Chateau de Beaucastel
The characteristic stones of Chateauneuf-du-Pape reflect the day's heat back onto the vines by night. Shown here: Chateau de Beaucastel.

Chateauneuf stones
A closer look at Beaucastel's stony soil.
Chateauneuf-du-Pape (Friday, June 14)

A long and busy day in Chateauneuf-du-Pape took our group to four varied producers, all first-rate, as well as lunch in the hilltop village at the center of this compact wine region. Then, tomorrow night we return to the ancient cellars of the Popes above the village for an induction and formal dinner of the Echansonnerie des Papes. That would prove to be quite an experience, not least for reasons that will be revealed in due course ...

Chateau de Beaucastel

Our day in Chateauneuf-du-Pape began on a high point, with a morning visit to Chateau de Beaucastel, one of the best-known and (at least based on the retail prices of its wines) sought-after producers of the region.

Mike Rijken
Beaucastel spokesman Mike Rijken (left) and tour guide Jean-Pierre Sollin in the winery cellar.
Our host was Mike Rijken, public-relations spokesman for the Perrin family wineries. A tall and smiling Dutchman with perfect English and an extensive knowledge of the winery and its wines, Mike made the tour a real treat.

The family's vineyards include both 140 acres within Chateauneuf (pictured above), where all 13 permitted Chateauneuf-du-Pape grape varieties are grown, and another 60 acres just across the autoroute in the Côtes du Rhone. All the vineyards have been "fully organic" for more than 40 years, he said: No pesticides or herbicides are used, he said, and the vines are fertilized with composted grapes and sheep manure.

Asked about the quality of the 2001 vintage (which will be bottled for release next spring), Mike called it "another exceptional vintage, the fourth in a row."

But he added that 2001 Chateauneuf in general may be variable because of the weather: A long, hot summer saw fiercely hot days and "not a drop of rain" from July 15 through early September, fostering high sugars but underripe tannins. Some producers, he said, "panicked" at the high sugar levels and picked their grapes early, a decision that will yield harsh tannins in the finished wine. "But those who risked the wait for higher phenolic ripeness will benefit," he said. Beaucastel chose to wait, betting that the weather would stay dry. Had rains come, the grapes would "suck up water and become diluted," but that didn't happen.

Beaucastel's wines are fined with egg whites and unfiltered. The winery produces 20,000 cases of red Chateauneuf-du-Pape in a typical year, 10,000 cases of Coudoulet de Beaucastel Côtes-du-Rhone, 2,000 cases of white Chateauneuf-du-Pape and 1,000 cases of white Coudoulet. The winery's U.S. importer is Vineyard Brands of Birmingham, Ala., and its Website is http://www.beaucastel.com.

In a special treat, Rijken offered a "components tasting," giving us a rare and educational chance to taste several of the 2001 grape varieties (which are vinified separately) before they are blended into the 13-grape "symphony" that is Chateauneuf:

Beaucastel 2002 components tasting

Muscardin - Warm, plummy, almost raisinlike in quality, with a soft and lactic texture. Makes up only about 1 to 2 percent of the final blend.

Counoise - About 7 to 10 percent of the blend, added for acidity and structure. Tasted alone, it is peppery and a bit green in scent, with spicy green peppercorns on the palate.

Grenache - Beaucastel usually used only about 30 to 35 percent Grenache in the blend, a smaller portion than many of its neighbors. This component is very dark, with huge, ripe raspberry fruit, the trademark of Grenache. Deep and structured, a hint of black coffee behind all the berry fruit.

Syrah - Added in only about 5 percent proportions to impart color and tannins. Held in large oak casks, it's black and opaque, with tart and leafy green aromas and a blast of black pepper on the palate.

Mourvèdre - "This is the horse we bet on," Mike said, comprising about 30 percent of the blend. Cinnamon and spice surround big black fruit in a sample that's already showing full, ripe and "sweet."

I had been wondering whether to raise the perennial issue of whether Beaucastel's "barnyardy" character in some vintages reflects brettanomyces infection, but Mike beat me to it, raising the point in connection with the Mourvèdre. "Brett is not an issue with Beaucastel," he insisted, attributing the charge to "controversial critics." Rather, he said, "animal" characters show up in Mourvèdre if and when the wine is in a "reductive" state. For that reason, he said, the winery recommends never drinking Beaucastel from a good vintage when it is less than 10 years old.

"People want fruit," he said. "But wine is more than just fruit."

Then we proceeded to tastings of the current wines, and a couple of oldies but goodies:

Beaucastel tasting

Chateau de Beaucastel 2000 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc - Eighty percent Roussanne plus other white varieties; about 30 percent of the wine is aged in barriques, the rest in stainless steel, an approach intended to impart a hint of wood without overdoing it. Delicious and complex scents, pears and honeysuckle, full and rich on the palate. "Drink it either very young or well-aged," Rijken says, "not in-between."

Coudoulet de Beaucastel 2000 Côtes-du-Rhone - Just bottled two months ago, this is a remarkable Côtes-du-Rhone, ripe cherries and candied fruit aromas and appealing spice; full and structured, lush and appealing. It's a blend of Grenache (30 percent), Mourvèdre (30 percent), Syrah (20 percent) and Cinsaut (20 percent).

Chateau de Beaucastel 1999 Chateauneuf-du-Pape - Ripe and sweet, lucious plum and cherry aromas. Full and ripe, complex, more brown spice than black pepper, mouth-filling and lush. "Fruitcake in a glass," but dry. Rijken says the more "opulent" 1989 and 1998 vintages have been popular in the U.S., but the producers find this 1999 and the older 1990 more to their taste.

Chateau de Beaucastel 1997 Chateauneuf-du-Pape - Very spicy, dried-fruit aromas and burnt sugar, a whiff of rum, prompting one of our group to liken it to "Bananas Foster."

Chateau de Beaucastel 1983 Chateauneuf-du-Pape - Loads of animal aromas, truffles and "forest floor" and a distinct "horsey" aroma leading to suspicions that if there's no brett here in modern times, there may have been some a while back. It's good, though, lending complexity and interest to still abundant ripe, sweet black fruit, beautifully balanced and ripe. Too good to spit or dump, we linger over this glass as the tasting ends.

Domaine de Beaurenard

Next it's on to the little village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which seems to have a familiar wine producer or tasting cave on almost every corner. Our destination is Domaine de Beaurenard, a seven-generation family winery now run by Paul Coulon and his family. Coulon, a leader in the Echansonnerie des Papes (regional wine association) is busy today setting up the organization's formal dinner and induction for the next night, so we're hosted on a rather brisk tour and tasting by a winery employee.

In addition to its 30 hectares of vineyard property in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the family also owned a 25 hectare vineyard in Rasteau, one of the named Côtes-du-Rhone villages toward the hills northeast of Chateauneuf. The producer's wines are represented in the U.S. by New Castle Imports of Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Domaine de Beaurenard 2001 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (€15 at the winery) - White fruit and flowers on the nose; crisp and round flavors, almonds and pears. A blend of Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc and Picpoul.

Domaine de Beaurenard 2000 Côte-du-Rhone-Villages Rasteau (€8) - Ripe, jammy raspberries and spicy oak, tannic but so fruity that it's quite approachable. Eighty percent Grenache, 20 percent Syrah.

Domaine de Beaurenard 2000 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (€15) - Very dark reddish-purple. Closed, not showing much at this point, with subtle hints of black fruit and anise. More fruit on the palate, ripe and tart with pronounced tannins. Hold.

Domaine de Beaurenard 1995 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (sold out) - Delicious aromas, good balance of juicy black fruit, leafy herbaceous notes and discreet barnyard scents. Peppery, fruity, palatable tannins. Excellent balance, still quite young.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape
A street in the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, with the old summer palace of the Popes in the distance.
Lunch at La Mére Germaine in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

It was our pleasure to join tour guides Lauriann Greene and Jean-Pierre Sollin for lunch at this pleasant and well-known bistro in the center of the village (there's also a well-regarded small hotel on the premises). Over a simple salad lunch featuring a sampling of the delicacies of the region from terrine to smoked salmon to olives, we enjoyed a Chateauneuf-du-Pape that Lauriann recommended as a particularly good value:

Chateau Gigognan 1998 "Clos du Roi" Chateauneuf-du-Pape - Slightly hazy, very dark purple. Plums and leather on the nose, full and ripe black fruit and fragrant pepper on the palate, with perhaps just a prickly touch of carbonation in the background. Very good wine, showing excellent structure and balance.

Daniel Brunier
Vieux-Télégraphe proprietor Daniel Brunier.
Domaine Vieux-Télégraphe

Another personal favorite, Domaine Vieux-Télégraphe is also a historic family-owned producer, owned by the Brunier family for four generations. The family also makes Vieux Mas des Papes Chateauneuf-du-Pape as a second label (using the fruit from young vines, under 20 years old). They also own Domaine de Roquette Chateauneuf-du-pape and make Rhone wines under the labels Le Pigoulet and Les Pallières. The U.S. importer is Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant, Berkeley, Calif.

We had the great privilege of being hosted by the owner himself, Daniel Brunier, who was cordial and generous with both information and his wine. We tasted several current releases and one older wine:

Domaine Vieux-Télégraphe 2000 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (€23) - Clear straw color. Light, pleasant floral perfume leading into an impressive flavor, hazelnuts and almonds forming grace notes to tart and full white fruit. It's 40 percent Clairette, 30 percent Grenache Blanc, 15 percent Roussanne and 15 percent Bourboulenc.

Domaine Les Pallières 1999 Gigondas (€13) - Dark reddish-purple. Very fragrang black pepper over ripe tart-cherry fruit. Smoky, meaty and ripe black-cherry flavor, tart acidity and marked but palatable tannins.

Vieux Mas des Papes 2000 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (€12.20) - Ripe and rather "grapey," fragrant black pepper and juicy, plummy fruit. Full and "sweet," easy to drink now, it's 70 percent Grenache and 30 percent Mourvèdre.

Domaine Vieux-Télégraphe 1999 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (€27, limit three) - Closing up a bit, it's gamey and meaty, with ripe black fruit aromas appearing after aeration. Big flavor, ripe fruit, tannins a bit hot at this stage. Needs time. Made with just three Chateauneuf varieties: 45 percent Grenache, 40 percent Syrah, 15 percent Mourvèdre.

Domaine Vieux-Télégraphe 1989 Chateauneuf-du-Pape - Good earthy, leathery and ripe, organic notes balanced with plenty of still-youthful fruit.

Jean-Paul Versino
Bois de Boursan wine maker Jean-Paul Versino and the casks of Cuvée Felix
Domaine Bois de Boursan

I had visited this excellent, tiny and relatively new winery on a previous trip to France and strongly encouraged Lauriann and Jean-Pierre to include it on this tour, as I believe the young wine maker Jean-Paul Versino is making outstanding wine here. After a tour and tasting, I think our group agreed.

Bois de Boursan owns 25 acres and rents another 15 acres, scattered throughout the appellation and including 35 acres of 42-year-old vines and 5 acres of 10-year-old vines.

Domaine Bois de Boursan 2001 Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc - Aromas of acacia flowers and almonds, delicate and appealing, segue into a full and round flavor, full-bodied but not heavy, with a firm acidic structure. A delight. It's 45 percent Grenache Blanc, 35 percent Clairette, 15 percent Roussanne and 15 percent Bourboulenc.

Domaine Bois de Boursan 2000 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (barrel sample) - In contrast with most of his neighbors, Versino gives his red Chateauneuf 22 months in the barrel, keeping it an extra year in the winery before release, so this 2000 won't be released until next spring. A blend of 65 percent Grenache, 15 percent Syrah, 15 percent Mourvèdre and 5 percent various other varieties, it's very dark ruby in color, black at the core, with lovely fruit focused by discreet "animal" notes. Full and ripe, smooth and appealing.

Domaine Bois de Boursan 2000 "Cuvee Felix" Chateauneuf-du-Pape (barrel sample) - This special blend is made in tiny quantities from old-vines Grenache and aged in small oak barrels. When I toured the winery in 2000, I tasted the 1999 vintage and was told that this wine was made to the taste of U.S. critics and wasn't the wine maker's favorite. But he seems to have warmed up to it now, and frankly, I found the 2000 much more complex and less "New World" in style than the '99 - which did, in fact, receive a very high rating from Robert M. Parker Jr. - had been at an earlier stage in its development. Clear, dark garnet in color, it neatly balances intense black fruit and soft, spicy oak in a flavor that's more perfumed and delicate than oversize.

Domaine Bois de Boursan 1999 Chateauneuf-du-Pape - The current release, it's clear, dark garnet in color, full of berrylike fruit, structured and balanced; a wine of real finesse.

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