Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Visit to Château Beychevelle

A Visit to Château Beychevelle St Julien-Beychevelle Bordeaux

Visitors to the Médoc driving up the historic and legendary D2 Route du Médoc, the arterial wine road up the Left Bank of the Gironde River estuary, come upon the magnificent Château Beychevelle as they enter the St Julien Appellation, and the village of St Julien-Beychevelle. It is considered one of the most impressive châteaux in the whole of the Médoc.

Our visit and tour of the historic estate was another one of the key visits on our trip to the St Julien Appellation (AOC) in Bordeaux.  Château Beychevelle is one of ten Quatrièmes Crus (Fourth Growths) in the historic Bordeaux Wine Official Classification of 1855.

Our spectacular week in St Julien also included visits to our other favorite St Julien producers, Second Growths Chateau Ducru Beaucaillou Léoville du Marquis de Las CasesGruaud Larose and Léoville-Poyferré, as well as Fourth Growths Château Beychevelle and Château Branaire-Ducru

A tour of Beychevelle begins with a step back in history in a audio video enhanced gallery that goes back five centuries to the founding of the historic estate. Highlighted by graphics, music and historic photographics, it begins back in the reign of Henri III with the story Admiral Beychevelle, the fief of the Dukes of Épernon, the first of that name, Jean-Louis Nogaret de La Valette, who was the admiral in the French navy.

In the earliest years, the property was owned by the Foix Candale family who were well established in Bordeaux by 1446, as they already possessed Château d'Issan in Margaux. In 1565, Bishop François de Foix Candale commissioned the building of the grand chateau at Beychevelle.

Château Beychevelle, due to its classic, stunning architecture of the chateau and beautiful gardens, is often referred to as the Bordeaux version of Versailles.

Eventually, Beychevelle became the property of the Dukes of Epernon. The Duke was a powerful important leader of the French navy. He was so revered that ships sailing in front of Beychevelle were ordered to lower their sails as a sign of respect. Such was how Beychevelle acquired its name since the expression "Baisse-Vaille", meaning "lower the sails", translated into Beychevelle, when translated from the dialect of the time.

The name Beychevelle comes from the Old French Baisse-Voile, meaning “lowered sails”. The lowered sails of the ancient ship serves as the château’s iconic emblem and is the cornerstone of their branding to this day. The logo depicts a ship with a griffin – the guardian of Dionysos’ wine crater in Greek mythology – on the prow.

Beychevelle, or Baisse Voile, 'lower the sails', is memorialized in today's branding, the logo and label design of a galleon of the era with a large sail.

The earliest period of the estate being a working Bordeaux vineyard, it was owned by the  Bergeron family from 1720. In its earliest days it consisted of the current property as well as the adjacent properties that today make up Château Ducru Beaucaillou and Branaire Ducru.  

Map courtesy UGCB - Union des Grand Crus Bordeaux
Beychevelle was sold, bought and sold several times over the years, often due to the enormous cost to maintain the Saint Julien estate. Over time, the Beychevelle estate deteriorated from insufficient upkeep and neglect, until 1757, when the Marquis François-Etienne de Brassier renovated and rebuilt the estate. 

The property was split up in the years following the French Revolution in the early 19th Century.

In 1825, Beychevelle was bought by Pierre-François Guestier, a popular Bordeaux wine merchant who was also the mayor of St. Julien. The Guestier family joined forces with the Barton family, owners of neighboring Leoville Barton, and formed the Bordeaux wine negociant company Barton and Guestier, also known as B & G. that is still in business to this day.

In 1875, Armand Heine, cousin of the famous German poet, Heinrich Heine, purchased Château Beychevelle. He added the north wing of the chateau and replanted the vineyard following the phylloxera epidemic. Château Beychevelle remained in the hands of the same family for several generations into the 20th Century.

In 1970, Aymar Achille-Fould took over Château Beychevelle. In 1984 they formed a partnership with the GMF group. In 1988 the partnership was expanded with the addition of the Japanese giant Suntory, one of the oldest distilling companies in Japan dating back to 1899. In 2014, Suntory acquired iconic America distiller Jim Beam to become one of the largest distilling companies in the world. Since 1997, they are Japan's sole bottler, distributor, and licensee of Pepsi products and have since taken over Pepsi in other countries of southeast Asia. When they invested in Beychevelle, Suntory were already familiar with Bordeaux as owners of the neighboring estate, Château Lagrange.

In February, 2011, Chateau Beychevelle took on new owners when Suntory along with Pierre Castel, the head of the massive company Castel Freres, purchased the Saint Julien estate.

Philippe Blanc was brought as the managing director in 1995.

In addition to Château Beychevelle, the partnership also owns the well known Bordeaux negociant companies Barriere Freres and Oenoalliance, numerous branded wines, and Château Beaumont in the Haut Medoc appellation. They also hold investments in Burgundy, Africa and in China with Changyu-Castel. Today the property is owned by Grands Millésimesde France.

Despite being divided and subdivided over the years, the overall Beychevelle estate covers over 600 acres of land. Only that most suitable for growing grapes is planted in vineyards, the rest, mostly that down near the river, is grassland where Limousin cows graze, and forests of pine, poplar, ash and walnut trees.

The vast property extends down to the river where there was at one time a dock, and still today, a park. The turnoff of the D2 at the estate leads to the entrance to the production facilities, office and hospitality center, and continues down to the riverfront at what is called the Port de Beychevelle.

Below the vineyards are farmland and pastures -
Château Beyechevelle in distant background.
The Beychevelle estate's 210 acres of vineyards are located at the far south edge of the St-Julien appellation, just outside the village of St-Julien-Beychevelle. The vineyards are planted in the appellation sanctioned varietals of  Cabernet Sauvignon, (52%), Merlot, (40%), Cabernet Franc (5%), and Petit Verdot (3%).

The proximity of the Gironde, which can be seen from the front steps of the Château, has a protective, regulating affect on the climate that is vital for the production of exceptional wines.

On average, the vines are close to 30 years of age.

The heart of the vineyard is located on two plateaus. The best vines are said to be the 50 acres planted next to the chateau on the Beychevelle plateau, next to Château Ducru Beaucaillou, and extending down towards the river, and those down near Château Leoville Barton.

Vineyards on the plateau Beychevelle on the left,
Ducru Beaucaillou on the right

The vineyards near the river are comprised of the notable St Julien deep Garonne gravelly soil, deposited over the millennia from the Gunzian period, on the edge of the Gironde. These are the famous gravelly hilltops of the Médoc, close to the Gironde, which offer the best conditions for the classic Bordeaux varietals. They benefit from the moderating effects the river has on the vines, helping to protect them from excessive heat and from the occasional frost.

Like so many of the producer's vineyards in the Medoc, several of Château Beychevelle's vineyards are dispersed across the Saint Julien appellation.

Beyechevelle also have vineyards in the southern tip of the St. Julien appellation located further inland, not far from Château Gruaud Larose.

The estate also owns 55 acres of vines located in the neighboring Haut Medoc appellation that are considered part of the Saint Julien appellation. The vineyard is situated in the commune of Cussac, not far from Château Beaumont. There it is much cooler terrior than in the St. Julien appellation.

Due to the fact that those vines were part of Château Beychevelle at the time of the original classification, even though they are located in the neighboring appellation of Haut Medoc, the estate has the right to include those vines in either their Grand Vin, the second wine, or use them to produce a Haut Medoc wine. Another additional 35 acres of vines in the Haut Medoc are not allowed for use in St. Julien designated wines.

In all there are 14 different blocks of vines, that can be divided into up to 60 different parcels of vines.

In recent years, Château Beychevelle have worked to dramatically improve the quality of the wine through a massive reduction in the effective yields at the property. Earlier vintages such as 1982 were produced with almost no selection. Then, as much as 95% of the harvest went into the Grand Vin.

Today, much greater selection takes place to use only the finest lots in the grand vin, and the rest in a second or lesser label. Now, the average amount of the harvest going into the flagship Beychevelle is closer to 50%.

Starting in 2008, Château Beychevelle began moving closer to organic farming techniques. The estate has been certified for sustainable viticulture.

Beyechevelle took on a new winemaker to assist Philippe Blanc, Romain Ducolomb, who previously worked at Château Clinet in Pomerol. The first vintage for Ducolomb was the 2012, which showed soft tannins and more ripeness.

In 2016, the new partnership made a substantial investment of more than 15 million Euros in the St Julien estate. They completely renovated the wine making facilities remodeling the cellars, vat rooms, tanks and building the hospitality visitor center.

The hallmark of the new Beychevelle was the addition of a large modern high tech production facility with new tanks and a barrel storage facility below. Designed by the noted architect Arnaud Boulain and Atelier BPM, the modernistic building is comprised of glass walls that opens the large tank room to the outside, and bring striking views of the surrounding vineyards inside.

Undulating steel metal bands resembling sails decorate the outside of the building and protect the glass building from the direct sunlight. The sails architectural design elements are also introduced in the modern barrel facility in the waving ceiling, pictured below.

The modern high tech building sits prominently at the front of the property adjacent the historic chateau along the D2 Route de Medoc.

The wine of Château Beychevelle is vinified in 59, gleaming new, stainless steel vats that range in size from 73 hectoliters to 105, 120 and up to 160 hectoliters. This provides for a vat for each plot of the estate to optimize the vinification to each lot. Malolactic fermentation takes place in tank.

Like many of the Château in Bordeaux, and many leading wineries in Napa as well, Beychevelle has introduced artwork throughout their facilities to enhance the atmosphere and the tour experience.

The historic original cellars were renovated and are adorned with artwork. Below the historic barrel storage facilities, Beychevelle maintains a historic library of vintage releases. The collection dates back to the mid 19th century.

Historic barrel facility
Historic library

Depending on the vintage, a portion of the malolactic can take place in barrel. The wine of Château Beychevelle is aged in an average of 50-60% new, French oak barrels for about 18 months before bottling.

Modern barrel facility with sailing architecture effects

Château Beychevelle St Julien grand vin, in good vintages can be powerful and concentrated, yet supple and smooth with complex and finely integrated notes of almost sweet, ultra-ripe Cabernet fruit, accented by notes of cassis, spice, tobacco, cedar and mocha.

Beychevelle's hospitality center features a modern tasting room overlooking the magnificent historic Château and it's beautiful gardens that look out to the vineyards and the pastures and river in the distance.


We were served a vertical tasting flight of Château Beychevelle 2012, 2016 and, a special treat, a barrel sample of the upcoming 2018 vintage.

Young vintages are best to be decanted for a couple hours before consuming to allow the wine to soften and open its perfume. Older vintages might need very little decanting, just enough to remove the sediment.

Château Beychevelle is best consumed after 6-12 years of age, and, depending on the vintage can often maintain its prime drinking window for several decades or more. We still hold the last remaining bottles of a case of 1988 that we acquired upon release. Upon return from our trip we enjoyed one of those bottles and it is drinking as good or even better than in its first decade. 

The chateau makes a second label wine called Amiral de Beychevelle. This is produced from the lots that are not deemed suitable for the flagship label. This provides a wine that is approachable at an earlier age at a more affordable price.

We were also served a tasting of the second label, Amiral de Beychevelle from the 2012 vintage.

The second wine, Amiral de Beychevelle, was first released back in the 1950’s. In those days, as little as 4% of the production went into the second wine. In 1996, then general manager Philippe Blanc directed to vastly increase production of and increase the percentage of the harvest allocated to the second wine.

Amiral de Beychevelle is made from the younger vines, but still benefits from the same growing techniques, meticulous sorting, and traditional barrel ageing. It can have the same elegance and finesse as its older brother, but reveals its character earlier in its youth. It can be kept for up to fifteen years, depending on the vintage.

Beychevelle also produce a third label, Les Brulieres de Beychevelle, comprised of the fruit from the vines in the Haut Medoc appellation. Chateau Beychevelle also produces a negociant wine in partnership with their negociant owner, Barriere called Secret de Grand Bateaux. This is sold as a mass market supermarket brand. Secret de Grand Bateaux also displays the estate’s famed Dragon boat logo in their label design for brand continuity. The wine is available as a red wine and white Bordeaux wine.

There is high demand of Beychevelle wines, especially in Asia where it is known as 'the Dragon Boat wine'. Due to significant counterfeiting that takes place in China, Chateau Beychevelle has recently added anti counterfeiting measures to their bottles. The technique adds a unique code to each bottle that is stored in a database that allows purchasers and sellers to check for the authenticity of each bottle along with the name of the original, authorized distributor.

Today, Château Beychevelle produces on average about 25,000 cases per year.

As with all producers in the Medoc, as I often say, as 'all boats rise with the tide', the best vintages of Château Beychevelle are those best vintages in the appellation. Top vintages have been 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2012, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2000, 1989, 1982 and 1961. Notably, several older vintages of Château Beychevelle, dating back to 1906 have been exceptional wines.

Shortly after our return home, we enjoyed a thirty year of vintage release of Château Beychevelle 1988 and it was drinking remarkably well.

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