A visit to the wine stratosphere

What does a $325 wine taste like?

Marc Perrin must digress into a bit of snob-removal before we can bring our lips to that glass of crimson gold. The 37-year-old scion of Chateau de Beaucastel, one of the southern Rhône's great wineries, says he is just as proud of their bargain bottles as of the blockbuster Chateauneuf-du-Pape cult wine they produce in honor of his grandpa: Hommage à Jacques Perrin.

He is justified in bragging about the $9 La Vieille Ferme, which for the last decade has been one of my go-to party pours, easily among the most consistent values on the market. Their other entry-level wine, Perrin Réserve Côtes du Rhône, is also a perennial winner in the $15 range.

But what about the family jewels: their flagship Chateauneuf-du-Papes - and Hommage, a grande cuvée of that Chateauneuf issued by Beaucastel only in its finest years? Would their greatness be obvious from first sip? Would they be noticeably better than the less expensive bottles arrayed before us at a tasting during Perrin's recent visit to Philadelphia?

I've had dubious luck in the past with obscenely expensive bottles of wine - tasting a faded dud of a '73 Petrus (bad vintage, wet cork), slugging through the inscrutable earthiness of an Ornellaia (opened too young). Thank goodness I wasn't the one to lay down hundreds of dollars on those.

Then again, that is the high-stakes risk of prestige wine. It's best gambled upon by those who won't miss the C-notes either way. But if you're lucky enough to be within stemware's reach when a legendary bottle is pouring in its prime, you may remember its flavor forever.

That was exactly the case with the 2001 Hommage - currently unavailable in Pennsylvania, but going for $324.98 at the Wine Library in Springfield, N.J., and as much as $575 in other stores. What most struck me was how this wine - in the context of Perrin's complete lineup of bottles, starting with La Vieille Ferme - was clearly in a league of its own, like a timpani amid tom-toms and snares.

I could already taste the increasingly intense gradations in complexity and power as we stepped up to Perrin's appellation wines, drawn from villages around the southern Rhône. The 2005 Vinsobres "Les Cornuds" - a recently crowned appellation controlee made from syrah and grenache - was like drinking a mouthful of black licorice sparkling with peppercorns and star anise. (The '04 is currently available in State Stores for $16.)

The white 2004 Coudoulet de Beaucastel had an exotic opulence and bitter almond finish that, at around $23, made a fair compromise for Perrin's nearby Chateauneuf-du-Pape vines, which are separated by one road and nearly $70 more a bottle. (That said, the Chateauneuf white was extraordinary, with a bit of a salty finish.)

When we tasted Beaucastel's '96 Chateauneuf-du-Pape rouge, though, we crossed a threshold unique to big, cellar-worthy reds, where the fruit characteristics associated with new wines had begun to fade in favor of earthier secondary flavors. This $135 wine, no longer available for sale in this vintage, is made from all thirteen varieties of grapes allowed in the Chateauneuf appellation (including five whites, which Perrin says add "the woodwinds to keep the orchestra from sounding too heavy"). It still had a spark of berry sweetness, but that fruit was just the frame for a portrait of autumn leaves, tobacco and truffles.

And yet, though it seemed near the end of its life, this wine swayed across the palate with surprising elegance even as it exhausted its every flavor.

By comparison, the 2001 Hommage was still a brawny youth, with enough muscle in its deep ruby juice to mature at least another decade before opening. An afternoon's worth of air, however, had given this bottle enough oxygen to express its potential.

Made from mostly mourvedre in Beaucastel's best vintages, and exceedingly rare, it landed on my tongue like a blackberry bomb followed by a smoky whiff of game. It was dense and rich and chewy. And it was as powerful as any wine I've ever sipped.

But then, it just refused to leave, transcending the moment of its consumption. Though I'd finished my half-glass by midafternoon, the taste of it curled back with waves of new flavors that literally resonated in my mouth for hours. My tastebuds rang with the anise tingle of Szechuan peppercorns, the savor of leather, dried herbs and tar. The tartness of cranberry juice sang until I went to bed.

So this is what a $325 wine-gone-right really tastes like. It's a flavor you can take to your dreams.


Inquirer restaurant reviewer Craig LaBan can be reached at claban@phillynews.com.