A Retrospective Tasting of Tablas Creek Mourvedre 2003-2012

At Tablas Creek we keep a library of every wine we've ever made.  Part of this is because we do get requests for specific older wines, either for educational seminars or dinners, or for the occasional special order for a restaurant interested in something pretty far off the beaten track (think the older Counoise for The Girl & The Fig detailed in Darren Delmore's last blog).  But just as much, we use this library to check in on how our wines are aging and where in their evolution they've reached.  We take this information and incorporate it into our vintage chart, which we hope helps our fans open wines when they're shining, and not when they're awkward.

Some wines have a simple development, from big, tannic and fruity when young, to soft, earthy and complex when old, in a fairly linear way.  Grenache usually follows this predictable pattern.  Mourvedre, however, does not.  It does start out young and juicy, and it does (eventually) end up mellow, meaty and complex, but it's not a linear path to get there.  Wines based on Mourvedre often shut down in middle age, and even once they reopen they can have unexpected personality changes from year to year.

So, it was with interest that earlier this week I opened up every vintage of Mourvedre we've made, to see how our newest wine fits into the continuum, and to see which of the older vintages are shining particularly now. The lineup:

Mourvedre vertical

The tasting notes (note that I've linked each wine to its detail page on our Web site, if you want production notes or more background on the vintage):

  • 2003 Mourvedre: Red fruit, menthol and dusty plum on the nose.  On the palate, very warm and appealing, with milk chocolate and cherry, baking spices and mellow tannins.  Long finish.  Really lovely, and still quite young tasting... hard to believe this was 11 years old.
  • 2004 Mourvedre: Much older smelling, less fruity, with leather and animal, mint, and a little briary red fruit.  In the mouth, saddle leather and cherry skin, loam and truffles.  Still some good tannins.  I'm not sure at this point if it would benefit from some more time or if it's nearing the end of its life, but I found it interesting more than pleasurable right now.
  • 2005 Mourvedre: Dark chocolate and blackberry in the deep, inviting nose.  The mouth is rich with sweet fruit, and like many of our 2005's still has some pretty big tannins, though they have the powdered sugar character that we associate with the really top vintages.  Feels impacted by the 10% Syrah we added in this and the next two vintages, and in tasting it now I think it may have made for a better, bigger wine but that the impact on the expressiveness of the Mourvedre fruit might be a larger cost than we're willing to pay.  I'd decant this if drinking it now, or wait another few years.
  • 2006 Mourvedre: Very winey on the nose, like balsamic-drizzled red fruit and some menthol.  The mouth is really pretty, mid-weight, with mint chocolate and brambles, and a clean, somewhat short finish.  Can't taste (or feel) the Syrah at all.  I'd drink this one sooner than later.
  • 2007 Mourvedre: Rich and powerful on the nose, like '05 with an extra level of plushness: roasted meat with aromatic herbs and crushed berries. The mouth has loads of sweet black cherry fruit, cocoa, and a mineral chalkiness on the finish.  It's lovely... probably the most impressive vintage of the lineup, and drinking great now but will go out another decade.
  • 2008 Mourvedre: It's hard for any vintage to follow the 2007, but my sense from the shy nose and the clipped finish is that this is in a closed period that it will come out of.  The aromatics of raspberry and black pepper are classic, and the good acids and modest tannin are in balance with the medium-intensity red fruit.  Wait another year or so, then drink in the next 2-3.
  • (We didn't make a varietal Mourvedre in the drought- and frost-reduced 2009 vintage)
  • 2010 Mourvedre: Showing crystal purity in the Mourvedre aromatics of roasted meat, wild strawberry, orange peel, pepper and mint.  The mouth is beautiful: mid-weight with pure plum and currant, nice clean tannins and good length.  Like a kir made with a great Chablis, if such a thing weren't sacrilege. If I were going to pick one wine to show off the appeal of the Mourvedre grape in its youth, this would be the one.
  • 2011 Mourvedre: A nose dominated by non-fruit elements, like many 2011's, with cedar, wintergreen, coffee and (eventually) some dark plum.  The mouth is dark chocolate, black licorice and aromatic herbs, with fairly big tannins coming out on the clean finish.  If you wait on this, you'll be rewarded, and if you're drinking it now, a decant is strongly recommended.
  • 2012 Mourvedre: Quite a vibrant high-toned nose, notably different from any of the previous wines.  Showing spruce, new leather, tangerine and red cherry on the nose.  The mouth is gorgeous, with vibrant red/orange fruit (think cherry jolly rancher, but more natural), great acids, and a long, mouth-watering finish.  I'm really interested to see where this wine goes, and it makes excellent if unexpected drinking now.

A few concluding thoughts. 

First, the characteristic flavors of Mourvedre (red fruit, leather, chocolate) wove through most of the vintages, though the characteristics of the vintage determined whether it was, for example, red cherry and milk chocolate, or black cherry and dark chocolate. 

Second, my favorite vintages (2003, 2007 and 2010) were different in weight, with the 2007 the biggest, the 2010 more mid-weight and the 2003 somewhere in the middle, but all showed great balance between the fruit and non-fruit (think savory, herbs and mineral) elements.  That's just one more bit of evidence, if it were needed, that balance is the key to pleasure in wine, at whatever volume suits your palate. 

And finally third, the oldest wine tasted quite young, which is consistent with our experience that Mourvedre is exceptionally resistant to oxidation.  This happy character is why it's often blended with Grenache (to give what's typically described as "backbone") and on its own it's great to see that a wine that's not terribly tannic when young can still evolve gracefully over a long time.


Introducing the wines for the 2014 Collector's Edition shipment

Each June, I have the pleasure of tasting through our library vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, with the goal of choosing the wines for the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment in September.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Collector's Edition, we created it in 2009 to give members a chance to acquire our flagship wines with some age on them, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.  We will be adding people on our waiting list to the Collector's Edition next week, subject to available space.  This is done based in the order in which people joined the waiting list; our current wait time is just over a year.  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.

In last year's Collector's Edition shipment, we chose to feature both Esprits from 2006.  This year, we'll use the 2005 Esprit red, and move to the 2008 Esprit Blanc.  Why the move back in vintage for the red, and up in vintage for the white?  The 2007 red didn't taste to me like it was quite ready.  It's still tight, laced with iron, with big tannins that seem to me like they need another year to resolve.  That's often the case for our most substantial vintages; they spend longer in each stage: youth, where they're exuberant and juicy, with big tannins cloaked by lush fruit; in middle-age, where some of the baby fat has faded and the tannins stand out more; and in maturity, where the tannins have softened and come back into balance with the fruit, and the wine has developed secondary flavors of leather and roasted meat.  These flavors are in full evidence in the 2005, as you'll see in the tasting notes below.  The 2007 white, on the other hand, was so luscious that we included it in our Collector's Edition shipment back in 2011, and we don't have enough left to include again.  So, the 2008 was next in line, and it will be a treat.
 
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:

Collectors Edition Bottles 2014

My tasting notes:

2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Shows a deep, rich nose of grilled bread, marzipan, menthol, butterscotch, sage and terragon.  The mouth shows powerful flavors of creme brulee, apricot, clove and marmalade.  The finish is long and creamy, with peach pit and saline mineral.  The wine's flavors broadened steadily as it sat in the glass, and I recommend a decant if you're enjoying it now.  If you're considering stashing this in your cellar, my feeling is that it's got a decade ahead of it still.

2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: A richly savory nose of leather, grilled meat, dark red fruit, mint and iron. In the mouth the wine is firm and spicy, with juiciness building through the mid-palate and flavors of blackberry, garrigue, and crushed rock.  The wine is meaty, rich, and very dry, with tannins that have softened but are still substantial, though I felt them more on the attack right now than on the very long finish, which showed an appealing chalkiness and notable refinement.  This wine, like the white, would also benefit from a decant if you're drinking it now, and should be at the front end of a peak drinking window that will last 15 years or more.


Celebrating "The New California Wine" with an old California wine

By Robert Haas

The New California Wine, by San Francisco Chronicle Wine Editor Jon Bonné and subtitled A guide to the Producers and Wines Behind a Revolution in Taste, is an ode to wineries that are producing wines of place, whether single varieties or blends, often working with organic or biodynamic vineyards; wines that are of moderate alcohol levels and speak to their origin.  It is a reminder that there is a growing wave of journalists, sommeliers and wine lovers pushing back against what Jon terms “big flavor wine.” Big flavor wines are, in Jon’s parlance, generally highly extracted, high alcohol, low acid, often oaky and slightly sweet on the palate.  Many of them have a cult following. 

NewCaliforniaWine

I welcome Jon’s suggestions and enjoyed reading his book.  I will search out several of the producers he introduced me to.  But in reading the book I kept thinking that what Jon terms a revolution is really a move back to a classic norm.

The advent of boutique wineries such as Joseph Heitz, Freemark Abbey, Chappellet, Joseph Phelps, Clos du Val, Stags Leap, Spring Mountain, and even Robert Mondavi, among others, in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s brought California, and particularly the Napa Valley, to the international wine community's attention.  Their wines were from specific vineyards, mostly their own, farmed for moderate yields, made in classic style and dimensions.  They took their lead from Beaulieu and Inglenook, estate producers before World War II, and looked toward France for inspiration.  Their wines were mostly in the 12.5% alcohol range. 

From back in the days when my company, Vineyard Brands, represented them, I still have Cabernets from Spring Mountain, Clos du Val and Chappellet from the 1970s, and some Pine Ridge from the 1980s.  They have aged beautifully.   Their tannins have softened and they are elegantly balanced with plenty of red and black fruit.  I recently opened a bottle of Chappellet 1974 Cabernet (12.7% alcohol) and was struck by its mature dark color with no oxidation.  It was powerful and densely structured, even still a little reticent with its blueberry fruit.  I had the feeling that it had reached a plateau of maturity (at 40 years old!) and would be enjoyable for some time to come.

Chappelet74_3

The “big flavor” wines are really a phenomenon of the last 20 years. As such, they are actually the new kids on the block.  Will they continue to dominate the paradigm or are they just a blip on the long-term chart of wine consumption?  I welcome the debate, and look forward to seeing whether a majority of vintners will continue to take advantage of the brilliant California climate to harvest ripe, high brix, low pH grapes and focus on lushness and power, or whether more will farm their vineyards to produce phenologically ripe grapes at lower Brix and make wines that focus more on terroir and elegance. Of course, there will be more than one "answer" to this question.

If I’m in harmony with the old standards, I know that the riper styles have their own passionate advocates as well.  But Jon’s book is a reflection of a conversation that it is important that the California winemaking community have. This discussion includes advocates of elegance -- both the newer producers he highlights and some established ones such as Calera and Ridge -- and those more exuberant producers, many of whose wines I see also preserving tremendous concentration while moving gradually away from excessive ripeness and new oak.  Perhaps this is California’s true strength: that winemakers with well-placed vineyards can, according to their beliefs, make compelling wines across the spectrum of ripeness.  In either case, greater diversity in the styles of California wine and the innovation fostered by the conversation itself will make the community stronger.  What do you think?


Vintage Hollywood

I have recently been finding myself contrasting two recent vintages primarily in terms of their personalities, rather than (or at least, in addition to) their flavors.  Our 2011 vintage produced wines that are tense, wound-up, powerful and brooding, that make you make an effort to get to know them.  The wines from our 2012 vintage are sunny, open, friendly, and easy to like without being simplistic.  Yes, these are notably anthropomorphic descriptions, and I have described each without mentioning anything about sweetness, acidity, flavors or texture.  And yet, don't you have a sense of what the two vintages' wines are likely to taste like?

That got me thinking of which movie stars might correspond to those two vintages, and once I got myself started, I couldn't stop.  So, I present to you the last ten vintages, with a female and male movie star who will help you get to know them, and a little explanation as to why. Images courtesy Wikipedia.

Star_Banner

  • 2004: "We didn't know they had it in them".  The 2004 vintage struck us at the time as likely to produce friendly, appealing wines without perhaps the structure and depth to age into elegance.  We were wrong, and the vintage has had remarkable staying power and has become something we didn't think it would be.
    • Female star: Mila Kunis, because when you saw her in That 70's Show, did you think she would be an A-list talent, as well as one of the most genuinely funny interview subjects in Hollywood?  Me neither.
    • Male star: Matthew McConaughey. Wooderson didn't seem likely to graduate to Dallas Buyers Club.
  • 2005: "Came through a few rough patches".  2005 wines were big and brawny when they were young, obviously with potential, but they shut down hard in middle-age and got downright difficult, to the point that we actually had to delay including the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel in our Collector's Edition Wine Club because it wasn't ready.  But now?  They're the wines I pick when I want to impress.
    • Female star: Drew Barrymore, who as a teenager didn't seem likely to mature into the funny, self-possessed star she is now.
    • Male star: Robert Downey Jr., whose transformation from talented tabloid regular to master of multiple genres has been remarkable to see.  Did you realize he's the most valuable movie star in Hollywood, and has been for two years running?
  • 2006: "The overachiever".  A little like 2004, except that the wines seemed more solid and less friendly at the start, likely to be respected and admired but unlikely to be loved.  Then they steadily put on substance while rounding off rough edges, until they were stars in their own rights.  It happened so gradually we were actually surprised when our 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel became our first wine to make the Wine Spectator's annual "Top 100" list.
    • Female star: Amy Adams, who seemed destined for typecast roles as the funny sidekick but who has pushed her boundaries until she's one of the most marketable women in Hollywood.
    • Male star: John C. Reilly, the consummate character actor who parlayed strong work in a steady stream of sidekick roles in great indie films into juicy lead roles in blockbusters like Chicago and Gangs of New York.
  • 2007: "The star".  Big, glossy, powerful, clearly A-list material, our most impressive vintage suggests the classic Hollywood star, at the height of his or her powers, who can play any role successfully.  Yet, you never forget you're watching a star conscious of his or her own power.  No one would describe the 2007 vintage as "cozy".
    • Female star: Catherine Zeta-Jones.  A-list lead.  Talented singer.  One of the most beautiful women of her generation.  Would I be terrified to meet her?  Absolutely.
    • Male star: George Clooney.  Ridiculously talented, funny, self-deprecating and successful in a number of different roles, but you never forget you're watching a movie star.  That's what 2007 is like.
  • 2008: "The quiet pro".  This vintage, sandwiched between the showier 2007 and 2009 vintages, was excellent in its own right, but didn't demand a lot of attention.  It's like the star you're always happy to see in a movie, but whose name probably isn't on the marquee.  Yet at the end, you're glad to have spent the time with them.
    • Female star: Julianne Moore: classy, elegant, always appealing, and often in roles that show off her acting rather than her beauty.  Always an asset to a cast.
    • Male star: Jake Gyllenhaal: ditto.  Can lead a major production, but it doesn't seem to happen as often as it could.
  • 2009: "The dark side".  Powerful, tightly wound, the 2009 vintage is like 2007 with some added menace: an a-list star willing to go without makeup in pursuit of a meaty role.  We're expecting the 2009's, which are a bit forbidding and tannic now, to unwind only gradually, but to reward patience handsomely.
    • Female star: Angelina Jolie, the classic female action hero, whose depth is promised and only gradually revealed. A powerful presence, alluring and intimidating in equal measure.
    • Male star: Daniel Craig, whose take on James Bond is darker than previous iterations, played straight rather than with a wink, still plenty suave while adding more muscle and an introspective streak. A Bond who doesn't let you inside.
  • 2010: "Classic elegance". The comparatively stress-free 2010 vintage, a wet year coming after three years of drought, produced wines that have to me always come across as effortlessly appealing, not notable for their power but beautifully delineated and in perfect balance, like a movie star who ages gracefully.
    • Female star: Gwyneth Paltrow, charming in whatever role she takes on, from the big screen to the kitchen, but seemingly most at home playing a version of herself.
    • Male star: Denzel Washington, whose quiet confidence and air of class allows him to imbue humanity into characters who in other hands would be straightforward villains or saccharine heroes. Watch Training Day and Remember the Titans and marvel that he starred in these back-to-back.
  • 2011: "A little intimidating". 2011 turned up the volume on 2010, gaining intensity from a spring frost and retaining bright acids from our second consecutive cold year.  All the wines have a brooding darkness and the promise of great depth. At the same time, they require a certain investment on your part as their consumer to meet them on their terms. They're not interested in pleasing the crowds.
    • Female star: Halle Berry, who could have settled into a comfortable role as model and actress playing beautiful people, but seemed to search out troubled characters that were impossible to pigeonhole.
    • Male star: Hugh Jackman, who inhabits Wolverine's character comfortably: funny and sociable in short, bitter bursts, but ultimately inward-focused and intense.
  • 2012: "Pleased to meet you". In dramatic contrast to 2011, 2012 comes to greet you with a smile. This isn't to say that there's not depth behind this happy facade, but the first impression I have with all the wines from 2012 is that they're charming, with generous fruit, engaging and enticing.
    • Female star: Reese Witherspoon, recent arrest notwithstanding, plays characters with an easy smile who you want to root for and for whom joy seems a regular emotion.
    • Male star: Tom Hanks, whose wide range never seems to include dour or unappealing characters.  Of course, if you were casting for an unappealing character, would you cast Tom Hanks?  Exactly.
  • 2013: "The prodigy". In our as-yet-limited experience of the 2013 vintage, it seems to combine the appeal of 2012 with the depth and intrigue of 2011.  We're not sure where it's going yet, but we know it's going to be fun to follow and get to know.
    • Female star: Jennifer Lawrence, whose range at age 23 is already staggering, and whose career arc is likely to be meteoric.
    • Male star: Leonardo DiCaprio, circa 1997.  There isn't really a current equivalent to the promise that a 22-year-old Leonardo DiCaprio showed, already nominated for an Oscar (at age 19) for his role in What's Eating Gilbert Grape and within a few months of becoming the biggest star in the highest-grossing movie ever.

I'm sure any list like this is going to create controversy, and would love to know your nominations for the characteristics of our different vintages.  Or maybe I'm totally off base and you've only made it this far because you're wondering if I've lost my mind.  In any case, let me know what you think in the comments.


Looking back a decade later at the 2004 vintage at Tablas Creek

2014 is a year of milestones for Tablas Creek.  It's been 25 years since we bought our property in 1989.  It's been 20 years since we picked our first grapes and made our first wines, in rented space at Adelaida Cellars down the road, in 1994.  Also in 1994, we got our first French cuttings in the ground, forming the foundation of the vineyard we have today.  Typically, the French wait until a vineyard is a decade old to use the grapes produced for their top wines, so 2004 is a landmark of sorts -- the vineyard's first "adult" vintage -- if you hold to such arbitrary things.  On a much more minor note, 2004 was also the first year we used screwcaps to finish a significant number of our wines.

In celebration of all this, we thought it would be interesting to check in on our 2004 wines to see how they were doing.  So, we did.  Sometimes, this job has its perks.  We opened every wine we made that year, with the goal of picking 8-10 for a slimmed-down (but hardly lean) version of this tasting we're planning for March 1st.  This later version will be open to the public, so please join us.  Details are here.

The lineup included 8 white wines, one pink, six reds, and two sweet wines, both white.  It was more than a bit intimidating:

2004 Horizontal

Joining me for the tasting were my dad, Winemaker Neil Collins, Viticulturist Levi Glenn, Cellarmaster Tyler Elwell, Sales Manager Darren Delmore, Marketing Coordinator Lauren Cross, and Assistant Tasting Room Manager Jennifer Bravo.  Below are my notes, in the order in which we tasted the wines. For complete production details and on-release tasting notes, click on the wine. For some reason, we never put up Web pages for the Bergeron and Antithesis, so I've tried to give a little extra background on those wines below.

  • 2004 Vermentino: At first, the nose came across as a little old, grassy, slightly scotch tape. But with air it improved, showing some sweetness and a nice lime peel note.  The mouth was still holding on, smooth, with nice acidity and appealing saltiness.  Darren thought it reminded him of an Australian riesling. We all thought it surprisingly fresh.  Screwcap.
  • 2004 Grenache Blanc: The nose showed some oxidation, with menthol, honey, and Scotch whiskey. The mouth showed better, with anise notes and a clean richness.  Neil, who liked it a lot, commented that with a nice paté or some rillettes, it would be beautiful.  The finish was long and rich. Cork.
  • 2004 Viognier: A similar plasticky smell at first on the nose as the Vermentino, and like the Vermentino, that blew off, to be replaced by green apple aromas with little hints of white flowers lurking behind.  The mouth was less exciting, not much viognier character, but with with both richness and good acids. An intellectual wine. Screwcap.
  • 2004 Antithesis: Our 100% chardonnay made from a small block in our nursery, named as such because on its first release in 2000 it was our only non-blend and only non-Rhone. This was the first white that I found pleasurable and not just interesting.  A darker color, likely from oak aging, with a nose unmistakably chardonnay: butter and butterscotch, and honey. The mouth is stone fruits (I thought peach syrup, Neil apricot preserves) but dry.  And for all these sweet descriptors, it had precision and length.  A pleasure, and a surprise. Cork.
  • 2004 Cotes de Tablas Blanc: The nose was rich, a little oxidized, and for me, a little heavy.  The palate was broad with bubble gum and mineral, fresh wet stone, maybe a little less acidity on the finish than I'd like.  This is riper (14.5% alcohol) and higher in viognier (55%) than we've been making our Cotes Blanc wines recently, and I like the direction in which we've taken them. Cork.
  • 2004 Bergeron: A wine that we made several years from roussanne planted in our cooler blocks and picked earlier, in homage to the roussannes of the Savoie. Very fresh on the nose, spicy, peppery and light in color.  The mouth showed to me a great coolness, with peppered grapefruit and good length.  Tyler noted its great acidity but with roussanne's characteristic breadth. Screwcap.
  • 2004 Roussanne: Smells older (which it isn't) and bigger (which it was) than the Bergeron, with peach pit and beeswax that's absolutely characteristic of our Roussanne.  In the mouth, it was powerful, with lots of texture and a little oak still that I was surprised hadn't integrated completely.  Big, and long, and very varietally typical. Cork.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: The nose shows aspects of both Roussanne and Grenache Blanc, with butterscotch and almond balanced by a menthol-like freshness.  The texture in the mouth was my most noteworthy aspect, saline and creamy, with less weight than the 100% Roussanne but fresher.  Levi described the flavor as "salted caramel".  The finish was lingering, with anise and mineral that someone described as "rain on the rocks". Beautiful. Cork.
  • 2004 Horizontal rose2004 Rosé: An amazing color (right), electric pink.  The nose shows age but wasn't oxidized, with marascino cherry predominant.  The mouth was rich, with a watermelon candy character and a little tannin from the 48 hours its mourvedre component spent on the skins.  My dad thought it "very mourvedre".  I thought it would showed a nice Beaujolais character and wrote down "quite yummy". A pleasant surprise to all of us. Screwcap.
  • 2004 Cotes de Tablas: We've consistently underestimated the Cotes de Tablas wines' ability to age, and this tasting gave us yet more evidence. The nose was gorgeous, with eucalyptus, fresh tobacco and bright, brambly fruit. Levi commented that it tasted "like a 2-year-old wine". On the mouth, it showed powerfully its grenache aspect (it was 64% grenache) with lots of strawberry fruit up front, and chalky grenache tannins on the end.  We all thought it could go another decade. We sold this for $22 at the time. Cork.
  • 2004 Mourvedre: My dad's comment, after only putting his nose in the glass, was "that's nice!". Meaty and leathery on the nose, with sweet red fruit and milk chocolate.  On the palate it was chewy and salty, leathery, with plums and incense.  Softer all around than the Cotes red, a fact which we all found interesting. Seductive. Cork.
  • 2004 Syrah: Classic syrah nose, with black fruit, juniper, and black olive. Very dark in color. Tyler identified boysenberry. The mouth showed baker's chocolate, black cherry, and peppermint on the finish.  There's still lots of tannin and a little oak on the finish, and the wine tasted to me like it's yet to reach its peak.  This drives home how much syrah benefits from aging. Cork.
  • 2004 Tannat: A woodsy, smoky nose of menthol and eucalyptus. Pine needles on the ground. Still pretty impenetrable (Darren asked if "bullet-proof" was a descriptor).  Neil thought it wanted some cassoulet, and at that point, who didn't.  The finish was if anything lighter than the attack, showing some red licorice and raspberry notes, along with dark chocolate.  My dad summed it up: "We don't call it Mr. T for nothing". Cork.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel: On the nose, softer than the preceding two wines and definitely showing its Mourvedre aspect: plums, meat drippings and milk chocolate.  Jenn thought it smelled "like my jar of bacon fat". It was soft, supple and well rounded, fully mature, though we didn't think it was on the downslope. Classy and classic. Cork.
  • 2004 Panoplie: The nose at this stage I found less appealing than the Esprit, a little confected and a little pruney, but with fig and tar.  The mouth, on the other hand, tasted like it had just been bottled, with lots of powerful dark red fruit and tannins that built and built.  Someone called it "a time capsule". I'd decant this for a while if I were drinking it now, or hold it for another few years. Cork.
  • 2004 Vin de Paille: This was perhaps the hardest wine of the tasting for me.  The nose was a little weird, sweet but somehow pickley.  The mouth was more straightforward, with flavors of marmelade and honey, and a cedary note on the finish.  I'm not sure if it's in a phase it will come out of, or if it's past its prime. It shouldn't be over the hill given its 39% roussanne and its sweetness, but our experience with wines like this is limited. Cork.
  • 2004 Vin de Paille "Quintessence": From a single barrel of roussanne that we dried on straw and held an extra year in the cellar. Both cleaner and bigger than the regular Vin de Paille, with flavors of butterscotch, golden raisin and maple sugar.  Neil described it as "like the caramel of a creme caramel". We all wanted it with a poached foie gras. A great way to end the tasting. Cork.

A few concluding thoughts.  First, we preferred all our screwcap-finished wines after they had a chance to breathe.  Consider decanting your older wines that have been finished in screwcap, but don't shy away from aging them because of their closure.  Second, we've consistently underestimated the ageworthiness of our "lesser" wines and instead focused on the Esprits and the Panoplie.  I loved (in addition to the ones I expected) the Antithesis, the Bergeron, the Rosé (!), the Cotes red and the Syrah. There are rewards to be had from aging many wines.

Finally, come and see for yourself!  At the tasting on 3/1 we decided we'll show the Antithesis, Bergeron, Roussanne, Esprit Blanc, Rosé, Cotes red, Mourvedre, Syrah, Esprit red, Panoplie, and Quintessence.  Not a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon, I submit.


Who says Americans don't age wine?

I've written before, in a handful of contexts, about what a great tool I think CellarTracker is.  I use it to monitor what our customers are saying about our wines, to track when wines seem to be going through dumb stages, and to look in on how some wines I don't open that often are aging.  My starting point is typically a survey of tasting notes on Tablas Creek, sorted by date. In a recent search I noticed that several people have opened and written up our 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel in the last month or so.  That's hardly surprising; it's the library vintage of Esprit that we sent out to our Collector's Edition wine club members last month, and the wine's arrival to some 750 club recipients likely spurred at least some of those new tasting notes.

One thing I noticed in the search is that of the 2050 bottles of the 2006 Esprit that have been entered into CellarTracker, 1287 of them (63%) are still in cellars, while only 37% have been consumed.  I wondered whether or not that had been influenced by the fact that the wine is a new arrival for many customers, so I checked some other vintages and found that the 2006 is in line with other vintages around it:

Percent of Esprit Consumed
The data from 2000 (when there were only 347 bottles entered into CellarTracker, most of them, presumably, some time after they were purchased) looks to me like an outlier, and we didn't make an Esprit de Beaucastel in 2001, but starting in 2002 the data looks pretty regular, with well over 1000 bottles entered each year.  Not only does the data show that it's not until about a decade out that half of the entered bottled are drunk, but It also seems to show that consumers are following our advice to wait on particularly big, structured vintages (like 2005, 2007 and 2009) and instead drink the more open vintages from the even-numbered years.

I find it heartening that even in our oldest vintages of Esprit, released a decade ago or more, at least 40% of the bottles entered into the CellarTracker system have yet to be consumed.  I did a few spot-checks to see whether it's only this wine that people are saving, and found that CellarTracker customers are in aggregate behaving in a rational manner: drinking up the wines that are meant to be drunk young but aging wines (both reds and whites) that are worthy of aging.  A few of these data points, from least to most ageworthy:

  • Rosé/Dianthus: 2012 47% consumed; 2011 73% consumed; 2010 76% consumed
  • Vermentino: 2012 19% consumed; 2011 51% consumed; 2010 66% consumed
  • Esprit Blanc: 2010 23% consumed; 2006 56% consumed; 2003 72% consumed
  • Cotes de Tablas: 2010 35% consumed; 2008 64% consumed; 2005 72% consumed
  • Panoplie: 2010 6% consumed; 2007 9% consumed; 2004 25% consumed

Can we reconcile this evidence with the much-reported trope that the vast majority of wine purchased (between 70% and 90%) is consumed within 24 hours of its purchase?  Perhaps not.  The average CellarTracker user is clearly not the average wine drinker; there is a level of self-selection in the person who would choose a cellar management tool.  Those who do not routinely age wine are unlikely to need a tool to manage their wine inventories.

But I think it's a larger mistake -- and one that leads many winemakers to incorrect winemaking assumptions -- to assume that there is a single type of wine consuming American, who doesn't like to age their wines.  From talking to our customers, it's clear that there is a significant audience for whom cellaring wine is an important pastime, and that the 285,000 active users of CellarTracker are just a fraction of that number. 

Are there millions of wine consumers who wouldn't dream of cellaring a bottle for a decade?  Sure.  Should this matter to a winery like us?  I'm not convinced.  We're a relatively small winery with a direct relationship with more than half of the 50,000 customers we need each year to keep us going.  And the wine consuming market is tremendously heterogeneous.  Just as there are millions of wine consumers who drink nothing but sweet wines, or nothing but wines under $10, or nothing that requires a corkscrew, there is a market of millions who have the means and interest in buying ageworthy wines.  Heck, 2.8 million people read each issue of Wine Spectator, for a start.  It's great that there are wines that are directed at the wine drinker who wants immediate gratification.  But that's not the only market out there, and my sense is that the wine lover who wants to get to know a wine over time, and who enjoys the developing arc of a wine's personality as it ages, makes up a larger percentage of the American public than is routinely acknowledged. 

And thank goodness for that.


Announcing the wines in the 2013 VINsider Collector's Edition shipment

One of my highlights each June is the tasting where we get to choose which library vintage of the Esprit and Esprit Blanc we will include in the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment in September.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Collector's Edition, we created it in 2009 to give members a chance to acquire our flagship wines with some age on them, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.  We will be adding people on our waiting list to the Collector's Edition next week, and also opening reigstration for a short time, subject to available space.  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.

We have been keeping older vintages of the Esprit and Esprit Blanc since the 2003 and 2005 vintages, respectively.  So this week, I tasted through our library vintages to decide which wines we wanted to include this fall.  It's an interesting challenge, because we want the wines to have had enough time in the cellar to show signs of maturity, but still catch them at (ideally the beginning of) their peak.

In the tasting, for the second year in a row we chose wines from the same vintage.  This drives home what we see regularly, that Roussanne acts in many ways -- including aging in bottle -- like a red wine.  The vintage of choice was 2006:

Collectors Edition Bottles 2013

My tasting notes:

2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: A clear, vibrant light gold color.  The nose is bright and floral, showing jasmine, honeysuckle, melon and pear, as well as more savory notes of aloe and lanolin. The mouth shows the wonderful acids that I remember from the 2006 vintage, then flowing into richness: honeyed pear, marmalade and grilled pineapple, with a nuttiness from the seven years of age. The acids reassert themselves on the finish, emphasizing the wine's minerality and leaving a lingering impression of fresh honeycomb.  This seems to me to be at the beginning of a peak that will last for some time.

2006 Esprit de Beaucastel: Shows a deep, earthy nose of soy, dusty red fruit, licorice, black olive and mocha.  The mouth is lusher than the nose initially suggests, with rich flavors of plum, leather, anise and sweet spice, all underpinned by a brambly wildness I found totally captivating.  The tannins have softened but still provide a welcome counterpoint to the palate's richness, and a chewy texture that lingers on the finish, framed by the acidity I noticed in the white.  While this is beautiful now, I have the sense it can age for easily another decade in the cellar and likely more.


The Pleasure of Discovered Bottles

By Robert Haas

Over the last 59 years I have been buying, selling, and putting wines in my cellar, first in Vermont, and then in California as well.  And, of course, there is the house cellar and the storage cellar in each place.  So I have an excuse for occasionally (actually all too often) losing track of what is in the cellar and discovering bottles that I had forgotten that I owned. 

Sometimes those bottles are well over the hill and gone, but not too often, thankfully.  Good well-made wines are remarkably sturdy and generously long-lived when well stored.  Just the other night I discovered some Château La Tour Haut Vignoble 1970, a St. Estèphe crû bourgeois (now Château Tour Haut Vignoble) in our house cellar in Vermont that could have passed for the well-known grand premier crû Château Latour itself.

Sometimes even forgotten bottles of white wines turn out to be a revelation.  Such was the case at a gathering with friends Mel and Ynez Kaplan at their house in Charlotte, VT last Saturday.  Mel brought out a couple of bottles of Tablas Creek Clos Blanc 2000.  He asked whether I thought that it would still be good.  Mel has an underground cellar there so I said,  “Let’s give it a try.”  Clos Blanc was the name we attached to our reserve white blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier before we introduced the Esprit de Beaucastel name in the 2001 vintage.

Clos Blanc

The wine was still remarkably youthful in character after 11 years in bottle: pale green-gold in color, with aromas of white flowers, honeysuckle and almonds.  The palate was lively, rich and mouth-filling with citrusy, honey, nutty and saline flavors: a wine to match the best and a testament to the ageworthiness of Roussanne -- even from young vines -- and our terroir here at Tablas Creek.  What a happy discovery!


Of Broncos and Wine, 1996 Vintage

By Robert Haas

This week we had fun visitors from Vermont: our daughter Rebecca, her husband, their three year old, Emmett, and old friends Mike and Cheryl LeClair.  The LeClairs volunteered to drive our 1990 Ford Bronco here from Vermont in September of 1996 and help with the harvest.  That 1996 harvest was from our new, very young Tablas Creek vineyard but, since our own on-site winery was a year away from completion we vinified and bottled the tiny production over at the Adelaida Cellars winery, a few miles down Adelaida Road.

I wanted to sample a bottle of 1996 with the LeClairs while they were here, so I found a bottle of our Tablas Hills "Cuvee Blanc" from that year.  We used the Tablas Hills label for our wines in 1995 and 1996, grown on our property but made at Adelaida Cellars, and debuted the Tablas Creek Vineyard label we use today in 1997 with the completion of our estate winery.  The 1996 Cuvee Blanc was a blend of Roussanne and Viognier from our then-3-year-old vines.  I brought the bottle to a dinner party at Jason’s to which Cesar Perrin (François’ youngest son, who was 6 years old in 1996) and Neil Collins were also invited. 

1996 Cuvee Blanc

We were all surprised by the resiliency of the wine.  It was delicious: light golden in color, white flowers, honey and almonds on the nose, dry, soft, rich and structured on the palate, with only the slightest hint of its 17 years of age.  You can see the youthful color in the photo below.

RZH Drinking the 1996 Cuvee Blanc

We are often asked about our expected longevity for our wines; mostly about the reds.  Since our first bottlings from our imported vines were in 1996, we do not have decades of experience to go on.  At this point, we believe at least 20 years.  But this weeks’ experience of this 1996 demonstrates the ability of the whites, especially the Roussannes and their blends to age many years and improve in bottle. The blog has the report from one recent vertical tasting of the Esprit blancs.

The ability of a wine to not only age, but to age well, going from rich, juicy, sometimes tannic youth to elegant, nuanced maturity, has always been a mark of quality.  Paso Robles may not have yet deveoped the reputation of ageworthiness to rival that of Napa, Bordeaux or even Chateauneuf-du-Pape, but tastings like these give us every reason to expect that it will. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, that old Bronco that arrived in time to help us with the 1996 harvest is still running. It was great to see that the vintage it helped produce is keeping pace.


We conduct a vertical tasting of Syrah in honor of Paso Robles Syrah Month

It’s Syrah month here in Paso Robles.  At the beginning of the year, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance launched a “varietal of the month” program that cycles through the major grapes grown here, and are supporting it with a grower blog, a winemaker interview and a new installment of the Paso Wine Man video series:

In celebration, we decided to open up every vintage of varietal Syrah we’ve made, going back to our first-ever varietal red wine: the 2002 Syrah that we made three barrels of for our new wine club back when three barrels was plenty to make it around to all our club members.  Since then, we’ve made a Syrah each year other than 2009 and 2011, when spring frosts cut our Syrah crop sufficiently that we sacrificed the varietal Syrah to protect our blends.

One other element of interest was tracking how the three-year stretch (2005-2007) when we added 10% Grenache to our varietal Syrah changed the wines’ expression.  For all our commitment to blending, at this vantage point at least the group generally preferred the wines we made pure. Our tasting notes:

  • 2002 Syrah (100% Syrah): A dusty, spicy, minty/menthol-elevated nose. In the mouth, it’s mid-weight, with an inky soy-like darkness and a little cedary oak. There’s the classic Syrah creamy texture, and still firm tannins on the end.  A nice showing for this wine, which was more youthful than any of us expected.
  • 2003 Syrah (100% Syrah): A higher-toned, balsamic and meat drippings nose with a chalky minerality showing through. More of the tangy meat drippings on the palate with dark red fruit. Less density than the 2002 but more elegance, and in a very nice place now.
  • 2004 Syrah (100% Syrah): The nose just screams Syrah, with meat, pepper, mint and mineral components. The mouth is juicier than the nose suggests, showing blackberry and pepper and dark chocolate, and black cherry coming out on the finish. Opulent compared to the first two wines, with fruit/acid/structure all in synch. A consensus favorite of the earlier vintages.
  • 2005 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): This began a three-year experiment where we put 10% Grenache into our varietal Syrah. A rich, gamy, wild meat and juniper nose. The mouth is less juicy and more savory than the 2004 with flavors of olive tapenade and meat drippings, and still with big tannins that come out on the finish. My dad noted that the addition of Grenache made it taste more like Tablas Creek but less like Syrah. One to wait on, we agreed.
  • 2006 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): A similar nose to the 2005, focusing on the savory, meaty, balsamic and tapenade-laced nose, but somehow more gentle. The flavors reminded me of the drippings from a garlic and rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb, with additional, and welcome, flavors of blueberry and licorice. Medium-weight and in a very pretty place for drinking now.
  • 2007 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): Less giving on the nose than the previous wines, a little kiersch liqueur note but not much more. The mouth is big, rich and creamy with flavors of milk chocolate and good acids but with massive tannins.  We all thought that there was a ton of potential but that the wine was still so tightly wound that its complexity was still masked by a layer of baby fat and those huge tannins. It did open up with time in the glass, so a decant is suggested if you must open one now.
  • 2008 Syrah (100% Syrah): An inviting nose of pine forest, juniper, and tangy blackberry. The mouth is reminiscent of the 2004, but with an added dramatic saline minerality that I loved and lingering flavors of bacon and blackberries and cream, but firmly dry. The finish is energetic and elegant with a brambly soy note. A consensus favorite among the younger vintages.
  • 2010 Syrah (100% Syrah): A nose unlike any of the previous vintages, inky and foresty, smelling dark and saturated. On the palate, powerful flavors of black licorice, chalk, and bacon, with a creamy blueberry note and a long, berry-laced finish. The palate is terrific but the nose still coming around, which suggests a short-term rest in the cellar.

A few final conclusions. One, that Paso Robles really is a spectacular place for Syrah.  We found a combination of the grape’s classic savory, bacony, blackberry notes with a creamy minerality and acidity that everyone around the table attributed to our limestone soils.  That set the wines apart from many Syrahs made elsewhere in California, and from the great Syrahs that come from Hermitage and Cote Rotie, none of which have limestone and all of which show a lower-acid, lusher profile.  The wines were instead reminiscent of Cornas, the Northern Rhone’s sole limestone-rich red appellation, perhaps a bit less polished than its better-known neighbors just to the north, but with an energy and vibrancy that we all were proud of. 

Two, we generally agreed that we preferred the purer expression the Syrah character in the wines that were 100% Syrah to the more Southern Rhone character of the three vintages where we added 10% Grenache, though those wines were appealing in a different way, with more garrigue and mid-palate texture, and had their proponents as well.  The tasting was a good reminder that relatively small percentages make a significantly difference in the finished expression.

Finally, our favorites were 2004 and 2008 in large part because of how each, in its own way, spoke powerfully of the Syrah grape in all its glory: meaty and minerally and fruity and creamy: the classic flavors that my wife Meghan called “butter in a butcher shop” when she first tasted it out of foudre. They also finish with substantial tannins but don’t come across as blocky or heavy.  I’m expecting a similar evolution with our 2010 Syrah that is going to wine club members next month.  We’re all in for a treat.