Previous month:
April 2009
Next month:
June 2009

Why bother with single-varietal wines if blends are better?

I got a great question recently from Tablas Creek VINsider Wine Club member and blogger Steven Stumpf, whose blog is one of my must-reads each week.  He asked, in essence (and much more diplomatically than I'm rephrasing it) why we make single varietal wines if we believe that blends are the best expressions of Tablas Creek.  I thought that the question was excellent and my response worth expanding and sharing with everyone on the blog.

Before I start, it's worth noting that 80% of what we make, including our flagship red and white wines, are blends.  And we start our blending process by first selecting the lots for the Esprit de Beaucastel wines, which means that they get the best lots in the cellar.  We are convinced that blending the different Rhone varieties allows us to make the best wines we can each vintage, and also (by diminishing the signature of any one varietal on the finished wines) better allows us to express the terroir of the site, which all the varieties share.

Still, each year we make between four and seven single varietal wines.  If we're such committed blenders, why do we bother?  There are four main reasons.

  1. There are often lots of some of the more intense varietals (particularly Syrah and Roussanne) that are so powerfully characteristic of the varietals that we don't feel they integrate well into blends.  Other years, we worry that if we were to blend all the super-intense gallonage of a particular varietal into the blends that varietal would dominate to a degree that we're not comfortable with. In both of these cases, it also seems to us a shame to blend these tremendously characteristic lots away. These are the lots we typically choose to make into single-varietal wines.
  2. The single-varietal wines are great educational tools. They help show the trade and public why we bother with relatively unknown grapes like Mourvedre, Roussanne, or Grenache Blanc. We also think that having top-notch examples of these single-varietal wines helps us educate the public about why they should care about them better than just having them in a blend does. In a blend, it's always possible to say, "well, it's a great blending varietal" with the implication that it's not a great varietal in its own right.  We feel that a part of our marketing the world of Rhone varieties is proselytizing for the varieties we think are worthy of such attention.
  3. There are people out there who are still convinced that the best wines are single varietals.  We can thank Robert Mondavi for this lingering side-effect of his efforts to separate his Napa Valley wines from the field-blended jug wines for which California was known up through the 1960's. We happen not to agree that single varietals are usually better, but having some excellent examples of single varietals is a way for us to increase our potential customer base.  We're confident that if we can get someone to try one of our single varieties, we have a good chance of later getting them to try one of our flagship blends, and eventually to bring them into the world of Tablas Creek.
  4. It allows us to do some cool stuff for our wine club. Most of the single varietal wines we make are produced in small lots: anywhere from 150 to 750 cases.  Many of these wines never make it into distribution.  We think it's a safe assumption that members of our wine club are interested in these unusual varietals, and if we can make for them a Counoise (as we've done in 2002, 2005 and 2006) or a Picpoul Blanc (as we've done in 2003, 2005 and 2008) our club members will get a kick out of getting to try something that rarely if ever exists elsewhere.  This doesn't mean that we don't send our blends to our club members; they get the first look anywhere at our Esprit de Beaucastels each year, they are the only recipients of our Panoplie, and we do occasionally make unusual blends for them (like the En Gobelet wine I wrote about a few months back). But rather than send several bottles of any one wine, we feel that our club members will appreciate getting to try a wider range of ideas and can then buy more of whatever they're most excited about.

It's also worth noting that many of our single varietal wines (like very many others in California) are in fact blends.  For example, our 2006 Syrah is 90% Syrah and 10% Grenache.  Our 2006 Mourvedre is 90% Mourvedre and 10% Syrah.  And our 2006 Grenache is 90% Grenache and 10% Syrah.  Still, the variety listed on the label is typically how it's displayed and marketed, and we we feel we get the benefits of blending on the wine itself while retaining the advantages listed above.

I'm assuming that most of you who read this blog regularly are fans of Tablas Creek.  What do you think of the single varietal wines vis a vis the blends?  Please share.

Paso Robles Wine Festival 2009

Last weekend was the annual Paso Robles Wine Festival.  We joined 92 other Paso Robles wineries to pour in the park on Saturday morning to pour wine for the roughly 4200 attendees.  Of course, it was hot.  You can just about set your calendar in Paso Robles to the fact that the first hot weekend of the year will coincide with Wine Fest, and this year didn't disappoint.  It was a little cooler than last year (around 100 instead of 106) and the heat broke on Sunday afternoon, which proved to be a very welcome and unexpected early respite.  Still, it didn't seem to dampen anyone's spirits.  The Tablas crew (cru?) at the park included eight of us so we would have time to go out and taste ourselves, as well as to get into detailed conversations with anyone who was interested without neglecting other guests:


The Wine Festival as a whole had a very nice vibe to it, and we were busy the whole time.  We poured about 2000 tastes of wine over the four hours, which amounted to nearly seven cases of wine... the same amount we poured in 2008.  Even better, I heard mostly good things about the temperatures at which other wineries were pouring their wines (which was not the case last year).  We were swapping wines in and out of the ice all day, even the reds, which is essential.  The thought of tasting warm red wines on a hot day... ugh.  There were a few instances of the cool kid syndrome where wineries brought much less wine than they would need and poured out in a few hours, but overall, I think that anyone who attended got to taste all the wines they would have wanted to if they took even a little care.

I hope the Paso Robles Wine Alliance was happy with the results; they've done a tremendous job of turning what used to be a giant party into a fairly focused tasting where attendees are overall quite responsible and interested even at the end.

On Sunday, we again used the excuse of having thousands of wine lovers in town to launch the new vintage of our Rosé (in this case the delicious 2008).  We reprised our salmon tasting, and chef Jeffrey Scott did another amazing job of putting together an amazing spread of dishes to pair with Rosé, including cured salmon, fresh cheeses, two salads (heirloom beets and burrata in one, fennel in the other), and strawberries with balsamic vinegar and basil.  The chef at work:


We have for the last several years planned our event for the Sunday morning of Wine Festival weekend, in the hopes of convincing people to begin their day out west of town and work their way back toward civilization.  As we're typically much busier in the afternoon than the morning, this helps ensure that our traffic is steady all day, and it has become an annual event for many of the members of our VINsider Wine Club (for whom the event is free).

I saw a phenomenon this year that I wasn't expecting, and would love some feedback.  While we did sell wine in the morning, we sold only about 40% of our daily sales to 60% of our traffic in the first two hours of the day (which coincided with the salmon event).  And I spoke to several VINsiders who said that they'd come out for the salmon but weren't even going to go and taste, as it was too early in the day for them.  Later that weekend, I read an article in the New York Times magazine where Suze Orman is quoted saying (I'm paraphrazing here) that she never gives things away for free because people just don't value what they don't pay for.  This was truly a phenomenal event, with amazing food and wine, and available to anyone for the price of a tasting fee (which also got the purchaser a full wine tasting and a tasting glass).  Are we doing something wrong if some people come out and partake but don't buy (or even taste)?  Maybe this is overkill?  I'm not sure, but we'll reevaluate before next year.

I'll leave you with two more photos that give you a feel for the family side of the event, and of Tablas Creek.  First, a quiet moment near the end of Saturday's tasting in the park, where Neil is relaxing next to my older son Eli, who just turned four and was taking everything in with very wide eyes:


And finally, one family shot on Sunday, where both kids (Eli and his little brother Sebastian, age 20 months) came out and mingled with the guests at Tablas Creek, many of whom have known them since they were born:


I have the complete photo album, with more photos both from the park and from the salmon and Rose tasting, posted on Tablas Creek's Facebook page:

A vertical tasting of Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel 2000-2007 and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2001-2008

This week, Francois Perrin joined us at Tablas Creek for one of his semi-annual visits.  Francois' visits are always a pleasure.  He gives us someone with decades of experience off of whom we can bounce ideas or with whom we can search for solutions to problems that have been worrying us.  We also try to time these visits with when we put together our blends, and we spent Monday tasting through our blended but unbottled wines (reds from 2007 and whites from 2008) and Tuesday tasting components of our 2008 reds, with the goal of creating some preliminary blends.

2008 looks like it's a very strong vintage, with similar intense fruit and lush mouthfeel to the spectacular 2007's but perhaps a touch softer and less structured.  But that's a story for another blog post.

One other thing we always try to do is to look back as we're looking forward, and to that end we pulled samples of every vintage of our Esprit de Beaucastel wines (red and white) to taste in vertical format alongside the soon-to-be-bottled 2007 Esprit red and the 2008 Esprit Blanc.  I thought that it might be a nice thing to share what we found in this tasting.  First, a photo of my dad and Francois behind the impressive lineup of bottles from the vertical:


I'll address the wines in the order in which we tasted them, from oldest to youngest, starting with the whites.  My favorite whites at this tasting were the 2003, the 2005 and the 2007; I thought that the 2002 and 2004 were in closed stages.

  • 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: A rich nose of honey, pine and spice.  Very fresh in the mouth with a juicy pear character and a slight tannic character on the finish that gives balance to the richness.  This showed much better than the last time I tasted it and seems to be out of the closed stage that many Roussanne-based wines enter.  A touch of heat on the finish, but nothing too distracting.  Drink now or for the next 2-4 years.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: A somewhat darker, denser nose with some oxidative character.  Darker in color.  Relatively closed on the palate, with flavors of pine and burnt honey.  The wine cleans up on the finish.  There's still a lot here, but it's not giving much pleasure now.  Wait another year and try again then.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Very nice nose of baking spices (cloves and nutmeg) and honey.  Excellent equilibrium on the palate with richness balanced by a pleasing mintiness on the finish.  Very elegant, with no sense of heat at all.  A touch of tannin on the finish suggests this wine has a long way to go yet.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: A youthful, powerful nose of olives, herbs and spice.  On the palate this is more mineral and restrained than it is fruity.  Mouth-coating and rich.  It should be very, very good but isn't quite ready right now and will benefit from some time to flesh it out.  Give it 6 months.  This is the first vintage where we used Picpoul Blanc rather than Viognier in the blend and it shows in the wine's powerful structure.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: An exuberant nose of honey, white flowers, rose and pear.  On the palate this has a beautiful impression of sweetness.  Francois Perrin called it "a charmer".  The finish is very, very long.  This may be right at its peak but should go for quite a while too.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: The nose is elegant and slightly tropical.  More restrained than the 2005.  You smell the minerality more than in any of the older vintages.  The palate is very long but without any rough edges, absolutely characteristic of the 2006 vintage at Tablas Creek.  A nice mintiness and a little touch of sweet oak on the finish.  Very nice.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Wow.  Explosive nose of camphor, mineral and honeycomb.  More like the savory/mineral character of '03-'04 than the fruit-driven character of '05-'06.  Flavors are of honey, rose petals and herbs, with significant tannin.  No feeling of alcohol at all (13.5%).  Very rich and concentrated, characteristic of all our 2007's.  Drink now or later.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Still very young, with some leesy fermentation aromas still present.  A nice minty/eucalyptus note on the nose, too.  More finished on the palate, with soft, generous honey and pear flavors, a little lemony lift, and good freshness.  The finish is very long and clean with a lingering flavor of fresh honeycomb.

The reds, surprisingly, didn't show any wines in a closed stage.  The 2002 and 2003, both closed last year, have opened back up, and the 2004 hasn't shown any signs of shutting down yet (though I expect it will sometime in the next year).  Consistent with other recent tastings, I loved the 2002, 2006 and 2007.  Note that we didn't make an Esprit de Beaucastel in 2001.

  • 2000 Esprit de Beaucastel: A meaty, earthy nose lifted by the impression of acidity.  A little rustic on the palate, with acid elevated at this moment lifting what would otherwise be dark red fruit to a brighter tone (red plum, particularly).  The tannins are a little drying at the moment. The wine improved with some air.  It's not closed right now, but I feel that it will be better in another year or two.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel: A rich, deep nose with a little minty character giving it lift.  The mouth is powerful with rich flavors of mocha, leather and currant.  There are still some substantial tannins there but they're very well cloaked.  This should give a lot of pleasure for another decade.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel: A little alcohol on the nose, then mint, cherry and spice.  Very nice in the mouth with good acids highlighting the dark cherry and plum fruit.  Mint chocolate on the finish, still with some tannic edges.  This seems to me to be mostly out of its closed stage, and may well be even better in 6 months than it is now.  Should be good for another 6-8 years at least.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel: A nice elegant and restrained nose.  Very self-contained; Francois Perrin called it "un vin carré", literally translated as "a square wine".  Beautiful structure, with flavors of figs, chocolate and mineral.  Not hugely giving right now, this has another decade ahead of it at least.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: A gamy nose but with lots of fruit behind it, particularly after some time in the glass.  The fruit is high-toned compared to '02-'04, perhaps because of the increased percentage of Grenache and the decreased percentage of Syrah.  There are nice powdery tannins on the finish, and lingering flavors of leather, chocolate and plum.  Definitely decant if you're drinking it now or wait up to 15 more years.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel: Very precise fruit and mineral on the nose, with a little Counoise-driven briary wildness lurking behind.  Dark cherry and mint in the mouth along with a nice foresty character that provides counterpoint to the fruit.  Very clean all the way through.  Drinking great now, and should have another 15 or more years ahead of it.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel: A spectacularly rich, layered nose with waves of dark red fruit, mineral, meat and mocha.  The palate is equally intense, with balance given by a combination of nice, fresh acidity and substantial but fine-grained tannins.  There is a powdered-sugar character to the tannins that I often find in great wines.  This will be wonderful young but should age for 20 years or more.

It was clear from these tastings that 2007 is a truly special vintage, a notch above anything else that we've achieved.  But still, there was a consistency of character and style to these wines, even as the vintage and varietal blend has changed.  And that's a good thing.

Anyone who is interested in taking advantage of our experiences in tasting through our older wines can get our assessments on the stage that our library wines are at by looking at our Tablas Creek Vintage Chart, which we update every few months.

Paso Robles Big Sky

I spent an hour or so rambling around the vineyard on Monday to get a sense of to what extent we'd been hit by the frosts the mornings of April 25th and 26th.  It looks like the damage was serious -- the worst that we've seen since 2001 -- but hopefully not devastating.  Roussanne and Mourvedre (our two most-planted varietals) were hardly out at all yet, which meant they weren't affected.  Syrah and Viognier seem to have largely escaped.  The varieties that were hit worst were Grenache and Grenache Blanc, particularly in the newer plantings near Tablas Creek.   Overall, I expect an impact of perhaps 25%-35% in the affected varieties, maybe 10%-15% overall.  The walk was, on that level, somewhat reassuring, as I was worried it would be worse.

Plus, mitigating the frost losses, there appears to be a heavier than normal number of flower clusters on the vines.  This would be a good thing; we've had very light crops the past two years.

While I was out I was struck by the openness of the space.  I've noticed it from time to time in Paso Robles, but was particularly struck on Monday.  Perhaps it was the scattering of cirrus clouds; normally the sky is a relatively undifferentiated cloudless blue.  But I managed one shot that captured pretty well the sense of space:


You can view the entire album, with photos of budbreak and of the frost damage, on Facebook:

The importance of hang time

This past weekend was Hospice du Rhone.  It's always one of my favorite events of the year, where hundreds of people (maybe pushing 1000, all told) who are enthusiastic supporters of Rhone varietals get together for a weekend of seriously lighthearted consideration of all things Rhone.  You get comments at these tastings that you don't anywhere else (like "oh, I've been so looking forward to tasting all the grenache blancs") and a very informed level of questions.

One question I got at Saturday's tasting I thought deserved a fuller treatment here.  It came after I'd tasted the questioner through all our red single-varietals wines from 2006 (Counoise, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre) and was explaining why we thought that Mourvedre was the best of the bunch, at least for us.  The assertion, in a room where 90% of the tables focus on Syrah, is one that invites a challenge, and the questioner asked me why we thought so much of Mourvedre.

The answer (like so much else in wine) hinges on the appropriateness of the grape variety for its site.  Syrah is clearly a great grape, dark and lush, with terrific minerality and excellent structure.  But while it reaches monumental heights in the northern Rhone, it's a relatively minor player in the southern Rhone.  In non-Rhone examples, a grape like Sauvignon Blanc, which makes some of the world's greatest white wines in the Loire Valley, is used as a blending grape in Bordeaux, and Pinot Noir, which makes some of the world's great wines in Burgundy, makes largely boring wines in the Languedoc.

Why is this?  Grapes can clearly ripen in a climate warmer than might be ideal for them.  And, in a warmer climate, you can harvest more reliably, as you're less likely to run into end-of-harvest hazards like rain or frost.  What you don't get is hang-time.  Hang-time measures the length of time between flowering and harvest.  The cooler the temperatures, the more slowly grapes ripen.  At Tablas Creek, because of the exceptionally cold nights in Paso Robles, we tend to get long hang-times, between 4 and 6 months depending on the season and the varietal.  This is usually about 2 weeks longer than the same varieties have at Beaucastel.

In the family of Rhone varieties, at Tablas Creek, the harvest usually sequences itself something like this:

Early September: Viognier
Mid-September: Syrah, Marsanne
Late September: Grenache Blanc
Early October: Grenache
Mid-October: Roussanne, Picpoul, Counoise
Late-October: Mourvedre

Of course, the above list is an approximation.  The spread of earliest to latest harvest of any given varietal can span close to a month (or more in the case of Roussanne, which as I've written about before seems particularly prone to uneven ripening).  Still, it gives you an idea of how long the hang time is on each varietal.  [It's worth noting that there is some spread in flowering time, with Grenache and Grenache Blanc joining Syrah and Viognier as early flowerers.  Still, the roughly three week spread of earliest to latest flowering is a lot less than the two month spread of harvest.]

It is intuitive that the longer a grape cluster can spend on the vine without going out of balance, all other things being equal, the more interesting it should be.  Each day that the cluster is in contact with the roots, the vine's roots can transmit a little more character of place to the clusters.  Each day that the vine is in the sun, the skins should get a little thicker and the color a little more intense.  This would help explain why the most interesting examples of a given varietal should be made in the coolest climate in which the grape will ripen.  It also helps explain why, in regions where multiple varieties are planted, the ones that come in latest tend to be the most renowned.

Of course, there are risks involved with late-ripening varieties.  There have been a few years (most recently in 2004) that some of our Mourvedre didn't come in, as it didn't get ripe before the onset of the rainy season.  And in Chateauneuf du Pape, it has long been considered too risky to plant more than a token acreage to Mourvedre.  One of Jacques Perrin's innovations at Beauacstel was to devote a significant percentage of his acreage to Mourvedre at a time when nearly the entire appellation was planted to Grenache. Beaucastel takes the risk of having to toss out a higher percentage of their crop than their neighbors in a year when Mourvedre doesn't come in.  But, in the years it does get ripe, they can make wines that no one else in their appellation can match.  It's a gamble that has paid off well for them.

In Paso Robles, it's not so risky to choose late-ripening varieties as it is in France, as the climate is more reliable later in the fall.  And, overall, due to its cool nights, most varieties hang for a long time before they come in.

So, long answer to the question: I credit the exceptionally long hang-time of our latest-ripening red (Mourvedre) and white (Roussanne) varietals for giving them the character that they have, and with why we choose them to make up the core of our flagship wines.