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November 2012
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January 2013

Poulet demi-deuil and Beaucastel: A truffly duet

By Robert Haas

The end of fall and beginning of winter is the season that we enjoyed wonderful black truffle dishes during our travels to visit vineyard proprietors in France.  Alas, although we have learned to produce fine wines in California, we have not been able to do black truffles yet.

So, when the yearly truffle yearning comes along, we sometimes yield to the temptation of buying imported French truffles on line.  We do scrambled eggs with truffles (yum), as served at Beaucastel or chez Perrin, and last night, with our California family, a poulet demi-deuil (literally “chicken in half-mourning” for the dark color given to the chicken’s skin by the slices of truffle nestled underneath. Once appropriately dressed, the chicken is poached in chicken stock).  It is a dish y which we were stunned at first exposure at La Mère Brazier, just outside Lyon, many long falls ago.

What wine to serve with the poulet?  I had recently discovered an old bottle of Château de Beaucastel originally from my Vermont cellar, transported to California in the ‘90s, label damaged and vintage unknown, and wondered when to serve it.  The answer became obvious last night.  I knew that we would discover the vintage on the cork.  It turned out to be 1981: a great vintage at Beaucastel although dodgy almost everywhere else in France.

Beaucastel 1981 cork

The wine was absolutely perfect: mature yet no hint of oxidation, truffly in itself, echoing the dish, velvety, rich, leathery, with dark red fruits and a long finish.  Thirty-one years old and fully mature, in beautiful balance. What a nice memorable evening with food, family and a great wine!

We celebrate the holidays with a vertical tasting of Panoplie

Over the last few months, I've gotten several questions on how the Panoplie was tasting, and I realized that this isn't a wine I'm fortunate to open enough to know what to tell people.  So, on Friday, the last day before our offices closed for the Christmas holiday, I decided to reward myself and our team with a chance to taste every vintage of Panoplie we've made, and share the notes so that anyone who's lucky enough to have a few bottles in their cellar can see what we think.

The Panoplie, for those who don't know it, is our elite red wine modeled after the Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques Perrin, with a very high percentage of Mourvedre and an extremely limited production.  This is not a wine that we put into distribution; it goes exclusively to our wine club members each spring, with the opportunity to purchase 2 or 3 more bottles maximum after each shipment.  Even so, it rarely lasts more than a month.

The lots that we choose for the Panoplie are the richest and most compelling in the cellar, and these wines are made to age.  In the tasting, all but the oldest (from 2000) tasted still to me like young wines, with decades ahead of them.  But one revelation for me that came out of the tasting was that there were only two vintages I'd caution people away from at the moment: 2009, which is just too big, young, and wound up, and 2006, which appeared to us to be in the in-between teenage stage that many Mourvedre-based wines go through 5-7 years after their vintage date.  The other wines all offered immense pleasure, even in their youth, and while they will undoubtedly add complexity with additional time in bottle, no one will be disappointed if they open one up this holiday season. Joining me and my dad for the tasting were Winemakers Neil Collins, Ryan Hebert and Chelsea Magnusson, Viticulturist Levi Glenn, and National Sales Manager Darren Delmore. The lineup:

Panoplie vertical

The notes, by vintage (note that we didn't produce a Panoplie in 2001):

  • 2000 Panoplie (55% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 15% Grenache): Rich and deep on the nose, with some deeper soy and roasted meat flavors from maturity but no sign of fatigue.  The mouth shows more of the mature meatiness of Mourvedre, still with some significant tannins on the finish that were different than later vintages perhaps because of the youth of the vines and perhaps because of the much higher percentage of Syrah than we used in any future vintage. Chelsea called it "sinewy", for its lean power. It made me want a braised meat dish to serve it with.
  • 2002 Panoplie (80% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache, 7% Counoise): An immensely appealing nose of milk chocolate and rich red fruit, with a mouth-filling weightiness in the mid-palate that was quite different from the lean power of the 2000.  The finish showed nice acidity and tightened a bit, suggesting to all of us some extra time in the cellar. My dad commented that "you'd never guess this was a 10-year-old wine" and we all agreed.
  • 2003 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 7% Syrah, 3% Counoise): The showstopper, in my opinion, of the first five vintages, with a nose balanced between sweeter aromas of jam and confectioner's sugar and more savory elements like juniper and sage. The mouth is packed with sweet fruit, almost raspberry jam, and great length with a smoky garrigue note that was welcome after the palate's lushness. A great Christmas wine, with all the classic Christmas flavors wrapped up inside.
  • 2004 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 10% Syrah): The nose is wonderfully seamless and refined, if less exuberant than the two previous vintages: more leather, licorice and plums.  The mouth was showing an almost unctuous richness with flavors of milk chocolate with a creamy texture that made me think of marshmallows. Then the wine lengthens on the dry finish with lots of ripe tannins and wild berry fruit, and a little sweet oak. Perhaps a touch on the sweet side right now for my taste, but an obvious crowd pleaser.
  • 2005 Panoplie (70% Mourvedre, 25% Grenache, 5% Syrah): A different nose than the previous three wines, smokier with grilled herbs and dark fruit. The mouth is very rich but clean on the mid-palate and adds an appealing sweet mintiness on the finish, more wintergreen than juniper. The wine's big tannins come out at the end, suggesting that people need be in no hurry to drink it. Like the other 2005 reds we've opened recently, it's a sexy wine, with what Darren called "racy tannins" and my dad called "come-hither" aromatics.
  • 2006 Panoplie (68% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 5% Syrah): More restrained aromatically (Neil called it "almost Pinot-esque") with a woodsy, foresty, savory nose.  It was fresh in the mouth with a raspberry brightness on the palate and something zesty that I thought reminded me of quince. The finish was shorter than the vintages around it, with a little menthol character that came across to several of us as a little hot.  This struck me as a bit disjointed right now, not unpleasant but neither what it was nor what it will be.  I'd wait another year or two and check back in.
  • 2007 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): Amazingly rich and dense on the nose, but not at all sweet: mint and iron and soy and roasted meat drippings. The mouth is just spectacular, rich and potent with big tannins cloaked by lush fruit and a spice box character, broadening out on the very long finish to show roasted meat and a lifting aromatic note that reminded me of a clove-studded orange. Neil commented that "it immediately took me to Beaucastel". Chelsea said "that one smells like a special occasion". A consensus favorite, along with 2010. If you're opening this in 2013, be careful to check our vintage chart; the clock suggests that this will start to shut down in the near future and it's so good it would be a shame to catch it at anything less than its peak.
  • 2008 Panoplie (54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah): Very pretty, with some of the same Pinot character to the nose that we found in the 2006. A coolness to the tone of the aromatics showed pine forest, spice, and red berries. The mouth is elegant, translucent in comparison to the 2007, with tobacco, purple fruit, and a clean, pretty finish. Not the blockbuster that some other vintages are, but wonderfully expressive and, as Levi pointed out, "super cohesive".
  • 2009 Panoplie (65% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 9% Syrah): The nose was a little unfocused after the two previous wines, and showed a touch of heat. The mouth is rich and coating, but clean, with powdered-sugar tannins, cherry, and tobacco flavors, and big tannins that come out on the finish and dominate the fruit a bit at this stage. Neil commented that there is "lots of stuff going on, but just not all together yet". Very young and wound up, but with lots of potential.
  • 2010 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah), will go out to VINsider club members in March: A really nice stony fruit character on the nose, blueberries and plum pit and a savory olive tapenade note. The mouth shows a lovely melted licorice character, rich yet tangy, with a saline note that I've noted in many of our 2010's, red and white. It's spicy, but in great balance with fruit and mineral components. The finish is long, clean and complex, with beautiful balance. And as good as this is now, Neil commented that "five years from now, this will be at another level".
  • 2011 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah), in foudre right now, will be bottled in July and released spring of 2014: So young, fresh and juicy, with a licorice note that we typically associate with Grenache and a campfire smokiness that owes nothing to barrel and everything to the unique combination of lushness and savoriness we find in the 2011 vintage. There's a creamy, white chocolate texture in the mouth, with lots of herbs and spice, and a long finish highlighted by 2011's characteristic fresh acidity. Shows wonderful potential.

Overall, we were impressed with how, even within a relatively narrow range of blends, the wines showed the character of the different vintages.  Years that showed more freshness and more translucency (like 2006, 2008 and 2010) showed that character in more elegant Panoplies, though they still showed plenty of power. More blockbuster years like 2003, 2005 and 2007 showed that lushness, but balanced it with savory notes.  All the wines seem like they have a long, happy life ahead of them.  But other than the couple of vintages noted (2006 and 2009) don't feel like you need to hold off opening one in the nearer term, particularly if you have a few bottles.  I know that we'll be picking out one for the New Year's Eve dinner at our house tomorrow. If you do the same... please share how it's tasting!

In which we dig ourselves a hole, on purpose

By Levi Glenn

It's been a little over a year since our purchase of our new parcel.  The property is just to our south: 150 acres of rolling oak woodland, a walnut orchard (now removed), and a fair amount of the creek from which we take our name. There are probably only sixty plantable acres and the rest will be left in its natural state. And while there's nothing visible above-ground yet, we're making progress toward planting this beautiful piece of land. The first stage was to find out what we have below-ground, and what we found confirmed our belief that this is indeed going to be a great piece of vineyard.

We knew there were rocks. Lots of rocks, but more importantly white rocks. Limestone rocks. Just how many of these rocks? How does one find out?  Invite 13 aspiring soil scientists come to your soon-to-be vineyard and dig a bunch of holes with a backhoe. Using this process, these students turned holes in the ground into this beautiful multicolored soils map:


Before I get too far along I would like to send out a big thank you to the Cal Poly Soil Resource Inventory 431 class of Spring 2012, along with the enthusiasm and guidance of Dr. Thomas J. Rice. They found a lot of rocks. (They also presented their findings to us in a professional and succinct manner that should make their professor and university proud.)

The main tool a soil scientist has is a soil pit. They dug 41 different soil pits -- typically straightforward holes in the ground 5-6 ft. deep -- across the new property. Grapevine roots can reach down 30 ft., but a 5-6 foot pit gets you the majority of the root mass. Then you assess the layers (technical term: horizons) in the soil. To give you a sense of how we use this data, let's look at one soil pit in the Calodo series. A photo is below, followed by its soil analysis.


The team identified three distinct horizons in the pit: Ap (the top 20 centimeters), Bk (the next 26 centimeters) and Crk (the next 44 centimeters). Below the Crk horizon the team found bedrock. Each horizon is identified by composition, color, texture, plasticity, and pH. Here are the details:

Ap— 0 to 20 cm (0 to 8 in.); gray (10YR 5/1) gravelly clay loam, very dark grayish brown (10YR 3/2) moist; moderate medium granular structure; moderately hard, firm, sticky and plastic; common very fine and fine roots; violently effervescent, many nodules (20.02% CaCO3); slightly alkaline (pH 7.44); clear wavy boundary.

Bk— 20 to 46 cm (8 to 18 in.); gray (10YR 5/1) very gravelly clay, very dark grayish brown (10YR 3/2) moist; moderate medium granular structure; slightly hard, very friable, sticky and plastic; common very fine and fine roots; violently effervescent, many nodules(32.77% CaCO3); slightly alkaline (pH 7.62); clear wavy boundary.

Crk— 46 to 90 cm (18 to 35 in.); fractured limestone (59.48% CaCO3); moderately alkaline (pH 8.07).

If you're wondering about the term "violently effervescent", it refers to how a soil scientist tests for calcium carbonate, or CaCO3. When testing a soil for CaCO3 levels, you pour Hydrochloric Acid on the rocks and if they start to bubble, their calcium carbonate content is sufficiently high to qualify as limestone.

Summarizing the information above, you can see the increasing clay and CaCO3 concentration as you go down away from the surface, until you ultimately hit the bedrock. This continuum traces the transition from the surface -- where you're likeliest to find organic matter -- to bedrock, which is nearly 100% limestone.  Even better, most of the rock fragments are small pieces of calcareous shale that are easily broken apart by grapevine roots.

For us, the highlight of the above technical information is one number: the 59.48% CaCO3 in the Crk horizon. I have never seen another soil with this high a CaCO3 percentage. CaCO3 is the chemical composition for limestone, the white rock that is so well suited for wine grapes. [Read the Why limestone matters for wine grape growing post from 2010 if you'd like a refresher on its importance.] The Calodo soil series has the highest concentrations of CaCO3, and the Linne soil series also has high concentrations, but tends to be deeper with more clay. These two soils make up the main ridge on our new vineyard property, the teal and yellow colors on the soil map at the top of the page.

There are a total of 8 different soil types that the research team found. They vary widely, from rocky limestone to deep alluvial clays. This will allow us to match each soil type to different varieties. Grenache, for example, is capable of surviving in extreme drought conditions, which help to tame its often excessive vigor, so it's suited to rocky limestone-strewn hilltops like ours, pictured below. 


Roussanne on the other hand needs a little more nutrition and would prefer a little more moisture, so it will likely be suited to some of the flat lowlands (think the green lower-lying areas toward the outside of the propery) that have a more clay and better water retention. Ultimately this gives us more information to make better choices when it comes time to plant.

This ridge is first place we are going to plant on the new property. Grenache and Mourvedre are the most likely candidates. We typically assume that the tops of our hills produce the best grapes because of the low yields that the difficult, rocky soils enforce, but hilltops also have the advantage that they won’t freeze. Anywhere there is a slope, cold air drains downward, to be replaced by warmer air from above. Last year I recorded a 10 degree temperature difference from the top of this hill to the bottom. Planting should start in 2014 if all goes to plan. We will start with 5-10 acres and plant a little bit more each subsequent year.

The crew is eager to get started planting, but the day-to-day farming of this property will present its own challenges. We have already ripped the soil to break up compaction, but in doing so we brought an immense number of large rocks to the surface. Those had to be removed before we seeded the hill with cover crop. We know we'll continue to battle the rocks since any time we cultivate it brings more of them to the surface. But the sheer steepness of the property will be the hardest thing to deal with. With slopes from 25-45% on over half of the hill, it will take our most seasoned tractor drivers to tackle this terrain. You can see below the topographical map. The closer the contour lines are, the steeper the slope:

We were fortunate to have not just one soil expert but 14 of them to help us navigate the complexities of our new property. Thank you to Dr. Rice, all your students, and Cal Poly for putting so much time and effort into this project.


Soil Scientists: Samuel Bachelder, Gregory Beaudreau, Eric Boyd, Michael Founds, Laurie Fraser, Aaron Keyser, Jeanette McCracken, Stephen Nolan, Scott Pensky, Natalie Rossington, JaquelineTilligkeit

Soil Scientist and Lead Editor: Emilie Schneider

Project Leader: Thomas J. Rice, Ph.D., C.P.S.S.

Making Olive Oil In-House For the First Time

Our last harvest of the year is olives, which we typically pick in late November or early December.  In an ideal year, we might get some frosts before the olives are ripe, but we won't get any hard freezes, because if the olives freeze then they rot and aren't usable for oil.  Like the rest of the 2012 harvest, we got pretty much what we wanted for our olive crop, and were able to pick ripe fruit yesterday under sunny skies.

Olive branch dipped

Today, we processed the olives on site for the first time thanks to the marvelous mobile olive press from our friends Yves and Clotilde Julien of Olea Farm:

Olive mobile press yves and clotilde julien

Yves and Clotilde's press (which they've named "Mill On Wheels") includes components -- some imported from Italy and some made locally -- that wash the olives and separate them from any leaf or stem material, that crush the olives into paste, that separate the liquids from the solids, and finally that uses a centrifuge to separate the oil from the water.  I took a short video that tracks the process from the hopper full of olives through to the stream of olive oil pouring out of the centrifuge:

The oil will settle in our cellar for two months, and then be bottled: estate grown, certified organic Tablas Creek olive oil.  And it is already delicious; you could smell the rich, pungent aroma of fresh olive oil from outside the winery, even though we're processing the olives in our nursery, a few hundred yards away.  One more photo, because it's too good not to share: a single one of our Manzanilla olives, dipped in the oil made from the previous batch. Yum!

Olive dipped

Photo essay: the vineyard's new green winter coat

It's beautiful out here this weekend.  Last weekend's rain has passed through, and a week of sunny weather has meant that the cover crop and the natural grasses have exploded out of the ground.  I can't ever remember as fast a transformation in the vineyard landscape from fall brown to winter green.  I took the chance to get out yesterday afternoon and capture some of the rich colors produced by the afternoon sun, the unpruned brown vines, and the vibrant yellow-green of the new growth.  These are some of my favorites.  First, to get a sense of the transformation, compare the photo below to the photos taken two and four weeks ago that I posted late last month:

New green growth 2

The rolling contours of the vineyard are striking at almost any time of the year.  I particularly like them at this time, with the vines still unpruned and the new growth so bright.  This is Roussanne rolling up what we call the "new hill" because it was planted in 1997 rather than 1994.

Green cover crop setting sun

Getting down closer to the ground shows the lines from the seeding. The tall grasses are oats, which will eventually produce a lot of biomass for the vineyard and grow tall to provide a scaffolding for the vetch that we use to hold the soil in place.

New green growth 1

As the sun was setting, I climbed up what we call Mount Mourvedre (the hill behind the winery) and looked south toward the New Hill.  The distance flattens the perspective and turns the vineyard rows into patterns, while the setting sun (it was halfway below the horizon when this was taken) turns the vines' shoots red:

New green growth 3

Finally, on the way back to the winery, I was struck by this shot, with the light of the sun shining through the vineyard and the olive trees that line the road (which, incidentally, we'll be picking this week, and processing here for the first time).  It's worth doing with all these images, but particularly the one below: click on it to get the larger version.

New green growth 4

Enjoying the "Atmospheric River" of Moisture

It's wet out at the vineyard. So far today, we've received over an inch and a quarter of rain, with the heaviest, according to radar, still to come.  This is the fifth day in a row we've received significant rainfall, more than five inches overall. This is all a result of what the National Weather Service has been calling an "atmospheric river" of moisture"; essentially a supercharged plume of moist air that stretches across the Pacific, flowing east from its roots near Hawaii all the way to its mouth in northern California.  There's a great graphic that shows the concentrated moisture on the content-rich and well written weather blog The Weather Guru:

Atmospheric river

Our winter weather cycle features brief, intense periods of wet weather broken by longer dry interludes.  It's rare that we get more than a couple of wet days in a row.  But when we do get an exteneded period like this, we can get a quarter or more of our total expected winter rainfall in a few days.  It looks like this will be the case for the wine regions a little to our north; many locations in Sonoma have tallied 15 inches or more over the last week.  But whatever we end up at, be it six, seven or eight inches, we're still happy to have such a good head start on our winter rain.  

I often use a simple measurement to tell where we are.  We average between 25 and 30 inches of rain a year.  This rain comes in half the year, November through April, a period covering 26 weeks.  Although the moisture isn't evenly distributed over those 26 weeks (it's wettest December-February) I often compare the rain we've received to the number of weeks we are into our rainy season. With this rain, we're in our fifth week and have accumulated 6.5 inches of rain.  So, we're ahead of pace, with our wettest season still to come.