by Sophie Kevany
Château Beauséjour is an extraordinary place. The smallish vineyard of 12 hectares (roughly 80% merlot, 20% cabernet franc) produces a surprising six wines, all red. Tasting all seven has been fascinating and absorbing. So much so, that in several case I cannot remember what I ate with them, so please forgive the food gaps. In short, all the wines are vegan, all are very good and they all grown by former Microsoft employee, Pierre Bernault, who attributes much of his success to avoiding any chemical fertilizers.
Raised on a farm in a poor part of France, Bernault bought Beauséjour in 2004. When he started work in the vineyards he found, to his horror, a totally lifeless soil. ‘Many people don’t know what living soil looks like any more,’ he said. ‘But when I was 10, I was driving a tractor and I can remember. When I plowed, the soil would literally be moving with life. With worms and nematodes and all kinds creatures. The birds would follow me like seagulls around a fishing ship.’ At Beauséjour, by contrast, all was still. ‘There was no life at all. And there was no pack of birds following me. No flowers, no insects, nothing. It was a cemetery.’
For the first ten or so years, Bernault avoided using any fertilizer at all. ‘I was just waiting for the soil to recover. Now I am starting to use some wood cuttings and also some Bio-char [charred wood], which releases its nutrients faster.’
Fallen wood and leaves are part of the natural plant cycle, Bernault explained, and create the right biological environment for bacteria, worms, insects, microbes and nutrients. ‘When the soil is alive again, more insects come and more birds and so on.’ That creates a naturally nourishing, yet still challenging, environment for the vines. ‘And it keeps the carbon and nitrogen in the soil, instead of having to use chemical fertilizers to put it there.’
Although he is not certified as vegan or organic, Bernault avoids traditional pesticides and insecticides as much as he does fertilizers, and no animal products are used.
The results of his strategy were so good that his current winemaker came to work at Beauséjour solely on the basis of accidentally tasting one of his wines. ‘I was working in a wine shop in Angoulême [a town northeast of Bordeaux]. As soon as I tasted Pierre’s wine, I thought, I have to go and work there,’ said Violène Lagarde. ‘The wine was so impressive. It was a bottle of Beauséjour 1901 from the 2012 vintage.’
Lagarde now works full time at Beauséjour and says not much changed in the winemaking areas since the 1850s. ‘The cement tanks and storage areas were all very well designed. For example, in the barrel cellar, we hardly ever use the [electric] air cooling system. Instead we have the old windows with wooden shutters that we open.’
As well as having a newly regenerated soil, traditional winemaking equipment and a passionate team of two, Beauséjour is home to a very unusual vine. ‘We call it caberlot,’ said Lagarde. ‘The leaves are a mix of cabernet and merlot, you can see the difference on the vines. And the grapes are a blend of the two.’
The wine that brought her to Beauséjour is made entirely from three hectares of caberlot vines, all over 100 years old. Hence the name 1901. Asked if she is vegan, Lagarde said almost, and that having completed a degree in food agriculture made her quite careful about what she eats and drinks. It has also made Bernault’s vineyard philosophy all the more attractive.
La Petite Robe Poivrée (red) 2011
First day – Extraordinary flavors right from the start. Intense blackberry, plum and warm ripe fruit scents. Very soft, but very present, tannins. The sweetness is a surprisingly good contrast with spicy lentils.
Second day – The first day’s intensity has died down and the wine has opened out into a very different style. Less sweetness, more tannin, more elegance and a bit more depth and complexity. Perfect with bean burgers and garlic cashew cream. No third day, the wine is gone.
Le Charme (red) 2014
First day – Lots of cherry, black and red. Elegant, dry and quite restrained with an attention grabbing ‘clean-but-sweet’ finish. Quite a change from the opulence of La Petite Robe Poivrée. In a blind tasting, I would not have guessed they were from the same estate.
Second day – Really opening out now. Some tobacco flavor and a slight minty note, all wrapped up in a fresh, clean, dry, chewy, mineral structure. The only useful words I can find to describe the finish are: a Pinot Noir lightness with a peppery Syrah feel. Very thought provoking. Excellent with leek, mushroom and white bean stew. No third day here either.
Habit Noir (red) Bordeaux 2015
First day – One hundred percent cabernet franc is not something you see very often on a bottle. The flavors are a kaleidoscope of chocolate, apple, a whiff of cognac, very slight vanilla, spice, warm plum, wet earth, plus a little bit of Vitamin C sharpness along with the smell from the inside of a cigar box. Very good with falafel wraps.
Second day – Total plum, essence of plum skin, dry and chewy with fascinating flashes of red cherry skin.
Third day – Black current, cherry, lots more red fruits and the wine is still surprisingly fresh, although, unsurprisingly, a little more muted.
Emotion (red) 2015
First day – Light, fresh fruit with a pleasing dryness. Excellent with vegan macaroni and cheese, broccoli and marinated mushrooms.
Second day – There’s been an overnight smoothing out and it seems to have gained complexity. It is soft and dry with lots of fresh black cherry and blackberry. I find myself taking one sip after another as I try to pin down all the flavors.
Third day – still very drinkable, but more like a rich, dry claret now. Excellent with a grilled vegetable, cheese free pizza.
Château Beauséjour (red) Bordeaux 2012
First day – This is a very good wine. Complex, rich and many-layered, with that classic Bordeaux right-bank feel and taste. Ripe fruit, plum, prune, blackberry, black current, apple and even a bit of peach. This is another one that seems to produce a new flavor with each sip. All that flavor complexity seems to have also inspired an unexpectedly good pea and turmeric soup. They are perfect together.
Second day – It has lost nothing overnight. The layers are slightly more entwined, if anything. Lots of ripe plum, now with some cigar box and tobacco flower. Still perfect with the soup.
Third day – Softer, more muted and less complex. Still delicious though.
Beauséjour 1901 (red) 2011
First day – Very restrained and sophisticated. Clearly a very good wine. It needs to open out a bit though. Plenty of tobacco, cigar box and fresh, ripe fruit. It feels like you can taste warm sunlight too.
Second day – Still quite intimidating but a bit more lively and definitely more open. The serious tannins and layers are all there, but the fruit is a bit more specific. Lots of sharp fresh plum, blackberry and black current.
Third day – Still going strong with a fresh, rich mouthfeel and a long, clean, black fruit finish. Is there cinnamon? Not sure but keep sipping. It’s basically like swallowing a purple to indigo rainbow. With red polka dots.
Sophie Kevany is a journalist, writer and researcher. She works with a range of media outlets including Dow Jones, the BBC, AFP, Decanter, Wine Business International and the Irish Times. She has lived in Ireland, Norway, South Africa, Peru and France, and has been based in Bordeaux, on an off, since 2004. You can connect with her on Twitter and Instagram.