By Robert Haas
Thursday of last week we completed our decision-making process for the blending of our estate red wines: Panoplie, Esprit, En Gobelet, and Côtes de Tablas. This vintage we’ll also be making a varietal Mourvèdre. We also found time to make the final decision on the Esprit Blanc, which had given us trouble in our white blending trials in March. Now that the proportions and lots have been selected, the wines will be assembled and the reds put into our 1200-gallon oak foudres for ageing until bottling in 2013. The Esprit Blanc will go back into foudre as well until it is bottled before harvest.
Neil, Ryan, Chelsea, Jason and I form the core of the selection jury. We like also to include a visiting Perrin, and when he’s in town, National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre as well. Our general practice is to taste all the varietal lots first, blind, so we don’t know which vineyard block or which cellar lot each comes from: just what the variety is. We give each lot a grade. It’s not a complex grading system; the grades are 1, 2 and 3. 1 identifies wines with richness, elegance and balance, typically lots destined for, or at least of a quality suitable for, the Esprits. Lots with a 2 rating are ones that we like, but which seem less balanced or less intense than those with a 1 rating. These typically form the Côtes de Tablas and our varietal wines. 3’s are lots that are showing less well. If the problem, such as oxidation or reduction, is correctable in the cellar, or incomplete fermentation, we revisit the tasting later in the cycle. The “3” grade serves as a flag for the cellar crew that something needs some attention, and typically, over time, the 3’s resolve themselves into 1’s or 2’s. The components:
The next stage is selecting for lots that we feel should be declassified out of our estate wines into our Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc. These lots tend to be friendly and pretty, but less intense and showing less character of place than we like to see in our estate bottling. This year it was very difficult to “select out” any of the varietal lots, and the 2011 Patelin wines reflect this: each has less than 5% Tablas Creek fruit in its final blend.
After this process (which we completed last month) we work from the top down, starting with the Panoplie. In our tastings of the different lots, we discuss the character of the best lots, trying to identify those that seem somehow “above and beyond” the high quality we choose for the Esprits. Then we taste a handful of possible blends for the Panoplie, reflecting different percentages of the different varieties of a suitable quality. We taste these blends blind, not knowing which blend has which percentages, so that we’re free from our own biases. Knowing only that a blend is one of 4 possible Panoplie blends keeps us all honest.
We don’t move on until we reach consensus. These trials are not a democracy, where if 4 of the 6 people around the table prefer one blend, but the other 2 believe a different one is the best, the 4 win by default. We talk it out, coming back to the blends with new ideas until we reach agreement. This process can take several days, and in fact with the Esprit Blanc we decided that the wines themselves needed a little more time in barrel before we felt comfortable making the right choices, so we kicked the final decision down the road in March (when we blended most of the whites). We finalized the wine last week.
In the end, we chose what for us is a classic Panoplie blend: 60% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, and 10% Syrah. Then we moved on to the Esprit, leaving out the lots that were now destined for Panoplie. So each round went, eliminating from each succeeding round the wines that had been chosen for the higher tiers. When we had decided on the Esprit (40% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Counoise) and En Gobelet (33% Mourvèdre, 31% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 16% Tannat) we took stock of what we had left and realized that due to the low crop levels, particularly on Grenache and Syrah, we weren’t going to be able to produce varietal red wines other than Mourvèdre. This made the blending of the Côtes de Tablas fairly straightforward: we knew the rest of the Grenache, Syrah and Counoise were going in, and needed to decide just on the right amount of Mourvèdre. We tasted three different potential Côtes de Tablas blends, with differing Mourvèdre quantities, and settled on a blend of 49% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 15% Mourvèdre, and 8% Counoise. That left us 800 cases of a varietal Mourvèdre.
All this was done in three days, Tuesday-Thursday. This is the first time I can remember that we reached consensus on each of the red blends on our first time around. The quality was uniformly high, even as we reached the third and fourth tiers down, which made it easier: we just had to focus on what profile we liked best for each wine.
It was not obvious last fall that 2011 would be such a high quality year. Much of the west coast suffered from unusually cold, foggy weather, and there were some early rains that began in late September. This all on top of April frosts. But we’d had a good sense since early December, when François Perrin visited. Having heard of all the challenges of the 2011 vintage in California, he was anxious to taste through the vintage in the cellar. It was early to taste. We had just finished the harvest on November 9th. Many of the wines were not even through their primary (sugar) fermentations, not to mention the malolactic fermentations, which often occur later in the cycle.
However, we plowed ahead, starting with the whites. And with each lot that we tasted François became more excited. “This is going to be a truly great white vintage,” he commented. “Even this early I can see that the wines have great structure, fine aromatics, good intensity, saline minerality, individual personality, and lush fruit. Can the reds be as good?”
Reds are less “tasteable” than whites in the early stages of their development, but experienced tasters can get a good idea of their overall style and quality even six or seven weeks after the harvest, as was the case here. And with each lot we tasted, François expressed optimism for the 2011 reds. They were showing concentration, richness, intensity and elegance. As our blending sessions showed, the optimism was justified. The wines are uniformly terrific.
What accounts for the extraordinary wines of 2011? Several things combined to make it an exceptional vintage:
- We started out with good moisture in the ground after two years of wet winters, so the vines were healthy and we did not need to irrigate.
- The frosts we suffered on April 8th and 9th reduced our yields to a miniscule 2.15 tons per acre. But the damage was not uniform; while our Viognier and Grenache and much of our Syrah was decimated, Mourvèdre and Roussanne (our two most important varieties) were largely spared damage. These low yields provided excellent concentration.
- We had a very cool growing season, so that all of the grape varieties had a longer than usual hang time even though the vines were carrying a smaller crop. The result was balanced wines with excellent acidities, particularly important and unusual in a year with such great concentration.
- Although it was cold, Paso Robles’ geography spared us from the persistent fog that plagued many California wine regions more open to the Pacific. We avoided the issues with mildew and rot that many other regions saw.
- The harvest rains turned out to be less than had been forecast, and significantly less than in many North Coast regions, which allowed us to wait for ripeness in this cool year without suffering through bunch rot, and a week of good weather in early November brought in several high quality lots we’d effectively written off two weeks earlier.
What next? The wines will be blended and put to rest in the foudres you can see from the tasting room. They’ll sit there ageing quietly through the coming harvest, and then be bottled next summer before the 2013 harvest. We hope that 2012 will provide equally great raw materials as 2011.