Early this week, after some light rainfall over the weekend, we had a couple of days where we couldn't pick, but used the time to press off fermenting lots in the cellar and make some space. National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre caught up with Winemaker Neil Collins to ask him some questions about the (interesting, late, unpredictable and challenging, but ultimately rewarding) harvest so far.
We got a new camera at the vineyard today and I decided to take it out into the vineyard to break it in. It struck me how much progress the vineyard has made in the last few weeks, particularly in the varieties like Mourvedre and Grenache that seemed a long way off even at the beginning of October. I'll have a longer harvest report next week, but wanted to share two photos that give you a sense of what we're looking for in ripe red grapes. First, a good sign that the grapes are ripe: look at what the bees are going after.
One of the other things we look for is the grapes to start to deflate a little. At veraison, the berries are fully plump and firm to the touch. As they ripen, they get softer and softer, and eventually at ripeness they start to look like a balloon from which air has leaked out. A cluster of Mourvedre from a block we'll pick tomorrow is just right:
Finally, one more photo that captures what harvest feels like in the middle of the rush. We're picking different blocks every day, and there are times where a dozen bins of grapes are sitting together on the crushpad waiting to be processed. Then the bins are washed and re-stacked, ready for the next vineyard block. The bin stacks seem unusually high this year!
The construction of our new cellar, office and tasting room space is proceeding nicely. We've got floors, walls (or at least framing), and a roof over much of the new addition. It's gone up fast over the last month or so, and we're starting to really get a feel for what the space will be like when it's done.
I have found myself walking through the evolving space each day, envisioning what it will be like from a guest's perspective. And it has been fun to see the reactions of people who've known the property for a long time. I thought it might be appealing to do give a little video tour of the new construction. This video was taken about three weeks ago, and so we've already made a lot of progress beyond what you'll see here. But it should give you a sense of the scale of the rooms that we're creating, and how we hope that they'll make for a great tasting experience.
I will do another walking tour in a few weeks, to keep you updated on how the addition is progressing.
In the past two weeks since my last harvest report, we've had our two largest-ever harvest days, three days that topped out near 110, two days of rain that topped out near 60 and a week-long pause in harvesting, and the resumption of beautiful weather that suggests that these next couple of weeks are going to be the cornerstones of a beautiful vintage. But it's clear to me that this is a vintage that will separate the men from the boys, or perhaps less colorfully the wineries who have the resources and responsiveness to react quickly to changing conditions from those who don't.
Some vintages (read: 2007) are vintages where you almost can't make a mistake. Winter drought naturally limits yields, summer ripening is steady and predictable, and the weather during harvest is free of rain and free of heat spikes that put pressure on vineyard labor supplies and cellar space. If there is an anti-2007, it could be this year. Ample winter rains and lack of spring frosts encouraged vineyards to set heavy crops. A very cool summer put the vines further behind. Just when many vineyard owners were panicking that their fruit would never get ripe (and in many cases pulling far too much of their leaf canopy to speed ripening) we got a late September heat spike that lasted 10 days and pushed into triple digits the last five days of this spike. Many vineyards suffered sunburn, and vines that weren't healthy enough shut down and dehydrated. Then, last Tuesday and Wednesday, a cut-off low meandered over the Central Coast and brought about a quarter-inch of rain each day along with very cool daytime temperatures.
It's not unusual that in a cool year a harvest-time heat spike can produce rapid ripening. We found that by the last couple of days of September (about halfway through the spike) virtually all our Viognier and Syrah was ripe. We crushed nearly 30 tons of grapes both Thursday, September 30th and Friday, October 1st, and picked Saturday, Sunday and Monday as well. In that five-day push, we brought 108 tons of grapes into the cellar. To put that rush in perspective, our total harvest in 2009 was 198 tons, and that came in over 63 days. One of the bins of Syrah is below, looking pretty in the sun:
While 100 tons in five days may be nothing for a big winery, it's unprecedented for us, and puts a lot of stress on the cellar. Reds are actually easier to deal with than whites, because they can be run quickly through the de-stemmer and pumped into tanks to ferment. This can happen as fast as bins of grapes can be brought into the cellar. Of course, those tanks have to be pumped over or punched down twice a day, but that can be done. Whites have to be pressed, and the press is only so big and has to be run for its full three-hour cycle and then emptied before more can be loaded in. We've never before run more than three white press loads per day; during that rush we were running four and not finishing pressing whites until 9pm. Neil, Ryan, Chelsea and the rest of the cellar crew were looking a little ragged by the end, and I'm sure were feeling worse.
Then the weather broke, we got a little rain, and we haven't harvested for a week. We think that in the end, the rain will have been a good thing. The vines were starting to show signs of stress, and rain helps restore some balance, reduce risk of raisining, take off the pressure on sugar levels and let physiological maturity come more gradually. Of course, it can also lead to rot, particularly if the weather stays humid or water gets trapped in tight grape clusters. We were fortunate that the clouds blew out and the sun returned, and we accelerated the drying process by turning on our frost-protection fans and taking our four-wheelers through the vineyard with the sprayer fans going though no spray attached. I jokingly asked Ryan if we were going out with hairdryers and it turned out that I wasn't so far from the truth (though the air is not heated).
This lull has given us a chance to press off the Syrah that came in earlier in harvest, to get the wine into barrel, and to free up tanks for the Grenache and Mourvedre that's about to arrive. Colors look wonderful on the wines we're pressing, and aromatics are amazing. This is the best time of year to walk through the cellar; everything smells good.
Yields look perfect, betwee 3 and 3.5 tons per acre throughout the property. This is low enough to give the wines concentration, but high enough to keep them balanced and neither too extracted nor too alcoholic. Acid levels are slightly above normal, which is great because it means we don't have to adjust the acidity to keep the flavors in balance. Sugars are slightly lower than normal, and we expect to make a few reds under 14% alcohol this year as well as the majority of our whites.
Harvesting will recommence tomorrow under ideal weather conditions: days in the low 90s and nights in the low 50s. This weather is supposed to extend at least two weeks, with a minor interlude of cooler but still sunny weather next weekend. We couldn't ask for anything better right now.
Syrah, also known as Shiraz in Australia, is one of the most noble grapes of the Rhône Valley, and by far the most widely planted Rhone variety in California. It is a key component in both our Grenache-based Cotes de Tablas and Mourvedre-based Esprit de Beaucastel blends (typically 20-35% of each, depending on vintage) and makes a wonderfully dark, spicy varietal wine, which we've made each year since 2002.
Syrah is one of the oldest established grape varietals in the Côtes du Rhône region of southern France, and competing stories abound about its origin.
One legend attributes its arrival in France to the Phocaeans of Asia Minor, who brought the grape from Shiraz, Persia when they established Marseilles around 600 BC. Another story claims that Romans brought the varietal from Syracuse, in Sicily, to the Rhône in the 3rd century AD. It seems most likely, however, that Syrah is a native French grape, the chance offspring of two grapes (Dureza and Mondeuse) from southeastern France. Whatever its origin, Syrah was well established in the vineyards surrounding the Rhône village of Tain-l’Hermitage by the 13th century.
Syrah Around the World
Syrah is most closely associated with the Northern Rhône appellations of Hermitage and Côte-Rotie, where it produces wines of phenomenal elegance and longevity. It is tremendously flexible, and can make elegant and restrained wines as well as wines bursting with fruit and oak, in locations as diverse as France, California, South Africa, and Australia. In the 1650s, South Africa was the first country outside France to plant Syrah, but it has never been more than a minor variety there. In Australia, however, where it arrived at the end of the 18th Century, it has become the most widely planted grape in that country.
In the northern Rhone, Syrah is typically made as a varietal wine, at times co-fermented or blended with small amounts of Viognier. In the southern Rhone, Syrah is an important blending varietal, and second only to Grenache in acreage. It partners lends to Grenache-based blends darker color, structure, tannin and ageability.
The first records of Syrah in the United States show it arriving in California in 1878, but it remained scarce until quite recently, with only 1,200 tons harvested in 1992. As California winemakers recognize its potential, the acreage increased nearly one hundredfold in ten years, and 101,500 tons of Syrah were harvested in California in 2002. Syrah is now the most widely planted Rhône varietal in California, with 19,226 acres planted in 2009. Although it is occasionally confused with the California varietal Petite Sirah, they are separate varietals (most experts believe most of what is called Petite Sirah is a cross of the varietals Peloursin and Durif).
Syrah at Tablas Creek
When we began Tablas Creek Vineyard in 1990, we were not completely satisfied with the variety of clonal selections of California Syrah vines. So, when we brought our other Rhone varieties from france, we included four different clones of Syrah. These clones were propagated in the Tablas Creek nursery, and we planted our first Beaucastel-clone Syrah blocks in 1994.
Syrah in the Vineyard and Cellar
Syrah is quite vigorous and thrives when given warm days, poor soils, and sun. Because it is so vigorous, it requires extra canopy management (to expose the fruit to the sun for ripening) and aggressive crop thinning. Unlike most other varietals, its canes extend down toward the ground rather than up toward the sun, and therefore it is the one varietal permitted to be trellised instead of head-pruned in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It ripens earlier than any of the other red Rhône varietals, and we typically harvest it throughout the month of September.
Syrah's small clusters and small berries produce juice with concentrated flavors and significant tannin. During vinification, we ferment Syrah in large open-top tanks, a process that exposes the juice to more oxygen and thereby softens the tannins and compensates for Syrah’s tendency toward reduction. Currently, we have approximately 13 acres of Syrah planted at Tablas Creek, which represents about 25% of our red Rhône production.
Flavors and Aromas
The Syrah grape itself is thick-skinned and dark, almost black. Wines made from Syrah are intense with a dark purple-black color. The wines taste of blackberry and black raspberry fruit, smoke, tar and black pepper, and have a smooth supple texture. Syrah reflects minerality well, and the chalky character of the tannins provides a wonderful backbone to softer, fruitier varietals such as Grenache and Counoise.
In our Mourvèdre-based Esprit de Beaucstel, Syrah provides a deep blackish-purple color, minerality, spice, longevity and back-palate tannins. In our Grenache-based Côtes de Tablas, Syrah cuts the apparent sweetness of Grenache and produces wines that are more balanced between sweet and savory notes, with more mineral and spice.
Beginning in 2002, we have bottled Syrah as a single varietal in limited quantities. In many vintages this is blended with a small quantity of Grenache, whose higher acidity opens up Syrah and focuses its fruit.
Pneumonia's Last Syrah
Despite its many appealing characteristics, sales of Syrah have faced well-publicized challenges in the American market. The Rhone Rangers have launched a plan in conjunction with several major health organizations to encourage the sales of Syrah while providing money for vaccinations against pneumonia, the world's largest killer of children. You can read more about Pneumonia's Last Syrah.
2009 was a challenging vintage, with very low yields from three years of drought and some significant April frosts. It was further complicated by a record-breaking October rainstorm that dropped a foot of rain on the vineyard and stopped harvest for three weeks while everything dried out. The net result was a vintage with the lowest yields per producing acre we've ever seen: 1.85 tons per acre of reds.
As the grapes were fermenting, we noted the lushness of the fruit and the power of the wines, both unsurprising in such a low-yielding vintage. We also noted relatively high pH levels, which gave the wines a softness at early stages that worried us a little. It's only as the wines have had some time in barrel to settle down that we've come to recognize the beautiful tannins that firm up the wines and give them balance. The emergence of these tannins in barrel has changed our opinion of the harvest from one that was impressive but perhaps overly lush to one that we're exceptionally hopeful will be a great one.
We will be showing the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel and 2009 Panoplie for the first time in December at our annual futures tasting and en primeur offering. Offering wine en primeur is a time-honored French tradition most often associated with first-growth Bordeaux estates. In outstanding vintages, valued customers are offered the opportunity to secure a limited quantity of sought-after wines at a special price in advance of bottling and subsequent general release. We've done an en primeur offering to VINsider Wine Club members on our two top red wines each year since 2003, and it's become an event we all look forward to as it's our first opportunity to show, in effect, what's next to our biggest fans.
We are in the process of putting together an invitation that will go out in November to our club members, and so needed tasting notes on the two wines that will go into the offer. I thought it would be an appropriate opportunity to take a look at all of the 2009 reds together, and wanted to share what we found. It's worth noting that the tiny yields meant that in order to protect our flagship wines we had to sacrifice some wines (including the Mourvedre, which we've made each year since 2003, and the Syrah, which we've made each year since 2002) that have been a regular part of our portfolio. Still, we did make the decision to make our second-ever En Gobelet, as well as the Cotes, Esprit, Grenache and Panoplie. The wines are all sitting in foudre, and will remain there for the next 9 months or so until they're bottled.
The tasting notes:
- 2009 Cotes de Tablas (43% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 16% Counoise, 15% Mourvedre): A Grenachey, spicy nose that resonates between black and red fruit, showing red licorice, sweet spices, and dried strawberry. In the mouth, it's notably rich for a Cotes de Tablas, showing candied red fruit, sweet spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and a long finish that turns darker and is firmed by fine tannins and an almost iron-like minerality. Very impressive, I thought.
- 2009 Grenache: A nose brighter than the Cotes red, very fruity, showing watermelon, red cherry, raspberry and blueberry. The mouth continues the flavors suggested by the nose, with cherry cola and an appealing creaminess to the texture. The finish is the most interesting part to the wine for me, with nice acids framing the fruit and then showing a chalky minerality before ending with a sweet spice that might be sarsparilla.
- 2009 En Gobelet (56% Mourvedre, 23% Tannat, 21% Grenache): A darker nose, showing the menthol, black cherry and mineral notes that are characteristic of Tannat. The mouth is still relatively tannic, with bittersweet chocolate, leather, mesquite, cherry liqueur and a bloody, beefy character that is often characteristic of young Mourvedre. The tannins actually soften on the finish, leaving mineral and a garrigue-like herbiness (thyme? sage?) as the last impressions.
- 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel (40% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 27% Grenache, 5% Counoise): Showing more red than black fruit at the moment, with a nose of red plum and currant, and a little Mourvedre-driven meatiness and gaminess lurking behind the fruit. In the mouth, cassis, cherry, and mineral shows the Syrah component, as does a chalky/mineral/meaty/bone marrow character that my wife once described as "butter in a butcher shop". The finish shows the wine's youth, with a primary grapiness that should evolve into something more complex.
- 2009 Panoplie (65% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 9% Syrah): Oh, boy. An explosive nose of pepper, grilled meat, boysenberry, currant and blackberry. It's the most polished and resolved on the nose of any of the wines. In the mouth, it's hugely mouth-filling, with sweet fruit but big tannins that give definition. On the finish, it shows a saline minerality that highlights the roasted meat flavors and the dark red and black fruits. Absolutely gorgeous.