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50 years of Beychevelle

by Tom Cannavan, 08/07

I have a real soft spot for Château Beychevelle, one of the most beautiful properties of Bordeaux. Sitting Magnificently in the commune of St Julien, immediately opposite Château Branaire-Ducru, the flower-filled gardens and grand building are as imposing as any in the Gironde. But it is the wines of the Beychevelle that have the most resonance for me.

Château Beychevelle 1985 was the first really 'serious' Bordeaux wine that I bought by the case 'en primeur', and I suppose started a bit of a love affair with this château, which was a wonderful piece of luck, since for me Beychevelle is often under appreciated in the market place.
  

Though there are grander wines - and much more expensive wines - in my cellar now, I still buy Beychevelle, and still take immense pleasure in the last few bottles from that original case of 1985's which are drinking beautifully today.

So it was with huge delight that I recently accepted an invitation to visit Beychevelle, and stay as a house guest in one of its wings - I'll swear, a 15 minute walk from the entrance to the property. I had dinner with winemaker Philip Blanc, and several rare vintages from the cellars were poured. Needless to say it was a delightful evening, with such an intelligent and thoughtful winemaker every bit as eloquent as the wines themselves, both from recent vintages and stretching back half a century.

Philip talked at length about the history of the château and his winemaking philosophy developed over his 11 years in charge as winemaker and General Manager. Only around 55% of production now makes it into the Grand Vin each year, as the introduction of second label Amiral de Beychevelle has allowed Philip much greater flexibility - his selection criteria can be strict, and quality can be maintained in more challenging vintages.

Of course it is easy to be swayed by the surroundings and the occasion when tasting wines like this. But I was acutely aware that to taste through the catalogue of wines direct from the château's library stocks was pretty much a once in a lifetime opportunity, so took a lot of time with this tasting, first of the wines on their own, then with a small glass of each over the course of the evening as they developed. Not one of these wines disappointed.
     

the wines

Château Beychevelle (France) St Julien 2003
The nose, for the moment, is dominated by coconutty oak and a fabulous aromatic onslaught of generous kirsch and cassis fruit, with some floral notes. There is plenty of creamy, sweet vanilla on the palate too, but a fine weight of black cherry and blackcurrant fruit, with a chocolaty depth. There is good structure here too, with solid, ripe tannins and a tugging acidity, in a wine that is extremely promising and should drink well from the outset. Very good indeed/excellent.
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Château Beychevelle (France) St Julien 2002
Really cedary, cigar box aromas dominate, in a nose full of finesse. Fine red plum and black fruits. Again a suggestion of a sweet, fudge-like core to the wine in the mouth, with an attractive black plum juiciness, with bittersweet fruit showing lovely ripeness, but that tart edge of plum skin acidity and fine tannins. Another very successful Beychevelle this. Very good indeed/excellent.
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Château Beychevelle (France) St Julien 2001
Very round and plummy on the nose, with a mellow pencil-shaving quality and those opulent notes of fudge, tobacco and woodsmoke in the background. Sweetness of fruit here, with the palate rich and full-textured, with really quite fat, forward black fruits that nevertheless have a lip-smacking juiciness and racy edge of tannin and acidity. Chocolate and earthy, smoky notes emerge in the finish in a really attractive Beychevelle. Excellent.
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Château Beychevelle (France) St Julien 2000
A wine I've tasted several times i the past (and bought en primeur) showing a much more firm. lean, edgy liquorice and black plum fruit on the nose, with cherry and mineral edges adding a lot more nervosity than in previous tastings. Less opulent for sure on the palate, but there are reserves here, with that espresso-supported black fruit all constrained by grippy tannins and a liquorice and damson-skin severity. Over the course of an hour this starts to fill out, with the mid-palate developing a much more lush, blackcurranty fruit and hints of chocolaty richness. This is in a slightly awkward stage, but I am very happy to have some tucked away. Very good indeed for now, excellent potential.
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Château Beychevelle (France) St Julien 1996
Exotic Sandalwood and cedary aromas dominate, in a profile showing lots of spice and earthiness. Some good fruit comes through, with an almost minty edge to solid blackcurrant. There are some herbal, slightly vegetal and bloody nuances, but these add some interest. Cool, beautifully delineated fruit on the palate, with quite a lean, savoury, cherry skin and bittersweet blueberry character. Some espresso and tobacco emerges into the finish, which becomes very harmonious over time in the glass. This wine really opens out, finishing with finesse and supple mid-palate weight, and a sense of richness. This needs time and has the potential to be excellent.
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Château Beychevelle (France) St Julien 1986
What a lovely nose on this wine, with exquisite aromatics of kirsch-like, soaring fruit, with hints of eucalyptus and Chinese dried plums. There is Sandalwood and some smokiness over a deep well of cassis and bursting damson fruit. The palate shows stunning concentration for Beychevelle, with a mid-palate richness and breadth of flavour, with bloody, earth-streaked black fruits against a firm tannic framework and an edge of acidity. One of the best 1986's I have tasted, and better balanced than many. Excellent/outstanding.
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Château Beychevelle (France) St Julien 1976
The nose here is much, much more vegetal than the 1986, and slightly dank, with truffly, undergrowth qualities that is much less 'pure', but not entirely unattractive. On the palate there is an intense fruit sweetness, but there is a slightly raisined quality amongst black fruits. A warmth of spices and cedary caramel suffuses the finish, with some orangy acidity and fading tannins into the finish. A wine that is tiring, but still has some elegance and charm. Very good indeed.
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Château Beychevelle (France) St Julien 1962
This has a very brown colour when poured, that is faded and light. There's a note of brown sugar sweetness and mellow, gamy notes on the nose, with ox-tail and slightly dank, vegetal qualities. The palate has intense sweetness, with raisins and a brown sugar sweetness, and a dry, but still coffeeish background of old oak. The acidity has that orangy character again, but the fruit really starts to persist in this wine, overwhelming the acidity and filling the mouth with a lingering impression of sweetness into the finish. This is actually a lovely old wine, and holding together very nicely. Very good indeed/excellent.
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Château Beychevelle (France) St Julien 1955
This has held its colour rather better than the ' 62, with some crimson at the core. There's a lovely fudge-like suggestion of sweetness on the nose, with tobacco and toffeed notes, and more of that brown sugar character. But this seems rounder, fuller, and more youthful than the '62. The palate confirms that, with a voluptuous sweetness of red fruits. There's a marmalade quality too, and a spiciness with cedary, smoky notes and just a lingering edge of tannin. The acidity is muted, and this wine has harmony and seems to have some time ahead of it still, despite the obvious maturity. Excellent.
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