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A Horizontal Retrospective: Tasting Every Wine from 2008 at Age 10

In 2014 we began the tradition of looking back each year at the vintage from ten years before.  Part of this is simple interest in seeing how a wide range of our wines -- many of which we don't taste regularly -- have evolved, but we also have a specific purpose: choosing ten or so of the most compelling and interesting wines from this vintage to show at the public retrospective tasting we're holding on February 11th.  Ten years is enough time that the wines have become something different and started to pick up some secondary and tertiary flavors, but not so long that whites are generally over the hill. In fact, each year that we've done this we've been surprised by at least one wine that we expected to be in decline showing up as a highlight.  The lineup:

2008 Retrospective

A while back, as part of a look back at each of our vintages for our then-new Web site, I wrote this about the 2006 vintage:

The 2008 vintage was our second consecutive drought year, with yields further reduced by spring frosts. Berries and clusters were small, leading to excellent concentration. Ripening over the summer was gradual and harvest about a week later than normal. Crop sizes were similar to 2007 and about 20% lower than usual. The low yields and gradual ripening resulted in white wines with good intensity, lower than normal alcohols and an appealing gentle minerality and red wines that were unusually fresh and approachable despite appealing lushness.

I was interested in the extent to which we'd still see what we'd noted when the vintage was younger.  Would the wines (red and white) show the elegance that we thought we might find? Would this vintage marked by elegance (sandwiched between two of our most powerful vintages) have retained the stuffing to make them compelling a decade later?  And were there any lessons we might take for the wines we're making now?

In 2008, we made 17 different wines: 8 whites, 1 rosé, and 8 reds. My notes on the wines, with notes on their closures, are below (SC=screwcap; C=cork). Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see a breakdown of the winemaking or the tasting notes at bottling (well, except for the Pinot Noir, which we only made one barrel of and never made a Web page; if you have questions about that, leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer).  I was joined for the tasting by our cellar team (Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Craig Hamm, and Brad Ely) as well as by our National Sales Manager Darren Delmore.

  • 2008 Vermentino (SC): A combination of bright and more aged notes on the nose: petrol, peppermint, grilled grapefruit, lime leaf, lemongrass, and wet rocks. The mouth shows nice acids, clean and younger than the nose, with citrus pith and a nice briny finish. It's in a nice place: like a dry riesling with a little age on it.
  • 2008 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): A deeper golden color. The nose is like that of a sweet wine: caramel and butter pecan and a little minty lift. The mouth is round, and, by contrast, dry. Tons of texture. Flavors of candied orange peel and nectarine, with a pithy bitterness like peach pit coming out on the finish. A touch low in acid, particularly compared to the wines before and after in the lineup. A perfectly admirable showing for this wine, but drink up if you've got any.
  • 2008 Picpoul Blanc (SC): A lifted nose: monty, watermelon rind, barely ripe honeydew, and wet rocks.  This filled out with time in the glass and turned into lemon meringue.  Pretty fascinating.  The mouth is fun: quite rich, with pineapple flavors and a creamy texture that remind me why I always think Picpoul evokes pina colada. A nice limestoney character comes out on the long, clear finish.  Still vibrantly alive, and one of my favorites of the tasting.
  • 2008 Grenache Blanc (SC, and in fact our first experiment with the Stelvin "Lux" that we now use for all our screwcaps): A quieter nose than the first 3 wines: preserved lemon, white pepper, and a little crushed chalky rock. The mouth is initially all about sweet fruit (lychee and candied grapefruit, for me), then the acids take over, and then a little tannic bite that's absolutely characteristic of Grenache Blanc plays back and forth with ripe pear and a spicy juniper character on the long finish.
  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 42% Viognier, 26% Roussanne, 21% Marsanne, 11% Grenache Blanc): A sweetly spicy nose, more floral than the first four wines, with honey, wild herbs, anise, and jasmine. The mouth is very nicely balanced between sweet attack (I thought peach syrup), good acids, and a little Grenache Blanc pithy bite on the back end. The long finish showed candied orange peel, honeysuckle, and marzipan. It's in a good spot, long after we would have thought.
  • 2008 Bergeron (C): Made from 100% Roussanne, harvested a little earlier from cooler blocks around the vineyard. A cool nose of green pear, honeysuckle, and cantaloupe. The mouth is all about texture: smooth flavors of watermelon and lemon custard, with a soft minerality pervading everything. Still quite Roussanne, in its way, though it's medium-bodied and lively. A little hazelnut and lemon drop comes out on the long finish, but the persistent impression is of its cool, smooth texture. 12.8% alcohol.  We're offering this now as an extra taste in our tasting room, if you're curious.
  • 2008 Roussanne (C): A deeper gold color.  An explosive nose: butterscotch, grilled pear, and a yeasty pastry note: pear tart, anyone? The mouth is gorgeous: luscious, rich, caramel and vanilla, and nuts, but dry. A long powerful finish with apricot and baking spices and a little sweet oak. Really impressive, if you like white wines with power and density. 14.2% alcohol.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (C; 65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): An appealing nose, less powerful than the Roussanne but more complex: key lime pie, honey roasted peanuts, baked apple and a cool green bay leaf herbiness. The mouth shows sweet Roussanne fruit on the attack, pear, honey, and brioche. Then Grenache Blanc's anise lift and pithy bite keep order. Then a long, soft finish with flavors of kiwi and sweet spice, and a little salty minerality which I credited to Picpoul.  A few signs of age, but the wine is in a very nice place.
  • 2008 Rosé (SC; 58% Mourvedre, 32% Grenache, 10% Counoise): A pretty deep amber-pink color. A beguiling nose of candied fruit and baking spices that I thought was like fruitcake and Chelsea compared to "walking through a candy shop". The first of several descriptors that were more like a craft cocktail than a wine: singed orange. The mouth is nice: tart cranberry, cherry soda, grenadine, and campari. A nice texture, with a little tannic bite. Still an interesting wine, but we all remembered this as being insanely good on release, and while this was interesting, it would be a shame to have missed that.
  • 2008 Pinot Noir (C): Our second-ever Pinot, from a few rows of vines in our nursery we were using to produce budwood to plant at my dad's property for our Full Circle Pinot. Quite dark for a Pinot. A deep, ripe nose of root beer and figs and black cherry, with a little pine needle savoriness. The mouth is quite rich: chocolate-covered cherry, cola, dates, and sweet baking spices. Not particularly expressive of Pinot -- and to me less interesting than the Full Circle, which comes from a cooler spot -- but a nice rich red wine.
  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas (SC; 42% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 20% Counoise, 7% Mourvedre): After several years of bottling under both cork and screwcap, we only bottled under screwcap in 2008. This was terrific: a nose of roasted meat, plum, raspberry, black pepper, and graham cracker. The mouth was vibrant, with beautiful lifted red fruit: cherry and red plum. There are nice dusty tannins. Still young, lively, and without any real signatures of age, and anyone who has some of this is in for a treat. 
  • 2008 Grenache (C): A nice medium-intensity Grenache nose: cherry cola, cocoa powder, and pepper. Like a flourless chocolate cake with raspberry syrup. A powerful mouth, with supple but significant tannins, great cherry fruit, and nice balance. A long finish with sweet spices and ripe fruit. In an excellent place, and carrying its 15.5% alcohol well. Neil commented "that's a wow for me". One of our favorites of the tasting.
  • 2008 Mourvedre (C): A fun contrast to the Grenache, with a nose more structured and savory: meaty, eucalyptus and garrigue around currant and chocolate. The mouth is medium weight, with more currant fruit and still some pretty big, dusty tannins.  It was a nice example of why Mourvedre and Grenache make such good partners: Mourvedre's austerity is opened up by Grenache's exuberance, while at the same time taming Grenache's tendency toward booziness.
  • 2008 Syrah (C): A different color palette than the Grenache and Mourvedre: all black on the nose, like blackberry, black olive, iodine, black pepper, and baker's chocolate. The mouth shows cool-climate syrah's austerity, with a minty, minerally, meaty darkness, tannins that are still just starting to resolve, and a mouth-filling character that suggests some additional time in bottle will be rewarded. Our best guess: wait another 5 years for peak.
  • 2008 Tannat (C): Also very dark: pine forest, soy, and dark chocolate. The mouth is comparatively friendly, with a sweet attack of milk chocolate, nice grapey purple fruit, a little violet floral lift, and tangy acidity that keeps everything lively. Then lots (lots!) of tannins come out on the finish, with a raspberry preserves note.  Fun to taste, at this stage more appealing, I thought, than the Syrah, but clearly capable of going another decade or more.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel (C; 38% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 26% Syrah, 6% Counoise): Lovely on the nose, tending more toward red than black, but with aspects of each: red currant, new leather, baking spices, balsamic glaze, and a minty garrigue-like savoriness. The mouth is luscious: strawberry preserves, milk chocolate, rare steak, tangy acidity, and really nice, persistent tannins. Elegant and in a good place, with plenty more development to come.
  • 2008 Panoplie (C; 54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah): A nose of density and power: balsamic cherry glaze, meat drippings, and wild herbs, with more of Mourvedre's characteristic restraint than Grenache's exuberance. The palate was more luscious: dark red fruit, chocolate, raspberry preserves, dried cranberry, and big but ripe tannins. Very long. A little dustiness that comes out on the finish and the still-thick texture suggests that there are more layers to emerge with additional time in bottle.  Still, a very nice showing for the Panoplie, and an impressive wine.

A few concluding thoughts

I was very happy, overall, with how the wines showed.  I didn't have as clear an impression of 2008 in my mind as I did for the vintages surrounding it, perhaps because the character of the wines wasn't as dominated by the vintage signature as it was in, say, 2007, but also perhaps because the year was overshadowed by the massively powerful vintages on either side. That said, the wines were nearly all in good shape at age 10, and the year's elegance meant that there were more wines that I would want to drink at this stage than I found in 2007. The whites, in particular, were as a group the most impressive we've found in our five-year history of horizontal retrospectives, and presaged, I think, a shift toward the more elegant style that we prefer today.

Nearly all of the wines improved in the glass, and I thought that most of them would have benefited from a quick decant. A lot of people don't think of decanting older whites, but I think it's often a good idea, and particularly so with wines that have been under screwcap. There's a clipped character that all our older screwcapped whites have that dissipates with a few minutes of air. It happens anyway in the glass, but a decant would have been welcome.

This tasting was yet another data point for me suggesting that Syrah really needs time, and yet its value in a blend.  This 2008 Syrah was still, I thought, too young, but the structure and austerity of the Syrah component gave the Esprit red and Panoplie a feeling of balance and restraint that were really valuable. We choose to harvest our estate Syrah at ripeness levels where it has good structural elements, because that's where it's most valuable when blended with Grenache and Syrah.  That's likely a few weeks earlier than we would if we were focusing on the wine as a varietal bottling, and I'm OK with the tradeoff of having to wait a few extra years for our varietal Syrahs to come around.

Finally, we chose ten pretty exciting wines for what should be a great February 11th Horizontal Tasting: Picpoul Blanc, Roussanne, Esprit Blanc, Cotes de Tablas Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Esprit, Panoplie, and Tannat. There are still some seats available; I hope many of you will join us!

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