'Knowing that Beaujolais was made from the Gamay grape was just an abstruse detail, and anyone displaying such knowledge was liable to be labelled a bore' says Bill Knott
GRAPE V TERROIR
When I was first introduced to the joys of wine, in the early 1970s, grape varieties were hardly discussed. We drank champagne, Burgundy and claret if we were feeling flush; Bull’s Blood, Liebfraumilch or something Bulgarian if we weren’t. Knowing that Beaujolais was made from the Gamay grape was just an abstruse detail, and anyone displaying such knowledge was liable to be labelled a bore.
Nowadays, wine merchants’ shelves are encyclopedias of grape varieties, and most drinkers define their taste by them. Some love Riesling, some loathe Sauvignon Blanc, and some have a sneaking admiration for Grüner Veltliner, but ask for a glass of hock in a wine bar, and nobody under the age of fifty knows what you’re talking about.
The French, of course, think all this fuss about varieties is a load of merde. Wine, they say, is about soil, sun, aspect and a bunch of other factors that go up to make terroir, and the vine itself a mere conduit.
Opponents of the auteur theory cite many terrific films made under the old studio system; not least Casablanca, which had a whole host of writers and a stand-in director who barely spoke English, and a final scene featuring a cardboard aeroplane so unconvincing that it had to be shrouded in fog. It was, nonetheless, saved by its stars, a catchy tune and some great one-liners.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is, I think, the Casablanca of wine. Eighteen different grape varieties are permitted, and few wine buffs could name more than five of them, but somehow, out of this hotchpotch of grapes, some of France’s finest red wines emerge.
On a recent Oldie trip to the Southern Rhône, we were lucky enough to have a private tour of Château de Beaucastel, one of the appellation’s most stellar names. An ancient estate, owned by the Perrin family for more than a century, its 240 acres of vineyards contain all eighteen permitted varieties. La famille Perrin buy many tons of grapes from other growers, too – the La Vieille Ferme brand is one of theirs – but the Château de Beaucastel estate is the jewel in their crown.
The wines have a much higher proportion of Mourvèdre than is typical in the Grenache-dominated Southern Rhône, giving their venerable, long-aged reds a rich, gamey flavour, but what makes Beaucastel – and the other great wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape – so special happened millions of years ago, when the fierce-flowing Rhône tore chunks of stone out of the Alps. These stones, big white pebbles called galets, now surround the gnarled bush vines (gobelets) that sturdily survive every onslaught of le mistral, acting as storage heaters: trapping the heat of the day and releasing it at night, to keep the temperature variation in the vineyards to a minimum.
Beaucastel’s top wines are superb, and priced accordingly, but those with shallower pockets should know that a quarter of the estate, although only separated by a road from the rest of the vineyards, is outside the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, and is therefore mere Côtes-du-Rhône: these wines, labelled Coudoulet de Beaucastel, represent terrific value. Berry Bros. & Rudd (www.bbr.com) is the place to look.
What makes these wines so extraordinary? The galets? The climate? The oak barrels in which they slowly mature? It certainly isn’t just the grapes.