Beau Marchais is Going Out on Top

Why things are ending, and where they began

Sadly, 2021 will be the last vintage of Beau Marchais, a fascinating experiment conducted by California pinot noir wizard Adam Lee and the late famed French winemaker Philippe Cambie. Beau Marchais was always “an evolving project,” Adam told me, but it was never intended to come to an end this quickly, or this sadly. On December 18th, 2021, Cambie died. The industry responded with great sorrow, and although I never met Philippe I knew a little about him through the Beau Marchais project and Adam’s close friendship with him.

When speaking to Adam for this article, I asked him to tell me about Philippe. Not just his winemaking approach, but his personality as well. He entertained me with a story about the first time Adam’s fiancé, Morét, met Philippe, that conveyed something about the zest he held for life.

The three of them were at lunch in Châteauneuf-de-Pape one day. It was course number four and Morét, who was sitting next to Philippe, was staring at a mostly uneaten plate of cheese in front of her. Out of the corner of her eye, she notices Philippe is giving her cheese the side eye. Feeling quite full, Morét is inclined to offer Philippe her cheese but is unsure if that kind of thing flies in French culture. Likely giving off some vibes of uncertainty about her situation, Philippe smiles at her after she exchanges several uneasy glances with him and asks if she’s going to finish her plate. She’s all too happy to offer it to him, but before her offer is fully out of her mouth, Philippe reaches out with his fork and starts taking her cheese for himself. “He’s a serious winemaker, but he has a boyish heart,” Adam explained. “I hope this carries on with me and the people he’s influenced.”

The idea for Beau Marchais came to the two of them during one of Adam’s pilgrimages to Philippe’s home of Châteaneuf-de-Pape. The two close friends were talking about the similarities and differences in the grapes that each of them hung their respective hats on: pinot noir for Adam and grenache for Philippe. They enjoyed discussing how they might make each other’s signature grape and how they might apply one’s lessons to the other’s winemaking, and finally Philippe said, I’m paraphrasing, “why don’t we do pinot together?” Adam didn’t hesitate, and Beau Marchais was born. You can read more on the backstory here.

The Beau Marchais evolution

Implementing such a project, a joint wine-making endeavor in which only one would actually do the vineyard work and winemaking while the other consulted from afar, was why Adam called it an evolving project: they needed to learn together how to make it work functionally and how to produce the best wine possible given the unusual arrangement.

Adam would be responsible for all of the vineyard oversight and winemaking, and Philippe would advise and guide from the Rhone Valley. A great example of the challenge they faced is how they blended the final wines each year. In the inaugural vintage of 2019, they were able to blend together in-person. But with the global COVID pandemic, Adam had to ship samples to Philippe and they blended together by Zoom in 2020. For the 2021 vintage, Beau Marchais faced the emotion and logistical challenge of Philippe’s death.

From the first vintage, Beau Marchais was always intended to be a project in which Philippe directed Adam’s work – this was Philippe’s attempt to make pinot noir using techniques similar to how he made grenache. Adam was happy to approach it this way. Philippe was a dear friend whom he anticipated enjoying working with, and Adam considered him a winemaker of great skill from whom he would learn a lot.

Not only was Beau Marchais an evolving project, but it was an experimental one meant to be a source of learning through trial and error. Even though Philippe wasn’t around to bring the 2021 vintage home, Adam stayed true to the concept and worked with one of Philippe’s closest partners, Isabel Gassier, to complete the 2021 wines in a manner they thought Philippe would approach it himself.

Philippe’s mad method

Blending was considered one of Philippe’s greatest strengths, though he had a slightly unusual perspective on it. “He considered the nose to be almost unimportant in blending,” Adam told me. “His mindset was that the nose is transitory in young blends,” Adam said, explaining “it changes daily” in its youth. Put another way, the aromas of young wines are a moving target so Philippe “would blend entirely for mouthfeel and texture” since the nose won’t stabilize until the wine is older.

The are several factors that effect the nature of the aromatics, when they show up, and how they evolve, including (but not limited to) when sulfur was added, when malolactic fermentation finished, the percentage of new oak it was aged in (and the types of oak and the finish of the barrels), and how long the blending samples have been out of the barrels. “We went for mouthfeel and texture,” Adam told me, referring to himself and Isabel, adding that they “figured the nose would sort itself out.”

There are other ways in which the 2021 vintage showcase Philippe’s approach and thinking as well. “Over time,” Adam noted, “Philippe was becoming more comfortable [making Beau Marchais], and that translated to making a pinot that is more true to place.” That meant things like thinning the vines earlier than they had in the first and second vintage, a sign to Adam that he was getting on top of “learning a new area and a new grape simultaneously” and adjusting to them in real time, which surely is no easy thing to do – especially from afar.

“When we started [in 2019], Philippe wanted to make pinot noir how it had been traditionally made in the 1950s [in France].” In that era, grenache from Chateaneuf-de-Pape would be sold under the table to pinot producers. “If your pinot is lacking in ripeness,” Adam explained via Philippe’s insights, “grenache makes sense in that it can add ripeness to pinot without changing things tremendously.”

But this would work only in small quantities, otherwise “it really overwhelms [the pinot].” Philippe “was acutely aware of this and kept it in mind in making the 2019 and 2020 vintages [of Beau Marchais],” but in 2021 he dispensed with the application of this history as they found that treating pinot noir more or less like grenache wasn’t the best recipe.

The 2021s are special

The 2021 vintage is also a deviation from previous Beau Marchais years in the very line up that’s for sale. The 2019 and 2020 releases included two wines from the Clos Pepe vineyard, and one from the Soberanes Vineyard. In 2021, however, it flipped.

“In 2019 , the two sections [we used] in Soberanes ripened two days apart [so making one wine out of them made sense]. But in 2021, they ripened four weeks apart. We weren’t looking to do two Soberanes wines, but we thought it was required [given the differences four additional weeks on the vine makes] while with Clos Pepe, with the smaller 2021 yields and smaller berries, there wasn’t much in the way of differences in sections so we combined them into one wine.”

While I’ve always respected Beau Marchais for the uniqueness of the project, the unusual way they’ve been made (technique and logistically), and their quality, I’ve never been sure if I actually liked them. I’ve scored them reasonably high because of their quality and the impressive execution of the concept, but I’ve always talked about them that way with friends without raving about how much I enjoy them. And while I’ll talk about the quality and execution of the 2021 vintage with admiration and respect, this time I can also tell friends that I like the two Soberanes bottles.

As it turns out, I really like 2021 Soberanes fruit in the hands of Adam Lee, guided by Philippe’s growing comfort with the vineyard, and blended with the input of Isabel Gassier. In a minuscule and selfish way, it makes the end of this project all the more unfortunate because I think it made a major step forward in 2021.

Carrying the lessons forward

The excitement I feel towards these two Soberanes wines – examples, as I take them, of a master winemaker getting comfortable with new terrain – is palpable. They are obviously pinot noir in a way that previous vintages are not, but they are also obviously different in way that no other pinot compares, and invitingly so. With Philippe gone, my hope is that at least the lessons Adam learned in their experiment together would carry on, and so I asked Adam what some of these lessons might be. He outlined three.

First, Philippe helped Adam better appreciate the best use of young vines. “Philippe had techniques for extracting a good amount of body out of young vine grapes,” Adam told me. While young vines don’t produce grapes with particular complexity, “you can get more richness and effusive fruit character from them, and that makes them very helpful” for producing more complete wines.

Second, Philippe used a particular enzyme that Adam said “would develop the feeling of sweetness without needing actual residual sugar.” It also “works well in certain vintages in which you have a hardness to the wine, the type of year when you have low malic [acid], things can be lean, [and this enzyme] helps to build more mouthfeel and texture” in those types of vintages. This tool is now part of Adam’s toolkit.

And lastly, having been exposed to Philippe’s learning his home turf, “having made wine for 29 years [myself], [I’ve realized that] it’s never too late to learn something new about the area where I’ve spent my whole winemaking life.” Philippe reminded Adam that “when you get to a point where you start thinking you know a lot, other people have different ideas and listening to them and figuring out whether and how you should adapt them is something to always learn from.”

Going out on top

Adam and Philippe had been kind enough to let me into this project since the early days, getting to taste the wine each vintage and have conversations about the evolutions in viniculture and production. It’s become an annual tradition I’ve looked forward to, and it’s sad that it’s coming to an end. This makes it all the more beautiful that the last vintage is, at least for me, the best and I can look back and say that my experience is Beau Marchais going out on top.

All three of the 2021 wines are available on the winery’s website, as are several from previous vintages. Obviously there won’t be future vintages, something Adam has consistently made clear, so this is the time to buy a piece of wine history. These are some of Philippe Cambie’s very last wines, and they’re also the last of a unique and compelling project. Tasting notes are below. These were tasted over 72 hours and the notes reflect a summary of the total experience.

2021 Beau Marchais Clos Pepe Vineyard – The nose features burnt cherry, scorched earth, strawberry, blood orange, and Allspice. It’s full bodied with slightly gritty and lush tannin and big, juicy acid. The structure is very pleasant and it’s easy to drink, though the acid is quite pronounced and a little out of balance. The flavor profile includes cherry, plum, rhubarb, annatto seed, and baking spice. I’m tempted to suggest giving this a few years to help it find more balance, but I’m not sure if there are enough tannins to achieve that. 92 points. Value: C-.

2021 Beau Marchais Soberanes Vineyard Nord – This establishes a lot of ripe cherry and strawberry on the nose out of the gate, with blackberry, gooseberry, red currant, and wet soil backfilling the bouquet. It’s full bodied with a big, round, and juicy mouthfeel composed of broad tannins and glistening acid. Flavors include muddled cherry and blackberry, spiced red plum, mulberry, and just a bit of tobacco. This is tasting quite good right now, but is the most structured of the three 2021’s and might benefit from a year or two more of cellaring than the others. 95 points. Value: B.

2021 Beau Marchais Soberanes Vineyard Sud – Really nicely saturated cherry features on the nose alongside red and black plums, blackberry, faint tar, burnt orange peel, and rose water. This full bodied wine features beautifully broad and round tannin that shows just a bit of skin grain, which combines with the modest acid to produce the most refined structure of any Beau Marchais I’ve tasted. The profile includes a set of refined flavors that mirror secondary development in terms of their advanced marriage: muddled maraschino cherry, red plum, clove, cassis, dried orange peel, and bay leaf. This strikes me as very positively influenced by the extended maceration, but avoids the tar-type notes that I’ve experienced on previous vintages that tend to overwhelm the other aromas and flavors. Drink over the next three to five years. 95 points. Value: B.