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Tasting the Terroir at Chateau Beaucastel

What makes the wines of Chateau Beaucastel so wonderful? I’d tasted these wines occasionally in the U.S. and always came away impressed by their unusual combination of power, elegance, and intoxicating spiciness. While teaching a travel writing class for The Writer’s Workshop in Vaison la Romaine, France I finally got a chance to visit the storied property.
Located in the southern Rhône valley in France, Chateau Beaucastel has gained renowned for its outstanding Châteauneuf du Pape wines that combine appealing fruit with considerable aging potential. Unlike many houses, Beaucastel uses all 13 of the traditional Châteauneuf du Pape grape varieties in their blends, including a higher proportion of Mourvedre in their Coudoulet de Beaucastel. I wondered if that the skillful blending of these many varietals might prove to the key to making the wines so complex and intriguing.
“Welcome to Chateau Beaucastel,” says Marc Perrin in perfect English. A wiry, energetic 41-year-old whose family owns the property, Perrin conducted a detailed tour of the vineyard, beginning with the soil. Unlike some other storied Châteauneuf  properties whose vineyards consist completely of stones, this vineyard contains a mix of light brown soil and rounded stones over a base of limestone, giving additional nuance to the wine.
The Perrin family bought the estate in 1909. They have farmed it organically since 1950 and have worked it biodynamically since 1974, but they don’t make either claim on the bottle; instead they let this care shine through in the purity and complexity of the fruit. The vines average 50 years old with small yields, concentrating the essence of the grape.
The idea of terroir is central to French winemaking, with the main emphasis often going to climate and soil. But in talking with Perrin, it becomes clear that terroir also includes the people who make the wine. The care, pride and knowledge Perrin displays in conducting the tour makes it clear that his family is central to the excellence of the finished product.
This becomes abundantly clear when we visit the cellar to taste. Perrin pours some of the varietals like Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache so I can taste the components of the blend. Each of these is appealing in its own right, but none of them equals the complexity and balance of Coudoulet de Beaucastel which I sample last, savoring the spicy aromas and the rich, taut taste on the tongue.
“It’s like a symphony,” Perrin says, swirling the wine around in his glass. “We blend all the instruments together into a harmonious whole.”
I come away from the visit convinced that the winemaker is central to the terroir of a wine. What do you think? What part does the winemaker play in this process? Can winemakers overdo their role? What’s the right balance?

I’ll be visiting Chateau Beaucastel this May as part of my Travel, Food and Wine Writing Class in Provence (May 20 -26). If you’re interested in joining me, please take a look at my website: http://thewritersworkshop.net/travel.htm.

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