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Tasting a decade of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: 2001-2010

I got a question from my brother about a wine dinner we'll be doing together in Washington, DC this fall. (At Brasserie Beck, September 27th; should be amazing; more information here.)  He wanted to include an older vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc in the menu and had 2004 and 2006 in the cellar.  He wondered which was drinking better.  I realized that I didn't know.

This seemed to be as good an excuse as any to check in on our past vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  The soon-to-be-bottled 2010 will be the tenth vintage of our signature white, which makes for another nice reason.  To top it off, we have decided to include the 2007 Esprit Blanc in our Collector's Edition shipment this September and I wanted to see how it fit into the context of the surrounding vintages.  I was joined for the tasting by Winemaker Neil Collins, Viticulturist Levi Glenn and National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre.  The lineup:


The tasting was fascinating.  Roussanne-based wines tend to go through three distinct stages: a youth of richness and breadth, with flavors of white flowers, herbs, honey and tropical fruits.  They then enter a closed period in middle-age, tasting heavy and often woody, before emerging as different wines, nutty and mineral, often spicy and caramel-tinged.  This tasting highlighted the reemergence of the 2004 (one of my favorite wines of the tasting) and the shutting down of the 2005.  But that closed 2005 provided a nice fulcrum: the four older wines, while all distinctive, showed the rewards of aging, while the four younger wines (plus the unbottled 2010) expressed to varying degrees the vibrancy and power of youth.  By vintage:

  • 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (44% Roussanne, 22% Viognier, 18% Grenache Blanc, 16% Marsanne): A clean nose of honey, mineral, petrol and saline.  The mouth is beautiful, mid-weight, with caramel apple and a little tannic bite that suggests that it still has a few years to go.  The relatively low percentage of Roussanne in this, the first Esprit Blanc, gave it a different character than the succeeding older wines, a little less weighty, a little higher-toned.  I would never have guessed that this was a decade old.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): Wood on the nose, a little dusty, with some cantaloupe lurking underneath.  Maybe still a touch closed?  Neil tasted the influence of the cork, though the wine wasn't corked.  The mouth was much more appealing, with buttered toast and caramel, excellent richness and a chewy, almost tannic character on the finish.  The wine blossomed after sitting open for 20 minutes or so.  As amazing as it seems, we thought that the wine was still too young.  If you're drinking it now, be sure to decant.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 27% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): Aromatics jumped out of the glass compared to the 2002 with honey and a touch of heat.  The mouth is rich and very long, with an appealing touch of jasmine lifting the flavors and some gingery spice deepening them.  The finish was maybe the least resolved piece of the wine, a touch disjointed, and didn't quite live up to the aromas or palate.  I'd tend to give this another 6 months or so, but it's close.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A more focused nose than any of the previous wines shows the signature of the Picpoul.  It's still amazing to me what a difference it made swapping out the 5% Viognier for 5% Picpoul at the time we were blending this wine... still a vivid memory.  It totally brought the wine into focus and brought out a startling saline minerality that wasn't there with the Viognier.  Now, it shows that saline character on the nose, with white flowers, a sense of power more held in check (think BMW rather than Mustang).  Nice acids come out on the finish, with a lingering character of honeydew and preserved lemon.  Easily my favorite of the older wines.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Levi commented that the wine smelled like oak-aged champagne, and he was right... a toasty, almost yeasty character on the nose with dried pineapple as the primary fruit.  On the palate rich but tasting a touch oxidized, lifted at the end by vibrant but not totally integrated acids and a touch of tannin.  Still a beautiful color.  Just in its awkward middle phase; should be spectacular in a couple of years.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Lighter in color than any of the previous wines, and the Grenache Blanc's green apple comes through on the nose.  Very pretty, with additional aromatics of fresh pineapple and a gentle herbiness that Tommy identified as white tea.  Gorgeous sweet fruit in the mouth, pretty and vivacious.  A long, clean finish.  Beautiful.  Great drinking now, but don't be surprised if it shuts down sometime around the end of the year... it's next in line.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): Rich and powerful compared to the 2006, with an explosive nose of ginger and honey, rose petals, and licorice stick.  In the mouth it's thick and broad, lifted nicely at the end by that same herby white tea note that we found in the 2006.  A really long finish... the longest of any of the wines that we tasted.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Banc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A bright nose, higher-toned than any before, which Levi nailed as passion fruit.  Neil called it "a little more wispy than the 2007".  Tommy contributed my favorite quote of the tasting: "more San Francisco yoga instructor than Hollywood starlet".  In the mouth a touch less structured than the past few vintages, with flavors of white peach, licorice, and white tea and a texture that Neil said reminded him of powdered sugar.  Deceptive richness because it's so balanced.  Just a beautiful showing for this wine.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul Blanc): A familiar smell to me as it's the wine I've been out showing to people.  Rich, youthful, creamy nose for fresh honey, almost toasted marshmallow in its perception of sweetness on the nose.  But on the palate richness gives way to structure with flavors of citrus zest and clove, ginger and lemon drop.  Still a baby.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Out of a very chilly tank; we're bottling this in 3 weeks and it's being cold stabilized.  Similar to the 2009 but a bit higher-toned, showing more yellow sweet/tart fruit like passion fruit, pineapple and mango.  A hint of lychee comes out as the wine warms.  In the mouth it's rich but has great structure, and is very clean and pure.  Should be a stunner.

A few concluding thoughts.  Compared to the Esprit red, which shows greater differences in personality from one vintage to the next, the Esprit Blancs displayed more similarities across vintages.  The blend has also stayed relatively stable through the years; except for 2001 every vintage has between 60% and 70% Roussanne.  But it was interesting to see the extent to which the older wines had moved since our last vertical tasting a year ago.  The 2003 and 2004 Esprit Blancs had come out of a closed phase and the 2005 had moved in; the 2002 was showing less well; and the vintages since 2006 were largely unchanged.

I was also struck by just how good these wines all were.  I know that's an odd thing to say -- of course I'm supposed to think they're good -- but the depth of richness, the minerality, the balance and the ability to age I think put this wine, vintage after vintage, up with the best rich, dry whites anywhere in the world.  Drop them in lineups with the best Alsatian rieslings, the best chardonnays from California and Burgundy, maybe a few top semillons... I think they'll shine.  And this in a region that was supposed only to be good for red wines!