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March 2011
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May 2011

Tablas Creek is in Vogue!

No, literally.  We're in Vogue Magazine, at least the online version Vogue Daily, in an Earth Day-themed article called The Green List.  Somewhat more affordable than the $100 repairative moisturizer from an organic farm in Vermont, the vacation in a sustainably-sourced villa in Vietnam, or the beautiful geode-and-responsibly-mined-diamond earrings is the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel, tied in a pretty cotton-fiber gift tag.


We don't much post press here on the blog (there's a page for that on our Web site: Tablas Creek In the News) but this was so much fun that I thought I should.  A gift to impress the eco-conscious hostess... how nice! Thank you to Peter Zitz from our most excellent New York distributor Michael Skurnik Wines for suggesting Tablas Creek to the editor, and for sending us the link.

Frost Damage and Recovery

We're two weeks removed from the frosts of April 7-9, which look like they'll play a major role in defining the 2011 vintage.  With temperatures down to 24 degrees on consecutive nights, we sustained near 100% damage in the Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Viognier and Marsanne (the four earliest-sprouting grape varieties).  It was so cold that even the tops of the hills froze, which hasn't happened in the twenty years we've been here.  The cold temperatures in the upper and middle atmosphere meant that our fans were largely ineffective; we were moving out cold air but replacing it with air that was only slightly warmer and still below freezing.

We were far from alone; vineyards up at 2000 feet elevation saw similar levels of damage, as did those on the plateau east of town.  It was only the vineyards with ample water supplies who frost protected with overhead sprinklers that (mostly) escaped.

The impact of the frost on the Paso Robles area was driven home to me by a trip I took last week down to Santa Barbara.  Coming back through the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys, we drove through vineyard after vineyard with six or more inches of growth.  Returning to Paso Robles felt like moving from spring back to winter, as the Zinfandel vines that line US-101 in Paso Robles looked still fully dormant.

And there are still vineyard blocks at Tablas that are only just sprouted, like the Mourvedre block (left) and the Roussanne block (right):

Frost_0003Frost_0002 The one vineyard block that had sprouted that didn't see extensive damage was the Chardonnay block that we protect with sprinklers.  Here we saw limited damage (where the sprinklers became clogged or didn't reach) but most of the vineyard was protected:


The four most affected varieties account for about 35% of our planted acreage.  And these vines will have to re-sprout.  Grapevines are prepared, evolutionarily, for freezes, and have secondary buds that push only if the primary buds are damaged or destroyed.  The photo below, from a Grenache vine, shows clearly the damaged buds (on the cane in the foreground) and the secondary buds pushing elsewhere:


Of course, these secondary buds are not always in the places you'd prefer, and it means a summer for Neil, Ryan, David and the vineyard crew of carefully selecting which canes are allowed to grow and which will inhibit the air flow around the vines and have to be removed.  On the positive side, all of the rain that we received last winter means that the vines grow vigorously, and should have enough energy to spare to still produce decently off the secondary buds.

Still, it's depressing wandering around the frost-damaged blocks, most still with their withered leaves more visible than the new green growth.  Another couple of Grenache vines illustrate:

Frost_0005 Frost_0006 With the early-sprouting varieties forced to start later by the freeze and the later-sprouting varieties just coming out now for their primary growth, it looks like it will be a busy October.  There is every reason to expect that harvest will be late and compressed, with varieties that normally ripen weeks or months apart coming in at roughly the same time.

Production looks like it will be affected.  The two years we've seen serious frosts (2001 and 2009) we estimate that we lost something like 40% of our production off of the affected blocks.  But both of those frosts were later, and all the varieties had sprouted.  It appears that the cool spring delayed budbreak sufficiently that our later-sprouting varieties like Mourvedre, Roussanne, Picpoul and Counoise (as well as, for some reason, Syrah, which wasn't much sprouted at the time of the frosts) didn't sustain much if any damage.  So, I'd estimate that we're down perhaps 20% from what we might otherwise have been able to produce.  Of course, the rest of the year matters.  If we were to get another frost in the next few weeks -- and we estimate that we're still at risk of frost until mid-May -- the impact would be devastating.  But if we're able to come through the frost season OK the ample groundwater should allow the vines a healthy ripening cycle.

Quality should be fine, if 2009 is any indication.  The 2009 reds, which are just being bottled now, are some of the most compelling that we've ever produced.  And it's good that the varieties on which we base our signature blends were the least affected.  We'll know more, of course, by harvest time.

In the vineyard now we're furiously trying to get the cover crop mowed, disked and spaded into the soil.  We're behind here as well because of how wet the spring was; it's only in the last three weeks or so it's been dry enough to get tractors into the vineyard.  The weather has been cooperating, with days in the 70s and mostly dry.  It's supposed to warm up further this week.  Fingers crossed, please, everyone.

Foudres, Demi Muids, Puncheons, and Wood Fermenters: The Appeal of Large Oak

Foudre- (Food’r)- French term for a large cask of indefinite size1 

At Tablas Creek we follow the Châteauneuf-du-Pape tradition of maturing our red wines in 1200 gallon (4500 liter) French oak foudres rather than in the more familiar 60 gallon (225 liter) oak barrels.  These smaller barrels – known in French as fûts, pieces, or barriques – are those commonly found in Burgundy and Bordeaux, as well as California.  Each of our foudres holds enough wine to fill 500 twelve-bottle cases, twenty times the volume of a typical barrel.  The larger size of the foudres has three principal advantages for us:

  • Larger volume to surface area ratio.  Compared to aging the equivalent volume of wine in small barrels, using a foudre gives a greater ratio of volume to surface area so that any impact of oak on the wine is gentler even when barrels are new.  This gentler oak, we feel, is appropriate to our southern Rhône style wines based on Mourvèdre and Grenache, wines whose flavors are not compatible with the vanillin character of new oak.
  • Gentle, low-level oxygen exchange. The thick staves of the foudres (more than two inches thick) allow the wine to breathe, soften and integrate in a way that they don’t in an impermeable stainless steel tank, but still protect the wine against oxidation.  Small barrels, with staves just ¾ inch thick, can provide too much oxygenation to oxidation-prone varieties like Grenache and Counoise.
  • Lifespan. The barrels are so well made that we would expect them to last for decades.  Beaucastel has foudres that have been in continuous use for half a century, and we expect ours to last a similar length of time.  The barrels provide a gentle oak flavor their first few years, but are fully neutral by year five.  If we assume an average barrel lifespan of 50 years, then for 90% of its lifespan it will be totally neutral, which suits our style of wine.

Although some lots are moved to foudre after pressing while they complete their sugar and malolactic fermentation, their principal use is post-blending, when all our red wines spend the better part of a year in foudre to allow their components to integrate.  So, whenever you have our Esprit de Beaucastel, Panoplie, Côtes de Tablas or one of our varietal reds, you’re having a wine that spent a large piece of its life in foudre


Foudres are not much used for white wines in the Rhone.  But for the last five years we fermented Roussanne and Grenache Blanc in foudre, and have found that we like these lots enough each year to choose them for our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  One advantage of using the foudres over stainless steel tanks is that the shape of the barrels and the slight oxygen exposure facilitate aging on the lees, and we typically keep the whites on their lees until they’re blended six months after harvest.  Three foudres are reserved for fermenting and ageing white wines (eighteen are reserved for ageing of our red wines). 


The horizontal foudre is not the only large wooden tank we use. Since 2007 we have incorporated two upright 60-hectoliter (1600 gallon) wooden casks for fermenting and aging reds.  These casks (pictured above, right) have the advantage of a flat bottom and a door flush with the bottom of the tank as well as a large metal door on top.  The door on top means that the tank can be used either as an open-top fermenter and punched down, or sealed shut like a closed fermenter.  The flat bottom and flush door mean that solids like skins and seeds can be removed from the tank, a sufficiently difficult challenge in foudres that we don’t even attempt skin-contact fermentation in them.  These wooden uprights have produced such consistently excellent lots that we just purchased two more, and have two additional ones ordered to arrive before this year’s harvest.

Of course, not all lots come in 1200-gallon size, and we still use smaller barrels for certain wines (like Syrah) for which we value both the additional oxygen exposure and the greater oak flavor that the small barrels provide.  But even with smaller barrels we choose larger volumes when possible, principally 120 gallon (450 liter) puncheons and 160 gallon (600 liter) demi-muids.  These barrels, roughly double and triple the size of “normal” barrels, still provide a greater ratio of volume to surface area and therefore a gentler oak signature.  They’re also better-made and last longer, which is important since we want to use them for as long as possible after they’re fully neutral.

While these large oak barrels are traditional in the southern Rhone, they’re also widely found in other regions where oak aging is desirable but oak flavors are not, including Alsace and Tuscany.  But they’re rare in California, and typically make such an impression on our visitors that we designed our new tasting room to showcase them:


But these amazing barrels are not just for show.  We use them because we believe that they’re better for the wines we want to make.  And we’re convinced that our extensive use of these large barrels, and the focus they put on the fruit and terroir, is a key factor that sets our wines apart from those of our neighbors.

1Frank Schoonmaker’s Encyclopedia of Wine, Hastings House, 1970

Crazy April Weather: Ice, Thunder, Hail and Snow in Paso Robles

The warm, sunny weather of last week seems like a distant memory.  In the last 24 hours we've had two hailstorms (the second with peals of thunder), a hard freeze, with temperatures down as low as 24 degrees in our coldest spots and even the tops of the hills below freezing, and about an inch of snow.

April is often an erratic weather month.  It can be warm and summery.  It can be cold and rainy.  And it's the month where we worry most about frost damage, as most years it's been warm enough by then for the vines to sprout.  We're comparatively lucky that this year March was cool and wet, and bud break perhaps three weeks behind normal.  This later start to the growing season meant that most of the vineyard was still dormant last night and should have escaped the bulk of the frost damage.

A few photos will give you a sense of how unusual this weather was, for spring.  First, a photo of a vineyard block in which we've mowed every-other row.  We mow to allow cold air to drain off the hillsides and away into the valleys, protecting the hillside vines from frost damage.  In today's snow, the mowed rows showed white while the unmowed rows were still green:


The hail was equally impressive, lasting long enough to cover exposed surfaces.  Our patio tables looked like they'd been covered with a white blanket:


As impressive visually as the snow and hail were, it's the cold that we worry about.  And it is cold.  Last night at 11pm our weather station was reading 32 degrees.  At its coldest it got down to 28 degrees in the middle of the vineyard, and 24 degrees in our coldest pocket down near the creek.  Even today it's been cold.  Winemaker Ryan Hebert came inside to report that the frost protection fan that is set to automatically turn on at 34 degrees had come on unexpectedly at 1pm.  That's unprecedented.

We frost protect our vineyard principally with fans, as our water resources are limited.  But the fans just promote circulation, and so don't warm up the surface air if the upper atmosphere is cold too.  We do protect about 20 acres with water, which works more reliably in colder temperatures.  Due to the buffering capabilities of water, as long as there is running water, the vines can be encased in ice but not get below 32 degrees.  On a frosty morning, the icicles can be impressive:


Paradoxically, it appears that it's our chilly location that may have helped us this time.  As we're colder than most Paso Robles spots, our vines are still dormant, while our neighbors (almost all of whom have vines out further than ours) reported significant damage from last night's frost, even in top-of-hill spots that typically don't freeze.  At Tablas Creek, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise are all still dormant.  Much of Syrah has yet to bud out.  Still, Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Viognier are all out, and I'm sure we'll sustain some damage.  We have one more frosty night forecast for tonight, after which we'll be able to assess where we are. 

If you're interested in more photos from today, you can find them in a Facebook photo album.  While you're looking, please think warm thoughts for us and hope for cloud cover tonight.

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.