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Blending, blending, blending... and an eventual look at the 2010 whites!

Over the last month, we've been narrowing down our options for what we'll make for estate white wines in the 2010 vintage.  This isn't really practical before March, as too many lots are still finishing up their fermentations, but beginning in mid-March most everything (except for a few recalcitrant Grenache Blanc lots) is done and settled enough to taste and evaluate.


As usual, we start by tasting through all the lots of each varietal and giving them grades.  This year, there were 7 lots of Grenache Blanc, 3 lots of Viognier, 2 lots of Marsanne, 7 lots of Roussanne and 2 lots of Picpoul.  Each lot is created by a different picking or different vineyard block, or occasionally different fermentation in the cellar, should half of a lot be fermented in stainless steel and the other half in barrels.  At this initial tasting, we're trying to both identify which lots should be considered for our flagship Esprit wines, and also get a sense of how much really top wine there is of each grape variety.  Knowing, for example, that there is a lot of excellent Grenache Blanc helps us create a starting point for our blends that reflects what is unique about the vintage rather than what has been traditional for us.  We have three grades in our system (1, 2, and 3) with 1 being the highest grade.  Typically, the starting point for our Esprit each year is a proportional blend of the 1-rated lots of the appropriate varietals.

The next day, we came back to blind taste possible blends of the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  Our initial tasting suggested that both Picpoul and Grenache Blanc were stronger, overall, than Roussanne, so our starting points included between 50% and 58% Roussanne, between 29% and 38% Grenache Blanc, and between 10% and 16% Picpoul.  These percentages were a departure from our normal blend for the Esprit Blanc, which has been between 62% and 70% Roussanne every year since 2002. Grenache Blanc has been between 22% and 30% over the same period, and Picpoul between 5% and 12%.

Here's where things got tricky.  We all thought that the blends that resulted were while rich a little too high in acid for our taste.  We played a bit with swapping in some of the Roussanne lots with a touch of new oak, but then the wine tasted rich and oaky but still acidic.  We tried changing the relative proportions of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc without making much of a difference.  And since each time we decided on a new blend it took the winemaking team about 45 minutes to sample all the included lots and re-blend, we'd used up most of the day without coming to any consensus.  So, at the end of the day we decided to reconvene the next day with blends that more resembled our previous years' wines, and crucially included less Picpoul, whose lemony acidity had so impressed us in our initial tastings but which, we felt, was overshadowing the subtleties of both Roussanne and Grenache Blanc.

When we reconvened the next morning, the Esprit Blanc fell into place pretty quickly.  Reducing the Picpoul to 5% allowed the other varieties to express themselves, and all of a sudden we got the spiced honey and saline minerality that we associate with the Esprit Blanc.  We tweaked the relative proportions of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc a few times before ending up with a blend of 60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc and 5% Picpoul Blanc.  It's ironic that the nice round numbers make it seem like this was a straightforward process.

We had an equally difficult time blending the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  We'd loved the melon, white flower aromatics and elegant minerality of the Marsanne in our initial tasting, so included a lot of it in the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.  But gradually it became clear that while we loved the Marsanne on its own, we preferred the Cotes de Tablas Blanc with less Marsanne and more Viognier and Grenache Blanc.  This conclusion too took us several days to come to, but the elegance of Marsanne ended up simplifying the Cotes Blanc and shortening its finish.  In the end, we preferred a more structured, powerful Cotes Blanc with 54% Viognier, 30% Grenache Blanc, 8% Marsanne and 8% Roussanne.  The process we went through validated itself in an important way, I thought, as in neither blend did we end up picking what we thought we wanted.  We'll bottle both wines confident that what we've chosen is the best reflection of this vintage we could have made.

Complicating the process this year has been the addition of the Patelin de Tablas Blanc to our lineup.  We based the Patelin Blanc on Grenache Blanc's freshness and minerality and Viognier's tropicality, and have known that we wanted to raise the level of the Cotes de Tablas Blanc while maintaining separate characters for the two wines.  In the end, the Cotes Blanc blend that we chose placed it more in the realm of the Esprit Blanc (mineral, rich, serious) than many previous vintages of Cotes Blanc.  It's an important evolution for us, and it will be interesting to see how this more serious wine is received when we release in nationally this summer.  

Today we re-tasted the blends as well as the varietal wines that we'll be making out of the lots that we felt were better on their own than blended.  To our regular roster of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, we're adding our fourth-ever Picpoul Blanc and our first-ever Marsanne.  We didn't taste the Grenache Blanc because a couple of the lots that will go into the varietal wine are still sweet, and tasting the resulting assemblage would have been irrelevant.  My tasting notes from this morning:

  • 2010 Cotes de Tablas Blanc: A serious nose, minty with stone fruits and honeydew lurking underneath.  Not yet particularly floral.  The mouth is broad and rich, peaches and cream, but dry.  A very long finish with a hint of tannin reminiscent of red apple skins, cream, and rocks, nicely saline at the end.
  • 2010 Marsanne: An appealing nose of cantaloupe and white flowers, a touch nutty.  The mouth is gentle and elegant, nicely mineral, with a very clean finish with a slight minty lift.
  • 2010 Picpoul Blanc: The most finished of the wines on the nose, with intense lemon and mint.  The mouth is initially very lemony, then turns richer, broad and quite creamy on the mid-palate, and back to preserved lemon and mineral on the finish.
  • 2010 Roussanne: A sweet-smelling nose of caramel and oak, with a touch of some red fruit lurking (strawberry?) as well as anise, honey and baking spices.  The mouth confounds the nose and is broad but structured, with acids that come out on the lingering finish.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Beautiful.  Rocks and cream and honey and herbs and mint on the nose, a mouth that is serious and not at all sweet, with a tarragon-like anise note that provides minty lift on the finish and a lingering saline minerality.

Overall, my impression of the 2010 vintage is one of seriousness.  This is not a fruity, flowery vintage, but rather one that is rich across the board despite higher than normal acids, with breadth moderated by minerality across every wine we made.  It also strikes me as one that will be exceptionally ageable.

In any case, this is just the beginning.  But it is the beginning of something that will be a pleasure to watch unfold over the coming months and years.