Terroir, history and context
There are many truisms spoken about the wines of the Médoc. And, to be honest, not all of them are true. But it is difficult to argue with the observation that if one is in the Médoc, one’s feet are dry, one is standing in a vineyard, and one can see the Gironde, then one is likely to be surrounded by excellent terroir – and the greater the expanse of the river one can see the greater the quality of that terroir. The proposition works well: Latour, Margaux, Léoville Las Cases, Montrose … and, of course, Beychevelle.
Indeed, aside from its wine (which we will come to presently) Beychevelle’s other great claim to fame relies on precisely this direct view of the river – or, more accurately, the view back from the river to the château itself. For in the early 17th, the château’s new owner, the first Duke of Epernon – the eponymous ‘Amiral’ after whom the second wine is named – was so venerated that boats passing the estate would habitually lower their sails out of respect to him. They would, literally, ‘baisse’ (‘lower’) their ‘voile’ (‘sail’) – or, in the Gascon dialect of the time, ‘Bêcha vêla’.
In a sense, then, the quality of the terroir is expressed in the very name of the château itself – and it is reflected in the no less famous label of the first wine – a boat with a griffon-shaped prow and, of course, a sail at half-mast.
All of this is relatively well-known – the stuff of coach party tours of the Médoc. But what is much less well-known is the sheer quality, complexity, and indeed expanse, of the terroir itself. Beychevelle is a large property – some 250 hectares in total, though only 90ha or so of this are under vine. Of that, 36ha are located roughly four kilometres away from the château itself, inland to the south-east, in the commune of Cussac.
But since, at the time of the 1855 classification, Beychevelle (like its neighbours Branaire-Ducru and Ducru-Beaucaillou) already had several hectares located in Cussac these are, exceptionally, considered part of the St Julien appellation. They were used at the time to produce Beychevelle itself (the only wine to be produced at that time) and nowadays can in fact be used in the first or second wines. The 14ha more recently acquired have, since 1978, formed the basis of Beychevelle’s excellent Haut-Médoc, les Brulières de Beychevelle.
Within the more strictly geographical boundaries of the St Julien appellation, Beychevelle has 14 separate terroirs. These are quite widely distributed within the appellation, with the largest contiguous plots being inland, near Gruaud Larose, and on the famous plateau which runs north along the Gironde from Beychevelle to surround the château of Ducru-Beaucaillou.
The plateau is one of the two greatest terroirs of the appellation (the other being at Las Cases). But what is also not well appreciated is that it is Beychevelle – and not Ducru – that owns the largest proportion of the plateau. Indeed, of its approximately 30ha, Beychevelle has more than 20 – some 70%. Ducru has the next largest share, including various blocks south and west of the château itself, with Léovilles Las Cases and Barton holding yet smaller parcels.
And, crucially, it is from the plateau that the core of Beychevelle’s first wine now comes. Indeed, it is this that largely explains the unusually high proportion of Merlot typically found in the first wine. For, although the precocious plateau is prime Cabernet Sauvignon terroir, typically ripening a full week earlier than vineyards further inland like Lagrange, it has historically been planted with a higher share of Merlot. This old-vine Merlot here is truly excellent and richly deserves its place in the first wine, even if the policy of the property is to replace it very slowly and only when replanting is necessary, with Cabernet Sauvignon.
But the recent history of Beychevelle is not just a story of terroir. It is also a story of vinification. Since the 2016 vintage, Romain Ducolomb, its most accomplished wine-maker, has had the additional benefit of a fantastic new wine-making facility. This, as any vertical tasting of recent vintages shows so clearly, has raised the quality of an already exceptional wine to new and unprecedented heights.
And in a sense, that is not surprising. For this significant investment has given Beychevelle an entirely new, purpose-, vineyard- and terroir-designed, winery – with a complete remodelling of the cellars, the vat rooms and, crucially, the tanks themselves. Vinification is now by parcel in 59 stainless steel vats ranging in size to accommodate the particular parcel in the vineyard for which they are intended. And whereas previously, the large concrete tanks came so close to the roof of the vat room that no punching down was possible, the new vat room allows this to take place on a rolling cycle from vat to vat, very gently, from 5am until midnight every day.
The textural finesse, precision and elegance that results raises Beychevelle to a new level; yet it does so by accentuating and giving fresh definition to its long-standing distinctive personality and identity. It is, at least in the hands of Romain Ducolomb, Philippe Blanc and the technical team at Beychevelle alongside the Médoc consultant Eric Boissenot, a terroir-magnifier rather than a terroir-suppressant.
Beychevelle’s market profile
Before turning in more detail to the wines themselves, it is perhaps first interesting to examine Beychevelle’s place in the market today. Here, as for the earlier profile of Brane-Cantenac, I am fortunate enough to be able to draw upon figures and data provided for me by Nicola Graham and the team at Liv-ex – the global marketplace for the wine trade.
Beychevelle is well known for its remarkable performance on the secondary market. Indeed the data itself is quite staggering. Liv-ex’s Beychevelle index, which traces the price movements of the last ten physical vintages, has consistently outperformed its parental indices, the Left Bank 200 and the wider Bordeaux 500 – and increasingly so.
We see a significant and growing divergence from these two indices from late 2008 onwards, with the Beychevelle index plot tracking steeply upwards from late 2010 and again from early 2016. Since 2004, Beychevelle has risen by 600%, when compared to a rise of just over 200% for the Bordeaux 500 and of around 170% for the Left Bank 200.
It is not difficult to see why this might be so if, instead of comparing Beychevelle’s market performance with Liv-ex’s compound indices, we compare it instead with the performance of some of its immediate peers. There are, of course, different ways of doing this, based on different ideas as to what the relevant peers might be. The following two graphs are constructed from a combination of Liv-ex data, supplemented by some of my own. They make essentially the same point.
The first plot compares Beychevelle’s performance on the secondary market since release against that of other leading St Julien grands crus for a series of recent great vintages (each of which I had the benefit to taste and each of which features in the tasting notes below).
What is immediately striking is that Beychevelle consistently yields a better return on an en primeur investment than any other of the leading St Julien grands crus.
Indeed, as a more thorough analysis of the data reveals, it yields a better return than any wine in the appellation. What the plot also suggests is that whilst other leading crus in the appellation are capable of yielding a good return on a vintage-specific investment (Léoville Poyferré in 2000 and 2009 for instance), there is no consistent pattern for any of them other than Beychevelle and, if to a lesser extent, Léoville Barton.
That conclusion is only reinforced if we add to the peer group comparators the second growths. Beychevelle is, of course, not a second but a fourth growth.
But in terms of both reputation and current market performance the second growths provide a more appropriate comparison.
Here I plot Beychevelle’s secondary market performance since release for every vintage from 2000 to 2018 alongside the average for the (14) second classed growths and for the (11) grands crus of St Julien.
The results are again quite staggering. Beychevelle systematically, and in every single vintage, outperforms both the second growths and the St Julien grands crus.
Moreover, it does so cumulatively – the older the vintage, the greater the increase in price relative to the peer group.
This latter point hints at another highly distinctive feature of Beychevelle’s price evolution on the secondary market. For it is one of those wines whose market price and position is shaped much more by age than either by critical appreciation or, indeed, vintage reputation. The exceptionally strong correlation between age and price is perhaps shown most clearly in the following two graphs from Liv-ex.
The first shows current market prices for recent vintages of Beychevelle plotted against Robert Parker and Neal Martin’s scores. It suggests, in particular, that the 2018, 2016, 2015 and 2010 (all, incidentally, vintages that performed extremely well in the vertical tasting below) are currently under-valued relative to their critical appreciation.
But it also suggests that one of the reasons for this, is that Beychevelle’s price is driven much more by age than it is by score. It need hardly be pointed out that these are the very best attributes of an investment-grade wine or, depending on one’s perspective, a very strong argument for buying one’s Beychevelle at the moment of its first release.
The second plot, the product of a rather more sophisticated statistical analysis that explores the relationship (or correlation) between price and age, merely reinforces the point.
It is difficult to think of any other classed growth, or leading Bordeaux cru, whose secondary market price is so strongly correlated with age and, indeed, so weakly correlated with critical score or vintage reputation.
The only obvious comparisons are with Lafite-Rothschild and, Lafite’s second wine, Carruades de Lafite – wines, like Beychevelle, with very strong followings in China.
But whereas the wines of the Lafite stable, driven by intense East Asian demand, came to exhibit an asset-price bubble (with a steep rise and subsequent if partial collapse) that is not the story of Beychevelle as my very first plot shows so clearly.
Beychevelle is, then, a wonderful wine from a wonderful terroir; but it is also virtually the only classed growth whose price trajectory after release has mapped such a consistent, stable and uninterrupted ascent. Beychevelle, in other words, is a property that has got its release prices absolutely right.
The tasting notes from the vertical can be found on the following page.