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September 2014
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November 2014

Autumn Vineyard Photo Essay

The grapes are all off the vines.  The days are shorter, with a lower sun angle.  We just avoided our first frost of the year here last night, and tonight is supposed to be just as chilly.  The weather pattern is transitioning, and each storm front makes it a little further south.  On Saturday, we actually got a few sprinkles.  Next weekend we're forecast to see measurable precipitation.  It's all hopeful for a vineyard (and a region) struggling under three years of drought.

In the near term, the vines are responding to the changing season by losing chlorophyll and letting the colors hidden by the green all year come out.  It doesn't last long, but it's spectacular while it does.  Here are a few shots I got this morning, starting with a photo from the center of our head-trained Tannat block, looking up at Grenache Blanc (on the left) and Syrah (on the right):

S & GB behind T

A closeup of some of the Tannat leaves:

Tannat leaves

And one of the Tannat second crop clusters, that never ripened enough to be harvested, and are now food for our local birds:

Second Tannat crop

In the vineyard, we're applying compost, so that as the rains come this winter, it will be absorbed into the soil and provide for next year's nutrition.  That compost sits beside one of the casualties of the late-summer fruit thinning we do to ensure that what we harvest has good concentration:

Compost & Cover Crop

I was struck by the complimentary colors of the vineyard and those of the new chicken coop we've installed in a section of head-trained Roussanne.  I love the "max occupancy" note painted above the door:

Henhouse

And finally, one more photo of the vineyard itself, this time looking up through Syrah, which I think catches the feel of this newly rebalanced season, neither summer nor winter yet, lacking the vibrant green of active growth but before the incipent frosts take away the leaves entirely, and feeling somehow both cool and warm at the same time:

Through Syrah

If you have the chance to make it out to Paso Robles in this season, you're in for a treat.  It never lasts long, but it's a wonderful backdrop while it's here.


Harvest 2014 Recap: Yields up 5.2% (though still below average); Quality excellent

On Wednesday, October 15th we picked the last batch of Roussanne off of our estate.  And just like that, we're done picking for the year.  It doesn't feel like we're finished, as we're still pressing off bins of reds, the cellar still smells like crush, and the vineyard's colors are still more green than gold -- it is only mid-October, after all -- but there's no more fruit to pick.  From Wednesday:

Last Day of Harvest

As we've progressed through this harvest, we have been comparing it to similar vintages with relatively low yields and high quality, like 2003, 2007 and 2013.  Now that everything is in, we have a chance to look quantitatively and see whether these comparisons have merit.  Of course, there are things that can't be easily measured (think color, or thickness of skins) but knowing how much fruit you have and how ripe it is, overall, gives us a good tool for knowing what the vintage will be like.  And it's not surprising; yields per acre and ripeness at harvest tell you critical things like skin-to-juice and sugar-to-acid ratios.

Somewhat to our surprise, given that we're in our third year of drought, yields were on average actually up a little from 2013. For our principal grapes:

Grape2013 Yields (tons)2014 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 16.7 11.4 -31.7%
Marsanne 8.2 9.9 +20.7%
Grenache Blanc 25.4 31.9 +25.6%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 7.5 +44.2%
Vermentino 15.1 17.3 +14.6%
Roussanne 44.5 42.8 -3.8%
Total Whites 115.1 120.8
+5.0%
Grenache 48.7 50.7 +4.1%
Syrah 32.5 38.1 +17.2%
Mourvedre 57.3 52.3 -8.7%
Tannat 12.3 15.4 +25.2%
Counoise 13.9 17.0 +22.3%
Total Reds 164.7 173.5
5.4%
Total 279.8 294.3 +5.2%

Most varieties are up a bit, with the exceptions of Mourvedre and Roussanne, our two latest-ripening varieties, and the two grapes most susceptible to late-season stress-related devigoration.  So, it's perhaps unsurprising that both showed declines in this dry year.  The third grape to see a decline (Viognier) came from a much more discrete cause: we had several nights of break-ins by wild pigs toward the beginning of harvest, and they of course went straight for Viognier, the ripest (read: earliest-ripening) grape.

Overall yields ended up at 2.78 tons per acre, which is still just below our ten-year average of 2.9 tons per acre.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, and 2013, all of which have been excellent and have been aging very well.

Looking at average sugars and pH at harvest gives a quick way of measuring a year's ripeness.  Since 2007:

YearAvg. SugarsAvg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59

Both of these measures show the subtle differences between 2014 and a year like 2013, corroborating what we noticed: that the level of lushness this year (our highest average sugars since 2009) was counterbalanced by good acids (better than all our recent vintages except the historically cool 2010 and 2011 vintages).  It also suggests that the narrative we're hearing from many California appellations -- that acids were extremely low this year, requiring significant intervention in the cellar -- didn't hold true for us.  Finally, it's a good indication that we were able to keep up with the pressure in mid-September, when so much of the vineyard seemed like it was ready, and that we got fruit off the vine while it still maintained natural freshness.

In character, we see many similarities to 2013, with the characteristic dark color and intense flavors of a low-yielding vintage, but with a little more overt fruit than the more savory 2013s.  Fans of the lusher style our wines featured in the 2007-2009 period will likely find many similarities.  Clusters and berries were very small, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  My dad holds up a cluster each of (from left) Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre from late-September, when all three were arriving in the cellar simultaneously:

004

Of course, it's early to make predictions on flavors, so stay tuned in the spring, when we'll dive into the vintage's character in preparation for our blending trials.

At 53 days between its August 23rd beginning and its October 15th conclusion, this harvest clocks as a bit shorter than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and our finish was one of our earliest on record, preceded this century only by last year's October 7th end.  It joins 2013 as our only vintages where we finished harvesting before the Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend.

Our main challenge, as things finished up, was Roussanne, and it's with this notoriously finicky grape that I think the meticulous work of our vineyard team will show the most.  Roussanne, even in the best of conditions, tends to ripen unevenly, requiring that we go through each block multiple times to pick what's ripe and give the other clusters some more time to mature.  Roussanne is also the variety most prone to stress-related devigoration, where the leaves lose chlorophyll and ripening slows toward the end of harvest.  Not every vine is affected to the same degree, so you can have mostly-green vines next to those that are largely yellow, with predictably faster ripening on the greener vines.  In this exceptionally stressful year, we knew we would have to be willing to go back repeatedly through our Roussanne blocks if we hoped to get most of the fruit harvested in good condition.  But even by Roussanne's normal standards, this year was a slog.  As an example, we made a first pass through the Roussanne block we still call our "New Hill" (since it was planted in 2000 rather than 1995-1997) on September 4th.  We made our next passes on September 18th and October 2nd.  Still, nearly half the fruit remained.  We went through again on October 7th, and a final pick -- our last pick of the harvest -- on October 16th. It's a good thing Roussanne is so rewarding in the cellar.  If it weren't, no one would deal with its quirks. The culprit, looking deceptively placid in early October:

Roussanne mid-September 2

 

And while we're early to be done with harvest, the cooler nights and the shorter days are beginning to bring out the fall colors in the vineyard.  I take a photo from this vantage point nearly every year because it shows two grapes that both color up in the fall: Tannat, in the foreground, and Syrah, on the hillside behind.

Fall foliage 2

Now that we're done with picking, we're able to get our animal herd back into the vineyard.  They can clean up any second crop clusters we left behind, as well as start getting some natural fertilizer into the soil in advance of what we're hoping will be a wet winter.  Dottie, one of our guard donkeys, is enjoying a snack of Marsanne before it goes dormant: 

Dottie back in the vineyard

And as for that rain, we're feeling hopeful that the series of Pacific fronts that have blown through Paso Robles over the last two weeks -- dry though they were, this early in the season -- bode well for winter. In many years, it's still hot and summer-like in mid-October.  These last two weeks have felt like fall.  If that promise carries through to real rain, we'll all have reason to celebrate.


Why River Cruise?

By Larry Martin

[Editor's Note: Larry Martin is President of Food & Wine Trails, Tablas Creek's travel partner on our 2015 Rhone River cruise, which will be highlighted by a special visit to Beaucastel.  We asked him to contribute a first-hand account of what cruise-goers might expect should they join us next year.  For all the details on the August 2-9, 2015 trip, which will begin in Avignon, end in Lyon, and include many historical and oenological visits along the way, visit foodandwinetrails.com/tablascreek2015]

Our luggage was stolen from our rental car before we boarded our cruise; my wife twisted her knee and then got ill, so imagine my surprise when she said she wanted to do the same cruise again, “this time to get it right.” That’s a testament to how much we loved our first river cruise along the Rhône.

LM - Cruise Ship
The Uniworld Catherine, Cruising

River cruising has exploded in popularity, and it’s now difficult to find a cabin during high-season as these cruise fill up months and months in advance.

Food & Wine Trails does not sell what we haven’t personally experienced, so because so many of our winery clients have been asking us about river cruises, we’ve now cruised on five different ships, on three rivers with three different cruise lines.

Each was as great as our first trip on the Rhône but fortunately without the calamities. Here’s why: Whether from the deck or the sliding glass door in my cabin, there was always something to see, from steep vineyard hills and medieval castles to picturesque villages.

LM - Castle and vines
Medieval castle, viewed from the Rhone

LM - Gordes
The famously picturesque hilltop village of Gordes

LM - Hermitage
M. Chapoutier's terraced hillside vineyards at Hermitage

The small scale of river ships, which typically carry less than two hundred people, explains much of their appeal, as they offer more intimacy than ocean-going ships. On a river ship, you don't need a GPS device to find the lobby or the dining room. The staff is much more attentive and friendly. There are also plenty of opportunities to immerse oneself into the region and with the locals. Because the ships dock right in town, it’s easy to take off on one of the bikes the ship carries, or drop into bars and coffee shops at night.

LM - Lyon
Lyon, from the Rhone River

So after our first cruise, we cruised on the Danube, the Garonne (Bordeaux), the Volga and decided last year to return to the Rhone, and to cruise with our favorite cruise line: Uniworld. 

Why you might ask? Because the trip begins in Provence, one of France’s most beautiful regions, and ends in Lyon, France’s most important food city.  Each visited village and city was filled with history and charm, made all the more beautiful by the unique light that has inspired such artists as Picasso, Renoir and Van Gough. And for a wine lover, this particular cruise offers two special additions: One it traverses or visits five major wine regions; Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Burgundy. And two, you’ll be the guests of the Perrin family for lunch, owners of one of the most important wine estates in the region.

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Beaucastel, behind the famous gobelet-trained vines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape

So what else does one need? A great ship, and Uniworld’s newest ship the Catherine is considered by many to be the world’s best river cruise ship.

LM - CdP Lock
On the Rhone, entering the lock at Chateauneuf-du-Pape

The only thing that I found lacking was time, because with all the great scenery, history and food and wine to explore, I never found enough of it. I guess I’ll have to return for a third time.