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October 2011
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December 2011

Getting to know the newly-finalized 2010 red varietals and blends

This week, Francois Perrin made one of his semi-annual visits to Tablas Creek.  We always like to see Francois after harvest; it gives us our first outside perspective on the most recent vintage, and gives us a chance to bounce the ideas we had during crush off of someone whose experience with these grapes is unmatched.  We also typically taste through the blends of the previous vintage of red wine, to decide if all is well or if any of them need some final adjustments.

Blending the 2010 reds was unusual because they are still in their component pieces in November, more than a year after harvest.  Typically, we've made our blending decisions on the previous vintage's red wines by early summer, and they're blended and sitting quietly in foudre for the subsequent harvest.  But this year, thanks to the late 2010 harvest and the cold 2010-2011 winter, the wines weren't ready to be evaluated in the late spring.  When my dad returned to Vermont in late May we'd only been able to taste through and identify the lots that we were going to declassify into the 2010 Patelin de Tablas.  But as for the decisions beyond that first cut -- i.e. should this Mourvedre lot go into Panoplie, Esprit, Cotes or varietal Mourvedre -- we just didn't feel confident making them while the wines were still finishing up their fermentations. [You can read the blog post I wrote in May with my initial impressions of the 2010 reds] So, we put the wines to bed as components and awaited my dad's October return from Vermont, knowing that we were unlikely to be able to turn our attention to blending the 2010's until the 2011 harvest was complete.

So the last two weeks have been blending weeks.  It was a relatively easy blending (much easier than was the blending of the 2010 whites) thanks to how finished the wines were and to the fact that the first cut of friendly but less impressive lots had already been made.  I took notes on the wines during our final run-through with Francois yesterday, and have noted some comments by the others who were in the room.  For the tasting, my dad, Francois and I were joined by our winemaking team of Neil, Ryan and Chelsea, as well as National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre and Francois' son Cesar, who is in the middle of a year here at Tablas Creek.  We began with a flight of the varietal wines, and moved on to the blends. The lineup:


2010 Grenache: Spicy, peppery nose with strawberry fruit lurking behind and coming out -- along with a floral note -- more and more with air.  On the palate at first fruity, then nice acids, then an appealing loamy character.  Juiciness and tannins both come out on the finish.  Neil called it "very fresh, very clean" and Chelsea thought it had a "nice, friendly affability".  I was impressed with how evocative of Grenache it was: not a blockbuster, but classic.

2010 Mourvedre: Rich on the nose, with pepper steak, bitter chocolate, and dark red fruit.  The mouth is plummy with a nice earthy richness, chewy tannins and a moderate-length, slightly cedary finish right now.  Francois called it "closed but deep".  I thought it was the least giving of the varietals now, but also right in keeping with where Mourvedres usually are at this stage.  It will benefit from 6 more months in foudre.

2010 Syrah: Dense & inky nose, minty and chocolatey, with a touch of iodine-like minerality.  The mouth was rich with black, tangy fruit and chalky tannins.  This has nice vibrancy for Syrah, reflective of the cool 2010 vintage.  There's a long finish with a touch of oak that will surely integrate more in time.  Cesar called it "classic syrah".  My dad thought it tasted like Cornas.

2010 Cotes de Tablas (46% Grenache, 39% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, 5% Counoise): A fruity, spicy, brambly purple fruit nose, with sweet spices like nutmeg and cinnamon coming out with air.  The mouth is nicely vibrant, with plum and loam and a nice generosity, framed by good acids.  An impression of sweetness on the finish, though it's a dry wine.  Chelsea said "I'm ready to take this home and drink this with dinner today" and Cesar thought "everybody can like this".  A great showing for the Cotes... maybe our best yet.

2010 En Gobelet (35% Mourvedre, 31% Grenache, 13% Syrah, 11% Counoise, 10% Tannat): Very dark in color.  A slightly tarry nose, with black and purple fruits lurking behind.  The mouth is first sweet fruit, then savory and somehow feral, then tannic with some oak, rounding out with a surprisingly gentle finish.  Clearly big but needs to develop.  Neil called it "Rustic but in a good way" and Cesar thought it "closed but with beautiful potential". I was least sure where this was going, but I know it will be impressive.

2010 Esprit de Beaucastel (45% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 4% Counoise): Dark and backward on the nose, not yet giving much away other than a little oak and a sense of inky richness.  The mouth is broader and richer than the nose suggests, with a really nice mouthfeel and a very long finish where in turn dark red fruit, chalk, tannins and a tangy soy/teriyaki character take the fore.  Francois called it "great but definitely needs some time".  I thought it was terrific in its sense of power held in reserve, and can't wait to see it develop.

2010 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): Very different and much more exuberant on the nose than the Esprit.  Big, spicy nose with lots of purple fruit and an appealing mintiness.  The mouth is velvety and rich, with an initial impression of sweet fruit gradually drawn back into big tannins.  Francois thought it "not polite yet but powerful potential".  My dad thought it showed nice Mourvedre character.  I thought it both bigger and less finished than the Esprit, and definitely a wine that will benefit from its time in foudre.

We'll make a few other wines from the 2010 vintage, including our first Counoise since 2006, our first-ever Cabernet, our Tannat and a couple different small-production Pinot Noirs, but those components mostly weren't candidates for these blends, so we didn't taste them again with Francois.  I'll post notes when we're getting closer to bottling them.

A few final thoughts.  This was an impressive tasting, and all the wines showed a coolness and a vibrancy that seems to be a hallmark of the 2010 vintage.  This plays into our hands, as we tend to gravitate toward wines that are more about their balance and their restraint than about their sheer power.  I thought that all these wines are going to age beautifully, particularly those based on Mourvedre.

We're offering the 2010 Esprit and the 2010 Panoplie now as part of our en primeur futures program, and we'll be tasting the wines with 125 or so of our club members this Saturday.  I'm very much looking forward to sharing them in public for the first time and seeing what people think.

A Winter Dinner and a Beautiful 1985 California Cabernet

By Robert Haas

As our late Indian summer in Paso Robles turns toward winter our appetites turn toward winter dishes. This last Sunday we had friends over for dinner and we served a Moroccan tagine, a savory slow cooked mixture of sweet and savory from a recipe in The Heart of the Artichoke, by David Tanis, published by Artisan. The book is a collection of delicious, traditional dishes organized by seasons.

Pine Ridge 1985

A tagine is a North African cooking vessel and tagine also is the name of the dish that my wife, Barbara, served us: Fragrant Lamb With Prunes and Almonds. The recipe includes, besides prunes and almonds, a panoply of spices: garlic, ginger, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, and cayenne. We did not have a tagine handy so she used a heavy Le Creuset French oven for the two hours stay in our oven. We purchased shoulder of San Luis Obispo County lamb from J & R Custom Meat and Sausage in Templeton.

One would think that all the sweet and savory elements would be tough on a dry red wine but no! We ended up with a perfect match: a 1985 Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon that has been in my cellar since the days back in the eighties that my Vineyard Brands company represented Pine Ridge in the U.S. market. The wine was perfectly aged and absolutely brilliant: soft, delicious, and beautifully balanced and accommodating the food and the palate at 12.7% alcohol.

It and the dish echoed each other beautifully: the dish bringing out the sweet fruit flavors and ripe, mature tannins of the cabernet and the wine accenting the savory lamb flavors. Yum!

Photo Essay - Autumn in the Vineyards

November is a beautiful time of year in Paso Robles wine country.  The grapevines erupt into fall colors, each variety different in its timing and its shade.  We've usually received our first rainfall, which means that the cover crops start to grow and the hillsides slowly turn from brown back to green.  And the low sun angle illuminates everything in a warm glow. 

For whatever reason, this year has been particularly beautiful.  I thought I'd share a half-dozen or so photos that I've taken in the past week.  First, a photo looking north through the center of the vineyard that highlights the different vineyard blocks.  Immediately in the foreground is Grenache Blanc, still yellow-green.  The red-brown head-pruned vines are Tannat, with fruit trees in the green patch behind that.  On the right side of the center road is Grenache (facing west) and to the left of the road is Counoise.  Mourvedre is to the right of the Grenache, across the winding track.


The foliage bursts into riots of color near sunset.  The photo below is looking in the opposite direction, up at the hill from which the previous photo was taken.  Tannat is in the foreground, with Grenache Blanc to the left and Syrah to the right on the steep, north-facing hill behind:


Syrah is consistently the most colorful of the foliage.  A Syrah cane reaches up, against the backdrop of the Santa Lucia Mountains:


Not everything is reds and oranges, but the gentler yellows and greens of grapes like Roussanne (below) still highlight the contours of the terrain:


Not everything is losing its green in favor of brighter colors.  The cover crop, particularly in areas not shaded by vine canopy, is starting to fill out lush and green.  With nearly 5 inches of rain so far this season (about 150% of normal for this time of year) it's good to have the cover crop holding down erosion:


And as the sun dips out of sight, the hillsides to the west (in this case, the lusher Syrah in front and the sparser Mourvedre behind) look like they're on fire.


We know that these colors won't last much longer; the first hard freeze and everything turns brown.  But if you're scheduled to come out in the next week or two, you're in for a treat.

Harvest 2011 Recap and Assessment: Yields Down 15% vs. Normal and Quality High

Harvest 2011 finished on November 9th with a flurry of activity, including at one point 62 different bins of grapes scattered around the winery and on the crushpad, waiting to be destemmed.  My favorite part of the photo (blow it up to see it) is the bemused look on Ryan's and Chelsea's faces as they survey the sea of grapes:


Much of this fruit was unexpected, though no less welcome for it.  With most of our estate harvested and wet, frosty weather looming November 4th-6th, we figured that we'd be lucky to get anything additional in.  But lucky we were.  The rains amounted to little more than half an inch, and frosts that affected most of Paso Robles (for once) missed us.  So with sunny weather resuming on the 7th we scurried to finish harvesting our own property.  And some of the later-ripening Patelin vineyards escaped sufficiently to contribute as well.  All together, we finished harvest with 100 different lots, 70 from our own vineyard and 30 from various other vineyards for Patelin and Patelin Blanc.

Yields in 2011 were low, though thanks to this late flurry of grapes not as low as we'd feared.  Over the entire 105 producing acres, we harvested 243 tons, or 2.3 tons per acre.  That's down significantly (about 34%) compared to 2010, but probably more like down 15%-20% compared to a normal year.

Compared to 2010, every variety except Roussanne was down.  But 2010 was not a normal vintage; it was one of our most plentiful vintages, even if its 3.5 tons per acre were still modest by most standards.  An idea of a more normal vintage might come by averaging high-yielding 2010 and low-yielding 2009.  Compared to this theoretical "normal" vintage, we saw significant declines in Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc.  We saw essentially average yields in Mourvedre, Counoise, Tannat, Marsanne and Vermentino.  And we saw an increase in Roussanne.  The degree to which this correlates to which varieties were out at the time of our April frosts should perhaps be unsurprising.  All the low-yielding varieties except Picpoul were out.  And all the normal-yielding varieties except Marsanne weren't.  Roussanne, the only grape to show an increase, is both late-sprouting and notoriously frost-resistant.  For our principal varietals, our yields were (in tons):

Grape2011 Yields
2010 Yields 2009 Yields % vs. Avg.
Viognier  6.5 22.5 12.2 -62.5%
Marsanne  9.0 13.2
Grenache Blanc  17.1 34.8
Picpoul Blanc  4.7 9.4
Vermentino  11.9 19.1
 43.2 33.9
Total Whites  92.4 132.9
Grenache  42.1 71.1
Syrah  23.3 47.7
Mourvedre  52.9 69.3
Tannat  9.8 14.5
Counoise  11.7 16.8
Total Reds  139.8 219.4
Total  232.2 352.3

Our average sugars at harvest continued their gradual decline.  This is, we believe, partly due to the cool vintage (2011, like 2010, was one of the coolest on record in Paso Robles) but also due to the continuing capability of older vines to deliver fully ripe flavors at lower sugar levels.  Our average Brix at harvest since 2007:

2007: 24.42 avg. Brix
2008: 23.87 avg. Brix
2009: 23.42 avg. Brix
2010: 22.68 avg. Brix
2011: 22.39 avg. Brix

Delving deeper into the sugar levels, the average sugars at harvest of our principal varieties this year were:

Counoise: 22.5
Grenache Noir: 24.4
Grenache Blanc: 21.8
Marsanne: 21.1
Mourvèdre: 22.8
Picpoul Blanc: 20.7
Roussanne: 20.9
Syrah: 22.6
Tannat: 21.9
Vermentino: 21.0
Viognier: 22.3

The harvest was shorter than most.  We began on September 20th and finished on November 9th, a span of 51 days.  By contrast, 2010 harvest took 59 days, 2009 took 64 days, 2008 took 58 days and 2007 took 66 days.  Our longest harvest ever, 2004, took a whopping 89 days.

The quality of the fruit looks terrific.  The whites are generally bright and expressive, with beautiful acidities thanks to the late, cool spring and the unusual lack of heat spikes during the growing season.  The reds are deep in color and wonderfully aromatic.  But that's not to say it wasn't stressful.  Winemaker Ryan Hebert says "I think the quality is going to be great, but it's going to be different than anything we've ever seen before.  It's paid off that we've had to learn to be comfortable with ripeness at lower sugars, so this year didn't scare us too much."

Winemakers generally are critical judges of quality at this stage.  That the cellar team is as excited as they are -- with the memories of the year's challenges still fresh -- bodes well for vintage 2011.

The sun sets on the 2011 Harvest, light in yields but intense in character

Sunset with mourvedre

OK, I guess I didn't mean that literally, though that was the last two bins of our estate Mourvedre coming in from the vineyard under the setting sun and rising moon yesterday evening.  But our last grapes are coming in today, both off our estate (where we're picking down in our nursery block and generally cleaning up "last pick" fruit from any sections that had anything left) and for our Patelin (where we have Mourvedre and Grenache from a handful of cool, late-ripening sites arriving throughout the day).

Over the last two weeks, the bigger picture of the 2011 harvest has come into focus.  We're going to be light in quantity, probably in the neighborhood of 225 tons of estate fruit.  Most varieties are down between 40% and 50% compared to last year, and between 20% and 30% compared to normal.  Quality looks excellent, with dark colors in the reds and remarkable intensity with surprising freshness In both reds and whites. 

This overall picture, of course, is both messier and more interesting when you look in more detail.  Some varieties (most notably Viognier) are almost nonexistent in the cellar.  Roussanne will actually have more tonnage this year than in 2010.  Of our key reds, Mourvedre did best in terms of yields (down about 30%) while Syrah was hardest-hit (down about 55%).  Still, things could have been much worse.  2010 was an unusually bountiful vintage, and yields down 45% are still going to be OK.  We've spoken to some neighbors whose crops are down 75% or more.  And what we're seeing looks great, with very thick skins and beautiful balance of sugars, flavors and acids.  It's hard to show just how deep the colors are on the red wines, but this photo of Mourvedre in a bin gives you a sense.  Mourvedre is normally a mid-color red grape, between the lighter pink-purple of Grenache and the deep blue-black of Syrah:


The last few weeks of harvest have been driven by the fear of two storm systems.  The second is forecast to arrive tomorrow.  The first dropped just over half an inch of rain on us between November 4th and 6th, and knowing it was coming meant that the end of October and the first few days of November were the time to push to get things in.  With most other varieties already harvested, we focused on Mourvedre.  During that time, we harvested six different Mourvedre blocks totaling about 30 tons, and also brought in 15 tons of Grenache, 5 tons of Roussanne, 3 tons of Counoise and our tiny harvest (.4 tons) of Petit Manseng. 

The change in the weather included two frosty nights and two rainy days, but the frosts (for once) were more severe elsewhere in Paso Robles than they were out at Tablas Creek, and the rainfall totals were less than had been feared.  While we were ready to sacrifice what hadn't yet been harvested, the ground sucked up the water and by Monday conditions were dry enough to resume.  Since then we've brought in another 8 tons of Mourvedre, 6 tons of Grenache and 4 tons of Roussanne.  Even more unexpected, we'll get what looks to be some great fruit, both Grenache and Mourvedre, to round out the Patelin red 2011.  I'll have a complete harvest recap with final quantities next week.

In addition to the harvesting, with an already-full cellar and more fruit coming in, we've been working hard to get finished red fermentations out of the tanks they're in, into the press and eventually into barrels so we can reuse the tanks for new fermentations.  That means lots of draining and shoveling.  Cesar Perrin demonstrates technique on the left, below.  On the right, Chelsea shows a messier -- but sometimes necessary -- method.

Cesar shovels Chelsea in tank

We're feeling fortunate to have received this mid-November reprieve.  It looks like our weather is supposed to turn definitively toward winter at the end of this week.  We're forecast for our first serious winter storm of the year, and expecting a couple of inches of rain and some decent winds on Friday.  Neil, Levi and the vineyard team have been focusing on getting cover crops seeded, compost spread, and straw put down on erosion-prone hillsides.  In this effort, the rain we got in early October is beneficial, as there is already cover crop growth.  Things are starting to look quite green out there:


Overall, we feel fortunate to have gotten in what we did, and are genuinely excited about the quality of what we have in the cellar.  Next week, we'll turn our focus back to the 2010 vintage and start the process of putting together our red blends from last year.

Meanwhile, we'll be trying to stay dry as we enjoy the last few days of autumn.