Introducing the Wines for the 2016 VINsider Wine Club "Collector's Edition" Shipment

Each June, I have the pleasure of tasting through library vintages of our Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc to choose the wines for the upcoming VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment. We created the Collector's Edition version of our VINsider Wine Club back in 2009 to give our biggest fans a chance to see what our flagship wines were like aged in perfect conditions. Members also get a slightly larger allocation of the current release of Esprits to track as they evolove. This club gives us a chance show off our wines' ageworthiness, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.

This year, our selections will be the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel and the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. Each wine provides a clear signature of the vintage that produced it: 2009, with its power and density from the combination of spring frost (low yields) and warm weather, and 2010, with noteworthy elegance from an unusually cool summer that produced our longest hangtime ever. And yet time had, in each case, made the wine more complete, softening the tannins and opening the structure of the 2009 Esprit, and deepening the flavors and bringing more weight to the 2010 Esprit Blanc. And this isn't the end; both wines will go out another decade. It will be fun to get these in people's hands in a few months. The wines:

CE Wines 2016 Square

Tasting notes, from a tasting yesterday that Chelsea and I conducted:

  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc:  A nose balanced, I thought, between youthful and mature notes: white flowers, mint and pear skin on the youthful side, with beeswax, straw and nutmeg showing signs of maturity. The mouth is rich, with flavors of golden delicious apple and cinnamon (just bake the pie, already), creme brulee, and sweet straw. There's a welcome little bite of tannin -- likely from the 35% Grenache Blanc, our highest Grenache Blanc percentage ever for this wine -- that reminded us of mandarin pith to keep things clean on the long finish. Just beautiful. Drink now or for the next several years.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel: A darkly powerful, expressive nose of mint, black plums, petrichor, figs, baker's chocolate, and a savory note that Chelsea and I debated between balsamic and Worcestershire. The mouth shows both dark fruit notes and something higher toned -- think fresh black figs -- and is nicely focused with flavors of chocolate-covered black cherries, menthol, and new leather. There are some chewy tannins that suggest substantial food as a partner (as well as the capacity for more aging). The finish is beautiful, with cocoa powder, blackcurrant and sarsaparilla root. Drink now and over the next 15 years.

The complete Collector's Edition shipment is, I think, the best collection we've ever offered, with 3 different vintages of our flagship red, 2 of our flagship white, our newest En Gobelet (maybe my personal favorite wine we're making right now), and two gorgeous whites: the luscious 2014 Roussanne and the floral, mineral 2015 Cotes de Tablas Blanc:

  • 2 bottles of 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel
  • 1 bottle of 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc
  • 3 bottles of 2014 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2012 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2014 En Gobelet
  • 2 bottles of 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2014 Roussanne
  • 1 bottle of 2015 Cotes de Tablas Blanc

We will be adding to the Collector's Edition membership, subject to available space, in the next week. If you're on the waiting list, you should look for an email with news, one way or the other, of whether you've made it on for this round. We add members, once a year, in the order in which we received applications to the waiting list. If you are currently a VINsider member and interested in getting on the waiting list, you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online. And if you are not currently a member, but would like to be, you can indicate that you would like to join the Collector's Edition when you join the VINsider wine club.


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!

 


What's in a (category) name? Maybe a lot.

One of (the literally hundreds of) Shakespeare's phrases that has entered common English parlance is Juliet's question to Romeo, "What's in a name?".  She continues, "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" with its implication that names are labels given meaning by those of us who use them, but that there is an essential quality that is independent of the name it carries.  One of the risks of any enterprise is that once you've assigned a name to something, you assume that the other people who hear or read that name understand its relationship to the essential idea described the same way that you do.  Industry jargon is only the most obvious example of this; in many cases the consequences of naming (or mis-naming) something can be much more subtle.

Those of you who have followed Tablas Creek are likely familiar with the vintage chart that we created back in 2006 and have updated roughly quarterly ever since.  With it, we try to help our fans be as informed as we are as to where in its evolutionary life each of our wines is at the moment.  After all, it's in our interest as much as our fans' that the wines that they open be drinking well, and there's no way even the most dedicated Tablas Creek follower is going to be opening as many of our wines, across as many vintages, as we do.  Sharing our experiences seems to me like the least we can do.    

Vintage chart in use
The vintage chart, in use in our tasting room

For the last several years, we divided up the wines into the following categories:

  • Hold - Too Young
  • Early Maturity: Drink or Hold
  • Peak Maturity: Drink or Hold
  • Late Maturity: Drink
  • Hold - Closed Phase
  • Past its prime

Most of these seem self-explanatory enough, except for perhaps "hold - closed phase", whose depths I dove into in a blog post from 2011.

Vintage chart Jan 2016 #2However, in recent months I've gotten a spike in comments from people who have been waiting and waiting on many of our wines to move from "Early Maturity" into "Peak Maturity". Since I've wanted to see some secondary flavors in a wine before moving it between these categories, this has meant that often several vintages accumulated as they waited -- with some wines, for a decade -- for wines to get to their peak.  Now, we're proud that many of our longer-lived wines should age for two decades.  But I also understand our fans' frustration that gratification delayed so long isn't particularly gratifying.  And my idea was never to encourage everyone to wait for full maturity, missing out on wines' juicy vigor.  That "early maturity" phase makes for wonderful drinking, and I almost certainly open more wines then than I keep until those secondary flavors start to show.  Yet it seemed that what I'd hoped would be helpful was becoming, for some followers at least, a burden.  And I understood why.  Wouldn't you, too, like peak enjoyment out of a purchase?  So, in the today's update to the vintage chart, I renamed the different categories as follows:

  • More Aging Recommended
  • Drinking Well: Youthful
  • Drinking Well: Mature
  • Late Maturity (Drink Up)
  • Hold - Closed Phase
  • Past its prime

I am hopeful that this change, minor as it seems, will continue to protect our fans from wines in stages likely to be disappointing while removing the stigma from opening a wine in its (relative) youth.  This change is in keeping with my suspicions of drinking window recommendations (think: "best between 2025 and 2033"), and the idea that there is a single peak when wines should be drunk. This is not to deny that wines can be too young to be truly enjoyable -- often with red wines, when tannins are so powerful, or the fruit is so thick and primary, that they dominate the other elements.  Or that wines can be too old, when the steady work of oxygen and time in breaking down tannins and other structural elements leave a wine tired and flat.  But between these two extremes lies a wide range of experiences during which the wine is in balance.  A consumer who prefers wines to show brighter fruit would typically drink wines earlier in this window.  Another who prefers her wines earthier and meatier might drink them later in this window.  

Or, if you're like me, and love to watch as wines move into different harmonies between fruit, acid, tannin and earth, you might consciously open wines at different phases.  It wasn't Shakespeare who said "Life is a journey, not a destination." (that was Ralph Waldo Emerson), but if what's in a name can encourage more people to enjoy the journey, I'm all for it.


Tasting every wine from 2006, a decade later

In 2014 we began the tradition of looking back each year at the vintage from ten years before.  Part of this is simple interest in seeing how a wide range of our wines -- many of which we don't taste regularly -- have evolved, but we also have a specific purpose: choosing ten or so of the most compelling and interesting wines from this vintage to show at the public retrospective tasting we're holding on February 20th.  Ten years is enough time that the wines have become something different and started to pick up some secondary and tertiary flavors, but not so long that whites are generally over the hill. In fact, each year that we've done this we've been surprised by at least one wine that we expected to be in decline showing up as a highlight.  

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

The 2006 vintage was a study of contrasts, with a cold, wet start, a very hot early summer, a cool late summer and a warm, beautiful fall. Ample rainfall in late winter gave the grapevines plenty of groundwater, and produced relatively generous crop sizes. The relatively cool late-season temperatures resulted in a delayed but unhurried harvest, wines with lower than normal alcohols, strong varietal character, and good acids. White wines show freshness and expressive aromatics, while red wines have impeccable balance between fruit, spice, and tannins, and should age into perhaps the most elegant wines we've made.

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

In 2006, we made 20 different wines: 8 whites, 1 rosé, 8 reds, and 3 sweet wines.  But we tasted 21 different wines, because as part of our ongoing experimentation between corks and screwcaps, we bottled our 2006 Cotes de Tablas under both closures, to track how each closure impacted the wine's development over time. The lineup:

2006 Horizontal

My notes on the wines, with notes on their closures, are below (SC=screwcap; C=cork). Each wine (except for the 2006 Bergeron, which for some reason we never made a Web page for) is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see a breakdown of the winemaking or the tasting notes at bottling.  If you have a question about the Bergeron, or anything else, leave it in the comments and I'll do my best to respond:

  • 2006 Vermentino (SC): A nice nose of green fruit (maybe quince?), crabapple and petrol, with a stony/minerally note.  In the mouth it was fresh, medium-weight, with nice acids and flavors of apple skin and watermelon rind.  The finish was notably saline, with a yeasty note like aged Champagne.
  • 2006 Grenache Blanc (SC): An effusive nose of candied grapefruit, apple pie, and sea spray.  The palate was rich with glycerine but cut by a salty mineral note that reminded me of saltwater taffy. Flavors of preserved lemon and anise softened into a long and rich finish with a sake-like creaminess and a hint of menthol.  I loved this wine, though the group was less excited, with a few complaints as to the wine's heft (it was 15.3% alcohol) and thoughts that it could have used a touch more acidity.  Still, long after I'd expected this wine's natural life to end, it was a treat to taste.
  • 2006 Viognier (SC): A bright, herby nose of tarragon and sage, with some lemon peel and candied pineapple coming out as the wine opened in the glass.  The mouth was really nice, salty, not particularly fruity, with crunchy nectarine and some citrus pith flavrs.  The finish was clean with good acids.  It didn't play at all in the typical Viognier blowsy profile, instead much more linear and mineral.  My dad said it reminded him of "older Chateau Grillets" (a monopole producer of Viognier in the northern Rhone).
  • 2006 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): A deeper color and aromatic profile than the previous wines, with aromas of cedar, maraschino cherry, and butterscotch.  The mouth was still holding on pretty well, showing some oak, a very rich texture, and some ripe apple.  A little heavy on the finish.  A warm-climate rendition of Chardonnay, at the end of its life but still alive, but almost certainly better when it was younger.
  • 2006 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 59% Viognier, 32% Marsanne, 6% Grenache Blanc, 3% Roussanne): The nose shows an herby peppered citrus Marsanne note (more than Viognier, despite its predominance in the blend). On the palate, lots of sweet fruit, like honeydew melon and mint, then a long, soft finish of chalky minerality and marshmallow.  Still showing nicely, though a touch low in acid.  I like what the higher Grenache Blanc percentages we're using now on this blend bring to the table.
  • 2006 Bergeron (SC): Made from 100% Roussanne, harvested a little earlier from cooler blocks around the vineyard. The nose was initially somewhat neutral, with a little tart green kiwi fruit coming out with time.  The mouth is medium-bodied, somewhat neutral as well, with good acids and nice minerality.  The finish came across as a touch sour, with a watermelon rind note.  A bit unexciting now, though we all remembered liking it quite a lot when it was young.
  • 2006 Roussanne (C): A first bottle was oxidized, but the second bottle was gorgeous: a medium gold color, with a stunning nose of orange peel, lilac, bit-o-honey, and something minty (tarragon, maybe) giving lift.  On the palate, the wine was rich, long, and caramelly but fully dry.  The finish was candied orange, citrus blossoms, and a nice saltiness that provided freshness.  Really impressive, if you like white wines with power and density.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (C; 65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): The nose was higher toned than the Roussanne, with an appealing bit of Grenache Blanc's austerity: pink grapefruit to go with the honey and herbs.  The mouth shows a good balance between sweet fruit and fresh acids, with white flowers, quince, and peach juice.  There are some signs of age but the wine is in a very nice place.
  • 2006 Rosé (SC; 60% Mourvedre, 28% Grenache, 12% Counoise): A pretty deep amber-pink color. The nose is like a light red, with bing cherry and wild strawberry.  The mouth is rich and luscious, with lots of grapey, plummy fruit.  There are still some good acids, though the wine finishes heavy at this age.  Not really a style of wine any of us drink, but still interesting to taste.
  • 2006 Counoise (SC): Quite dark for a Counoise.  A classic rustic Gamay-reminiscent nose, with peppered raspberry and cured meat.  The mouth is really nice, with spicy red plum fruit, still quite light on its feet.  A clean, youthful finish with still some noteworthy tannins.  Plays much more youthful than its ten years of age, and made us all think we're underestimating Counoise's longevity.
  • 2006 Cotes de Tablas (SC; 72% Grenache, 11% Syrah, 9% Mourvedre, 8% Counoise): Under screwcap, a bright, clean nose of raspberry fruit.  The mouth was medium-bodied, with strawberry and plum flavors, nice baker's chocolate tannins, and a bright finish.  Tasted very youthful.
  • 2006 Cotes de Tablas (C; 72% Grenache, 11% Syrah, 9% Mourvedre, 8% Counoise): Under cork, the same wine tasted totally different. A deeper nose, more mocha than chocolate, with the fruit aspect more stewed than fresh. On the palate, deeper, chewier, more full-bodied and older: tasted fully mature, with less life left but more depth. Like a 10-year-old wine.
  • 2006 Grenache (C): A lovely meaty animal and red fruit nose.  The mouth was gorgeously balanced between sweet strawberry fruit, salty mineral, chocolatey depth, and earthy funk. Showed good acids and some tannins yet on the finish. A pleasure. 
  • 2006 Mourvedre (C): A nose of roasted meat drippings, milk chocolate, red cherry and currant.  The mouth is again beautiful, with great balance like the Grenache, a bit more weight, and a little longer and plusher (showing less acidity) on the finish.  Chelsea commented that it had "the right amount of unruliness" which seemed right on to me. A beautiful showing for this wine.
  • 2006 Syrah (C): The nose is meaty, with a little peppered bacon.  The mouth is still quite youthful, with fairly big tannins still, and a savory finish without the generosity of the two previous varietal wines.  We liked the nose more than the palate at this stage, and thought that the wine was really still too young.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel (C; 45% Mourvedre, 28% Grenache, 22% Syrah, 5% Counoise): Fascinating to taste after the three varietal wines, as it shows aspects of each. A pretty nose of meat drippings, Provencal herbs, and balsamic marinade, with something cool and spicy (juniper?) behind it.  The mouth is rich and tangy, with sweet fruit and nice herbs, a meaty, chocolatey aspect, good tannins, and a clean, long finish.  It was still, we thought, on its way up, and fleshed out with time in the glass.  Decant this if you're opening it now.
  • 2006 Panoplie (C): A deep, dark, brooding nose of marinating meat and roasted root vegetables.  The palate shows sweet black fruit (black fig and black cherry), nicely tangy, plush and luscious.  Tannins are still big, but necessary with all the richness and body.  Chelsea said "if I was going to take a Panoplie home to my parents, this would be the one."  Impressive, from beginning to end.
  • 2006 Tannat (C): The nose was higher toned than we were expecting, with a yeasty chocolate souffle note.  The mouth was really nice, with milk chocolate, salty and tangy aspects. The tannins were pretty resolved for a Tannat, and the flavors as much red as black.  Mature, we thought (in contrast to the 2005, which still felt very young a year ago).
  • 2006 Vin de Paille (C; 40% Grenache Blanc, 23% Viognier, 20% Roussanne, 17% Marsanne): The nose felt a little unsettled, with poached pear, spice, and a slightly volatile potpourri note.  The palate was quite sweet, and still quite primary: peach syrup, candied violets, roasted pecans, and some welcome acids on the finish.
  • 2006 Vin de Paille Quintessence (C; 100% Roussanne): A deeper and more savory nose than the straight Vin de Paille, with intense essence of apricot, golden raisins and molasses.  The mouth was sweeter but also more textured and with more acid than the Vin de Paille blend: really rich and powerful, and long, long, long.  Tyler's comment was "I might not open a wine like this often, but if I wanted to show off to friends, I would".
  • 2006 Vin de Paille Sacrérouge (C; 100% Mourvedre): Compared to the two white vin de paille wines, the nose is savory, with saddle leather, black olive, and chocolate-covered cherries.  The mouth is younger than the nose, sweet with fig and date flavors, but medium-bodied.  Some tannins show up on the finish.  Still young, we thought.

A few concluding thoughts

I was very happy, overall, with how the wines showed.  This was the most different varietal wines we'd bottled to this point, including our first-ever Grenache, and I was happy with how well -- and how much varietal typicity -- they all showed. However, compared to our tasting of the 2005's, there were more wines that tasted like they were on the downslope (Antithesis, Bergeron, Rosé), and some wines that were fully mature whereas in 2005 they were still youngish at ten years of age.  But the elegance of our principal wines, including both Esprits, and the power of wines like the Panoplie, Roussanne, and Vin de Paille Quintessence, suggests that the best wines from 2006 are among the best we've ever produced.

I thought that tasting the Esprits after their principal components was the most interesting aspect of the tasting.  The Esprit Blanc showed both its Grenache Blanc and Roussanne aspects, in a way that complemented each.  And the Esprit red showed how each of its components combined to make something none of the parts could have achieved individually.

This tasting was yet another data point for me suggesting that Syrah really needs time.  This 2006 was still, I thought, too young, and it was the tannins and structure of the Syrah component that kept the Esprit red feeling younger than either the varietal Grenache or the varietal Mourvedre.  I guess this shouldn't be surprising given that Syrah-based wines from the northern Rhone and Australia are among the longest-lived wines in the world, but I'm concluding that a decade in, ours still want a longer rest.

The cork/screwcap contrast on the Cotes de Tablas was really fascinating, and provoked the most discussion around the table. We split evenly as to which we preferred, with some people opting for the depth and weight of the cork finish and other choosing the clarity and vibrancy of the screwcap finish. I preferred the brightness of the screwcap, but I totally understand why others (including my dad) preferred the cork.  If this sort of thing interests you, you might want to check out my older blog Bottle Variation, Very Old Wines and the Cork/Screwcap Dilemma, spurred by a conversation with Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm in which he posits that most wines, in the long run, probably do benefit from screwcap's protection from oxidation.  Of course, the $100,000 question is whether most wines are drunk before that point or after.

Finally, we chose ten pretty exciting wines for what should be a great February 20th Horizontal Tasting: Viognier, Roussanne, Esprit Blanc, Cotes de Tablas (screwcap), Cotes de Tablas (cork), Grenache, Mourvedre, Esprit, Panoplie, and Vin de Paille "Quintessence". I hope many of you will join us!


We Taste a Vertical of Full Circle Pinot Noir, 2010-2015

For the last six vintages, we have found ourselves in the Pinot Noir business.  This is, of course, because we've been making wine from the 3-acre vineyard outside my dad's house in Templeton, on which he decided to plant Pinot Noir due to the cool microclimate, the north-facing hillside, and the calcareous soils so reminiscent of Burgundy.  [For the full story, see the blog from 2013 Robert Haas comes Full Circle on Pinot Noir.]  Each year that we make it, we've felt we learn something important about the winemaking of this notoriously fickle grape.  So, now that the oldest vintage is five years old, we decided to open all of them to see what larger trends we could discern.  The lineup:

Pinot Vertical

My notes on the wines:

  • 2010 Full Circle: The nose was rich but not particularly signed by Pinot: figgy, a little chocolaty, with some dusty, resinous, non-fruit element too.  The mouth is clean, plummy and savory, with bakers' chocolate and cola flavors and nice balance.  Just a little hint of age.  Quite a nice wine, but without the vibrant high-toned fruit we associate with Pinot.
  • 2011 Full Circle: The nose felt more massive than the first wine, with chocolate-covered cherry, coffee grounds, and a hint of oxidation.  The mouth is richer than the 2010, with bigger tannins and some still-unresolved oak.  The finish was long, though a touch pruney.  More like many California pinots we taste, a touch on the massive side for us.
  • 2012 Full Circle: The nose is deeper, more savory, with a little brooding black cherry and some baking spices.  The mouth shows clean dark fruit, with nice acids... kind of a sweet/tart black cherry skin experience.  Still pretty tannic.  We liked the weight and the acids, and thought that they both boded well for the wine's future.
  • 2013 Full Circle: The first wine, for me, whose nose was immediately recognizable as Pinot, vibrant and spicy, with the signature red cherry skin and sarsaparilla aromas.  The mouth was also classic, clean and refreshing if not particularly concentrated.  Silky, with some oak evident on the finish.  A delicate wine, quite classic, which should be fun to get in front of people in the next year.
  • 2014 Full Circle (from barrel): The nose was rich with watermelon and plum fruit and undertone of cola that marks it as pinot.  The mouth showed more watermelon fruit, still some youthful tannins and a little sweet oak.  This was most of the group's favorite, though I preferred the lighter-bodied 2013.
  • 2015 Full Circle (from barrel, only free run juice): The nose was primary, still grapey, very powerful.  The mouth was still so young (it hasn't even gone through malolactic fermentation yet) that it was hard to evaluate.  I got kiwi and passionfruit (likely from the malic acid), maraschino cherry, with good tannins and acids.  It seemed like it struck a nice balance in style between the elegance of the 2013 and the power of the 2014.

For me, the tasting was particularly interesting because of how many of the characteristics I really like in our Rhone reds (like weight and texture) tended to me to obscure the ethereal character I like best in Pinot Noirs.  So, the classic ways of judging how strong a wine or a vintage was didn't really work for this tasting.  The 2013 was easily the lightest in color of the tasting, and had the least body... but it was my favorite.  Go figure.

In any case, it was clear to everyone around the table that we're learning every year, and that every year we have done a little better at allowing the grape's essential character to show through.  The vines won't hit 10 years old until 2017, so we're going to have to remind ourselves to be patient with them.  I remember this being hard when our main vineyard was this age... we wanted to somehow accelerate a process that just takes time.


A look back at every vintage of Vin de Paille "Quintessence"

This holiday season, we've made the decision to try to look back systematically at several of the wines that we don't open that often, and try to wrap our heads around how they age and at what stage(s) they are particularly good.  This information will be incorporated into the vintage chart that we maintain.  Last week we took a look at some vintages of Panoplie.  This week, we turned to our Vin de Paille Quintessence.

If you are unfamiliar with the vin de paille process, it is a traditional method for producing sweet wines by concentrating the grapes on straw.  The advantage of this technique (compared to, say, a late harvest) is that you pick the grapes at ripeness, rather than overripeness, and concentrate not just the sugars, but also the acids, varietal character and mineral character.  [For a detailed look at the process, see my blog piece from 2010: Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed.]

The Quintessence is a wine we've made five times: each vintage between 2003 and 2006, and then again in 2010.  It is 100% Roussanne, made by selecting one or two barrels out of the larger number (typically 4-6) of barrels of vin de paille we made that year.  After choosing the most concentrated barrel or two, we let it age an extra year in barrel before bottling it along with that same year's reds.  The time in barrel gives it extra depth of flavor, and allows it to pick up a little more oak, which we think suits this sweet, powerful Roussanne well.  The wines:

Quintessences

I was joined for the tasting by my dad, along with Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and National Sales Manager Darren Delmore. The tasting notes (with alcohol and residual sugar listed):

  • 2003 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (9.1% ABV; 233 g/L residual sugar): A nose of candied orange peel, wheat, dried roses, and the caramel sauce from a crème caramel.  There is also a little volatility to the floral aromatics that I found a little challenging, like an aerosol spray of a floral scent.  The mouth is very sweet -- I found it inescapably reminiscent of golden raisins -- while others around the table called out dates and baked pear.  The texture was quite thick, and my dad's comment was that he felt the wine was "not winey enough; a bit on the syrupy side". Not my favorite of the the lineup, but I'm not sure if it's a stage it will come out of or if it's getting over the hill.
  • 2004 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (14.5% ABV; 153 g/L residual sugar): On the nose, it showed older and a bit more oxidized than the 2003, with aromas of caramel, hazelnuts, and (the first time I've ever called this in a tasting note) suede leather.  The mouth is fascinating: crystallized ginger, burnt sugar, maraschino cherry, and a little welcome bitterness that reminded me of pear skin.  My dad's comment was that it was "not for everyone, but would be really impressive with a caramel dessert".
  • 2005 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (8.6% ABV; 310 g/L residual sugar): Dark amber in the glass, even more so than the first two wines.  On the nose, brandy-soaked pears, yeasty, with some nice wood smoke (from the barrel, we thought) and a nutty, caramely pecan pie aspect.  On the palate, very sweet (the highest residual sugar of the five wines) but with more notable acidity than the two earlier wines.  The flavors of candied lemon peel and milk caramels were still young, rich, and massive.  Chelsea called the experience "bananas foster" which I thought nailed it.
  • 2006 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (8.6% ABV; 280 g/L residual sugar): On the nose, more stone fruit than the earlier wines, with dried apricots, baking spices (someone called out oatmeal cookie), and an almost-honey character that Darren identified as "bee pollen".  The mouth is tangy and seemed younger and fresher than the three older wines, with more pit fruit and dried mango, and great acidity on the finish.  My favorite of the older wines.
  • 2010 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (11.5% ABV; 199 g/L residual sugar):  On the nose, vibrantly and immediately Roussanne, with peppered citrus, ginger, mango, star anise, and a hoppy, savory bite that provided nice balance to the sweetness.  The mouth was very fresh, with more mango, passion fruit, wildflower honey and something floral that reminded me of once when someone had shared with me home-made candied violets.  There are excellent acids on the finish, which is quite a bit cleaner and more refreshing than the older wines.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • I think we may have been telling people to wait too long on these wines.  In general, the younger they were, the more I liked them, though there was more complexity in, say, the 2006 than in the more primary 2010.  With holiday season coming up, I'm looking forward to breaking into my stash of wines I've been saving!
  • The wines with more sugar (and correspondingly richer texture) seemed like they needed food more badly.  It would have been interesting to have this tasting done with a variety of desserts.  With something like a crème brûlée these richer wines would almost certainly have shown better, whereas they might have overwhelmed a fruit-based dessert like a peach or pear tart (for those types of dessert, the less-sweet 2010 seemed like a natural fit).
  • Boy, is acidity important in sweet wines.  The tasting reinforced my opinion that for wines like these, picking on the early side, and capturing more acidity to then concentrate, is highly recommended.
  • I really like the change in packaging that we made between 2006 and 2010, to put the wine in a clear glass bottle.

I hadn't focused on the fact that we haven't made this wine now in five vintages (though we did make our standard Vin de Paille in 2012).  In large part, this has been because of our low yields during the drought, and our desire to leave enough Roussanne for our dry wines.  But the fact that there's not a huge market domestically for dessert wines has also played a role.  That said, the wines really were impressive, and I've always gotten a great response when I've included them in a winemaker dinner.  if we have decent yields in 2016, I'd like to take another crack at this.


Choosing a Panoplie for a Naples Vintners Dinner

In 2016, we'll be appearing for the first time at the Naples Winter Wine Festival.  Our invitation was a pretty big honor; the event is typically one of the top few grossing charity wine auctions in the country each year, and has raised over $135 million for the Naples Children & Education Foundation since its inception in 2001. They only invite some 45 vintners each year, selected from top wineries around the world.  

The highlight, for us, of our participation will be a vintners dinner my parents will be co-hosting at a private home with Francois and Isabelle Perrin and Chef Dustin Valette of Valette in Healdsburg, CA.  Each course will be paired with a wine, poured from Magnum, from Beaucastel and a comparable wine from Tablas Creek.  We'll show our newest Esprit de Tablas Blanc (paired with a Beaucastel Roussanne Vieilles Vignes) with the first course, and an older Esprit de Beaucastel (paired with a Beaucastel Rouge) with the second. The fourth and final course is dessert, and we'll provide one of our Vin de Paille wines out of our library.

For the third course, Beaucastel is sending their 2001 Hommage a Jacques Perrin.  For those of you unfamiliar with the wine, it is their elite cuvee, made only in great years, and 2001 was one of the greatest of Beaucastel's (relatively) recent vintages.  The wine should be mind-blowingly good, just entering maturity at age 14. It was for this wine that we needed to find a partner.  

We have been making Panoplie, which we model after the Hommage a Jacques Perrin, most vintages since 2000.  Like Hommage, it's a cherry-pick through the cellar, typically two-thirds or more Mourvedre, showing off the combination of lushness and structure that Mourvedre can provide in a great vintage.  We always add some Grenache, and typically a little Syrah.  A few times, we've added Counoise. Looking at our magnum library narrowed our choices some.  We didn't bottle magnums before 2002.  We were nearly out of magnums of 2004 and 2006.  We were providing the 2005 vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel for the previous course, and thought it would be more interesting to show a different vintage.  And we didn't think that anything from 2008 or younger would have the age-given depth to stand up to the 2001 Hommage.  So, we pulled samples of 2002, 2003 and 2007 to choose between:

Panoplie 3 vintage vertical

Short story: we're sending the 2003 Panoplie to Naples.  My notes on each of the three wines are below, with why we preferred the 2003 at the end.  I've linked each wine to the page on our Web site with detailed production notes.

  • 2002 Panoplie (80% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache, 7% Counoise): A deep nose, showing some age, of old leather, black tea and herbs, not at all fruity.  Very classically Mourvedre.  The mouth is broad and almost thick in texture, very chewy, with baker's chocolate, red cherry, and cassis. A nice tanginess highlights the fruit on the palate, which isn't evident in the nose.  To us, this was incredibly evocative of Mourvedre, powerful, but a bit one-dimensional. This may not be surprising given it contains the highest-ever proportion of Mourvedre for a Panoplie.
  • 2003 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 7% Syrah, 3% Counoise): A higher-toned nose, with crunchy red raspberry fruit, deepened by garrigue and rosemary.  The mouth is deeply fruity but still vibrant, higher toned and fresher than the 2002, with flavors of milk chocolate, red cherry, and ripe plum. It isn't quite as chewy as the 2002, but more than makes up for it with liveliness. The finish shows more raspberry and herbs, ripe tannins, and confectioner's sugar.  Lovely, and interesting too.
  • 2007 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): The nose is amazing: intensely fruity (blackcurrant and plum) but with earth and leather and aged meat underneath.  The mouth is big, still a little thick with fruit, then a little hollow on the mid-palate in this stage of its development, with massive tannins coming out and leaving lingering flavors of wild undergrowth, black currant and a steely minerality that is more impressive than friendly on the finish. We all thought that the wine would likely be stunning the next day, but that opening it (in magnum, no less) for a dinner in two months carried some risk.

So, we felt a little like Goldilocks. The 2002 wine was showing a little on the older side, not quite enough fruit or liveliness for what is likely going to be a blockbuster comparison.  (My dad said, "if I were serving this alone at my dinner table, I'd love this, but I worry about it sitting beside the Hommage".)  The 2007 was a little too young, too undeveloped and brawny, and we thought it would seem uncivilized beside its six-year-older partner.  The 2003 was just right: rich but vibrant, fruity but savory, appealing but thought-provoking too.

A few other concluding thoughts:

  • We have consistently underestimated the quality and longevity of the 2003 vintage.  When we made it, the wines seemed so appealing, so juicy and effortless, that we thought they wouldn't have the complexity to age.  Boy, were we wrong.  At each of our vertical tastings, from reds to whites, from Esprit to Cotes, the 2003's have been standouts.  If you have one in your cellar, open it up.
  • We opened and tasted these wines in the fairly compact time frame of roughly half an hour.  We all thought that the 2007 was opening up throughout the tasting, and would likely have been great another 12 hours later.  If you're opening one of these younger Panoplies, definitely decant it in advance.
  • I'm jealous of my parents, who will get to host the dinner.  

At least I got to try these three wines!


Checking in on two of our earliest reds: 1997 Tablas Rouge and 1999 Reserve Cuvee

It pays to keep in touch with long-time fans.  We were lucky enough to have two of those fans, long-time club members Steve and Kathleen Vogeding, reach out to us in advance of a visit today, letting us know that they'd found two older Tablas Creek bottles in their wine cellar and asking if we would be interested in tasting these bottles with them.

Um... yes!

So, it was with pleasure that we circled around a tasting bar with them to open the 1997 Tablas Rouge and the 1999 Reserve Cuvee.  The honored guests:

Vogeding couple

The wines:

Vogeding bottles

I wanted to share my notes on the wines, as well as a little of their histories.

1997 Tablas Rouge

  • History: 1997 was the first year that we had much of our estate vineyard in production, albeit from very young vines.  Still, we felt that the quality was there to launch the Tablas Creek Vineyard label.  Working under a very traditional French model, we made just one red (called "Tablas Rouge") and one white (called "Tablas Blanc").  We didn't put the varietal mix on the label, although we did list on the back that the wine was made from Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, and Counoise, in that order.  As this was the only red wine we made in this vintage, it contains 100% of the red grapes harvested from the estate that year.  Still, we fermented each varietal separately, and waited until spring to confirm that all had gone well before blending the lots together and aging it in foudres in our cellar.  We made about 2000 cases of it, and most of it was sold and was drunk long ago, I'd guess.  It did get some nice press, particularly for a first release: it made it into Wine & Spirits Magazine's "Top 100 of 2000".  We have just a few bottles left in our own library.
  • Tasting Notes: I was surprised with the vibrancy that the wine showed, lots of high-toned red fruit that reminded me of raspberry, with an appropriately brambly, brushy herbiness to it as well.  The palate was medium-weight, with vibrant acids highlighting the flavors of wild strawberry and raspberry, cooled by flavors of juniper and mint and then deepened by baking spices and balsamic reduction.  There were still some solid tannins, also highlighted by those acids.  I'm not sure how much longer it will go, but it didn't feel elderly at all to me.  A real pleasure, still pretty and lithe, if not profound.

1999 Reserve Cuvee

  • History: By 1999, we had come to the conclusion that in order to make the best wine we could make, we needed a home for lots that offered friendliness but didn't have the concentration we wanted for our top wine.  So, we split our production into two wines, Reserve Cuvee (which, the next year, would become Esprit de Beaucastel) and Petite Cuvee (which, the next year, would become Cotes de Tablas).  Splitting our production had multiple benefits, one of the most important of which was to allow us to shift our top wine's personality more toward Mourvedre, while putting a higher percentage of Grenache into our second wine, and letting it shine there.  The resulting 1999 Reserve Cuvee was more marked by Mourvedre's dark, chewy, leathery meatiness than any wine we'd made before, resulted in our first-ever 90-point rating from Robert Parker, and convinced the Perrins that the winery was ready to add the Beaucastel name to the label the subsequent vintage.
  • Tasting Notes: More mature on the nose than the 1997, and also deeper in tone, with aromas of cocoa hulls, leather, and baking spices.  On the palate, it was quite rich, more full-bodied than the 1997, and with lower acidity.  There's a little appealing smokiness that I thought was from fully-integrated oak, adding a nice edge to the characteristic meatiness of Mourvedre.  The tannins are soft at this point, and the finish quite long and textured, with the flavors more of mocha and spice than fruit or acid.  The wine was from a half-bottle, which tends to accelerate the aging process, which likely contributed to it being a bit more advanced than the 1997.

The last time we'd tasted these two wines together was nearly five years ago, and while I've had the 1999 Reserve Cuvee a few times in the interim I don't think I've had the 1997 Tablas Rouge since.  It's interesting to go back and look at my notes from that last tasting; the wines' personalities are still consistent, but the intervening years have continued the process of evolution.

I think we all underestimated the ageworthiness of our earliest wines.  If you find that you have one in your cellar, you're likely in for a treat. Thank you, Steve and Kathleen, for sharing the experience!


Introducing the wines for the 2015 Collector's Edition shipment

Each June, I have the pleasure of tasting through library vintages of our Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc to choose the wines for the upcoming VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment.  [for the origin story of the Collector's Edition, from 2009, click here.]  This club gives us a chance show off the ageability of our flagship wines, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.

This year, Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and I tasted the 2007 and 2008 reds, and the 2009 and 2010 whites.  I wrote a couple of weeks ago about why we didn't choose the 2007 Esprit, and because the 2008 was showing so well, it made the choice easy.  As for the whites, the choice was made for different reasons, but equally clear-cut.  I have always loved the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel.  I bought two cases of it myself when it was released, thinking I'd drink one and let the other one develop.  I ended up having to buy a third case because I couldn't keep my hands out of the one that I was supposed to be laying down.  But in tasting it again this year, we felt like it was nearly unchanged: still high-toned and juicy, fresh and clean.  Delicious, but not showing enough signs of evolution to be really interesting as a library offering.  The 2009, on the other hand, was fascinating.

One quick note, before the tasting notes.  If you find the idea of an aged white wine surprising, consider that Roussanne acts in many ways -- in the vineyard, cellar, and bottle -- like a red wine.  It has big structure that takes time to come into balance, it is resistant to oxidation, and the secondary flavors that it gets with time in bottle, including hazelnut and caramel, fit well with Roussanne's more youthful flavors of pear, honey and mineral. The wines:

CE Wines 2015

My tasting notes:

  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc:  Rich and broad on the nose, with flavors of marzipan, creme caramel and hazelnuts, lifted by a little tarragon.  Chelsea commented that it "tastes like a gala event". The mouth is more youthful, with a rich texture, flavors of yellow pear and grilled peach, good acids, and a little tannin, like toasted walnuts, on a long finish lifted by a minty, citrus zest note.  The wine got more and more interesting as it sat in the glass, so a decant wouldn't be a bad idea.  And definitely serve it at cellar temperature, not too cold.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel: An immensely appealing nose of red fruit, pine forest, sea spray, boysenberry and mint.  The mouth is bright with crunchy red fruit (Chelsea nailed cranberry) and deeper flavors of semi-sweet chocolate and baking spices.  The finish is darker, with macerated cherries and a spicy, brambly note.  The 2008 is a graceful and elegant wine that is at the beginning of what should be a long peak lasting another decade or more.

A few bits of housekeeping: we will be adding to the Collector's Edition membership, subject to available space, in the next week.  Members of the waiting list should look for an email with news, one way or the other, of whether they've made it on.  We add members, once a year, in the order in which we received applications to the waiting list.  If you are currently a VINsider member you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online.  If you are not currently a member, you can indicate that you would like to join the Collector's Edition when you join the VINsider wine club.


Checking in on the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel

The 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel is our highest-rated Esprit to date.  It got mid-90s ratings from Robert Parker, Stephen Tanzer, and the Rhone Report, and capped off its year by being named the Wine Spectator's #33 wine of 2010.  And we sold most of what we had, fast.  We typically keep two year's supply of our Esprit red for our tasting room, so we can show two different vintages to people.  Because of its ratings, and because it was so showy, we sold our two years' worth in one year.  And I understand why: it was luscious and powerful, with big tannins cloaked by generous fruit and an underlying meaty wildness that kept the wine from coming across as either simple or sweet.  I'm sure much of it was drunk within a few months of when it was purchased, and enjoyed.

Our Esprit wines have two drinking windows in which we think they are best enjoyed: a window around 3-5 years after the vintage date, when some of the youthful rambunctiousness has had a chance to calm down a touch, but when the wine is still big, juicy, and primary.  Then there is a second window, typically in the 8-12 year range, where the wine's tannins have softened, the texture has opened up, secondary characteristics of meat and earth have developed, and the fruit tone has deepened.

You will have noticed that there is a gap in between these two drinking windows, when the wine's tannins are still strong, but the cloaking fruit has receded a bit, and the wine can come across as closed. I've written about this closed phase on the blog, comparing it to being in its teenage years.  Not all wines, and not even all of our red wines, go through this phase, but the Esprit red nearly always does. How long it spends in this phase depends on several factors, but tends to be longest for the wines that were the most powerful to start with.  This variability is why we recommend that customers bookmark our vintage chart (updated every few months) and why we don't put much stock in predetermining specific drinking windows upon release.

It's been a few years now that we've been waiting for the 2007 Esprit to come out of its closed phase. Yesterday, I opened it, along with some other nearby vintages, as a part of the tasting we do each summer to determine which wines we'll send out to members of the VINsider Wine Club "Collector's Edition".  I had been hoping that this 2007 would be ready to go, but it wasn't to be.  It had smoothed out greatly since the same tasting last year, but still had a shortness and blockiness on the finish that suggested to us that it will greatly benefit from another year of patience.

I thought I'd share my notes, both to give a sense of where it's at now, and to explain why we think that patience is recommended.  The wine:

Esprit07

Tasting Notes (5/28/15): A classic 2007 Esprit nose of hung meat, baking spices, dark red fruit, menthol and leather.  The mouth is still massive and thick with fruit, with big tannins.  Currant and plum (dark red fruits) predominate over a creamy texture that masks some of the complexity it will have. The tannins build in the wine, and clip the finish.  The wine opened significantly with time in the glass (a decant is highly recommended if you're drinking it now) but never lost that clipped character, or the thickness of texture.  Check back in another six months, but expect to enjoy for two more decades.

My notes, I hope, explain what someone who opens it now is likely to get: not a bad wine, but a wine that is less than it will be.

What will the wines be that we chose for the 2015 Collector's Edition shipment? Stay tuned!