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May 2018

Into the Heart of Darkness: Tasting every Tablas Creek Tannat 2002-2017

Each year, we pick a wine we've been making for a while and open up all that wine's vintages, for the dual purposes of better understanding how it ages over time and better advising our fans which vintages to open if they're looking for peak drinking1. This year, we decided to look at Tannat, which is a grape renowned for its ageworthiness that somehow, we'd never opened systematically. So, it was with significant anticipation that we assembled each vintage of Tannat we've made, from our first (2002) to the newly-blended 2017:

Tannat vertical

An additional goal of this particular tasting was to choose a selection of the Tannats to show at a public retrospective tasting. Sixteen wines is too many, but we figure we can pick a representative sample that will give guests a great sense of how the wine develops in bottle, as well as how the vintage affects the wine's composition and flavor profile.  If this sounds like fun, we'll be hosting that tasting on August 19th.  Details are here.

Whether you're thinking of coming or not, I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I have linked each vintage to that wine's page on our Web site, if you'd like to see production details or what the tasting notes were at bottling.

  • Tannat 2002: On the nose, inviting, with eucalyptus, black cherry, chocolate and mint. The mouth is similar, still quite rich and tannic, with a little cedary oak coming out on the finish. So fresh, and still absolutely in its prime. A treat.
  • Tannat 2003: Smells a little more mature: leather and soy marinade, as well as mint and dark chocolate. The mouth was still quite tannic, elevated by Tannat's signature acids, with flavors of cream soda, chocolate truffle and raspberry liqueur. The finish was my least favorite part of the wine, a touch on the pruney side. 
  • Tannat 2004: Some wildness on the nose, very savory: aged balsamic, tobacco, dried strawberry, and green herbs. The mouth is generous, spicy, and richly tannic, with an earthy mulchy note playing back and forth with black cherry liqueur.
  • Tannat 2005: A lovely meaty chocolate-cherry nose, with meat drippings. Like a Burgundy from an impossibly powerful vintage. The mouth is comparatively gentle, with beautiful currant/plum/black cherry juiciness, with additional flavors of mint and hoisin.  Less overtly tannic than the first three wines, and a real pleasure. My favorite of the older Tannats.
  • Tannat 2006: A slightly oxidative note on the nose, on top of milk chocolate and baking spices. The mouth leads with sweet cherry fruit, given savory complexity by a pine forest note. Medium-weight (less than the four wines before) but nice tannin and acid on the finish, with higher toned flavors of chocolate-covered cranberry lingering.
  • Tannat 2007: Fresh on the nose: minty eucalyptus, cherry cola, and pork fat. Rich and figgy in the mouth, powerfully tannic, but with a sweet edge. It came across to me as a touch alcoholic at this stage, with a finish of chocolate-covered raspberry cordial.
  • Tannat 2008: Immediately different than the previous wines, more translucent on pouring. The nose is older, a touch raisiny, less spicy. The mouth too is quieter, with leather and golden raisin, and less tannin and verve. Not sure if this is a stage, or just a weaker Tannat vintage.
  • Tannat 2009: A blockbuster nose: soy, mineral, tobacco and potpourri.  On the palate, all black descriptors: black plum, black tea, and black licorice, rich and concentrated, with both juiciness and gaminess coming out appealingly on the finish.  Impressive.
  • Tannat 2010: The cool 2010 vintage produced a different, more elegant expression of Tannat: graphite, white pepper, lilac, pork fat, and molasses on the nose. Rich but not aggressive on the palate, with fresh cherry flavors, chewy mouth-coating tannins, and that pancetta-like note returning on the finish.
  • Tannat 2011: Spicy fruit jumps out of the glass: cranberry, eucalyptus, and cocoa powder. Bright on the palate, almost pomegranate-like in its vibrancy and tannic bite, roasted leg of pork and chocolate-cherry. Falls a little short on the finish, with a little raisiny note coming out. We thought this might be better in a few years.
  • Tannat 2012: Again, something different: more red fruit than black, with cedary oak and star anise spices. The mouth shows vibrant acids, then cherry skin, then tannic on the finish.  Still very young.
  • Tannat 2013: Spicy and powerfully savory on the nose: iron shavings, juniper, and fall leaves. The mouth is nicely balanced and more generous than the nose suggests, with cocoa butter, blueberry, and more minty spice. Nicely complete, with excellent finesse.
  • Tannat 2014: Electric and spicy, with za'atar and meat reduction, violets and strawberry on the nose. The mouth is similarly vibrant, with echoes of red cranberry fruit and a long, tangy, saline finish.
  • Tannat 2015: A darker nose, of black licorice, spicy eucalyptus, and a meaty note like a rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb. The mouth is dense and plush, yet lifted by a welcome bitter note that we alternately identified as blood orange and aperol. Really cool, and drinking great right now.
  • Tannat 2016: Just bottled 6 weeks ago, the nose still seemed quiet from the recent bottling: violets and black olive, but obviously more to come. The mouth is nice: dark chocolate, black plum, licorice, and plenty of tannin. Lots to show here, but much more to come. Will be released later this year. Patience.
  • Tannat 2017: Newly blended and living (for now) half in wooden upright tank and half in small barrels while we wait to free up foudre space. Smells like a baby: grape jelly, meaty, still youthfully thick like raspberry pie.  Lots of fermentation aromas.  Tons of potential, but a long way from bottling yet. 

I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and the wines that got votes included the 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, and 2015, with the 2005, 2009, and 2015 pretty universally among everyone's top picks.

We ended up choosing the following vintages for August's public tasting: 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • Tannat definitely has a strong personality.  We were commenting at about wine five that we were running out of ways to say chocolate, mint, and black cherry. That's not to say there weren't vintage variations; there definitely were. But unlike, say, Syrah, which is something of a chameleon depending on where it's grown, I think Tannat's personality is pretty well set, wherever it grows, both in flavors and in its full-bodied, richly tannic texture.
  • Tannat really does age gracefully. The oldest wines didn't taste at all elderly, and some (like that 2002) were almost impossibly fresh, with tannic structure, acids and density that suggested another few decades weren't out of the question. Now Tannat is famous for its ageworthiness, but it's still nice to have confirmation that this fact holds true here in Paso Robles too.
  • That said, I was surprised by how vibrant the younger wines showed. I tend to bury my Tannat bottles in the back of my wine fridge and assume I shouldn't even crack one open for a decade.  The 2013, 2014, and 2015 were all showing beautifully. I think that's one of the benefits of growing this grape here in Paso Robles: you have plenty of sun to ripen the grapes, and so there is fruit to balance the grape's tannins. But just as important, there is acidity from the cool nights and the calcareous soils that keep the wines fresh. If there was one surprise for me, it was the vibrancy of the wines.
  • The meatiness in Tannat is different than what we find in Mourvedre or Syrah. Mourvedre tends to remind me of the drippings from beef roasts. Syrah brings to mind smoky bacon. Tannat's meatiness was more fatty pork, but not bacon-smoky, more like pancetta or roast leg of pork. 
  • For all its meatiness, maybe the most fun thing about Tannat was the floral note that the younger wines showed. I've often found violets in new Tannat releases, which is a fun surprise, like a bodybuilder in a tutu. As the wines age, the floral tones deepen, becoming dried roses and eventually (in the 2009) potpourri. 
  • Those of you coming out for the tasting in August are in for a treat.

Footnote

  1. We update a vintage chart at least quarterly with the results of these tastings.

Rethinking the Role of Wine Festivals in the Age of Yelp and Instagram

Last month, we participated in the Paso Robles Wine Festival, as we do every year. This year was particularly nice, with gorgeous weather and a great vibe at both Friday evening's Reserve Event and Saturday afternoon's Grand Tasting in the downtown park. If you came to see us over the weekend, thanks. We hope you had a great time. We sure did.

Paso Robles Wine Festival Cru 2018

Every year, we debate how much to invest in activities at the winery. This year, we decided to go (relatively) big.  On Sunday, we brought in Chef Jeff Scott and he made gyros from lamb we raised on the property. We also had Chris Beland come in and play music. Our patio was full much of Sunday, and everyone had a great time. All that said, our traffic was modest on Sunday (124 people) which continued a 5-year trend of downward Sunday traffic. It's been declining about 10% a year for a while now. And even our Saturday traffic (209, up a bit from last year) wasn't really an increase over a normal May week.

Friday, on the other hand, was our busiest in recent years, with 105 people. But overall, our weekend traffic (438) was right about at our average for the last 5 years, only slightly busier than a normal May weekend, and actually less busy than Wine Festival Weekend was in the mid-2000's.  Years ago, the Paso Robles Wine Festival weekend was a major source of revenue for the member wineries.  You poured wine in the park on Saturday.  On Sunday, you opened your gates (often to a line of cars) on Sunday morning and saw as many people that one day as you might in a low-season month. So, given the potential payoff, wineries pulled out all the stops in trying to get a high percentage of the park attendees out to the wineries, with food, music, seminars, and special open houses.  Given that it's now not that different from any other weekend, does it makes sense to do the same?  It's not like the decision to provide food and music were free.

We think yes, for two reasons. First, our success with the customers we saw was great. We had our highest weekend sales in the last 5 years, and our second-best number of wine club signups. That's a win. But given that most of those came Friday and Saturday, I'm not sure how much to attribute to our events.  Second (and to my mind, more importantly), what we were doing was investing in the long-term success of the Paso Robles wine region. A regional wine event without the enthusiastic participation of its wineries isn't really that special to the people who attend.

Years of post-event surveys have told us that roughly 50% of the attendees of the Paso Robles Wine Festival are making their first visit to Paso Robles Wine Country. I feel like our most important job is making them fall in love with the place, so they return.  Whether we sell them much wine this time around or not, festivals are part of the marketing of our region, and that investment is a long-term play. We should both pour cool wines in the park and do our part to make sure that attendees have a great selection of things to do the next day. After all, the festival in the park only happens one weekend a year, and is put on in the hope that the attendees will then return, spend multiple days visiting wineries, and make visits here a recurring part of their lives.

I think that longer perspective can get lost if you look just at the post-event traffic numbers. The growing numbers of people who visit Friday and Saturday are likely at least in part the result of good work at past festivals, where attendees fell in love with Paso Robles wine country.  The Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance has done a great job, I think, in making the event more full-fledged in recent years, incorporating the many great restaurants of Paso Robles more and more, adding a reserve tasting, great seminars, etc.

I don't think that the higher average spend per customer we've seen in our tasting room on Wine Fest weekend (double what it was in 2011, triple what we saw in the mid-2000's) is a coincidence. And, more importantly, neither is the growth of our non-festival weekends. In 2003 (the earliest year for which I have good data) we sold about $9,000 in wine on the Sunday of Wine Festival to about 300 guests, part of a $12,500 week that was nearly double our $6,900 average non-festival sales week that year.  This year, on Wine Festival Sunday we also sold about $9,000 in wine. But it was to 124 visitors, and part of a $41,000 tasting room week that was only 13% better than our average week this year ($36,000).

And consumer trends only reinforce how important it is getting new people into the pipeline of your region or your brand.  A study published by Eventbrite showed that the majority of attendees of food and wine festivals are sharing photos of the event on social media. Peer to peer recommendations are the most trusted form of advocacy.  And a positive experience that is echoed on an online review site like Yelp has positive impacts on not only future customers' buying decisions, but on things as apparently removed as your search engine rankings.

So, for us, it's an easy decision. We will keep investing in the success of our community, and trust that these seeds we plant will sprout in the form of return visits and sales. And we're grateful we're a part of a community in Paso Robles where we're just one of many wineries who've made the same choice.


Flowering 2018: Might We Be Seeing Our First Moderate Vintage of the Decade?

There are five viticultural markers that we use each year as markers: notable reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years.  These are, in order:

  • Budbreak (typically late March or early April)
  • Flowering (typically May sometime)
  • Veraison (typically late July or early August)
  • First Harvest (typically late August or early September)
  • Last Harvest (typically late October)

Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were going to see a later beginning than recent years.  Flowering, which we saw first evidence of in mid-May but which is still widespread as we get into the second week of June, is confirmation that we're looking at a growing season roughly two weeks later than what we've come to be used to since 2012. An example, from our Grenache block on Scruffy Hill in late May:

Flowering grenache on Scruffy Hill May 2018

If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming.  It's not a showy process.  Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries.  From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within. 

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain.  Cold or wet weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields.  Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so.  This year, conditions have been good, and we are cautiously optimistic that shatter won't be a major issue. It's worth remembering that overall, conditions in Paso Robles are pretty benign compared to what grapevines face in most parts of the world.

2018 appears to be developing into something of a throwback. The rest of the years this decade have been pretty extreme at this stage.  In our warmer years (like 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, or 2017) May has felt like early summer, with multiple days in the 90's and even low 100's.  In the chilly years (like 2010, 2011, and 2015) May has been more like April, with several nights dropping down into the 30's and most days topping out between the mid-60's and mid-70's.  What we're seeing is something more in the middle.  A quick line graph may help give you a sense. I've put the line for 2018 in red, to help it stand out:

Average Temps by Month 2010-2018

You can see that the 2018 trend line falls in the middle, in a space that's largely unoccupied (in May, at least) this decade. So, what does this mean for the rest of the growing season?It's too early to be particularly definitive.  It could develop into a year like 2015, where we ricochet between significantly warmer-than-normal months and significantly cooler-than-normal months.  It could build like 2012 from a cool early season to a scorching August.  Or it could settle in as a more uniformly cool or warm summer.  But we do have a not-insignificant portion of the growing season behind us, and at this point we're about 2% below our average number of degree days through June 6th, and 28% below our maximum to date (2014).  That cool weather, combined with a fairly late budbreak, suggests we're a couple of weeks behind most of our recent years, and unlikely to begin harvest before September.  Of course, there's lots that's yet to be determined.

At this point, we're happy to be most of the way through flowering in good shape, with the vines healthy from the March rain we received and the lack (so far) of heat spikes, at the roughly one-third point of the growing season.  And the vineyard smells great.

Flowering grenache on Scruffy Hill May 2018 2

We'll take it.


Other Wines We Love: 2012 Qupe Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Grenache

The next in an occasional series of our non-Tablas Creek wine discoveries.

Bob Lindquist is one of my favorite people in the wine business.  As the founder of Qupe and one of the pioneers of California's Rhone movement, Bob probably needs little introduction to most fans of Tablas Creek. He has been making wines from Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo County grapes since 1982, and has been honored with many awards, including the 2015 Rhone Rangers Lifetime Achievement Award. Even more interesting, to me at least, he's still on the Rhone movement's cutting edge. He's planted Rhone varieties in new places, most notably the Sawyer-Lindquist Vineyard in the cool (UC Davis Region 1 on the Winkler Scale) Edna Valley. He adopted Biodynamic farming early enough that this year is year 10 of the Sawyer-Lindquist Vineyard's Demeter Certification. And he's still a tireless promoter of the category we both inhabit; I've run into him in airports and at out-of-state wine events more times than I can count.

Bob's wines are in style like his manner: thoughtful, understated, and long-lived.  They're rarely flashy when they're young, although they're always pure and correct.  But they have remarkable longevity, and (like Bob) the more time you spend with them, the more insight you realize they have to offer. 

Last night, we opened a bottle of Qupe 2012 Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard Grenache. We paired it with a Blue Apron recipe for seared steaks with parsley-caper butter, which we dressed up by grilling the steaks and zucchini and then serving the zucchini over a whipped ricotta concoction we'd loved from a different Blue Apron recipe.  The food was terrific: one of the best meals we've cooked this year.  The steaks turned out juicy and flavorful, with the meaty flavors brought out by the umami of the parsley-caper butter.  The mashed potatoes were tangy and rich, while the sweet smokiness of the slow-grilled zucchini was given texture and cool richness by the ricotta.  But the wine was the star of the show.  Grenache has a tendency toward being candied on its own, but this rendition had none of that: just pure crunchy red fruit, vibrant acids, and a little welcome spice at the end. The wine came across as almost weightless, in the best possible way: flavors distilled down to their essence, as I often find from grapes grown in a region almost too cool for them to ripen.  Just an absolute pleasure to drink.  A snapshot, mid-meal (I didn't stage a shot at the beginning because, well, I wasn't expecting the revelation we got):

Qupe Grenache

The Grenache grape can be something of a chameleon, which is perhaps unsurprising for a grape planted in so many diverse places around the world.  It is a warm climate staple, and most regions where Grenache is widely planted (including the southern Rhone, Spain, and Paso Robles) are warm ones.  And some of the characteristics that I found in this Qupe Grenache are those we see here at Tablas Creek: its red fruit profile, its brilliant garnet color, its good acids, and its spice.  But while many examples of Grenache world-wide are earthier and show more baked red fruit character, this wine felt so fresh, even at age 6, like it was all high tones and electricity. I don't know what age will do to the wine, but given Qupe's track record for aging and the wine's freshness, I'm confident it's going to go somewhere exciting, though it's so good and so pure now, I'm sure lots of it will get consumed in the near term.  And best of all, it's not an expensive wine, still available for $35 on the Qupe Web site.  If you have the chance to snag some, or you have some in your cellar, you're in for a treat.

Bravo, Bob.