Soil Hunters

The Perrin family digs deep into the Southern Rhône

Excerpted from the Nov. 30, 2011, issue

Vinsobres is one of the last villages in France’s Southern Rhône region before the valley narrows and the Northern Rhône begins. It’s a beautiful, rugged place, isolated and sleepy, with rolling hills dotted with vines, olive trees and oaks used for growing truffles.

It’s also perfect cycling country, which is how the region’s most ambitious winemaking family found prime vineyards here. “We all ride bicycles, my father especially,” says Marc Perrin, whose father, Jean-Pierre, is the oldest member of the winemaking team at Famille Perrin. “Cycling is a fabulous way to discover terroir. You smell, you see, you hear, you feel the wind, you feel the slopes. When you drive you don’t feel anything.”

Marc is walking on a hillside planted with old gnarled vines reaching up like grasping hands from ground that’s littered with stones. “We didn’t know Vinsobres 10 years ago,” he says. “Cycling here, my father said, ‘This is a nice place. It’s cooler, it’s windy, it has more altitude. It might be a good terroir for Syrah.’ ”

From the spot where he’s standing, Marc can see all the way down the valley. The snowy summit of Mont Ventoux and the jagged ridge of peaks above Gigondas are visible. Toward the southern end sits the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, topped by the ruins of the castle that once housed the pope. Beyond that lies the Mediterranean.

Thanks to their cycling reconnaissance and to plenty of hard work in their vineyards, the Perrins know this valley better than anyone. Over the past century, they have built what may be the Southern Rhône’s most impressive wine company, thanks to their no-nonsense focus on making good wine from good land.

Since 1909, they have protected and improved Château de Beaucastel, one of the best terroirs in Châteauneuf. “The Perrin family is an institution in Châteauneuf-du-Pape,” says Philippe Cambie, the area’s leading consulting enologist. “And, along with Château Rayas and Henri Bonneau, they are ambassadors of the appellation across the globe. They lead the way.”

Yet their work in Châteauneuf was only the beginning of their success. In the past 40 years, the Perrins have built the négociant La Vieille Ferme into a highly profitable brand that offers good quality for a great price, and in 1989, they even branched out to California, helping establish Tablas Creek in Paso Robles. But their most ambitious expansion has been their label Perrin & Fils, now renamed Famille Perrin. Since 1997, they have quietly bought and developed 640 acres scattered throughout the Southern Rhône, including the villages of Vinsobres, Cairanne, Rasteau, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Beaumes de Venise.

Today the Perrins produce 700,000 cases of wine a year from more than a dozen appellations for their various brands. And yet they are not slick or corporate. They are shrewd marketers, but they are also down-to-earth, no-nonsense people who love their region and enjoy making good wine. “What is very important about us is that we really are a family company,” says Marc. “Not just a family of shareholders, but a family that really runs a company.”

Despite their growth in the past few decades, the Perrins have no shareholders or financial directors to answer to. Their corporate “board” is made up of family members. Management consists of Jean-Pierre, and his brother François, as well as Jean-Pierre’s sons Marc, Pierre and Thomas, and daughter Cecile, and François’ sons Charles and Mathieu. (César joined after this article was published.) They divide the work evenly, and all play a role in the winemaking.

Beaucastel is the Perrin’s prestige estate. The 173-acre vineyard is striking—a vast field of round white stones, planted with gnarled old freestanding vines, on a mélange of sand, clay and limestone. The vineyard lies at the northern edge of the Châteauneuf appellation, in an old riverbed, with the stones placed by the Rhône itself.

Historical records show that a man named Pierre de Beaucastel owned the property in 1687, when Louis XIV named him a noble. Wine was made and sold at what was known as Domaine de Beaucastel since at least the early 1800s. But phylloxera arrived in Châteauneuf in the 1860s, and what had been a booming wine region, with 1,700 acres of vineyards, shrank to less than 500 acres in a decade. Grafting to American vine rootstocks saved the area, but many vignerons were already ruined. Replanting was expensive, and wealthy newcomers began buying up properties on the cheap.

An olive merchant named Pierre Tramier purchased Beaucastel in 1909. He would later pass it down to his son-in-law, Pierre Perrin. Perrin’s son Jacques controlled Beaucastel during the post-World War II era, putting a large stamp on the property. “He was a visionary,” says Marc, who remembers helping his grandfather in the vineyards as a boy. “He made most of the choices that make us what we are.”

At the end of World War II, when Jacques was planting at Beaucastel, Grenache accounted for 90 percent of the vines in Châteauneuf. With its big fruit flavors and high alcohol, it was a popular variety during post-phylloxera replanting. Jacques decided to bring back a variety that had virtually disappeared from the appellation, Mourvèdre, which was a dominant red grape in the southeast before phylloxera. Rich in tannins and acidity, it produces tough wines that are firm when young. “Grenache is the flesh of the wine, a very sexy grape,” says Marc. “It’s like fireworks. Mourvèdre is the opposite. It starts quiet but it grows on the palate. Syrah is the link.”

Jacques sourced Mourvèdre cuttings from Provence, and the tannic grape, with its spice, tobacco and leather flavors, became an essential part of Beaucastel’s character. As of 2009, Grenache still accounted for 73 percent of vines in Châteauneuf, and most properties use 85 percent to 90 percent Grenache in their red wines. Beaucastel uses 30 percent Grenache, 30 percent Mourvèdre, 10 percent Syrah, 10 percent Counoise and 5 percent Cinsault. Eight red and white grapes make up the remaining 15 percent of the blend.

Another key decision Jacques made was to adopt organic viticulture. He started in 1956, and today all of the Perrins’ vineyards are certified organic or in the process of being certified. He was also one of the region’s pioneers in estate bottling, beginning the practice in the 1970s. In 1976, he renamed the estate Château de Beaucastel.

When Jacques suddenly died of cancer in 1978, his two sons, Jean-Pierre and François, stepped in. Jean-Pierre had already been working with his father. François left school to help. They continued Jacques’ methods in the vineyard and the winery. And in 1989, a vintage when the Mourvèdre was particularly gorgeous, they created a new special cuvée, Hommage à Jacques Perrin, made with 60 percent Mourvèdre. In 1997, around the time that Jean-Pierre’s sons began to join the business, the family decided to expand again and started buying land.

There’s a saying in the wine business—the first generation creates the winery, the second builds it up and the third sells it off. But the Perrins are looking to continue to the sixth generation, and for François, there is nothing surprising about welcoming in the newest family members. “You need each new generation to play its role,” he says. “The world changes.”

To learn more about the Perrins’ other ventures, how they have grown the company and how the family works together, read the full article, “Soil Hunters,” in our online archives.