Beaulieu Vineyard has been making wines in Napa for 100 years and calls its Georges de Latour Private Reserve, “Napa Valley’s first cult Cabernet.” First made in 1940 by legendary winemaker André Tchelistcheff, it has now become one of America’s most sought-after and collectible wines. To launch the new 2019 vintage of Private Reserve and to show a 1973 library bottle, current winemaker Trevor Durling met up with Sophia Longhi on her home turf of Brighton beach at newly-opened Due South restaurant, where he also opened up a wide range of Beaulieu’s wines.
It was the newer wines that showed Durling’s impact and the victories of his “crusade to bring BV back to premium level,” writes Longhi
“Quelle beau lieu!” is what Fernande de Latour exclaimed to her husband, Georges de Latour, when she first saw what was to be Beaulieu Vineyard’s first piece of land. “What a beautiful place!” That’s near enough what Trevor Durling, Beaulieu’s chief winemaker, said when he arrived at Due South on Brighton Beach last week. The sun was so glorious that all of the journalists were squeezed into the corner of Due South’s terrace under a parasol, sipping icy gin and tonics before the tasting began. We could have been in California, save for the Englishness of the scene and the pebbles underfoot.
The pebbles, however, spark a thought back to Napa. Though they are flint, which is more likely to be found in another famous valley, the Loire, Napa is actually home to half of the world’s soil types, making it one of the most diverse regions to grow grapes. It was the alluvial loam and sandy soils of Rutherford, specifically, that prompted Andre Tchelistcheff to announce: “It takes Rutherford dust to grow great Cabernet”.
With the zest of someone telling a story for the first time (though I suspect that wasn’t the case) Durling ran through the history of Beaulieu (known as BV), paying his respects to the late, great Tchelistcheff, Beaulieu’s first post-Prohibition winemaker and one of the most influential people in America’s winemaking history. Durling recounted Tchelistcheff’s habit of gathering handfuls of earth in the vineyards and shoving it towards the nostrils of anyone in close proximity. They were to breathe in the aromas of clean dirt and pencil shavings, which so characterised the somewhat mysterious “Rutherford Dust”.
We looked out for these signs in the 1995 Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, which was the first wine we tasted on our BV adventure. Mahogany-red in the glass, I breathed in notes of caramel and raisin. Flavours of cocoa powder and coffee grounds washed over my palate, which was enlivened with a still-fresh bite of acidity. A gravelly minerality persisted.
The 1995 wasn’t the oldest wine we tasted that evening. A bottle of 1973 Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet was poured, the colour of burnt caramel; rusty nail-coloured glints catching the sunshine. Scents of damp forest and fresh tobacco were alluring, amongst baking spices and dried dates, and these were the notes that lingered on the palate beside the faded fruit.
While it was fun to taste these older vintages and look back on BV’s pioneering past, it was the newer wines that showed Durling’s impact and the victories of his “crusade to bring BV back to premium level”.
Durling describes the current release of Georges de Latour Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon as “a wine that is bigger than BV itself”. It certainly was the wine that prompted James Suckling to award it 100 points and describe it as “the new 1974 Georges de Latour, which was a legend”. Perhaps it was the percentage of Petit Verdot used (more than any other wine), which brought aromatics, blue fruit tones and focus to the wine, but there was also a poised quality to it. Quintessentially Napa at its most expressive, but balanced out with fine, powdery tannins and a bright acidity.
A decanted bottle of Tapestry Reserve Red 2018 was one of the wines I kept going back to during our dinner of roasted lamb shoulder and wood fired wild bass. Trevor commented: “Tapestry is one of our best food pairing wines because of the acidity from the Carneros Merlot”. The 2018, compared to the 2015 Tapestry (which we had tasted before dinner), had a touch more Malbec, which lent a smooth, chocolatey character to the Cabernet-led blend.
As well as vineyards in Rutherford, BV has vineyards in the cool Carneros region of Napa Valley and Calistoga, in the northern part of the Valley, which is home to Zinfandel vines planted in 1968. Since taking the role of chief winemaker in 2017 (only the fifth person to do so in over 120 years), Durling sees himself as the “steward of this amazing place”. He has made some changes; some challenging, some less so. The removal of BV Coastal, a commercially popular but entry-level Beaulieu line, was an easy decision for him: “I didn’t want to put my name to something I didn’t believe in.”
As one of the founding wineries of the Napa Valley and the creator of Napa’s first “cult” Cabernet, there’s no doubt about BV’s historical significance. Durling’s duty now is to ensure a Beaulieu future that is as accomplished as its past.
“We’re focusing on the thing that made us great,” Durling told us, as we placed our napkins back on the table, well-wined and well-dined.
My guess is that would be a beautiful place, making beautiful wines.
A full list of the Beaulieu wines tasted :
BV Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1995
BV Tapestry Reserve Red 2015
BV Georges de Latour, Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
Georges de Latour, Private Reserve Cabernet 1973
BV Napa Valley 2019
BV Tapestry Reserve Red 2018
BV Rutherford Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2019
BV Georges de Latour, Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2018
All Beaulieu Vineyard wines are imported by Treasury Wine Estates.
All photos by Steven Morris