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A first look at the surprisingly lush 2008 whites

This afternoon, we got together to taste our first preliminary blends of the 2008 whites.  Up until this point, we've been tasting through different lots, but nothing systematic.  My impression going into the tasting was that 2008, after all its challenges, would be a vintage more like the elegant 2006's than the blockbuster 2007's.  After our first day of tasting, I think I have to reevaluate that preconception.

We always begin our blending by making the Esprits.  This year, more than most years, we had to know what our upper limit was of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  Some (weaker) years we can skip this step and make as much as we can based on the Esprit-quality lots we have.  But in recent years there have been many more high-quality lots than we've needed to make a reasonable amount of Esprit Blanc.  And sales of the Esprit Blanc in the wholesale market have been impacted by the poor economy more than any other wine we make, and we wanted to be sure we weren't making more of the wine than the market could absorb.  In the end, we set our upper limit of production at 1850 cases, only 800 of which will go out in wholesale (the rest we'll use in a wine club shipment, to sell in our tasting room, to hold back for a later release as a library wine, and for export).  By comparison, we made 2150 cases of the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

The next step, even before we begin tasting, is to subtract out the gallonage that a reasonable blend of the Esprit Blanc would take and see what we have left.  We knew, from the components that we had left, we would have to produce at least three single-varietal wines (to populate upcoming wine club shipments) as well as the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  Looking at the gallonages made it clear that we weren't going to be able to make a varietal Viognier and still have enough Viognier left over to form the core varietal of the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  We've never been thrilled with Marsanne as a single varietal.  These two factors more or less dictated the wines that we had to try to make: a varietal Roussanne, a Grenache Blanc, and a Bergeron-style Roussanne from early-harvested lots.  Luckily, we'd anticipated wanting to make a Bergeron last fall, and had picked accordingly.

Finally, subtracting out the gallons that would be needed to make our three single-varietal wines, we could see roughly what the Cotes de Tablas Blanc would look like: something along the lines of 42% Viognier, 25% Roussanne, 22% Marsanne and 11% Grenache Blanc.  A surprise was that with any reasonable amount of Picpoul in the Esprit Blanc (we've used between 5% and 10% since 2004) we'd have some Picpoul left over for a single varietal.  We were excited about this; we hadn't been able to make one since 2005.  Unfortunately, unless we removed it entirely from the Esprit Blanc, which isn't likely, there wouldn't be enough to send out to the wine club.

So, this is what went on behind the scenes before we even began tasting.  Neil and Ryan (Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert, our winemakers, for the uninitiated) put together proportional blends of all the wines we'd need to make given the lots that we have in the cellar.  Some quick notes from the preliminary blends we tasted today:

  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas Blanc: Surprisingly lush for what I'd classified in my head to be a middle-weight vintage.  Peach pit from the Viognier component stands out.  Not terribly floral yet; still a little muddy from recently concluded fermentation.  Very broad and long.  A little soft right now.  Looking forward to this settling after it's blended into tank, but should be up there with the 2007 (our best vintage of this wine to date) in style and quality.
  • 2008 Bergeron: Again, surprisingly lush.  I might have thought this was our varietal Roussanne if I hadn't had them side by side.  A nice mineral character.  Honey, rocks, and breadth.  I thought that this could benefit from a little more brightness, but expect that it will come with a little more time in tank.
  • 2008 Roussanne: Wow.  Rich and gorgeous.  Tons of honeycomb and sweet baking spices, some of them from nicely-integrated oak.  Structured, without any of the cedary tannins we sometimes see with very young Roussannes.  Low in alcohol (around 13%) which I never would have guessed given its weight and rich mouthfeel.  Potentially our best Roussanne ever.
  • 2008 Grenache Blanc: Still a little sweet, which is always a challenge with Grenache Blancs in the spring (they're always the last varietal in the cellar to finish fermenting).  Still, even accounting for that, this should be gorgeous.  The brightest acids of any wine that I tasted today, with a nice citrus bite.  Actually carries the 6 grams of sugar, but will be better when that's fermented away.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Similarly rich to the Roussanne, but subtly different in flavor.  A little more floral on the nose, and a little more citrus in the mouth.  Still lots of honey.  Poached pears?  Not quite as knock-your-socks-off as the Roussanne, but very seductive.  Perhaps a touch lower in acidity than we'd want (which means less perception of mineral) and we'll experiment with a couple of different blends that include more Grenache Blanc and Picpoul over the next few days.

We didn't taste a Picpoul today, as it will vary so much depending on what we decide to do with the Esprit Blanc.  As we have never put Picpoul into the Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and don't have enough to really impact a wine that we'll make somewhere around 3000 cases of, we'll just allow the Picpoul single varietal to float in quantity depending on how much we use for the Esprit Blanc.

All the wines shared a richness in the mouth that was noteworthy.  They also shared surprisingly low alcohols, with most hovering right around 13% and only the Grenache Blanc over 14%.  We tasted the Marsanne component that will go into the Cotes Blanc which had excellent concentration at 12.5% alcohol.

We'll reconvene on Monday to taste some different assemblages of Esprit Blanc, and hopefully have most of the wines blended into tank and settling by the end of next week.  Those of you coming for our blending seminar on April 11th are in for a treat!