December 2008

Roots in the Rhone

By: David Gadd

François, Marc, Jean-Pierre, Pierre and Thomas Perrin in the vineyards. The terroir at Beaucastel is marked by rounded stones—galets—that absorb daytime heat and transmit it to the vines during the night.
Like their wines, the Perrin family springs from Southern Rhône soil

“The Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône are very different from each other,” says Marc Perrin. He should know—his family has been in the wine business (and before that, the olive business) in the Rhône Valley for five generations.

“Our focus is exclusively on the Southern Rhône,” explains Marc, “where we have the objective of owning all our own grapes, or controlling them through lease. Right now, we’re already 95 percent there.” The family has vineyards in appellations including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Vinsobres, Rasteau and Cairanne, as well as the larger Côtes du Rhône AOC.

The Perrin wine domaines extend from the South of France to Central California’s Paso Robles region, where they co-own Tablas Creek with their American importer, Robert Haas. The flagship of the company is the historic Château de Beaucastel, one of the top properties in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  The Perrins acquired Beaucastel in 1909 and will celebrate their hundredth anniversary as owners next year. Marc’s grandmother still lives on the estate.

All thirteen of the appellation’s traditional and permitted grape varieties are grown and used in Beaucastel’s red estate wine; in addition to familiar Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, Roussanne and Cinsault, these include the more obscure Vacarese, Counoise, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Clairette, Picpoul, Picardin and Bouboulenc. All are grown in a terroir marked by the region’s rounded stones, called galets, which absorb heat during the warm days and transmit it to the vines at night.

Brothers François and Jean-Pierre are the active heads of the family business. Their four sons—Marc, Pierre, Thomas and Matthieu—are also involved in the day-to-day operations of this hands-on and multi-faceted enterprise. Perrin & Fils is a member of the prestigious Primum Familiae Vini, an organization of top family wineries worldwide whose membership is limited to a dozen families; Marc Perrin serves as this year’s President.

The harvest in progress at Château de Beaucastel.

American importer Vineyard Brands, owned by Robert Haas, has been an instrumental partner for the Perrins for more than 30 years. “The United States is the number one market for us,” says Marc Perrin, “just before France. That’s mainly because we have very good distribution in the States.”  In addition to the Perrin and Perrin Réserve brands, Vineyard Brands handles the value-driven La Vieille Ferme, a line that first debuted in the 1970s and is now found all over the world. “If Beaucastel is haute couture,” jokes Marc, “La Vieille Ferme is prêt-à-porter. It’s not pretentious; it’s purely about pleasure and quaffability.”

Between the two extremes of “castle” and “farm” lies a line of solid releases that make a good introduction to the sunny, Grenache-driven style of the Southern Rhône (see tasting notes). And the Perrin portfolio continues to grow. Earlier this year, after three years of negotiations, the family purchased the Domaine des Tourelles, a sterling property in the heart of Gigondas. This former 17th-century monastery, situated just below the local market, includes a walled 2.5-hectare “clos,” the only vineyard of its type in the appellation. Some of the fruit from the domaine will be used in the Perrin Gigondas AOC release, but the family also plans to create a vineyard-specific Clos de Tourelles bottling starting with the 2008 vintage.

As we wrap up our phone conversation with Marc Perrin from his home in the town of Orange, near Avignon, his nine-month-old son Antoine can be heard babbling insistently in the background—perhaps something about Grenache yields per hectare? A sixth-generation Perrin winemaker on the rise.

Perrin & Fils releases such as this Vinsobres make a good introduction to the sunny, Grenache-driven style of the Southern Rhône.

I recently tasted through some of the Perrin family’s current releases. Here are my notes.—Anthony Dias Blue

2006 Vinsobres Les Cornuds ($22)
Bright with black raspberry and spice; mellow and lush with long flavors of fruit and hints of vanilla oak. 89 points

2006 Côtes du Rhône Villages Rasteau L'Andéol ($25)
Smooth and rich with spice, raspberry fruit and soft tannins; clean, long and balanced with nice style. 88

2006 Gigondas La Gille ($29)
Charming and fresh with juicy plum and raspberry fruit and racy acidity; dense flavors with depth and balance. 89

2006 Vacqueyras Les Cristins ($31)
Rich, dense and concentrated with plum, blackberry and spice; smooth, complex and long with balance and finesse. 90

2005 Châteauneuf-du-Pape  Les Sinards ($45)
Fresh and juicy with bright red-berry fruit; mellow, lively and racy with depth, finesse and complexity. 91

2006 Châteauneuf du Pape Blanc Les Sinards ($45)
Smooth and elegant with lovely silky texture and lush flavors; rich, balanced and quite lovely. 90

2005 Côtes du Rhône Villages  Vinsobres Les Hauts de Julien ($49)
Smooth, bright and juicy with racy acidity, fresh berry fruit; nicely structured; long and balanced. 91

2005 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape ($128)
Deep, dark and rich—a definitive Châteauneuf; powerful and concentrated with blackberry, cherry , earth and spice; complex, aromatic and needing a year or two to smooth out. 95

Perrin & Fils wines are imported by Vineyard Brands.

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