Paul Smith, our Financial Director, has again had the chance to visit Bordeaux to discover new wines, chateaux and meet its wine makers. This is the seventh in this series of blogs about his trip and his discoveries . . .
I’d been looking forward to visiting Fourth Growth Chateau Beychevelle in Saint Julien on my trip to Bordeaux and I wasn’t disappointed when I finally arrived.
This chateau is Asia’s darling and thanks to its beautiful buildings and gardens it’s affectionately known as ‘the Versailles of the Medoc’ in Bordeaux.
Asia’s love affair with Beychevelle began in 1988 when the Japanese group Suntory bought into the estate. Beychevelle received a further boost in 2011 when the French wine & spirits merchants Castel became co-owners with Suntory. Castel are an internationally renowned business with excellent contacts in China. They partnered with Changyu winery back in the 1990s and together they produce their Sino-French premium wines under the Chateau Changyu Castel label.
Beychevelle’s emblem, the single sailed boat with a griffin figurehead, appeals to the Asian markets thanks to its resemblence to a Dragon Boat. If you look very carefully at the emblem on the bottle labels you can see a shift in design starting in 1988 after Suntory bought into Beychevelle. Prior to this date the sail boat depicted looked more like a Viking Longship but after 1988 the boat’s bow and stern became more curved to mimic the Dragon Boat.
The sail boat emblem harks back to Beychevelle’s heritage. The chateau takes its name from the French ‘Baisse-Vaille’ which means ‘lower sails’ as the chateau once belonged to the Admiral of France Jean-Louis Nogaret de la Valette, Duke of Epernon. The ships lowered their sails in homage to him as they sailed past the little port at the bottom of the chateau’s gardens on the River Garonne. The label symbolises this by depicting a ship with sails lowered. Incidentally the Admiral is a distant ancestor of the actress Audrey Hepburn.
Writing about Castel’s purchase of a 50% stake back in 2011 Nick commented that as Beychevelle is now the jewel in Castel’s crown, and with their contacts in China, he was expecting to see ever greater demand for this lovely Saint Julien 4th Growth. He wasn’t wrong. Beychevelle is booming. It’s price doubled in 2009 thanks to Asian demand for the ‘Dragon Boat wine;’ coupled with 2009 being an exceptional year. The price hasn’t dropped much since and averages at £72 a bottle depending on the vintage.
Whilst at the chateau I was told that all of their wines from the 2015 vintage were sold within 15 minutes of them being released.
The wines were snapped up by the Negotiant Barriere Freres. This isn’t surprising. Barriere Freres are part of the Castel Group and are a formidable arm of their international supply chain with offices in Shanghai.
Trading in Asia has its risks and Beychevelle has had to use anti-counterfeiting technology to avoid fake Beychevelle lookalikes in China. They use a system called Tesa PrioSpot, produced by Beiersdorf – the company behind Nivea – which gives each bottle a unique code that can be traced back. They also fought, and won, a trademark dispute concerning their Grand Bateau boat emblem in China.
Chateau Beychevelle is one of the most popular Classed Growths in the Medoc but the estate does produce more affordable wines that are easier to acquire:
Grand Bateau is the fruit of a collaboration between Barrière Freres and Chateau Beychevelle. This is more affordable than the Grand Vin at circa £11 a bottle and as it is made by the same winemaking team it is a shrewd choice.
Chateau Beaumont – Owned by the same group that owns and manages Chateau Beychevelle, the Castel group and Suntory, this is a top tier Haut Medoc. It’s also a stunning chateau in its own right and wines here are circa £13 a bottle.
Les Brulieres – Beychevelle owns 12 hectares of vines 5 km away from the chateau’s vineyard that fall into the Haut Medoc appellation. Being further from the Gironde estuary, they benefit from a cooler climate. This is an organic vineyard and Les Brulieres’ blend consists of just two grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Vinified and aged in a separate winery, it is produced with the same level of care as Chateau Beychevelle and Amiral de Beychevelle (Beychevelle’s Second Wine) but costs around £17 a bottle.
The Second Wine Amiral de Beychevelle – This is more approachable when young which means that you can drink it earlier than the Grand Vin (which takes time to mature and develop in bottle). Circa £27 a bottle.
As you can imagine, since its purchase Beychevelle has benefited from huge investment. The latest redevelopment is a 16 million euro project building a new glass walled winery that makes the winemaking facilities visible from the D2 Route des Chateaux that runs through Medoc. The barrel room is also being renovated and the visitor centre and tasting room are being moved into the 18th century chateau building itself. The left hand side of the chateau is being converted into a 13 room hotel for visitors.
I spent a while with Director Philippe Blanc on the balcony talking about the redevelopment that is taking place. The reasons behind their choice of a glass walled winery was that they did not want to detract from the chateau by trying a newbuild in an 18th century style, so they decided to opt for modernity. They commissioned architect Arnaud Boulain and Atelier BPM to work on the design. The glass opens up the winemaking process to the public and it’s interesting concept. Philippe has compared it to being able to watch a chef prepare a meal; in a like manner the public can watch a wine being made. The vats are already in place and will be used for the 2016 vintage.
We were told Philippe was very keen to progress Bio Dynamics within the chateau and that currently 33% of the production has been converted using this technique with plans on increasing the amount of hectares. Improvements have not just been confined to the chateau’s buildings but have also been implemented in the wine making process – Beychevelle used optical sorting for the first time in 2015 vintage on 33% of the crop and intend to continue with its progression.
After tasting a superb selection of Beycehevelle’s wines we had a fabulous lunch during which Philippe was very keen to hear opinions on his wines that we had with our meal and in particular listened to the younger guests views. Beychevelle’s hospitality was immaculate and an absolute treat.
Chateau Beychevelle’s website can be found here.