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Mavericks of the Southern Rhône

by William Campbell

By any measure, the Perrins are an unusual family, making an unusual wine in an unusual region of France. They’ve been at the forefront of protecting the quality of French wine, yet they maintain a maverick touch. And after five generations, the owners of Château Beaucastel in the Rhône Valley are still thriving.

Francois and Jean-Pierre — the fourth generation of the Perrin family — are beginning to contemplate retirement, but their children are already deeply involved in the family business.

Jean-Pierre’s son Marc was recently in Tokyo for a food and wine pairing event at the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo in Marunouchi. Perrin’s visit should come as no surprise — his family’s main market in Asia is Japan, where Château Beaucastel, among their other Southern Rhô ne wines, is widely available.

The family’s operations are headquartered in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, an appellation located almost exactly in the center of the southern half of the Rhône in southern France. Perrin observed that the Rhône had always been a gateway to Europe, and over the centuries, many civilizations left behind different grape varieties as they passed through, many of which thrived.

“The southern Rhône is unique, in that not just a few but many grapes have adapted extremely well to the place, and its best wines are always blends of many varietals,” Marc said.

The rather grand-sounding name Châteauneuf-du-Pape dates back to the 14th century when Pope Clement V moved the papacy to Avignon. His successor, John XXII, wanted to build a summer palace in the cooler vineyard highlands to the north of the city, and he eventually decided on a hilltop site which already contained the foundations of a ruined castle; hence Châteauneuf- du-Pape, meaning the new castle of the pope.

The region fell into obscurity after the papacy returned to Rome, yet the name stuck. In addition to being unique for specializing in a blended wine rather than a monovarietal, Châteauneuf- du-Pape also secured a place in the history books (the vinious ones at least) as the first region to implement a series of controls designed to increase the quality of its wines. These guidelines specified which grape varieties could be used and how they could be grown, and mandated minimum winemaking standards.

Previously plagued by overproduction and adulteration scandals, Châteauneuf-du-Pape experienced such a great increase in quality after the guidelines were implemented in 1923 that the concept became the basis for the entire French Appellation Contrôlee system, which is still in use today.

Marc Perrin’s great-great- grandfather purchased Beaucastel in 1909, and while the family was required to follow the broad Châteauneuf-du-Pape guidelines, they remained mavericks within the appellation. Most producers favor the higher-yielding Grenache grape among the 13 varieties that are allowed by law to be grown in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

The Perrins, however, have always favored the lower-yielding Mourvedre. As Marc’s father Jean-Pierre explained many years ago, Mourvedre comes from the hotter Mediterranean regions and struggles to ripen in the relative cool of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

“In my opinion,” he said, “the great wines of the world all come from (grapes grown at) the limit of the possibility of maturing.”

The Perrins were pioneers in other regards. More than 50 years ago, they stopped using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. For decades they have also followed Rudolf Steiner’s “biodynamic” practices (a near-mystical approach to viticulture that is more rigorous than organic standards), long before this became fashionable.

Perhaps most controversially, particularly for a house which prides itself on noninterventionist winemaking, the Perrins pass their grapes through a heat tunnel that briefly raises the temperature of the skins to as high as 80 C, a technique they call vinification a chaud.

Perrin said that his grandfather spent 20 years perfecting the process of quickly heating and then cooling the grapes upon arrival. The benefits are twofold: first, the heat ruptures the cells in the skin (the source of the majority of the flavor, color, and tannin in the grape), which leads to greater extraction in the final wine; second, the process — in effect a type of flash pasteurization — deactivates the polyphenoloxidase enzymes that are thought to contribute to the rapid oxidation of just-crushed grapes.

“Therefore, we can use much lower levels of sulfur dioxide throughout the winemaking process,” Perrin explained.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, Beaucastel’s iconoclastic stance, critics and buyers have long placed this estate’s wines at the top of their lists.

Leading critic Robert Parker claims that “like hunger, fear, and lust, a great Châteauneuf-du-Pape appeals to one’s most basic instincts,” and he goes on to identify Beaucastel as one of the “greatest and most distinctive” wines of the Rhône and “irrefutably one of the longest lived.”

The Perrins could have rested on their laurels. But as Marc noted recently, each generation has sought to maintain the Beaucastel tradition while at the same time expanding the family business to new horizons.

“Our grandfather perfected Beaucastel,” he stated. “And we will always respect and maintain that as our haute couture line.”

The next generation built the “La Vieille” negociant brand, a producer of what Perrin fondly calls “brasserie wines” — easy, simple, inexpensive, and always good to drink. This business has expanded to over 400,000 cases, making it one of the more successful negociant brands in the region.

The current generation of the family has set up an actual “Perrin” label, with the goal of crafting affordable wines (retailing online in the $10-$20 range) that still possess a strong expression of regional character.

Made from purchased fruit at the beginning, now 95 percent of the grapes for this label are grown on land owned by the family. “We use the same people, the same grape blends and the same winemaking techniques as Beaucastel, including the vinification a chaud process. The only difference is where the grapes come from, and believe me the tastes can be totally different,” enthuses Perrin.

He sees each of the Perrin bottlings as strong in their own right and available in greater quantity than Beaucastel (in a sense, the Perrin bottlings are their pre^t-a-porter line).

“But the real goal is to express the specificity of each village, and these wines will also offer wine lovers a nice chance to really see the different characters of each place,” Marc explains. “My goal is to combine the best of tradition and the best of modernity, and to give something to the next generation at least as good as what we received from the previous one.”