehmann) from also acting as importer/distributor.  In the late 1960s my dad was the buyer for the wines that Leeds imported, both to sell at M. Lehmann and to offer to distributors in other states.  We decided we needed to find out more. From the restaurant, Cesar texted his father a picture of the bottle. Francois hadn't heard of the wine (of course, he was thirteen during the 1966 vintage).  I emailed my father but didn't hear back.  So Brad gave us each a bottle and asked us to let him know what we discovered.

The next day, I spoke to my dad and got the scoop.  In the late 1960's, my dad had decided that the American market was ready for wines from some regions outside the traditional bastions of Burgundy and Bordeaux.  So he was visiting appellations that he thought were making high quality wine and looking either to find new suppliers or quality wine in bulk that he could then have bottled and out of which he could create a brand.  He visited Beaucastel with a broker in 1967 and found that while Jacques Perrin wouldn't sell him Beaucastel (their American importer at the time wasn't selling much wine, but had an exclusive agreement) he was able to convince Jacques to let him taste through the lots and assemble his own cuvee for bottling.  This is that wine: made by Jacques Perrin, chosen by my dad in Beaucastel's cellars, bottled under a semi-anonymous label in Bordeaux, and imported into the United States.  My dad thinks that there were perhaps 300 cases produced total.  I'm not sure if any is left anywhere other than at Bern's, but I tend to doubt it.

There were no subsequent vintages of Pierre Perrin Chateauneuf du Pape.  The American importer got wind of the wine and asked Jacques not to do it again.  But my dad's interest in Beaucastel was sparked; he kept visiting and in 1970 convinced Jacques to give him the American import agency.

So, there it is: the beginning of the Haas-Perrin partnership that would become Tablas Creek.  Just a great discovery, during an amazing night of food and wine, at a restaurant unlike any other in the world.  If you haven't been to Bern's, you owe it to yourself to go.  You never know what you'll find, but you know you'll find something you couldn't have found anywhere else.