Just how hot has the summer of 2016 been? More (and less) than you probably think.

I woke to a chilly morning in Paso Robles today, under an overcast sky that seemed equally composed of smoke and fog. The low this morning dropped into the upper 40s, and when I got to the vineyard it was still in the low 60s.  This is a change from the last two weeks, which have been very warm, with an average high of 98.2°, an average low of 57.2°, and six days that topped out over 100°F.

I was interested to research just how warm July was, compared to normal, and I was a little surprised that while it was on the warm side of average, it wasn't as warm, comparatively, as June.  Looking at growing degree days (a commonly used heat summation measure that accounts for both how much time is spent above a baseline temperature (typically 50°) and how much the temperature exceeds that baseline) we saw 689 degree days in June, about 10% above our 20-year average of 626.  The data is probably easier to make sense of in chart form:

Degree Days 2016 vs normal

As you can see, in a typical year, the heat peaks in July and August, with June and September still quite warm.  This year, July was indeed hot, and June nearly as much so: 34% more heat accumulation than normal, above our average July total. Looking at the difference vs. normal shows that dramatically:

Degree Days 2016 pct difference

What pushed June's degree days to such high levels? Two stretches of sustained heat, at the beginning and end of the month, were wrapped around a more moderate middle of the month. The beginning of June saw an eight day period from 6/1 to 6/8 with high temperatures in the mid-to-high 90s and lows around 50°, which isn't unprecedented but is still unusual that early in the year. And then starting 6/19 we saw twelve hot days in a row, with the lowest daytime high measuring 97.1°, nine days in triple digits, and three that topped out above 105°. That's hot, at any time of year.

Late July's very warm weather was balanced out by the first half of the month, which was just about textbook average for the season: two weeks with highs each day between the mid-80s and mid-90s, and lows between the mid-40s and mid-50s.  

And about those cold nights: one thing that bodes well for the vintage is that despite the warm days, we have still had more cool nights than the past couple of years -- 25 days in June and July that dropped into the 40s, vs. just 16 last year and 22 in 2014.

The net impact of the warm close to July has been an acceleration to the veraison that we saw start in mid-July. I took advantage of the cool morning to hike through the vineyard and get a sense of where the different grapes are sitting in their path to harvest. Overall, I think we're almost exactly at veraison's midpoint, with just as many berries now pink to red as there are still green.  Of course, that varies quite a bit by variety, and even within a variety, with cooler spots at the bottoms of hills typically quite a bit behind those same grapes at the tops of the hills.  I'll take them in the order in which we saw veraison start, beginning with Syrah, which I would estimate is at 90% versaison:

Veraison_2016_syrah

Next to go into veraison was Grenache, which I would estimate is about 50% through the process. Note that it was hard for me to get out of the grenache blocks to take photos elsewhere; it's such a beautiful grape, particularly at this time of year when a single cluster can look like a rainbow:

Veraison_2016_grenache

Mourvedre isn't far behind the Grenache, though I found it a lot less even, with many vines that still had small, bright green berries on every cluster even as there were some clusters that looked like they were almost all the way through.  Overall, I'd estimate Mourvedre is at 40% veraison, and the cluster below only slightly more advanced than the average:

Veraison_2016_mourvedre

Finally, Counoise, which is only going through veraison at the tops of the hills, and even there there are more fully green clusters than there are those that look like the one below. Overall, I'd estimate it's only at 10% veraison:

Veraison_2016_counoise

Of course, red grapes aren't the only ones that go through veraison, but it's hard to photograph the subtle changes that white grapes undergo. Two photos might give a bit of a sense. First, Roussanne, which is our last white to ripen, and in which I couldn't find any signs of the softening or turn from green to gold that would indicate that the process has started:

Veraison_2016_roussanne

Compare that to this shot of Viognier, which will likely be our first white to come in off our estate about three weeks from now:

Veraison_2016_viognier

Whether because of the cool nights, the (somewhat) better rainfall we got last winter, or the work we've been doing with biodynamics to make sure our vineyards are as healthy as possible, it seems like the vines are showing fewer symptoms of extreme stress than they were at this time either of the last two years.  And we're hopeful that we'll avoid another hot stretch at least in the near future; today's forecast is suggesting near- to below-normal temperatures over the next ten days.  If we can replicate the cool August weather we got in 2014, we'll be happy indeed.


Grenache Blanc's Moment in the Sun

A decade ago, there was a flurry of interest around Syrah.  A few years ago, it was Grenache.  This spring, it seems to be Grenache Blanc's moment in the spotlight.  In February, within a week of each other, I got phone calls from the Wine Spectator's MaryAnn Worobiec and the Wine Enthusiast's Matt Kettmann, each looking for insight into this grape that had impressed them in recent blind tastings.  The results of these conversations were published recently. [The Wine Spectator article is available behind their paywall, and the Wine Enthusiast article is free access.]

Grenache blanc rows in May

Why Grenache Blanc, and why now?  I've got a few theories.  

Grenache Blanc has an unusual and appealing combination of bright acids and full body.  
There are a few other grapes that can hit this, in the right climates (Riesling in a cold environment, or Chardonnay in a cool one, are two) but most white grapes exist somewhere on the continuum between bright and lean on one end, and rich and soft on the other.  Grenache Blanc, like its red-skinned cousin1, is a grape that typically comes in at high sugars (providing glycerine and richness) and high acids (providing freshness).  Take a look at its numbers from 2014 (our last relatively normal vintage) compared to our other white grapes:

Grape Avg. pH Avg. ° Brix
Viognier 3.51 20.8°
Marsanne 3.82 19.2°
Grenache Blanc 3.33 22.9°
Picpoul Blanc 3.17 22.0°
Roussanne 3.83 21.0°

The pH differences between Grenache Blanc and the Roussanne / Marsanne / Viognier trio is even more significant than the above chart likely suggests.  The pH scale is a logarithmic scale (so, a solution with a pH of 3 has ten times the acid concentration as one with a pH of 4, and one hundred times the acid concentration of one with a pH of 5, etc).  This means that Grenache Blanc, with a pH of 3.33, has 50.7% more acid ions than Viognier (pH 3.51), 214.4% more acid ions than Marsanne (pH 3.82), and 217.3% more acid ions than Roussanne (pH 3.83).  It's no wonder that even a small addition of a higher acid grape like this can have a major impact on the taste of a finished blend.2

And yet, with many high-acid grapes, you run the risk of thinning out the mouthfeel of a wine.  Not Grenache Blanc.  You can see from the above chart that even though its acids are high, it also has the highest average sugar content at harvest.

Grenache Blanc's ideal climate matches California's well.
For many of the world's most popular white grapes -- I'm thinking Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc here -- California is a challenging climate because of its sun and its warmth.  These grapes reach their peaks in relatively cool parts of France, and so in California, growers are searching for sites that have significant marine influence, or fog, or extreme altitude, because otherwise they end up picking in August and making wines without much complexity.  There just aren't that many spots like this in California, particularly not after you realize that most of these climates are also highly desirable as places to live.  Grenache Blanc is originally from Spain, whose warm, sunny climate far better approximates most of California's than does that of Burgundy, or of the Loire.  There are far more places where Grenache Blanc is likely to do well. So, whether you're looking in Paso Robles, in Santa Ynez, in Dry Creek, or in El Dorado, you're going to find people doing a good job with Grenache Blanc.  

Grenache Blanc is productive and relatively easy to grow.  
There are grapes that we feel like we fight with each year, either in yields or in keeping it balanced.  Viognier is famously low-yielding.  Roussanne and Marsanne (and Viognier, for that matter) pose challenges in keeping acidity levels while you wait for ripeness.  Viognier and Roussanne are both susceptible to drought-induced stress symptoms.  But Grenache Blanc is pretty easygoing.  Its yields are naturally higher than our other white grapes; over the last 10 years, it has averaged a healthy 4.2 tons/acre here, better than Marsanne (3.7 tons/acre), Picpoul (3.4 tons/acre), Roussanne (2.8 tons/acre), or Viognier (2.4 tons/acre).  This means that people can produce Grenache Blanc at a reasonable price, which translates into more affordable wines and more opportunities to get it in front of potential new customers.

Grenache Blanc blends well, but it's also good on its own.  
We originally planned to use our Grenache Blanc as a complement to our Roussanne and our Viognier, as is typically done in the Rhone.  And we still use Grenache Blanc as a supporting player in our Esprit de Tablas Blanc (behind Roussanne) and Cotes de Tablas Blanc (behind Viognier), as well as in a starring role in our Patelin de Tablas Blanc (along with Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne).  In a blend, it adds brightness, rich mouthfeel, sweet anise spice, and green apple fruit, all flavors that are easy to like and easy to incorporate.  But it has exceeded our expectations as a varietal wine.  We first bottled our Grenache Blanc in 2002, and we haven't missed a vintage since.  Part of the reason why is that, at least at first, it was new to many people, and having it on its own was a great educational tool.  But the more time we spent with it, the more we came to appreciate that it's a worthy and appealing grape on its own, textural and rich, bright and lively, with sweet spices on the attack and a dry finish.

Grenache Blanc ready for harvest

So, it's little surprise to me that in the last decade, Grenache Blanc plantings in California have grown from 101 acres to 333 acres, an increase of 229%.3  And based on all the reasons it's done well in recent years, as well as the new attention the wine press has been giving it, I fully expect this growth to continue.  It couldn't happen to a more deserving grape.

Footnotes

1 There is also a pink-skinned variant (Grenache Gris). For a longer dive into Grenache Blanc's history, characteristics, and family relations, check out this blog from 2010.

2 You might note that Picpoul shares most of the characteristics of Grenache Blanc.  It's one reason that if I had to lay bets on which Rhone white would be the next to be "discovered", Picpoul would be my answer.

3 Over that same 10-year period, Roussanne acreage has increased 96% to 347 acres, Marsanne acreage 90% to 131 acres, and Viognier acreage 34% to 2969 acres. Picpoul isn't sufficiently planted to be included in the California Grape Acreage Reports, which require 50+ acres to escape the category of "other".


Wrapping Our Heads Around Petit Manseng

On Friday, my dad, Neil, Tyler, Jordan and I sat down to taste through each vintage of Petit Manseng we've made (2010-2015) with the hopes of coming to a consensus on what we want out of this obscure, compelling grape.

Petit Mangeng vertical

Petit Manseng is a grape from southwest France, most notably the small appellation of Jurancon, where it produces naturally sweet wines with remarkable levels of acidity.  [For a detailed description of the history of the grape, check out this blog post from 2011.]  Unlike most grapes, whose acids fall off sharply as the grapes reach maturity, Petit Manseng maintains very high acids even as it concentrates to high sugar levels.  A chart of our sugar/acid levels at harvest since 2010 gives a sense of how consistently unusual this grape is:

Year Harvest Date °Brix at Harvest pH at Harvest
2010 October 15th 26.2° 3.10
2011 October 27th 25.0° 3.26
2012 October 1st 31.0° 3.28
2013 September 16th 27.0° 2.97
2014 October 1st 26.2° 3.06
2015 September 25th 28.2° 3.28

Because of the grape's high acids, it's not really feasible (or at least advisable) to make a dry wine out of it.  If you were to pick it at a sugar level that you might ferment dry to at 14% alcohol (23° Brix), the pH would likely be in the mid- to high-2's.  That would make for a searingly acidic wine. 

When we made the decision to bring the variety into the country (back in the early 2000's) we hadn't yet tried out the vin de paille process that we now use to make balanced sweet wines from our Rhone grapes.  So, to make a sweet wine was our original intent in acquiring Petit Manseng.  But by the time we got it into production, we'd established the three different Vin de Paille wines we make, and decided to look instead to an off-dry profile for Petit Manseng.  In this style, you don't let the grapes get to dessert wine concentrations (say, 33°-35° Brix and a pH of 3.4-3.6) but instead aim to pick between the acids and sugars you'd choose for a dry wine and those higher dessert wine levels, and plan to stop the fermentation when the balance of residual sugar and high acids are pleasing.  Typically, these wines carry alcohols somewhere around 14% (so, they're not fortified) and residual sugars in the 50 grams/liter range.  They can make remarkable dining companions with foods that are too sweet (think a coconut-based curry) or too unctuous (think foie gras) for a dry wine, but without enough sweetness to stand up to a dessert wine.

My notes on the wines are below, with links to each wine's page for detailed production notes.  I have a few conclusions at the end.

  • 2010 Petit Manseng (66 g/l residual; 13.6% alcohol): A tropical nose of lychee and pineapple, maybe preserved citrus.  Nice freshness in the mouth, with spun sugar and tropical fruit balanced by lemony acidity.  Tyler said it "put Jimmy Buffett in my head".  Very fresh still, and didn't seem to have changed much from when it was released.
  • 2011 Petit Manseng (26 g/l residual; 14.6% alcohol): Less sweet and more savory on the nose, almost riesling-like with petrol and citrus leaf, maybe a hint of lime. There's also a little noticeable oak that adds an interesting spice element. Unlike the 2010, this is definitely not sweet enough to be a dessert wine, and we thought that following what you might pair an auslese riesling would be a good start: spicy curry, or a banh mi with the sweet Vietnamese pickled vegetables.  Or a charcuterie plate.
  • 2012 Petit Manseng (42 g/l residual; 13.7% alcohol): The nose was easily the oldest of the flight, more like a traditional sweet wine and perhaps a touch of oxidation: crushed rock and butterscotch. On the palate, alluring in its way but without the characteristic freshness of the other vintages: candied orange peel and cream sherry, with a touch of burnt sugar. We thought it would be great with a salty cheese like manchego.
  • 2013 Petit Manseng (63 g/l residual; 13.8% alcohol): The nose was beautiful: caramel, candied lemon, rocks and key lime. Quite sweet on the palate, but with almost electric acids (it was harvested at 2.97 pH, after all) and a savory, chalky, citrus leaf tannin mouthfeel. This was a somewhat polarizing wine, without perhaps some of the nuance of the less sweet/tart vintages but with amazing zesty appeal.
  • 2014 Petit Manseng (33 g/l residual; 14.7% alcohol): A nose like the 2010, tropical with lychee and maple syrup, and an appealing briny mineral note. On the palate, more like 2011, though without the hint of new oak: less sweet and less acidic than the 2013, a gentler wine, also appeared a little more mature.  On the mouth, preserved lemon and crushed rock, lightly sweet.  Try pairings like the 2011.
  • 2015 Petit Manseng (barrel sample; 79 g/l residual; 13.7% alcohol): Still cloudy and a little unformed on the nose, with orange peel and fennel coming out.  On the palate, quite sweet and appley, like honeycrisp apple juice concentrate, though with good acids cleaning things up at the end.  We'll try to keep this fermenting a bit longer.

Conclusions
In terms of direction, we decided that we wanted to aim going forward at something toward the middle of our range, where, curiously, we didn't have an example: something like 50 g/l residual at around 14% alcohol, with bright acids, though maybe not quite as intense as the 2013. Split the difference between 2010 and 2011, or between 2013 and 2014, we thought.

All the wines, with the exception of the 2012, were still showing very youthfully.  As both sugar and acid act as preservatives in wine, that's hardly surprising.  But it was nice to see nonetheless.

We all decided that we preferred the clear bottle (and the 500ml package) to the 750ml green bottle.  So, look for it to make its return with the 2015 vintage, to be bottled this summer!

 


Outtakes from Zester Daily's Focus on Grenache

Yesterday, I had an article published in Zester Daily.  That article (Grenache Returns to Bask in the California Sun) tracks Grenache's remarkable journey from supplier of innocuous juice for California jug wines to one of the hottest grapes in the state, with over 1000 acres of new planting in the last two decades. The article:

JH Zester Grenache

One of my motivations was to give a little plug for the Rhone Rangers Los Angeles Tasting, coming up this Friday and Saturday, November 6-7.  The focus of the seminar this year is Grenache (both red and white, both monovarietal and blended).  I just heard that the seminar has only 4 seats left, and the grand tasting not much more space.  I love hearing that there's enough interest in Rhone varieties in southern California to fill a venue.  If you haven't gotten your ticket left and want to try for one of the last few spots, you can do so here.

There were a few pieces of the research that really jumped out at me, that I wanted to address in a little more detail than was possible in the main piece.

The first was the cost of Grenache relative to other more exalted grapes.  That the $1,797 price per ton in our district (which includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties) was 23% higher than Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% higher than Zinfandel, 32% higher than Syrah, and 70% higher than Merlot seems noteworthy.  Of course, this may be a moment-in-time phenomenon; there is less Grenache planted than any of these other grapes, so an increase in demand isn't easily satisfied, and the price can be pushed up quite a bit.  One would think that more Grenache will be planted in coming years, and the price will come back down somewhat.  It is, after all, a productive and relatively easy-to-grow grape.  But the fact that demand has ramped up fast enough to outpace planting is a sign of the speed of the growth in interest.

The second was the amazing quantity of fruit that is being harvested per acre in parts of the Central Valley.  I looked at Grape Crush Pricing District 13 (including Fresno, Madera and Tulare Counties) where Grenache averaged 13.74 tons/acre in 2012.  I had wanted to compare that to other grapes, to show just how productive Grenache can be, given enough water and nutrients, but I ended up leaving it out of the piece because most other grapes showed similarly massive yields. Merlot from the same district yielded 11.95 tons/acre. Chardonnay yielded 10.61.  Cabernet was the least, at 8.23 tons/acre, and Zinfandel showed such a large yield (20.85 tons/acre) that I double- and triple-checked the data, but kept getting the same result.  If you'd like to look at the raw information, it's all public domain, and fascinating: 

The third thing that stood out to me were the number of organizations that are out there advocating for Grenache, in part because it is still a relative underdog despite its massive worldwide footprint and the recent critical interest.  Between the Grenache Association (and the International Grenache Day it organizes), the Rhone Rangers, Hospice du Rhone and Inter-Rhone, there is no lack of advocates out there for this grape.  Yes, several of these organizations advocate more broadly for the grapes in the Rhone family, but there is really nothing comparable for Syrah, or Viognier, or Mourvedre.

Finally, I wrote enthusiastically about the potential for Zester Daily back in 2009.  Having the excuse to circle back around, six years later, and see the success that it has become was remarkably gratifying.  I hope that it continues as a successful model for innovative food and wine journalism in this increasingly online world.

 


Harvest 2015 update: just over 15% completed & yields are looking low

By: Lauren Phelps

In the cellar, things are in full-gear!

Sorting Tablas_Cube

According to veteran Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi harvest is already over 15% completed.  As of August 29th, we have worked with 65.82 tons of fruit.

Upright with Syrah_cube

The 1700 gallon French oak upright fermenters are all full fermenting Syrah for the 2015 Patelin de Tablas!

Harvest Sign First Estate_cube

Our first estate grapes were harvested on August 26th when we brought in about 3 tons of Viognier.  According to Viticulturist Levi Glenn, the estate Viognier yields appear down at least 50% due to the drought however, both acids and PH look great.

Mavis_cube

Levi's dog Mavis, vineyard dog extraordinaire, conducts a rigorous "lab test" of a bin of Viognier.

Although estate Viognier yields look low, Levi explains that "it's really more of a mixed bag.  Mourvedre and Roussanne both look a bit higher than normal".  In general, we're thrilled with the quality of fruit and a bit concerned since yields remind us of frost reduced years in 2001, 2009 and 2011.  We're waiting until we've harvested more from the estate to draw any firm conclusions.


Photos of each Rhone grape as harvest approaches, and an updated vintage assessment

I returned this week from two and a half weeks on the east coast to find a vineyard landscape transformed.  In what was a sea of green we now have new colors: pinks, reds and purples in our red grapes, as well as the first hints of gold in our white grapes. 

Long View with Grenache

These transformations are normal for early August, and while I stand by my prediction that harvest will be a couple of weeks early, the changing colors don't mean that harvest is imminent.  In fact, I was a little surprised to see that even in the earliest-ripening grapes we weren't through veraison.  To give you all a sense of what things look like now, I snapped representative photos of each of the main Rhone grapes, red and white.  I'll go through them in the order in which we expect them to come in, starting with Viognier, the only grape I tasted that seemed pretty close.  Note the golden color; I'm figuring maybe two more weeks before we start picking:

Viognier

Next, Marsanne, which was still quite green by comparison to the Viognier:

Marsanne

Our first red will almost certainly be Syrah, but even there I still found a few green berries and the grapes didn't taste nearly ripe.  We will likely see some Syrah from warmer parts of Paso for our Patelin wines as early as late next week, but I don't expect much off our own property before the end of August:

Syrah

Grenache Blanc made for very good eating -- about the sugar/acid balance of table grapes, for now -- but that's far less than the concentration that we look for at harvest.  You can see in the photo below that it's also still tautly inflated.  We'll look for the grapes to soften quite a bit more before we pick, likely starting early September.

Grenache Blanc

There's often a gap between the early grapes above and the late grapes below, so I wouldn't be surprised to see a pause in early-mid September when much of the Viognier, Marsanne, Syrah and Grenache Blanc have come off, but we're still waiting on our later grapes.  Grenache, typically next in line, is still less than halfway through veraison, and while it does ripen pretty quickly once it finished veraison, I'd still expect it to be late-September before much Grenache is coming in:

Grenache

Counoise is always our last grape to go through veraison, later, even, than Mourvedre, although Mourvedre's unusually long time between veraison and ripeness means that we typically harvest Counoise first.  Many Counoise vines were still entirely filled with green clusters, and the photo I got is on the advanced side for the Counoise blocks as a whole.  The grapes were also still quite hard and sour, even those that had turned purple:

Counoise

It's not usually possible to take a good photo of white grapes in mid-veraison, but I managed it in our Roussanne.  Note the differences in color between the grapes that are still green and those that have begun to take on the russet color that gives Roussanne its name.  All the Roussanne grapes were still crunchy, though those with the russet tint were starting to get sweet, while the green ones were still sour.  We're likely more than a month out from even our first Roussanne pick, and I expect a significant portion of our Roussanne harvest not to happen until October:

Roussanne

Finally, Mourvedre, which is as usual taking its time getting through veraison.  It often starts before Grenache (and always before Counoise) but it's typically the last to finish veraison. We've come to expect to wait another 6 weeks between full veraison and harvest, when most grapes take 4 weeks.  We might start to pick in the very end of September, but October will see the bulk of it:

Mourvedre

Overall, and even after the two weeks of warm weather that just concluded (eleven consecutive days between 7/23 and 8/2 that reached the 90's, with the last three topping 100) the vineyard still looks to be in remarkably good shape.  The Viognier was showing signs of some end-of-season stress, but it only has another couple of weeks to go.  I saw a little sunburn damage here and there, mostly in Syrah, but less than we see most vintages.  And the weather forecast for the next week is perfect: highs in the upper 80's or low 90's, and cool nights in the upper 50's.  That's about as good as it gets for Paso Robles in August.  If all continues as we're seeing it, I think we're in for another terrific vintage.


We welcome a new grape to California: Picardan

Today we make history as we plant 1000 vines of Picardan in a rugged block we've reserved for new grape varieties at the extreme western edge of our property. 

Overview with vines

This is the culmination of a nearly decade-long process.  We decided in late 2003 that we wanted to have all thirteen of the traditional Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes and imported Beaucastel field cuttings of the remaining seven obscure grapes we hadn't yet procured [see the press release dated 2/2/04 when the vines arrived at U.C. Davis for quarantine]. These included Cinsaut, Clairette, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Bourboulenc, and Picardan.

In our press release we were optimistic about their prospects for rapid release to us; because of California's favorable climate, it only takes two years to do the mandated virus testing instead of the three years our earliest imports required in Geneva, New York.  But the U.C. Davis scientists found viruses in the plants, and the vines had to go through maristem cultivation: a high-tech program where they grow the vines in a hyper-rich growing medium and take a tiny slice of the newest growth from the tip of a shoot. This new growth can have outgrown any viruses that the plant came with, and can then be grown into full-size plants and be retested.  Unfortunately, the first round only cleared up some of the viruses, and they had to undergo a second round and were only declared virus-free and released to us in late 2010.  At that point, we sent the vines to NovaVine for propagation.  They produced our first grafted vines last year, and we received them last week:

Picardan vines in pots

We estimate that the 1000 vines we received, enough to plant a little more than a half-acre, will increase the total world-wide acreage of Picardan by about 50%.  According to Jancis Robinson's authoritative guide Wine Grapes, there is just over an acre planted in all of France, and it has never before been used in America. She specifically mentions Beaucastel's use of "small amounts of Picardan in their red Chateauneuf" as one of two documented estates using the grape.

What do we expect from Picardan?  We're not sure.  It's reputed to have good acidity, supported by the fact that like Picpoul its name is purportedly derived from piquer ("to sting" in French).  It is supposed to be mid-ripening, and well suited to "hot, dry, low-fertility sites".  That sounds like us.  If it's as successful as Picpoul has been in showing California's lush fruit while maintaining terrific acidity, we'll be thrilled.

The site we chose for our new varieties is a steep, hilly one, and exceptionally calcareous even by our standards, with bits of limestone everywhere and a predictable challenge even making the holes into which we're putting the baby vines.  This photo will give you a sense:

Overview

Once we've dug the holes (using a post-hole digger, below left) we place a vine in each hole (below, right):

Post hole digger Vine in pot in hole
The next thing we have to do is to free each vine out of its pot, place it in the hole, replace the soil around it and then tamp it down lightly.  Vineyard Manager David Maduena demonstrates:

David with vine in hand David with vine under foot
We'll give the new plantings eight or so hours of irrigation this evening, and then monitor them to make sure they stay healthy through the heat of the summer. They'll go into dormancy with the rest of the vineyard this winter, and hopefully come out with the vineyard in the spring.  Some vigorous vines might try to set a crop, but we'll prune this off.  The next summer, if the vines seem healthy, we might allow them to hang a small crop.  Then, we'll start to have a sense of what Picardan will bring.


We celebrate the release from quarantine of four new Rhone grapes

By Robert Haas

This week we are filing a petition to recognize Terret Noir, Vaccarese, Picardan, and Bourboulenc for use as grape varietal names on labels in the United States. The petition, ready to go out yesterday afternoon:

TTB petition

In 1990, when Tablas Creek Vineyard was founded, it was our intention to establish a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-like, Rhône-style vineyard and winery in the Paso Robles AVA.  Châteauneuf-du-Pape is famous for planting thirteen grape varieties, although over 70% of the acreage in the appellation is Grenache Noir, and many estates use only the “big three” of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre for their red wines and Clairette and Grenache Blanc for their whites.  Beaucastel is noteworthy for planting and using all thirteen (actually fourteen if you count Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc as two) approved grape varieties.  We wanted to do all thirteen here, too.  Because some of the thirteen didn’t exist in California, and we had doubts about the quality of those that did exist here, we decided to import cuttings from France and put them through USDA quarantine.

The first imports of cuttings of the major varieties were in 1990, and because the California USDA station was closed, they were brought through the USDA station in Geneva, NY.  Indexing was finished in 1993.  Nursery Manager Dick Hoenisch and I went out to Geneva in wintertime, washed the bare roots of the dormant plants and prepared the FedEx shipment to California. I remember that Geneva winter trip.  There were several feet of snow on the ground and it was freezing cold.  It seemed a long way from grape planting territory.

Those cuttings included Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Picpoul Blanc. All except Counoise, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul had already been recognized varietals in the U.S.  Tablas Creek subsequently successfully petitioned for acceptance of the last three, each of which has proven to have value both in our blends and on its own.

We have always wanted to plant, experiment, and work with all thirteen varieties authorized in the Châteauneuf-du Pape appellation of origin, but at the time we began, the other varieties weren’t available in the French nursery service for us to import, and we felt that taking field cuttings (which would likely be virused) would add a long, unpredictable delay to our launch.  But once we saw how successful the trace varieties in the first wave had been, we decided to move forward.  In 2004, we took cuttings of the remaining unrepresented varieties in a selection massale [field selection] from the Château de Beaucastel vineyard and sent them to (the now operating) Davis station for indexing and for eventual release to us. 

We were right that the vines were likely to have a tortuous process ahead of them.  All tested positive for virus, and had to be cleaned up by the scientists at UC Davis.  We received the first two of these (Terret Noir and Clairette) in 2010 and we just received news that Cinsault, Picardan, Vaccarèse, and Bourboulenc are being released. When we get Muscardin (hopefully in 2014) it will complete the virus-free collection of all the authorized Châteauneuf-du-Pape varietals in the United States.

13 Cepages Poster

What these grapes will do in Paso Robles is a good question.  For a few, there is so little planted in France that there is not much to go on.  But the success we and others in California have had with our other formerly unknown varieties such as Counoise, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc makes us hopeful.  Here’s what the literature says:

  • Bourboulenc is a vigorous and late budding white grape, which should be good news in our frequent spring frosts. It ripens late and maintains moderate sugars and good acidity.
  • Picardan is also a late budding white variety that gives a pale colored wine with good acidity.  This grape is one on which there is the least information available; we’ll likely be planting the first new block anywhere in the world in several decades.
  • Terret Noir is one of the Languedoc’s oldest red varieties.  It too buds late, and in southern France brings lightness and freshness to its blends with varietals such as Grenache.  We hope that it will do the same thing in our vineyard.
  • Vaccarèse is a fourth late budding variety that, according to the ampelographer Pierre Galet is said to have an “uncontestable original floral aroma, a fresh and elegant taste, particularly interesting for modifying the alcoholic ardor of the Grenache in the rosé wines of Chusclan and the red wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”

Before we or anyone else can use the grapes on a wine label, they need to be accepted by the TTB into the lexicon of recognized American grapes.  Cinsault and Clairette are already recognized.  The petition we are sending off this week has assembled the available research for Picardan, Bourboulenc, Terret Noir, and Vaccarèse. 

It will require patience to test our theories.  First, the bud material will have to be multiplied and then grafted.  Then, once the vines are propagated in sufficient quantities, we’ll plant a small block (perhaps a half-acre) of each. We’ll wait three years to get our first crop and vinify each separately.  Only then will we start to see what they’re good for.

We should have the vines’ names recognized in plenty of time.


Tannat: the Perfect Grape for Paso Robles?

Tannat2Although we specialize in Rhône varietals, we continue to experiment with other grapes that we feel might thrive in the shallow rocky soils and dramatic summer climate of Tablas Creek. Tannat is one of these grapes, and its intense fruit, spice and powerful tannins combine to make remarkable wines here, in a distinctly different style than our Rhone grape varieties. 

In addition, we've come to believe that it is perhaps the easiest grape to keep happy in Paso Robles' challenging climate.  If there's an empirical sign that a grape is suited to an area, it has to be that it excels without an extraordinary amount of work on the part of those who grow it.

Early History
Though many scholars believe Tannat originated in the Basque region, Tannat is most closely associated with the winemaking region of Madiran, at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains in southwestern France and just north of the region that is traditionally thought of as the Basque heartland. The grape has been grown in that region for centuries, and 17th and 18th century French kings accepted Madiran wines as payment for taxes. Madiran appellation laws mandate that Tannat be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, but Madiran producers have recently begun receiving notable press for their 100% Tannat wines.

Tannat continues to be grown in the Basque country, most notably in the tiny appellation of Iroulèguy, on the Spanish border. In 1870, Basque immigrants brought the grape to Uruguay, where it adapted well to the local soil and climate. It has since become the national red grape variety of Uruguay, accounting for approximately one third of all wine produced in that country; more Tannat is grown in Uruguay than in the varietal’s native France.

Tannat at Tablas Creek
We did not originally intend to produce a Tannat. In fact, the Perrins’ French nurseryman included Tannat cuttings of his own volition when he also packed up the Rhone varieties we'd asked for in 1990.  These cuttings were entered into quarantine at the USDA station in Geneva, New York and it was a couple of years before we untangled the mystery of how this non-Rhone grape came to be under our account with the USDA. When we traced it back to the nurseryman we asked him why he'd included this (to us) unrelated grape.  His response was "I know this grape, and from what I've learned about Paso Robles, it should grow well there. You should try it."  When in 1993 the Tannat cuttings were declared virus free and released to us, we decided that with little of our vineyard yet planted we might as well see if he was right.  In 1996 we planted just under an acre, and while we received a tiny production that was tossed in at harvest with other varieties starting in 2000, we first harvested enough to ferment on its own in 2002.

In the vineyard, Tannat is one of the easiest varietals to grow. It is frost hardy and a solid producer whether trellised or head-pruned. Yet unlike most of our other red varietals (most notably Grenache) it is not prone to overproduction, and we do not have to thin the shoots to keep production down. Its berries have thick skins, which make it resistant to powdery mildew and botrytis.  It ripens in the middle of the ripening cycle, typically in late September or early October, and we can harvest it nearly every vintage at numbers that we consider ideal: around 24° Brix and a pH of around 3.3.  The sole difficulty with growing Tannat is its thick stems, which cling tightly to the berries and can be difficult to de-stem at harvest. 

Tannat is quite tannic (due in part to the berries’ thick skins), and we ferment it in open-top tanks to expose the juice to more oxygen and soften the tannins.  We age Tannat in small (usually neutral) barrels to expose the juice to some oxygen in the aging process.  We typically either co-ferment or blend into our Tannat our small nursery parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon.  In France, Cabernet is traditionally added to Tannat to open it up and make it more approachable.  That fact alone should give you a sense of just how powerful Tannat can be.  But the grape gets riper here in Paso Robles than it does elsewhere in the world, while still maintaining its wonderful structure.  When I asked Winemaker Neil Collins for his thoughts on Tannat this morning, he replied "Tannat is very happy in Paso Robles, where our climate and terroir allow the tannin to become an asset not a detriment".

Because of our enthusiasm for the grape's potential, we have since 2002 planted two more parcels to Tannat, and now have a total of 3.5 acres at Tablas Creek, off of which we harvest on average 9 tons of fruit per year.

Tannat and the BATF
Although Tannat had existed in the University of California’s vine collections since the 1890s, when we began growing Tannat it had not yet been recognized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

When we decided to bottle it, we petitioned the BATF to recognize Tannat as a separate varietal, a process we had recently undergone with both Grenache Blanc and Counoise. We amassed literature on Tannat to demonstrate it was a recognized varietal in other countries, and compiled descriptions of its characteristics to show that it had positive value as a wine grape in the United States. In September of 2002, our petition was formally approved.

As of 2010, there were 248 acres of Tannat planted in California, most from Tablas Creek cuttings.

Aromas and Flavors
Tannat makes decidedly robust wines, with pronounced aromas of smoke and plum, significant tannins and a wonderfully spicy finish. Here at Tablas Creek, we’ve found the wines to be dense purple-red in color, with a nose of tobacco, smoke, and ripe berries. The rich palate has juicy flavors of plum and raspberry, with a long, generous finish. The tannins are impressive, but nicely balanced with the intense fruit and spice flavors of the wine. Unlike most Old World examples, you can enjoy our Tannats young, but we believe that they benefit from three to five years of bottle aging and should evolve gracefully for two decades. As for food pairings, Tannat's smoky character makes it a perfect match for roasted meats and game, as well as sausages and strong aged cheeses.

In addition to bottling Tannat as a varietal wine each year since 2002, we have recently started including it in our En Gobelet blend of head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard blocks, where Tannat's firm structure and smoky minerality balance the relative opulence of Grenache and Mourvedre.  In this blend, it assumes the role typically played by Syrah -- which does not head-prune well -- in the southern Rhone.

Tannat and Health
Recent research, led by Dr. Roger Corder (a cardiovascular expert at the William Harvey Research Institute in London) makes the case for oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs) as the source of red wine’s health benefits. All red grapes, particularly those with thick skins and high skin-to-pulp ratios, contain OPC’s. But, after measuring the OPC concentration of several common red wine grapes, Dr. Corder identifies Tannat as the grape with the greatest concentration. The real-life evidence of Tannat’s benefits can be seen in the surprisingly long lifespans of residents of the département of Gers in southwest France, whose local wine appellation is Madiran. Gers contains more than double the national average of men in their nineties.  I wrote a few years ago about the link between Tannat, heart health and longevity.

2009 Tannat: Featured Wine for February 2012
We taste through our cellar regularly to see which wines are showing particularly well given the season and the wines’ own inherent evolution. As a way of sharing these observations with you, many months we spotlight one of our wines as our featured wine. To encourage you to try this featured wine, we offer it, for the designated time only, at a 10% discount. This discount is applied above and beyond any other discounts that might apply, such as for case purchases or wine club membership. The February featured wine is the 2009 Tannat, featured through February 29, 2012.  It recently received one of the highest ratings (90-93 points) ever bestowed on a Tannat-based wine by the Wine Advocate's Antonio Galloni, who called it "absolutely fabulous" and "a captivating wine".  You can read the complete review.


A Tale of Two Grenaches

About a week ago, I got back from our annual pilgrimage to the Yosemite Vintners' Holidays event held at the beautiful Ahwahnee Hotel each fall.  At this event -- which I wrote about a few years ago and which I highly recommend -- each winery is expected to present a seminar to the roughly 200 guests on a topic of their choosing.  I've conducted blending seminars, focused on obscure varieties, and delved into grapes in depth.  This year, I presented a seminar titled "Grenache: Red, White, and Coming to a Vineyard Near You".  In the research into acreage statistics I did in preparing for the talk, I realized that the data suggests a fascinating narrative about the Grenache grape in California.

Bounty of HarvestGrenache, pictured right at harvest, is a grape of enormous importance around the world.  It is the Rhone Valley's most widely planted grape, and along with significant plantings in Spain and Australia, accounts for the second greatest world-wide acreage of any wine grape.  Its history in California dates back to the 1860's.  [For more on Grenache's history and characteristics, I refer readers to the post Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Grenache from 2010.]

Despite Grenache's long history and the increasing popularity of Grenache-based wines from Europe, Grenache in California has had a checkered history.  For many wine drinkers who learned about wine in the 1960's and 1970's, "California Grenache" was sweet and light in color, and had fallen decisively out of favor by the 1980's.  More recently, most of this Grenache acreage has found its way into blends, often jug wines, and gone unacknowledged.  Acreage in California has declined correspondingly, from a peak near 20,000 acres (I've been unable to find when it peaked, or exactly at what level) down to 11,000 acres in 2000 and just 6170 acres today.

At the same time, Grenache is in the middle of a renaissance.  James Laube, writing in the Wine Spectator last year, called it "one of the most exciting and enticing wines to emerge in California in the past decade, capable of stardom" and in premium areas it has become downright scarce.  In Paso Robles it is now one of the most in-demand grapes, and commands a premium price.  We could have filled a boat with the Syrah we were offered for our Patelin de Tablas this year, but it was a struggle to find the Grenache we wanted even though Grenache is more productive and easier to grow. 

At first glance, it doesn't make sense that Grenache can be both on the rise and on the decline.  But looking at the acreage data in detail shows a more complex story, in which Tablas Creek plays a part.  For there are really two Grenaches, and I'm not referring to Grenache Blanc.  When we started to research the available clones of Rhone varieties in California, we were not thrilled with what we found.  Many clones appeared to have been chosen (if that is not too strong a word) for productivity rather than high quality.  When we looked at, particularly, Grenache and Mourvedre, the cluster sizes and the berry sizes were both enormous, much larger than we were used to seeing at Beaucastel, and the flavors were fruity and friendly enough but not exciting.  Sure, some of that could be attributed to being overirrigated and overcropped, but we thought that there was something inherently different about the raw material.  It was this conclusion that cemented our decision to bring in our own clones from France rather than make the best of the clones that were available here.

We weren't the only people to bring in new clones of Grenache.  Perhaps spurred by our actions, ENTAV licensed a handful of California's grapevine nurseries to bring in a range of new clonal material, and there have doubtless been unauthorized importations as well.  But the net effect of the arrival of these new clones has been dramatic.  Grenache has been planted in high quality areas where its previous footprint was negligible at the same time it's being pulled out of the Central Valley, where its quality has historically been low.  Some acreage statistics:

Acreage by County1995
2000 2005 2010
Fresno 3083 3128 2483 1789
Glenn 503 503
503
157
Kern 1418 1154
107
99
Kings 270 271
239
239
Madera 3605 3674
2401
1869
Merced
387 315
150
125
San Joaquin
637 567
415
372
Stanislaus
849 758
282
148
Tulare
167 398
253
232
Total Central Valley
11019 10768
6833
5030
Amador 8 10
11
14
Calaveras
0 0
2
3
El Dorado
8 9
16
26
Lake 0
0
13
15
Mendocino 38
41
65
103
Monterey 133 111
153
132
Napa 10 17
21
26
San Luis Obispo
7 50
114 326
Santa Barbara
8 115
164
228
Sonoma 36 55
66
108
Total Coastal & Foothills
250
410
625
981

The Grenache planted in the Central Valley has been pulled out at an annual rate of about 4% since 1995, accelerating to 6% since 2000.  By contrast, Grenache acreage in coastal and foothills counties has grown at about 10% per year since 1995, a rate that increases to 15% per year if you exclude Monterey County, which seems to me to be an outlier in the data.  Of course, it's important to recognize that there are Grenache vineyards going in and being pulled out of most of these counties, and that while older clones are being pulled out of the Central Valley, there are also new, higher quality vineyards being planted in places like Lodi.

San Luis Obispo County's rise is worth noting, particularly since almost all of this acreage is in Paso Robles.  From a nonentity in 1995 with just 7 acres, it now has the fourth most acreage of Grenache in California, with 50% more acres than Santa Barbara, the next-most-planted coastal county.  In fact, the three counties with the most acreage are all in the Central Coast, whose acreage is nearly triple that of the North Coast and fifteen times that of the Sierra Foothills.

What does this all mean for the future of Grenache?  I think it's all positive.  The grape is increasingly being planted in the right places, and just as importantly being pulled out of the wrong places.  The clones that are available are better than they've ever been before.  In general, the producers who are working with Grenache are Rhone specialists, which suggests it's in the hands of people who will know what to do with it, unlike, say, Syrah, which was planted speculatively in lots of the wrong locations by growers who were guessing at what California's next big grape would be.  Syrah has yet to recover.  There are two active and effective organizations (The Rhone Rangers and Hospice du Rhone) who are advocating for Grenache.  The wine press and trade seems solidly behind Grenache right now; nearly every writer I've spoken with in the last year has remarked on how they think Grenache is poised for greatness in America.  And the market seems increasingly comfortable with both new, unusual grape varieties and with blends, where Grenache shines.

Will Grenache be the next big thing in California?  I'm not sure I would wish that on it.  But will it see success over the coming decades?  I think that's an easy prediction.