By Jim Walker
Way back in the mists of time when our wine scribe Jim Walker was contemplating wine importing, it not surprisingly occurred to him that he needed wineries to represent. But, what vintner in their right mind would expose their vinous treasures to a neophyte agent, let alone a recently retired banker? Astonishingly, Martine Sauvage and her Château Beauferan jumped fearlessly into the breach.
It was 2004 and I had decided that I would like to be a wine importer (see Gentleman’s Portion post A Long and Winey Road). To do so, one had to obtain permission and a license from the Alcohol and Gaming (a most interesting combination; both sins I suppose) Commission of Ontario (A&GCO). They insisted that, before anything else, a poor unsuspecting winery had to have agreed to be represented by the applicant! I thought that was a tad like putting the horse before the cart. What had this to do with obtaining a booze importing license? Surely a background check to find out if one was a bootlegger or a speakeasy operator would be much more germane in establishing one’s suitability for flogging booze.
So I did what I always do when I need help in the wacky world of wine – I got in touch with my good friend and favourite caviste, Christian Esparza (see Gentleman’s Portion post My Other Partner in the Wondrous World of Wine). I explained my predicament and he said he would see what he could do. Lo and behold – he came up with not one but three vintners who said they’d be pleased to help out – Champagne Forget Brimont, Domaine de Tara and the subject of this article, Château Beauferan.
And so it was that in the early spring of 2005 we found ourselves in southern France, first at a couple of extravagant wine shows in Cannes and Montpellier (where we had picked up a dozen or so wineries to represent) and then in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, the base from which we would visit two of our new, intrepid wineries and M. Esparza of course.
On a chilly overcast Tuesday we set out for Château Beauferan, a journey that takes us by one of our favourite Provençal cities, Aix-en-Provence. Aix is a vibrant and exciting place of universities, fountains, art galleries, museums, flower markets, restaurants, splendid architecture and is where Paul Cézanne spent most of his life. It is also the home of the to die for Calisson d’Aix, the absolutely delicious candy made from a pale yellow paste of candied fruit and ground almonds topped with a thin layer of royal icing. Utter Nirvana! But for me the pièce de résistance is the Cours Mirabeau, a broad, fountain-festooned avenue in the heart of the city that is lined on one side with elegant sidewalk cafés, perfect for sipping rosé and watching the world go by. But I digress.
We continued on through the picturesque hilltop village of Velaux in search of Château Beauferan that we knew was tucked away in the hills just a few kilometres away. But we had a dickens of a time getting to it because a four lane highway kept blocking our path. Eventually we located a trench-like underpass that led to a long drive that took us through a glorious pine forest to the front gates of the estate. Off to the right was an impressive manor house and straight ahead a collection of buildings we took to be the winery.
We pulled up in front of the winery and were soon greeted by an elegantly attired woman who turned out to be Martine Sauvage, co-owner and manager of Château Beauferan. After cordial introductions, Martine provided us with a brief history. She and her husband operated an exotic lumber business in Liberia and acquired Château Beauferanin 1989 to diversify both business holdings and residencies. The 420-acre property included 180 acres of AOC Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence classified vines and produced a wide range of grape varieties including Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan for the reds and rosé and Grenache Blanc, Sauvignon and Vermentino (Rolle) for the white.
The vineyards of Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence are the furthest to the west among the wines of Provence. The appellation extends from the Durance River to the Mediterranean Sea and from the Rhône Valley in the west to Mont Sainte-Victoire in the east. Wines have been made here for at least 2,600 years courtesy of the ancient Greeks. Apart from the wealth of its history, the terroir of Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence provides the ideal conditions for vines to flourish: clay limestone soils, the famous Mistral winds and plenty of sunshine (nearly 3,000 hours per year!). Capitalizing on these natural assets, today’s winemakers combine age-old savoir faire with modern agricultural methods to produce quality wines with a wide range of personalities: full-bodied reds with ample character and powerful bouquet; delicate and aromatic whites with distinctive elegance and; fruity rosés with refreshing and supple flavours.
Martine and her husband invested heavily in both the vineyards and winemaking facilities and in time were producing fine, award winning wines. They made four wines each year, a white, a rosé and two reds – Étiquette Rouge (Red Label) and the premium Étiquette Noire (Black Label). Permit me to tell you about the 2001 Étiquette Noire that I tasted that day:
The 2001 Étiquette Noire from Château Beauferan is comprised of 54% Syrah and 46% Grenache Noir. It was aged in oak barrels for about a year adding an extra dimension of complexity and finesse. A deep garnet with glints of violet, it has a very complex nose of red and black berries, figs, vanilla, coffee and tobacco. In the mouth it retains all these and adds cappuccino and liquorice. It is very intense and elegant with well-balanced tannins and a surprising long, pleasant after-taste. It received a four star rating from ‘La Revue du Vin de France’. The 2001 Étiquette Noire would be ideal with roasts (particularly lamb), grilled meats and wild fowl. It was just 13% alcohol by volume and sold for $21.95 when we later imported it to Ontario.
We introduced all four of the Château Beauferan wines to the Arthur’s Cellar Wine Club members including a six-pack containing three vintages of the Étiquette Rouge. We were obliged by the LCBO to sell in full cases, so it was a bonus that the wines came in six rather than twelve-bottle ones. Despite the fact that they were very well priced, sales were somewhat modest, perhaps due to the obscure Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence appellation.
We returned to Château Beauferan the following year to check out their most recent vintages and renew acquaintances. This time “Emma” our trusty GPS guided us unerringly to our destination. We were delighted to see that the surrounding countryside was making a valiant effort to rejuvenate itself following the devastating fire that had destroyed the majestic old growth pine forest that winter. Martine was once again waiting for us and soon Hélène and I were doing what we each do best – she catching up on all the gossip and goings on in the wine world of Provence and me clutching a tasting glass with several open bottles before me. Never before has there been a more ideal division of labour.
Afterward, Hélène had more than just a little gossip to share with me on the drive back to Saint-Rémy. It would seem that Martine’s husband had taken up with one of their Liberian maids and installed her in the Château Beauferan manor house! That certainly jammed a spanner into the works.
We visited Martine again in the early spring of 2007 at the VinIsud trade show held in Montpellier. She was as gracious and charming as ever and her wines continued to be absolutely delicious. Sadly though it would be the last time we would see her. Our old nemesis the LCBO had introduced new, draconian operating procedures and by necessity we had to reduce the number of wineries we represented to a bare minimum. Unfortunately Château Beauferan was one of many we had to bid adieu.
The Cheylan family, owners of Château Virant and many other enterprises, acquired Château Beauferan in 2014. It seems that they are in the process of phasing out the Château Beauferan brand in favour of their Château Virant. We have lost touch with Martine, but we do owe her a huge debt of gratitude. Martine graciously agreed, without even having met us, to entrust her vinous reputation to a couple of innocent wine business newcomers. Her willingness to assist two distant strangers is typical of the Provençal attitude towards life in general and we think it shows in their wines … generous and most agreeable.