With its magisterial lines and splendid gardens, Chateau Beychevelle is one of Bordeaux’s most beautiful properties. Its creation and history is layered with great families and illustrious individuals. It began in the Middle Ages when Bishop de Foix-Candale built the initial chateau in what is now the St. Julien appellation (and the Foix-Candale family also owned Chateau d’Issan in neighboring Margaux). The Duke d’Epernon, Jean-Louis de Nogaret de la Valette assumed ownership when he married Marquerite de Foix-Candale. He was also the Governor of Guyenne and an admiral of the French navy. The latter rank gave rise to the story that boats sailing on the Gironde River lowered their sails in respect when they passed the chateau. This action, “baisse voile” in French, gave rise to the chateau’s name, Beychevelle. True? Who knows? But colorful it is.
In the 18th century, the Marquis Francois-Etienne de Brassier modified the existing building and added his own portion, creating Chateau Beychevelle as we know it. Marquis Brassier is also credited with designing the stunning gardens and upgrading the vineyards. As the centuries past, ownership changed hands multiple times to members of parliament, ship owners, wine brokers, and merchant families. Eventually, Beychevelle became the property of the affluent and privileged Achille Fould family, whose ancestor, Achille Fould was the French finance minister four times during the presidency of Louis Napoleon Bonaparte (who coronated himself Napoleon III). Three generations of the Achille Fould family carried Beychevelle into the 20th century. In the mid-1980s, it was bought by the French Civil Servants’ Pension Fund, who, in 1989, sold 40 percent to Suntory, the Japanese conglomerate that purchased nearby Chateau Lagrange in 1983. It should come as no surprise that this merry-go-round of ownership caused quality to suffer. In the antiquated Bordeaux classification of 1855, Beychevelle was listed as a Fourth Growth (the ranking is First to Fifth). I began drinking Beychevelle with its 1970 vintage and collecting it from 1978. I can attest that rarely did it exceed its ranking. But that was then.
Suntory’s ownership brought money and commitment. Just as it has upgraded Chateau Lagrange (a Third Growth and also in St. Julien), Suntory has raised the level of Chateau Beychevelle. In January, I brought my memory and experience of collecting Chateau Beychevelle to a vertical tasting of nine vintages spanning a quarter-century. We started with the 1986 and ended at 2010. The tasting was held at the monthly meeting of the New York-based Wine Media Guild, of which I am a member, and the wines were from Chateau Beychevelle’s cellar.
Bordeaux is divided by the Gironde River into two sections known as the Left Bank and Right Bank. In 1986, Bordeaux had ideal weather on the Left Bank (where St. Julien lies) and very good weather on the Right Bank, the home of St. Emilion and Pomerol. Nearly every wine I have had from 1986 has been balanced in its fruit and tannins, and very age-able. The 1986 Beychevelle retains that structure; it’s pleasantly aromatic and elegant on the palate. Properly cellared, it has another 5 to 10 years of life. During 2011-2012, this wine appeared in 29 auctions; it sold at a very reasonable average of $100 bottle. But be sure of its provenance before bidding.
The 1990s were not particularly generous years for Bordeaux. In the Medoc (the Left Bank), only 1990 and 1995 were outstanding vintages. At our tasting, Beychevelle presented its 1996 (a good year) and 1999 (an average vintage). Both wines offered black fruit and coffee-like aromas and black fruit flavors. The 1996 has more body than its younger sibling, and both are pleasant wines and will be healthy for another decade. Both vintages are appearing in the auction market; the 1996 fetches about $100, the 1999 gathers $80. If you found a bottle of either wine in a retail store, I would be very cautious about purchasing. The auction market gives you a better chance that the wine has been stored in a temperature-controlled cellar.
For this article, I opened a bottle from my cellar of the 1995 Ch. Beychevelle. Its youthful purplish-red color and fragrant fruit is intact. The wine has more body and firm structure (relationship of fruit to tannins and acidity) than the 1996 and 1999. It is very elegant, and has another 15 years or more of aging potential. In 2012, I could not find any auctions of the 1995; and only six auctions in 2011. Of those, four were in London where the average price was $105; the two in America generated a bargain price of $75.
In this Millennium, we tasted six vintages.I divide them into four groups:
-The outstanding vintages: 2000, 2005 and 2010.
-The Hedonistic vintage: 2009
-The Underappreciated vintage: 2008
-The Odd vintage: 2003
One could boil 2003 down to a single word: boiling. The summer and harvest took place in torrid heat. It was the year when thousands of people died in France as well as in Italy, Spain, Portugal and other European countries from the unrelenting heat. Winemakers told stories of grapes exploding on the vines. I was in the Loire Valley in July 2003 and witnessed entire rows of vines without grapes on the side exposed to the most sun.
I have yet to taste a 2003 wine from anywhere in France or Italy that is not odd. Beychevelle is no exception. Its 2003 emitted herbal and black raisin aromas and flavors. The tannins are not balanced and the wine is completely different from all the others in this tasting. It is available in both the retail and auction markets at about $75. I suggest buying it only for its ability to teach you what excessive heat can do to a wine.
With Bordeaux, smart buying often arrives packaged in a vintage before or after an acclaimed one. For 2008, it is stuck behind two highly praised years: 2009 and 2010. Like many chateaux, Beychevelle made a respectable wine in 2008. Its medium-body carries pleasing blackberry aroma and flavor; and the soft tannins create a corduroy-like texture. The 2008 Beychevelle is a good example of how Suntory’s commitment has raised the level of this chateau. It is easy to succeed in vintages like 2009 and 2010, but more weather-challenged years mean the chateau has to select only its best grapes and limit its volume. Quality has to rule quantity. The retail price for the 2008 Chateau Beychevelle hovers around $80-85.
The ripe, luscious 2009 vintage is the definition of immediate gratification. From May 24th to 28th 2010, I traveled throughout Bordeaux tasting more than 300 hundred wines from the 2009 vintage. It was an expedition in pleasure. Nearly every wine was bursting with ripe fruit flavors, velvety tannins, and a message that said, “drink me, don’t taste me”.
About my visit to Beychevelle, my notebook says, “2009 wine is filled with ripe blackberry and black cherry flavors with a tantalizing minty accent. It is perfectly balanced and merits an excellent rating. The chateau’s second wine is Amiral de Beychevelle and shares the harmonious structure, with a full mouth feel and deep black cherry flavor. Very good.”
That observation was reconfirmed last month. Today, the 2009 Chateau Beychevelle is as seductive as ever. Its deliciously ripe blackberry and mulberry aromas and flavors sheath your senses. As well-made as this one is, I seriously doubt many owners will allow their bottles to rest in the cellar; 2009 is for hedonists.
Bordeaux has produced three great vintages in the recent past: 2000, 2005 and 2010. They are wines to own and years to prize. Chateau Beychevelle is proudly represented in each. Palate preferences will rank these vintages in various orders; my palate places the 2005 first, followed by 2000 and 2010.
In 2005, Chateau Beychevelle’s significant black fruit aromas and flavors are built on a medium body with firm tannins. This wine is the most structured Beychevelle I have ever tasted. It has the proportions of a middle weight boxer with perfect muscle tone. I suggest opening a bottle at its 10th-year, enjoying a few at its 15th-year, and cellaring enough to enjoy over 25 to 30 years. As for the wine’s life span? Cellared perfectly, you could leave a few bottles for your grandchildren’s enjoyment.
Other will list the 2000 Beychevelle as their favorite vintage. I wouldn’t quibble about that. It is extraordinarily harmonious. Last month, my bottle offered coffee, leather and black fruit scents and flavors. It was seamless on the palate and magnetic to my hand. I reached for it often to inhale its aromas and enjoy its elegant flavors and texture. You can enjoy the 2000 Beychevelle best after aerating it in a decanter. It will certainly continue its evolution for another two decades.
The young 2010 Chateau Beychevelle has the classic structure of Bordeaux: medium-body, supporting tannins, mild acidity, and ripe, black fruit aromas and flavors. Where 2009 Beychevelle is for the hedonist; 2010 Beychevelle is for the purist. This wine is a Bordeaux drinker’s Bordeaux.
The 2000 and 2005 Beychevelles are appearing in the auction market at about $100 and 80 dollars, respectively. At retail, the 2000 ranges from $150 to 180; and the 2005 from $125-175. If you buy these from retailers, make sure these wines have been stored properly. You don’t want wines that were sitting for years on retailers’ room-temperature shelves and being jarred by the public and store clerks. The younger 2009 and 2010 Beychevelles are retailing for about $100-120 dollars.
As I reflect on 35 years of drinking and collecting and visiting Chateau Beychevelle, it is abundantly clear that since Suntory’s involvement Beychevelle and its wines have never been more beautiful. One day, the Bordelaise will revise the outdated 1855 classification and when this coup d’état occurs, Chateau Beychevelle will rise to at least a Third Growth. In the meantime, adding these vintages to your cellar will bring you years and decades of pleasure.