Neil, Ryan, Chelsea, my dad and I spent the last two days tasting through our 2010 reds. 55 lots later, we have a much clearer sense of what the vintage is like. I'll get into details below, but overall, it was a very impressive tasting. The Grenaches were excellent. The Syrahs were very good. And the Mouvedre lots were the most impressive I can remember tasting at this stage in the decade I've been out here. All this bodes very well for the 2010 vintage. The 25 lots we tasted today, lined up post-tasting on the bar:
We have several goals for this initial comprehensive tasting. The first is to get an overall sense of the vintage. Is it ready to blend? Is it overall a powerful vintage or a friendly vintage? Are there enough good lots to count on making Esprit and Panoplie in normal quantities? The second goal is to decide which of the varieties are comparatively strongest, and which we might want to start with higher percentages of in our initial Esprit blend. The third goal is to identify the strongest lots, if possible, and the weakest lots, if any. The strongest lots will likely point the way toward the Esprit and Panoplie, and any weak lots will be declassified now into the Patelin de Tablas. Finally, the cellar crew is looking to see if there are specific lots that need attention: wines that are oxidized or reduced, not finished with primary or malolactic fermentation, or otherwise funky.
It became clear relatively early in the process that we weren't going to be able to use this tasting to do our blending. There were too many lots that weren't quite ready, mostly because they were just finishing up fermentation after the late harvest and cold winter. It's not really possible to know whether a Grenache lot that is still slightly sweet, full of CO2 and not done with malo is going to be best suited for Esprit, Cotes, or a varietal Grenache. And if there are more than a few lots like this we can't confidently know where even the finished lots will go. Even after the first couple of Grenache flights we knew we wouldn't be able to blend off of this tasting, and would have to reconvene after my dad comes back out in October. Still, it was a valuable tasting.
Each of the people around the table plays a different role. Neil is usually most critical of wines with flaws, focused on actions that the cellar needs to take in coming days and weeks. Ryan is typically the most optimistic, judging wines based on how well they've reached their potential (whatever that may have been). Chelsea holds the wines to a high absolute standard, so a top grade from her means that the lot is both clean and proper for its stage and that it shows outstanding potential. My dad focuses most on mouthfeel and length of finish, often judging wines more on texture than flavors and looking past stage-related issues like reduction and oxidation. And I find myself looking for purity and intensity. I trust that the cellar crew will take care of surface issues and try to look at what the wines are capable of becoming. I also find that I tend to grade down more than any of the other tasters lots that have overt oak overshadowing the varietal character. Luckily, there are never many of those. A brief summary of each of the varieties we tasted, with my scores, is below. The blog post about blending our 2010 whites has a refresher on how we grade, if you need one.
- Grenache (sixteen lots; nine 1's, six 2's, one 3):
Overall, the Grenache was the hardest to be sure about. Four lots were still notably fermenting. But the quality of the finished lots was very high; only one lot (and a small one at that) was relatively weak. A couple of my (very brief) notes will give you a sense of the better lots: "rich & bright" ... "nice, rich, chocolatey" ... "rich, lush and creamy" ... "rich & tannic (in a good way)". Clearly, there are good lots to work from here.
- Syrah (thirteen lots: six 1's, six 2's, one 3):
The Syrahs were all powerful, but perhaps a bit less nuanced than I was expecting. Given that 2010 was such a cool vintage, I was expecting that Syrah would shine. And it was good, but not better than Grenache, and not as good as Mourvedre. Several lots were somewhat reduced, which is common at this stage and is probably the easiest issue to address in the cellar. But in a vintage where everything had dark color and deep flavors, Syrah stood out less.
- Counoise (five lots: two 1's, two 2's, one 3):
The Counoise lots, like the Grenache lots, were fairly unfinished. Two were still fermenting actively. But two of the three lots that were done got a "1" grade from me, and one of them was unusually dark and rich. Still, I'm not sure we'll use that much Counoise in the 2010 Esprit; the acids in 2010 were excellent, and acidity is Counoise's biggest contribution to blends. Depending on how much we use in our blends, we may make a small amount of a varietal Counoise this vintage. It seems like it would work.
- Mourvedre (fourteen lots: eight 1's, five 2's, one 3):
These were the most impressive lots we had. Several of the lots I gave "2" grades to will almost certainly become "1" lots with just a little attention in the cellar. The lots had varied characters, some more rich and lush, others meatier, and others showing more of the chalky tannins that we're coming to attribute to our limestone soils, but all were balanced and compelling. I am looking forward to all the things we'll be able to do with these lots... and with nearly 9000 gallons to work with we should be able to do a lot. I would guess that we'll be increasing the Mourvedre composition of our Esprit up from the 38%-40% range where we've been the past few years back closer to the 45%-50% range we were in in the mid-2000's.
- Blend (one lot, which I gave a 2):
We have one lot of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah that was blended at harvest time from strong components. It has been aging in one of our 1600-gallon wooden upright fermenters, and I expected to love it. I didn't; it was a little funky and had less richness than I would have liked. It will get some additional time in foudre, and likely end up being one of the star components of our Cotes de Tablas. A good reminder for me that early blending, even with raw materials that we think are top notch, removes options later.
- Tannat (three lots: two 1's, one 2):
What happens when you add Tannat, which is always dark and structured, to a year that produced deeply colored, highly structured wines from normally-lighter varieties like Grenache and Mourvedre? Surprisingly, you don't get an impenetrable monster of a wine. The Tannat lots had plenty of depth, but nice acids and tannins that were present but not dominant. Very good.
- Pinot Noir (two lots, two 2's):
I didn't love either of the small Pinot Noir lots today. One felt slightly bound by its oak (though the barrels are three years old) and the other a little muddy and unfocused. They'll be blended together, and we'll give them some more time in barrel. One lot came from our nursery block, and the other from the small vineyard planted outside my parents' house in Templeton.
- Cabernet (one lot, which I gave a 1):
Finally, the surprise of the tasting for several of us. We typically get less than a ton of Cabernet off of the row and a half of Cabernet vines we have in our nursery block. More often than not, this gets co-fermented with the Tannat, as Cabernet is a traditional blending partner for Tannat in its native home in the Pyrenees. But this year we had enough to make four barrels, so we did. And it was stunning. Rich and powerfully expressive of Cabernet, with dark fruit, a little minty lift and wonderful tannins that wrapped up the whole package. We'd been planning to blend it into the Tannat again, but it was so good that we'll bottle it on its own. Anyone care to volunteer a name for it?
Overall, the take-home message was a highly positive one. After such an unusually cold summer and a challenging harvest season, we were hopeful that the long hangtimes the grapes had would overcome the relative lack of heat they received. And it appears that they did, reaching ripeness while maintaining excellent precision and somewhere picking up these deep colors and powerful minerality. I'm very much looking forward to getting to know these 2010's as they have a little more time in our cellar.
I leave you with a snapshot I took at the end of the morning with my notes stuffed into my notebook. Who says this isn't work?