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
Kern 1418 1154
Kings 270 271
Madera 3605 3674
387 315
San Joaquin
637 567
849 758
167 398
Total Central Valley
11019 10768
Amador 8 10
0 0
El Dorado
8 9
Lake 0
Mendocino 38
Monterey 133 111
Napa 10 17
San Luis Obispo
7 50
114 326
Santa Barbara
8 115
Sonoma 36 55
Total Coastal & Foothills

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.

Photos of each Rhone grape variety as harvest nears

Harvest is beginning to feel imminent.  We haven't brought in any fruit yet, but we've prepared our log books, washed out all our tanks and equipment, put our harvest cellar team together and we're ready.  We're expecting our first fruit from a couple of the vineyards we use for Patelin later this week.

We don't expect anything off our own property for another week or two, but with the beautiful warm weather we've been having for the last three weeks we've made a lot of progress.  Syrah and Mourvedre are through veraison, Grenache is nearly done, and even Counoise is making good progress.  The whites are also coming along nicely.

I spent an hour prowling the vineyard this morning to get shots of what each grape looks like now.  I'll take them in the order in which we expect them to come into the cellar.  First, Viognier, which was most affected by the April frosts and which is scarcest in the vineyard.  We're hoping for five tons off the roughly five acres we have planted:


Next, Syrah, which looks great.  Already showing its classic blue-black color, with thick skins and lots of flavor:


Next will likely be Marsanne, which I'm feeling more positive about after today's explorations.  Yields will be lower than normal, but not as drastically as in the Viognier.  And the vines and clusters look terrific:


Grenache Blanc will likely come in next.  It was reduced by the frost, but Grenache (both red and white) is sufficiently vigorous that it still set a decent crop.  I may be being optimistic about its timing; it will likely be a later Grenache harvest than we've ever seen before:


Grenache Noir is typically harvested soon after Grenache Blanc, though this year I'm sure that some Grenache lots won't come in before November.  Different vineyard blocks are at widely different stages, with some looking nearly full red and others still mostly green.  Some Grenache blocks have very little crop, and others look fine.  Our normal practice of harvesting Grenache selectively and carefully will be particularly critical this year.  The cluster below is probably about average for the vineyard, mostly through veraison but still fairly light in color and with some greenish berries mixed in:


Roussanne, which would normally be very late, seems comparatively more advanced this year.  It came through the frosts just fine and looks to be in exceptional condition; for whatever reason, the typical late-season Roussanne malaise that we're used to seeing hasn't materialized this year.  In fact, I may have misplaced it, as I'm almost certain we'll see our first Roussanne lots before our first Grenache lots.  Below, you can see Roussanne starting to get its typically russet color:


Right around when Roussanne is harvested, we typically bring in Picpoul.  I'd think that Picpoul, which is planted in our coldest pocket, will likely be a little later this year.  Still bright green, it seems a while off yet:


Normally, Mourvedre would be last.  But like Roussanne it was largely unscathed by the frosts, and actually started veraison first of the reds.  It does take a long time between veraison and ripeness, but I still will go out on a limb and say we'll bring some in before we do Counoise, which is still partly green even in the ripest areas.  The Mourvedre looks really strong this year:


Last is Counoise, which was just starting to sprout at the time of the frosts.  That's not as bad for productivity as if a vine is more advanced (as were, say, Viognier and Grenache) but it does tend to delay ripening significantly.  And Counoise is already late.  I'm hoping we bring it in in October this year, but wouldn't be surprised if it's November.  The cluster below is a little more advanced than what's average in the vineyard, but still shows some green berries mixed among the pink and red:


Overall, I'm feeling a little more positive about yields than I was after my last extended trek around the vineyard three weeks ago.  Our two most important varieties (Roussanne and Mourvedre) look good, and most blocks of Syrah look fine.  Grenache and Grenache Blanc will be reduced, probably by half compared to last year, and Marsanne and Counoise are probably similar.  Viognier will have a quarter of last year's crop, if that.  While that all may sound bleak, that's not too bad given that Mourvedre and Roussanne account for nearly half our total planted acreage.  We'll see, soon enough, if I'm right.

Introducing California's first Petit Manseng

Fans of Tablas Creek on Facebook this week saw something unexpected: a photo of a bottling we've never done before.  In fact, it's a bottling that no one in California has done before, that we know of at least.  It's Petit Manseng, a white grape traditional to France's southwest, which has made admired but not widely disseminated sweet wines for centuries in the region of Jurancon.

Jurancon Jurancon, in the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, is a mountainous region that includes a small stretch of the rocky Atlantic coast and a larger stretch of the Spanish border, high in the Pyrenees mountains.  Culturally, it forms a part of the Basque community that spans the French-Spanish border.  A larger, interactive version of the map at right can be found on Wikipedia.

There are three permitted grapes in Jurancon (Corbu and Gros Manseng, in addition to Petit Manseng) but it is generally agreed that Petit Manseng is the finest of the three, and the most suitable for making the sweet wines that made the region famous.  Gros Manseng, which we also imported but have not yet harvested, is more suited for the dry Jurancon Sec wines, while Petit Manseng achieves sufficient concentration and sugar content to make naturally sweet wines without botrytis.  This character was so valued that Petit Manseng is noted as the only wine used to baptize a king of France: Henry IV, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty, in his native Navarre.

After several decades of disfavor, the sweet wines of Jurancon have returned to fashion since about 1970, and the acreage of Petit Manseng have increased correspondingly, from less than 90 hectares in 1968 (90 hectares was the combined plantings of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng) to nearly 650 hectares in 2006.  Two images of the grape are below; to the left a lithograph from a 19th Century ampelography and to the right a photo of one of our Petit Manseng mother vines, in a pot on our patio.

Petit Manseng Lithograph   Petit_manseng_vine0002

In addition to its ancestral home in Jurancon and the neighboring Pacherenc, Basque settlers brought Petit Manseng to Uruguay, and it has found homes in the neighboring Languedoc and the more surprising (to me) Virginia, where its resistance to rot is particularly valuable in the often humid climate.

When we decided to bring in Petit Manseng, we had not yet discovered the Vin de Paille process for making dessert wines, and were fresh off a disastrous experiment where we had tried to freeze grapes to make a pseudo-ice wine.  Given the success we'd seen at Tablas Creek with Tannat, another French Basque grape, Petit Manseng seemed a natural extension.  The vines were brought into USDA quarantine in 2003, and released to us in 2006.  The first small vineyard block was planted in 2007.

Petit Manseng is so named for its small, thick-skinned berries (Gros Manseng has larger berries).  It is capable of achieving very high natural sugar content without the benefit of botrytis.  Petit Manseng in France is often left on the vine until December to achieve its high sugars, and its ability to withstand rot is noteworthy.  In Paso Robles, where fall moisture and rot are rare and sun more reliable, its ability to maintain almost inconceivably high acidity is perhaps more valuable.  As an example, our first tiny harvest of Petit Manseng came in 2009.  We had forgotten about the small block and when we rediscovered it in early November and measured the grapes -- three weeks after a 10-inch rainstorm rolled through -- they tipped the scale at an incredible 37° Brix and a pH of 3.3. 

Petit_manseng_0001 In 2010, we picked our Petit Manseng in mid-October at a more manageable 26.2° Brix and a pH of 3.10. We fermented it in a single barrel, and stopped its fermentation when it had about 50 grams/liter of sugar left and sat at an alcohol of 13.5%.  We were stunned that there was so much sugar left at the point where we felt the flavors were in balance.  The very high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest.  The wine was aged on its lees in barrel and bottled last week.  We'll make a small amount available through an offering to our wine club members sometime later this summer or fall.

The flavors of Petit Manseng wines are rich but tangy, perfumed and tropical.  It's possible to identify pineapple, mango, papaya and honey, as well as white flowers and spice.  Due to its residual sugar and high acidity, Petit Manseng wines have tremendous ability to age.  For food pairings, the literature nearly always suggests foie gras, which makes sense to me.  Foie gras is hard on dry wines due to its richness, but unless the chef makes some very sweet accompaniment the sweet wines it's typically paired with can be overpowering.  A semi-sweet wine with excellent freshness like Petit Manseng could be a natural fit. I'd also think that it would be a great wine with cheeses, but would need to do some experimentation to have confidence in the right fit.

Where will Petit Manseng take us?  Who knows.  But we're sufficiently intrigued with the grape's capabilities that we're planting another half-acre at the western edge of the estate.  And we may just have to come up with a foie gras-themed event to test the pairing hypothesis of the experts.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley (sort of): Vermentino

Vermentino Vermentino, with its bright acidity, aromas of citrus leaf and mineral, and refreshing finish, has become a favorite of Tablas Creek VINsiders and restauranteurs alike. Its story, however, does not originate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and unlike most of Tablas Creek’s white varietals, it is a grape that is more commonly seen on its own than in blends.

Vermentino in the Old World
Vermentino is commonly thought to be Spanish in origin. Although it is currently grown in several countries around the Mediterranean, its best known examples come from northern Italy (particularly in the region of Liguria) and the island of Sardinia, where the wines are crisp, citrusy and generally unoaked. It is also the most widely planted white grape on the island of Corsica, where high altitude and hot climate vineyards produce more full-bodied wines with heady floral aromas. On the French mainland (where the grape is known as Rolle), it is found in Côtes de Provence and, increasingly, in Languedoc. Although it makes excellent wine, for many years Vermentino was best known for producing table grapes. The grapes are large with a good sugar/acid balance, making them a perfect choice for sweet snacking.

Vermentino at Tablas Creek
Although Vermentino is not a Châteauneuf-du-Pape grape varietal, we imported it at the recommendation of the Perrins’ French nurseryman, who believed it would thrive in the rocky limestone soils of Paso Robles. We brought the cuttings in and entered them into quarantine at the USDA station in Geneva, New York. In 1993, they were declared free of virus and released to us.

We propagated the vines in our nursery, and planted about an acre of Vermentino on an east-facing slope near Adelaida Road in the northern portion of the property. As the nurseryman predicted, it has indeed thrived here, and in 2008 we planted another two acres at the western edge of the property.

Small quantities of Vermentino were included in our early white blends. However, we found it too distinctive to fit seamlessly into our blends, and since 2002 we have bottled it on its own. We used the Italian name for the grape instead of the French one because Wild Horse Winery (who bought cuttings from us) registered the grape as Vermentino, and, with the exception of a few varietals which have been grandfathered in, the BATF does not permit multiple names for the same grape.

In the vineyard, Vermentino is one of the easiest varietals to grow. It is a vigorous grower, resistant to drought, and usually ripens towards the middle of the harvest cycle. In the cellar, we ferment it in stainless steel tanks and prevent it from completing malolactic fermentation. Both procedures serve to emphasize the grape’s natural minerality and retain its bright citrus character.

As part of our ongoing research on Stelvin screwcaps, we bottled half of the Vermentino in screwcap and half in cork in 2002. We were so convinced that the screwcap preserved the wine’s aromatics and freshness that we have bottled Vermentino exclusively in screwcap since the 2003 vintage.

Flavors and Aromas
Vermentino wines are a pale straw color and relatively low in alcohol, with crisp acids, citrus-leaf aromatics, and pronounced minerality. In the mouth, Vermentino shows flavors of green apple and lime, heightened by refreshing acidity, good richness and medium body. The wine’s crispness makes it a delicious accompaniment to fresh seafood, oysters on the half shell, or grilled Mediterranean vegetables. The 2010 Vermentino was sent to wine club members in the spring 2011 shipment and a small allocation was released to our wholesalers around the country.

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Syrah

Syrah Syrah, also known as Shiraz in Australia, is one of the most noble grapes of the Rhône Valley, and by far the most widely planted Rhone variety in California. It is a key component in both our Grenache-based Cotes de Tablas and Mourvedre-based Esprit de Beaucastel blends (typically 20-35% of each, depending on vintage) and makes a wonderfully dark, spicy varietal wine, which we've made each year since 2002.

Early History
Syrah is one of the oldest established grape varietals in the Côtes du Rhône region of southern France, and competing stories abound about its origin.

One legend attributes its arrival in France to the Phocaeans of Asia Minor, who brought the grape from Shiraz, Persia when they established Marseilles around 600 BC. Another story claims that Romans brought the varietal from Syracuse, in Sicily, to the Rhône in the 3rd century AD. It seems most likely, however, that Syrah is a native French grape, the chance offspring of two grapes (Dureza and Mondeuse) from southeastern France. Whatever its origin, Syrah was well established in the vineyards surrounding the Rhône village of Tain-l’Hermitage by the 13th century.

Syrah Around the World
Syrah is most closely associated with the Northern Rhône appellations of Hermitage and Côte-Rotie, where it produces wines of phenomenal elegance and longevity. It is tremendously flexible, and can make elegant and restrained wines as well as wines bursting with fruit and oak, in locations as diverse as France, California, South Africa, and Australia. In the 1650s, South Africa was the first country outside France to plant Syrah, but it has never been more than a minor variety there. In Australia, however, where it arrived at the end of the 18th Century, it has become the most widely planted grape in that country.

In the northern Rhone, Syrah is typically made as a varietal wine, at times co-fermented or blended with small amounts of Viognier.  In the southern Rhone, Syrah is an important blending varietal, and second only to Grenache in acreage.  It partners lends to Grenache-based blends darker color, structure, tannin and ageability.

The first records of Syrah in the United States show it arriving in California in 1878, but it remained scarce until quite recently, with only 1,200 tons harvested in 1992. As California winemakers recognize its potential, the acreage increased nearly one hundredfold in ten years, and 101,500 tons of Syrah were harvested in California in 2002. Syrah is now the most widely planted Rhône varietal in California, with 19,226 acres planted in 2009. Although it is occasionally confused with the California varietal Petite Sirah, they are separate varietals (most experts believe most of what is called Petite Sirah is a cross of the varietals Peloursin and Durif).

Syrah at Tablas Creek
When we began Tablas Creek Vineyard in 1990, we were not completely satisfied with the variety of clonal selections of California Syrah vines. So, when we brought our other Rhone varieties from france, we included four different clones of Syrah.  These clones were propagated in the Tablas Creek nursery, and we planted our first Beaucastel-clone Syrah blocks in 1994.

Syrah in the Vineyard and Cellar
Syrah is quite vigorous and thrives when given warm days, poor soils, and sun. Because it is so vigorous, it requires extra canopy management (to expose the fruit to the sun for ripening) and aggressive crop thinning. Unlike most other varietals, its canes extend down toward the ground rather than up toward the sun, and therefore it is the one varietal permitted to be trellised instead of head-pruned in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It ripens earlier than any of the other red Rhône varietals, and we typically harvest it throughout the month of September.

Syrah's small clusters and small berries produce juice with concentrated flavors and significant tannin. During vinification, we ferment Syrah in large open-top tanks, a process that exposes the juice to more oxygen and thereby softens the tannins and compensates for Syrah’s tendency toward reduction. Currently, we have approximately 13 acres of Syrah planted at Tablas Creek, which represents about 25% of our red Rhône production.

Flavors and Aromas
The Syrah grape itself is thick-skinned and dark, almost black. Wines made from Syrah are intense with a dark purple-black color. The wines taste of blackberry and black raspberry fruit, smoke, tar and black pepper, and have a smooth supple texture. Syrah reflects minerality well, and the chalky character of the tannins provides a wonderful backbone to softer, fruitier varietals such as Grenache and Counoise.

In our Mourvèdre-based Esprit de Beaucstel, Syrah provides a deep blackish-purple color, minerality, spice, longevity and back-palate tannins.  In our Grenache-based Côtes de Tablas, Syrah cuts the apparent sweetness of Grenache and produces wines that are more balanced between sweet and savory notes, with more mineral and spice.

Beginning in 2002, we have bottled Syrah as a single varietal in limited quantities.  In many vintages this is blended with a small quantity of Grenache, whose higher acidity opens up Syrah and focuses its fruit.

Pneumonia's Last Syrah
Despite its many appealing characteristics, sales of Syrah have faced well-publicized challenges in the American market.  The Rhone Rangers have launched a plan in conjunction with several major health organizations to encourage the sales of Syrah while providing money for vaccinations against pneumonia, the world's largest killer of children.  You can read more about Pneumonia's Last Syrah.

We welcome two new grapes to Tablas Creek: Clairette and Terret Noir

Regular followers of Tablas Creek will know that we selected and imported our eight principal Rhone varieties (Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Counoise) at the very beginning of our history, in 1989, before we'd even started laying out the vineyard.  It was cuttings from these vines, post-quarantine and post-propagation, that we started planting in 1994, and which we've used to plant the rest of the vineyard.  We continued over the next decade to bring in additional clones of several varieties, and added one new grape (Picpoul Blanc) that went in the ground in 2000.

We've been surprised at times about the varieties that have thrived here.  Many, most notably Mourvedre, Grenache and Roussanne, we expected to do well, and chose our property accordingly.  But others, like Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc and Counoise, seem to develop character in Paso Robles that they only occasionally, if ever, achieve in France.

So, in 2003, we decided to bring in the rest of the Chateauneuf du Pape grapes: Bourboulenc, Cinsault, Clairette, Muscardin, Picardan, Terret Noir and Vaccarese.  We've been waiting ever since as the vines were quarantined (they all had viruses) and then cleaned up at U.C. Davis.  We received the first two varieties earlier this month, and put them in the ground last week.  Please welcome Clairette and Terret Noir:

Clairette   Terret_noir

Of the two, the character of Clairette is better known, and it's much more widely planted with about 7500 acres in the Rhone Valley at the end of the 1990's, according to Jancis Robinson, and additional acreage in South Africa, Australia, Italy and Eastern Europe.  It was even more important historically, and formed, along with Picpoul, the Languedoc's extraordinarily popular Picardan wine that was exported throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.  It is used both to make still wines (often blended with the higher-acid Picpoul or Grenache Blanc) and to make the Rhone Valley's best-known sparkling wines in Clairette de Die.  It tends to have floral, mineral, almost soapy aromas, to be relatively low in acid, and to oxidize easily. 

Terret Noir is less well known; it is reputed to keep its acidity well late in the growing season and to bud late, both useful characteristics in Paso Robles, where we are prone to frost in April and bake in October.  Although it was once (before 1850) the most planted variety in the departement of Herault, very little is reported of its flavors.  Our 1904-edition French ampelography praises Terret Noir for bringing "qualities of lightness, freshness, and bouquet".  As of 2000, there were only 1000 acres of Terret Noir planted in France.  About all Jancis Robinson has to say about it is that it "can add useful structure and interest".  The Perrins don't have much more to report, so we may well be making the first serious investigation into Terret Noir in more than a century.

Both of these varieties are being planted into half-acre blocks in the newest section of our vineyard, at the extreme western edge of the property, to the west of the seven-acre block we planted in 2008.  We'll be leaving space for our other late arrivals.  Look for the first production off of these vines in 2013!

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Marsanne

Marsanne Marsanne produces wines with distinctive melon and mineral flavors, rich mouthfeel, and a characteristic nuttiness with age. When blended, its relative restraint and minerality complement more aromatic varietals like Viognier.  And in its ancestral home of Hermitage and in other cool climates, Marsanne can make some of the world's most ageable white wines.  At Tablas Creek, we use most of our Marsanne in our Côtes de Tablas Blanc each year, with the Marsanne comprising about one-third of the blend.

Early History
Marsanne is believed to have originated in the town of Marsanne, near Montélimar in the northern Rhône Valley. The white wines of St-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, and St-Péray are made predominantly from Marsanne, often blended with Roussanne.  As early as the seventeenth century the white wines from Hermitage were considered among the world's finest.  Thomas Jefferson praised white Hermitage as "the first wine in the world without a single exception".

The grape arrived in Australia in the late 1860s, and has been grown successfully in the vineyards of Victoria ever since. Australia has proved an even more hospitable home for the varietal than its native France – 80% of the world’s Marsanne is grown in Australia. It arrived in California in the 1980s, and it has becoming an increasingly important component of white Rhône-style blends and is also bottled individually. Qupe Wine Cellars, whose vintner Bob Lindquist has been an early and persistent advocate for the grape, has been instrumental in promoting Marsanne.  Qupe began making what has become probably the state's most respected single-varietal Marsanne in 1987.  As of 2009, there were 107 acres of Marsanne planted in California, which represents about 3% of the California acreage dedicated to white Rhone varieties.

Marsanne in France
Plantings of Marsanne in the Northern Rhone have been growing over the last half-century as growers replace the more difficult -- and later ripening -- Roussanne with the easier Marsanne.  The vineyards at JL Chave (which have been in the same family since the middle ages) were historically equal parts Roussanne and Marsanne, but have been gradually moved to their current composition of 85% Marsanne and just 15% Roussanne. 

Marsanne's history is less distinguished in the southern Rhone, and it is not permitted in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  It is, however, one of the eight white grapes permitted in the Côtes du Rhône appellation. As such, Marsanne is a significant component (usually 30%) of the Coudoulet de Beaucastel white blend.

Marsanne in the Vineyard and Cellar
There are approximately three acres of Marsanne planted at Tablas Creek, representing about 7% of our white Rhône production. The climate in Paso Robles is slightly warmer than Marsanne’s native northern Rhône Valley, and the varietal here is an aggressive producer with no significant growing problems, though it is sensitive to water levels. Careful monitoring throughout the growing season is often necessary. Marsanne vines produce a relatively heavy crop of loosely clustered berries, and require a secondary fruit pruning (of green or unpollinated clusters) six to eight weeks after the flowering. This practice, coupled with conscientious leaf pulling, encourages uniform ripening. Marsanne ripens right in the middle of the picking season -– later than Viognier, earlier than Roussanne and about at the same time as Grenache Blanc -- and its berries are golden and medium-sized when ripe. It tends to ripen at fairly low sugars; in 2009 its average Brix level was 20.3, the lowest of any variety harvested, and our Marsanne is often around 12% alcohol after fermentation. 

We showcase Marsanne's proclivity for displaying the mineral flavors of the soils in which it is grown by fermenting it in stainless steel tanks.  In most years, it is blended with a richer, more heady and aromatic Viognier lot sometime 3-4 months after harvest and this resulting tank forms the base of our Cotes de Tablas Blanc from this vintage.

Flavors and Aromas
Marsanne is a light straw color, almost green, with moderate acidity and excellent mid-palate richness. Its mineral flavors and aromas, and its low alcohol, make it an ideal blending grape. The varietal has been historically blended with Roussanne, where it tones down the viscosity and acidity of Roussanne and provides a more complex flavor. Although did in early years add Marsanne to our Roussanne-based Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (most recently in 2001), the varietal is truly given a chance to shine in our Viognier-based Côtes de Tablas Blanc.  We have been noting an increase in the intensity and complexity of our Marsanne lots, and hope to make a single-varietal rendition soon.

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Viognier

Viognier Viognier (pronounced VEE-ohn-yay) is the most-planted white Rhone varietal in the United States, and produces wines with intense aromatics of peaches, apricots, and violets, as well as viscosity and lushness on the palate. At Tablas Creek, it takes the lead in our Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and has also played a role as a varietal wine, as a contributor to our Roussanne-based Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, and even as a co-fermentation partner with Syrah.

Early History
Viognier is historically grown in the northern Rhône valley, and reaches its peak in the tiny appellations of Condrieu and Château Grillet. The precise historical origin of the varietal is unknown, but many believe it dates back to the Roman Empire. According to one story, Emperor Probus imported Viognier into Condrieu from Dalmatia (in present-day Croatia) in 281 AD as a means of replacing the vineyards destroyed by Emperor Vespasian. Legend has it that Vespasian tore up the Condrieu vineyards after the locals revolted, a revolt which he attributed to drinking too much of the native wine.

Regardless of how the varietal originally arrived in Condrieu, historical records confirm that Viognier was grown in the area during the Roman Empire. When the Romans were forced out of Gaul in the 5th Century, the vines remained uncultivated for centuries but were revived by locals in the 9th Century. The varietal spread to neighboring Château Grillet, and from there to the papal palace at Avignon in the 14th Century.

Viognier's Decline and Recovery
By the 1960's, Viognier plantings had diminished dramatically, down to an estimated 15 acres in Condrieu and little more elsewhere in the Rhone Valley. But with the growth of interest in varietal wines in the late 1980's, the grape was brought to California, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. There are now nearly 3000 acres of Viognier in California alone, making it by far the most planted white Rhone varietal.

Viognier in California
American growers, led by pioneers such as Calera and Joseph Phelps, brought Viognier into the United States in small quantities in the late 1980s. Almost simultaneously, other American growers brought over what they thought were Roussanne cuttings from the Rhône Valley, which were then propagated and planted in vineyards all over California. Years later, in 1998, those vines were identified as Viognier, not Roussanne – a discovery which added a new Viognier clone for California producers to work with. We contributed two new clones, imported from Château de Beaucastel.

Viognier in the Vineyard and Cellar
Viognier is a reasonably difficult grape to grow, as it is somewhat more prone to disease than other varietals and can be unpredictable in its yield. It is, however, reasonably drought resistant, enabling it to thrive in the dry, hot Paso Robles climate. The varietal flowers and ripens early, and is usually the first varietal harvested in very early September. Because Viognier flowers so early in the season, it is susceptible to spring frosts; the frost-protection fans installed in the Viognier growing block at the vinyeard have been important. The vines have medium-sized leaves, with small clusters of small, deep yellow berries that produce straw-gold colored wines. On the nine acres we had in production in 2008, we harvested approximately 19 tons of Viognier, which is about 15% of our white Rhône production.

We typically ferment Viognier to emphasize its freshness rather than its richness. It naturally ripens with relatively high sugars and low acidity, so we ferment it in stainless steel, and look to blend it with lots that have good minerality, bright acidity and low alcohol. Our most frequent partner for our Viognier is Marsanne, but we also add brighter, leaner lots of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc to make our Cotes de Tablas Blanc each year.

Flavors and Aromas
Viognier's powerful aromas of peaches, apricots, and violets make it one of the world's most recognizable grape varieties. In the mouth, it shows great richness, flavors of stone fruit and honey, and a long finish. It is typically best drunk young.

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Grenache Noir

Grenache Grenache, (also known as Grenache Noir, to distinguish it from its white counterpart Grenache Blanc) is the most widely planted grape in the southern Rhône Valley, and the second most widely planted varietal in the world. It is most often blended (with Syrah and Mourvèdre in France and Australia, and with Tempranillo in Rioja), but reaches its peak in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it comprises 70% of the appellation’s acreage. Château de Beaucastel uses between 35 and 50% Grenache in its Beaucastel red, and some producers (most notably Château Rayas) produce Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines that are virtually 100% Grenache.

Early History
Grenache appears to have originated in Spain, most likely in the northern province of Aragon, and ampelographers believe that Grenache was the foundation of Aragon’s excellent vin rouge du pays. From Aragon, it spread throughout the vineyards of Spain and the Mediterranean in conjunction with the reach of the kingdom of Aragon, which at times included Roussillon and Sardinia. By the early 18th century, the varietal had expanded into Languedoc and Provence.

The phylloxera epidemic of the late 19th century indirectly increased European plantings of Grenache. In Rioja, for example, vineyards were replanted not with the native varietals but with the hardy, easy to graft Grenache. A similar trend occurred in southern France, as the percentage of Grenache plantings after the phylloxera infestation increased significantly, replacing the previously abundant Mourvèdre.

Grenache was brought to California in the 1860s, where its erect carriage, vigor and resistance to drought made it a popular planting choice. It came to occupy second place in vineyard planting after Carignan and was an element in wine producers’ branded field blends. Unfortunately, this usage encouraged growers to select cuttings from the most productive vines, increasing grape production but reducing the overall quality of the vines. In recent years, Grenache plantings in California have declined, as the varietal is replaced by the more popular Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot; currently there are 9,600 acres planted in California.

However, while overall Grenache acreage has declined (largely low quality plantings in the Central Valley), the varietal has at the same time undergone something of a resurgence in popularity. Newly available high-quality clones, including those from Tablas Creek, have encouraged hundreds of new plantings in California, with the greatest number concentrated in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

Grenache at Tablas Creek
When we began Tablas Creek Vineyard in 1990, we were not completely satisfied with the quality of California Grenache vines. As a result, we imported our Grenache Noir cuttings (along with its close cousin, Grenache Blanc) from France, where Jacques Perrin at Château de Beaucastel had worked tirelessly to regenerate high quality Grenache vines.  Still, the Perrins feel that vine age is essential in making top quality Grenache.

So, it should perhaps have been unsurprising to us that it took us longer to become happy with our Grenache than than with any of our other varietals.  Our initial expectations were that we would produce wines that were one-third or more Grenache, and we planted the vineyard accordingly.  However, the early harvests of Grenache showed little of the depth that we wanted, and had aggressive front-palate tannins that were in striking contrast to the smoothness of Mourvedre and Syrah.  It has only been since the 2005 vintage that we have been really happy with the variety's performance, and only since 2006 that we've felt Grenache balanced enough to produce it as a varietal wine.

We have increased the percentage of Grenache in our Esprit de Beaucastel each year since 2002: from just 10% in 2002 to 16%, 17%, 26%, 28% and finally 29% in the 2007.

Grenache in the Vineyard and Cellar
Grenache is a vigorous variety with upright shoots that lends itself to “gobelet” or “head pruning”; it is widely cultivated in this manner in France and in Spain. At Tablas Creek, our new Grenache plantings on Scruffy Hill are head pruned; elsewhere on the vineyard, the varietal is cultivated in double cordon fashion with six fruiting canes, each with two buds. The varietal’s vigor gives it the potential to be a heavy producer. Despite our shoot thinning, we are usually obliged to fruit-prune during the growing seasons to keep the bunch count to ten or twelve clusters per vine. This practice means that we harvest approximately three tons of fruit per acre of vines.

Grenache ripens in the middle of the ripening cycle, after Syrah but before Counoise and Mourvedre.  At harvest, it is notable for its high acidity even at relatively high sugar levels.  In a typical year, we would begin to harvest Grenache at the end of September and finish in mid-October.

In the cellar, we typically ferment Grenache in closed stainless steel fermenters, to counteract Grenache's tendency toward oxidation.  We avoid small 60-gallon barrels for Grenache for the same reason, and prefer to age Grenache-based wines in 1200-gallon oak foudres, whose thicker oak staves permit less oxygen to penetrate the wine.

Flavors and Aromas
Grenache produces wines with high concentrations of fruit, tannin, and acids. Its flavors are most typically currant, cherry, and raisin, and its aromas are of black pepper, menthol, and licorice. Although many California Grenache clones produce simple, fruity wines which tend to be pale in color, our French clones produce brilliant ruby red wines which are heady in alcohol (usually 15% or higher), and intensely fruity and fat.

For our signature Esprit de Beaucastel, Grenache is typically our #2 varietal (behind Mourvèdre and slightly ahead of Syrah) and opens up those more closed, reductive varieties. The varietal can thrives in a lead role in a fruity, forward wine as in our Grenache-based Côtes de Tablas. We have also produced a varietal Grenache each year since 2006.  In this wine, we typically moderate the sweetness of Grenache with 10% Syrah.

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Roussanne

Roussanne Roussanne, with its honeyed richness and excellent longevity, forms the backbone of our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. In addition, it has the balance and character to make a compelling single varietal wine, as in our varietal Roussanne that we've made each year since 2001. The varietal takes its name from “roux”, the French word for “russet” – an apt description of the grapes’ reddish gold skins at harvest.

Roussanne in France
Although no one is precisely sure where Roussanne originated, it seems likely the varietal is native to the Rhône Valley and to the Isere Valley in eastern France. The varietal has not ventured far from its origin; most of the world’s Roussanne is grown throughout the Rhône, where it is traditionally used as a blending grape. In the Southern Rhône, Roussanne is one of six white grape varietals permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and it is often blended with Grenache Blanc, whose richness and crisp acids highlight Roussanne’s pear and honey flavors. In the Northern Rhône, Roussanne is frequently blended with Marsanne in the appellations of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, and Saint Joseph to provide acidity, minerality and richness. As a single varietal wine, it reaches its pinnacle as the sole component of Château de Beaucastel’s Roussanne Vieilles Vignes.

Roussanne is also found in the Savoie region of France (where it is known as Bergeron), and in limited quantities in Australia and Italy. In the United States, Roussanne is most planted in the Central Coast, but can also be found in Sonoma, Napa and the Sierra Foothills regions of California, as well as in the Yakima Valley of Washington State.

Roussanne in California
After some early, largely unsuccessful experiments with Roussanne (the last of which were pulled out in the 1920s) early Rhone Rangers reintroduced Roussanne into the United States in the 1980s. Cuttings, taken from the Rhône Valley, were propagated and planted in vineyards around California, and many wines from those cuttings garnered critical acclaim. Years later, in 1998, DNA tests identified those vines as Viognier – a discovery which led to years of controversy. We ensured the authenticity of our clones by importing vine cuttings directly from Château de Beaucastel; the Roussanne available from the Tablas Creek Nursery is a certified clone, tested by the USDA. Around the same time we brought in the Beaucastel clones, John Alban imported Roussanne to plant in his Central Coast vineyards. Those clones were also true Roussanne, and virtually all of the 348 acres of Roussanne planted as of 2008 in California are descendants of the clones brought in by Alban and by Tablas Creek.

A few years back, we put together a page that identifies the principal attributes of both Roussanne and Viognier, with distinguishing characteristics highlighted, should you have some in the ground and want to research which you have.

Roussanne in the Vineyard
Roussanne has a well-deserved reputation as a difficult varietal to grow (our nursery partners at NovaVine call it "the princess") and as such is often passed over in favor of the more cooperative Marsanne. In its native France, plantings had declined to just 54 hectares in the late 1960s before rebounding thanks to superior clones developed towards the end of the twentieth century. Roussanne grapes are susceptible to powdery mildew and rot, and the vine is a shy and erratic producer even under ideal conditions.

Of the five white Rhône varietals that we grow at Tablas Creek, Roussanne is generally the latest-ripening. In addition, it is prone to shutting down toward the end of harvest, as well as to shatter and uneven yields. The vines are very responsive to sunlight, and grape bunches on the western side of the vine tend to ripen more quickly than bunches on the eastern side. To combat this tendency, we aggressively thin the leaves to expose more bunches to sunlight and harvest the grapes in multiple passes. Eighteen acres of our vineyard are devoted to Roussanne, representing about half of our white Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties and over 5% of the Roussanne planted in California.

Tablas Creek hosted a summer 2008 producers-only symposium on Roussanne to discuss the viticultural, winemaking and marketing challenges it presents. Other producers, as well as trade and consumers, may be interested in the Roussanne Symposium recap notes (in PDF).

Roussanne in the Cellar
In contrast to the challenge it presents in the vineyard, Roussanne is flexible and forgiving in the cellar.  It can be successfully fermented in large or small oak, or in stainless steel.  It can be harvested at lower sugars but still have good body, or can be left to greater ripeness without losing all its acidity.  It has the body to take to new oak, or stainless steel can emphasize its minerality.  And unlike most white wines, Roussanne ages very well due to its unusual combination of richness, minerality and balancing acids; many Roussanne wines can be enjoyed up to 15 years or more after bottling.

At Tablas Creek, we ferment and age about one third of our Roussanne in one- to five-year-old small French oak barrels, one third in large 1200-gallon French oak foudres, and the remainder in stainless steel. The oak provides a structured richness and enhances the rich texture of the grape, while the stainless steel emphasizes the minerality of the wine and heightens the floral aromatics. 

Flavors and Aromas
Wines made from Roussanne are rich and complex, with distinct honey, floral and apricot flavors.  They have a characteristic oily texture and a full body that is more reminiscent of red wines than whites.  We make, in a normal year, at least four wines that contain Roussanne. Our varietal Roussanne showcases wine lots with particularly intense varietal character. A Bergeron bottling, from grapes harvested earlier, with brighter acidity, pays homage to the Roussannes of the Savoie. Finally, Roussanne forms the core of our signature Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and adds structure and acids to our Viognier-based Cotes de Tablas Blanc. It also makes a delicious base to our Vin de Paille dessert wines.