Taking over the 450-year-old family business at Château de Beaucastel must have been a daunting prospect for Pierre Perrin, but he has taken the Châteauneuf property to still greater heights, writes JAMES LAWTHER MW
Pierre Perrin has a heavy charge to bear. Since 1996 he has been responsible for the vineyards and winemaking at Château de Beaucastel, one of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s – and the world’s – greatest wines. He’s the latest in a line of family vintners that have set the bar of achievement high.
‘It’s not easy when you’re young as you want to shake things up, but at Beaucastel there’s a respect for tradition and what’s been done before that has to be preserved while looking for a means to progress,’ confides Pierre Perrin.
The history of the Perrin family and Beaucastel dates back to 1549 but it was Pierre’s grandfather, Jacques, who truly placed the estate on the map in the post-World War II years. An independent spirit, he committed 130ha (hectares) at Château de Beaucastel to organic culture in 1956 when the use of chemicals was all the rage and planted unfashionable grape varieties like Mourvèdre and Counoise to use in the blend.
His sons, Jean-Pierre (Pierre’s father) and François, took over the mantle in 1978. They continued the progression in philosophy, quality and style at the same time as launching new projects like Tablas Creek Vineyard in California and the successful brand, La Vieille Ferme.
There seems to have been an air of inevitability to Pierre eventually taking over the winemaking reins. In his early teens he’d already decided on his vocation and spent the school holidays working in the vineyard. ‘The vine was an important element from the start and not to be dissociated from the wine,’ he says.
He’s also been imbued with the Perrin conviction that organic viticulture was the only way to go. ‘It’s not a marketing ploy but a respect for the soil and ecosystem around us,’ he concludes. Since 2000 the Beaucastel vineyard has been officially certified as organic, while vineyards for the Perrin & Fils label are undergoing certification.
A diploma in oenology from Dijon with work practice in Bordeaux, Provence and California broadened his experience but he’s never strayed far from Rhône grape varieties. ‘Like everyone I appreciated the easier, fruit-driven varieties like Syrah and Counoise early on but gravitated to the more complicated Grenache, with its high alcohol degrees and susceptibility to oxidation and disease, and Mourvèdre whose reductive nature produces aromas that don’t always please but which I adore,’ he says.
The family way
Becoming part of such an established brand as Beaucastel has evidently meant not rocking the boat, but that’s not to say modern methods are frowned on. ‘I’ve had the chance to work with my father and François who have 30 years’ experience here and they’ve rarely said no to any of my ideas,’ he says.
One of the aspects Perrin has got to grips with over the last three or four years has been the phenolic maturity of the grapes (ripeness of tannins and colour and flavour compounds). ‘We’re now more interested in measuring phenolic ripeness, which is a relatively new technique, and acidity and pH than sugar levels and only pick when the phenolic maturity is what we want – an important consideration in 2001, 2003 and 2004,’ he explains.
Another area of improvement he has overseen centres on general efficiency and hygiene in the cellars. This was prompted by accusations that some past vintages of Beaucastel had a high level of brettanomyces, a yeast often prevalent at a low threshold in certain wines which produces an animal-like flavour and aroma acceptable to some but not all wine lovers.
A period of collaboration with consultant oenologist Dr Pascal Chatonnet of Bordeaux (1997–2002) concluded that ‘brett’ was perceivable at a high level in some older vintages but that it was also often confused with the characteristics of Mourvèdre.
Practically speaking, the exchange of ideas resulted in a move to steam cleaning the large oak foudres and a policy of renewing on a yearly basis three of the cellar complement of 60 of these big oak barrels. ‘We’re not looking for oak flavours but for a newer, cleaner environment for ageing the wines,’ says Pierre Perrin. In 2001 a new reception bay for the grapes was installed, as well as additional cement vats to provide extra tank space for vinification and storage.
If modern methods at Beaucastel are controlled but permissible Pierre has even more room to manoeuvre at the other family ventures, La Vieille Ferme and Domaines Perrin & Fils, where he also oversees winemaking. La Vieille Ferme, produced from bought-in grapes from the Côtes du Lubéron and Ventoux, for instance, has been bottled under screwcap since the 2002 vintage. ‘It goes with the nature of the wines, which are fresh, fruity and readily approachable,’ he says.
Perrin & Fils was launched in 1996, so Pierre Perrin has been involved since the inception of the project. ‘It’s a real pleasure, as what can’t be done at Beaucastel can be done at Perrin,’ he exclaims. The idea behind the label was to harness the experience gleaned at Beaucastel and La Vieille Ferme to become a Southern Rhône specialist, producing small volumes of wine in the mid-price range from vineyards the family either owns or controls. ‘We want to keep complete faith with the identity of the cru and so have researched and sought out what we consider the best parcels in each appellation,’ he explains.
In this respect they have succeeded admirably. A tasting of the 2004s at Château de Beaucastel revealed a fruit-driven but structured Réserve Côtes du Rhône, a fresh and minerally Côtes du Rhône Villages Vinsobres, a rich, chocolatey Rasteau and a Vacqueyras that was dense and powerful. There’s also a Cairanne, Gigondas and Châteauneuf-du-Pape to complete the 800,000 bottle production.
Overseas the Perrin family has steadily developed the Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles, California. Pierre Perrin has worked vintages there and visits regularly. ‘I initially followed the nursery plant aspect as we brought in vine varieties from Beaucastel and, when they had been verified for viruses, propagated from them to plant the vineyard,’ he says. It’s probably been one of the most expensive vineyards in the world to develop but satisfies the Perrin objective of diversification with a link back to Beaucastel.
The site for the vineyard was chosen in 1990 after a five-year search by the Perrins and their American importer Robert Haas for a plot with limestone soils on which they could cultivate Rhône varieties. The top wine is labelled Esprit de Beaucastel and is a blend in the Château de Beaucastel mould, the 2000 with a little more Mourvèdre (35%) and Syrah (26%) and less Grenache (25%).
Tasted independently I found the nose reminiscent of Bandol with that slightly animal, black olive, dry extract aroma, the palate rich and structured, the alcohol leaving a touch of imbalance on the finish. It’s not Beaucastel but there’s a ripe, Rhône-like strain.
Although he’s responsible for viticulture and winemaking at the family domaines Pierre Perrin also wears the hat of export manager for certain countries, sharing the task with brothers Marc and Thomas. ‘It’s important for all of us to travel to maintain contact with traditional markets like the UK and US and also to understand trade, traditions and consumer trends in developing countries like China and India where there’s everything to do but the potential is enormous,’ he confirms.
Sales of the Perrin wines are presently buoyant but Rhône wines as a whole have suffered a downturn. ‘I don’t think it’s linked to quality but to the range of competition and economic factors like the weak dollar and drop in consumption in France. But it was something predictable and to ride the storm it’s essential not only to produce fruity, balanced, value-for-money wines that appeal to the consumer but to know how to promote and sell them. Whatever else you mustn’t rest on your laurels,’ he says. The future chez Perrin looks to be in safe hands.
Perrin at a glance
Family: his wife Céline, and two daughters, Chloé and Julie
Studies: Faculté d’Oenologie, Dijon
Career: (since 1996) winemaker and area export manager (UK and Asia, excluding Japan) for Château de Beaucastel, Domaines Perrin & Fils, La Vieille Ferme
Interests: Sport (cycling, jogging), new technology, pedology (soils)