Our most memorable wines of 2012

As we move forward into the new year, I asked some of our key team members to reflect a bit on what wines stuck with them from 2012.  Some chose Tablas Creek, but most did not (and those who did all chose different wines!).  The wines they chose are every bit as eclectic as you might expect, but are, equally as you might expect, great reflections of the amazing team we have here.  They are presented to you in alphabetical order, in the original words of each person, except I'm saving my comments for last.

Neil Collins, Executive Winemaker and Vineyard Manager
As someone who spends far too much time indulging in wines both fine and not so much this is generally a tough question. However not so this time around. Whilst on the east coast attending a charity event as the Tablas Creek guy behind the table, I took the opportunity to visit the Haas family home in Vermont. Splendid place. Now Robert Haas is not known for pouring the not-so-much ones anyway, but on this occasion, WOW. An absolutely perfect rack of lamb on my plate, the wine served was a perfectly cellared 1978 Clos de la Roche out of magnum. As I sniffed the glass I was taken aback with its subtle beauty, I glanced at Bob who with a glimmer of a grin merely raised an eyebrow in agreement, a rare one. The wine was stunning, with the lamb even better! Had I not already been seated I may well have fallen to my knees. I am a lucky boy!!

A slightly more attainable bottle was a Madeleine Cabernet Franc, my favorite non-Loire Cabernet Franc to date. CHEERS NEIL

Darren Delmore, National Sales Manager
My most memorable wine of 2012: 2008 Ramey Chardonnay Hyde Vineyard, Carneros, California.The Hyde Vineyard, in my opinion, is the best Chardonnay vineyard in America, and winemakers working with this site, like Whitethorn, HdV, Patz and Hall, and Ramey, have stories of harvesting Chardonnay at sky-high sugar levels, supernaturally low PH’s, and significant natural acidity levels. The matching of varietal to site is spot on here. Place, time, occasion and food are all key factors in determining an impressionable wine, and the Ramey ticked all the boxes. This was my first Father’s Day, even though my son was in the womb, and on a golden late afternoon on a ridgetop in Anderson Valley, I matched this weighty, citrusy, barrel-fermented beauty with a local abalone that was bigger than my face.

Best of 2012 - ramey

Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker
When prompted to talk about my most memorable wine of 2012, I have a feeling I will deviate from my peers in terms of criteria for my finalists.  While I did have some lovely wines this past year, for me, the most truly memorable wines are those that are shared with my favorite people in the world.  Sometimes that means the wine is a special bottle from a well-respected producer, a bottle that has been saved in the back of the collection waiting for the perfect occasion, or sometimes, it can be a bottle picked up from Trader Joe’s the day of the party and enjoyed with fabulous company. 

That being said, I’ll choose my wine this year based on the company it was enjoyed with and, I suppose, the way in which it was presented.  My family always enjoys a bottle of bubbles on Christmas morning and this year, we made it all the more memorable by sabering the bottle with a ski.  Why a ski?  Well, why not?  I certainly do not encourage this kind of behavior, but I will say it was exceptionally fun (and my skis are in dire need of a tune anyway, so I wasn’t particularly worried about the edges).   Tell me that doesn’t look fun.  And memorable?  Quite.

Best of 2012 - chelsea

Nicole Getty, Wine Club and Hospitality Director
I did not consume very much wine in 2012, as I was pregnant for most of the year, and even on special occasions, it was not appealing to me. However, a few days after my son was born, we celebrated with what I had been craving- a margarita with extra salt! Oh, and lots of salty chips and salsa! I plan on digging out some of my bottles of wine from my wine fridge in 2013 (including of course Tablas Creek and Beaucastel that I’ve tucked away).

Levi Glenn, Viticulturist
2011 Domaine de L'Idylle Mondeuse Noir (Vin de Savoie): Not a blockbuster is the traditional sense, this wine wins with charm, not brawn. It lies somewhere on the spectrum between Cru Beaujolais and St. Joseph, and is grown high in the French Alps. Aromatically it just jumps out of the glass with its bright macerated cherries, but as it opens up intense fresh ground pepper aromas starts to dominate while a warm stony minerality lurks below. Its light ruby color mirrors its impression on the palate. In the mouth the wine is lively and light on its feet. A nice punch of acidity hits you on the back end, and entices you to take another sip. A great example of a wine that is intense without  being heavy, and true food wine. Pair with a traditional Raclette meal.

Runner-up: 2010 Chateau de St. Cosme Gigondas: From my favorite appellation in any country or continent, this wine shows the cool side of Grenache. This AOC is higher in elevation than most in the southern Rhone, and while it doesn’t have quite the worldwide recognition of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the best Gigondas wines can be equally as good. They have plenty of concentration in most vintages, but they usually more acidity than CdP, and tend to exhibit more rustic tannin structure. Villa Creek Restaurant in Paso Robles is pouring it, but get it while you can, because this wine just received the No. 2 spot on Wine Spectators Top 100 for 2012. 

Robert Haas, Founder
I have been privileged to taste and drink many stunning older wines in my 63 years in the wine trade: Bordeaux, Burgundy, Rhône back to 1870, Napa Cabernets of the '70s and '80s, and some remarkable Champagnes in the days when the special cuvées were made in the hundreds of cases rather than the tens of thousands.  This year I particularly delighted in two great 1981’s:  A Vosne-Romanée Orveaux of Mongeard and a Beaucastel.  I wrote blogs about them: A Summer Dinner in Vermont and A Truffly Duet.  

Two other wines struck me as outstanding this year, both from Tablas Creek.  One was on the young side, yet seemed in absolute perfect balance: the 2007 Panoplie.  It was surprisingly seamless from nose to finish and delightfully savory.  You can read about it in our blog, We Celebrate the Holidays with a Vertical Tasting of Panoplie.  The other was the 2011 Esprit tasted from one of the foudres after I returned from Vermont.  Its complexity, fruit and spices, all singing out in harmony, despite the fact that it was still nine months away from bottling, blew me away.  What a great release it is going to be later this year!

Sylvia Montague, Assistant Tasting Room Manager
I "think pink" a good amount of the time, not just when the temps begin to rise.  This year I was able to secure a case of the Robert Sinskey 2011 Vin Gris of Pinot Noir (after only being able to purchase one bottle of the 2010 while on a visit there in April of 2011) and have been enjoying them throughout the summer and fall.  It is dry, crisp, aromatic, nicely structured and above all, elegant.  The wine has great texture, a beautiful salmon color and pairs very well with a variety of foods.  To me it is, indeed, summer in a glass. The only dilemma is when to enjoy the one bottle remaining in my cellar…

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager
My life has changed a quite a bit in the last few years.  Formerly a life-long bachelor, I married two summers ago and became an instant step-father to three.  This has brought a new sense of purpose to my life, but as you might imagine, has shifted my priorities considerably.  Seeking out the pleasures of food and wine has taken a back seat to new shoes, dance and cello lessons, a bottomless refrigerator, and rather lengthy Christmas lists.  Meanwhile, my cellar has shrunk to a few precious bottles I cling to with hope.

However, at the risk of seeming a homer, I have my work to look forward to, and the pleasure of tasting Tablas Creek wine every day.  We recently bid farewell to the last bottle of 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel, my favorite vintage to date.  We dread the end of the 2010 Côtes de Tablas, which we all pretend not to see coming.  The 2011 Roussanne, released in the latest wine club shipment, is a revelation.  But the wine that has moved me the most is the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc:  Waxy and honeyed, floral and savory, minerally and refined with a long, sophisticated finish, it’s the embodiment of what a white Rhône wine should be. 

Deanna Ryan, Tasting Room Team Lead
I would have to say the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc for its fantastic balance of richness and acidity that never fails to satisfy, with or without food.  Also, the 2010 Counoise for its flirtatious gentility. I found it to be the ideal wine to reward oneself with at the end of a long workday.  Of course the 2010 Mourvedre is another strong contender due to its subtle layering of flavors and gentle tannins. Cheers!

Jason Haas, Partner and General Manager
As for me, I've found my most memorable wines this year to be signposts on the development of Tablas Creek.  There are three that stood out.  The first was the amazing discovery that Cesar Perrin and I made on the incomparable wine list at Bern's in Tampa, FL.  On a night when I tasted my first birth-year wines (1973 wasn't a year that many people felt like keeping around) and some incredible old Riojas and Burgundies, our indelible memory would be a 1966 Pierre Perrin Chateauneuf du Pape -- the first-ever Haas-Perrin collaboration, that neither of us knew existed.  The wine itself was elderly.  But the discovery of its significance was a revelation.

Best of 2012 - perrin

Moving forward in time, the family dinner my dad blogged about last week, where he opened a mystery vintage of Beaucastel to find a remarkable bottle of 1981, was probably my favorite meal of the year. Like the classic dish it was paired with, the 1981 Beaucastel didn't shout at you.  It didn't elbow the meal's other components out of its way.  But it sang, on its own and with the food, mellow yet still utterly sure of itself.  I didn't want to get up from the table.

But if I had to pick one wine that I keep coming back to from last year, it was (as it has been each time I've had the pleasure to drink it) the 1989 Beaucastel that Cesar Perrin poured for us in a farewell vertical before he completed his year-long stint at Tablas Creek in April.  That 1989 was perfectly poised between fruit and earth, between richness and freshness, between youth and maturity, and for all its meatiness and juiciness tasted indelibly like the rocks in which it grew.

May your 2013 be equally as full of good food, great wines, and memorable company with whom to share them.


Poulet demi-deuil and Beaucastel: A truffly duet

By Robert Haas

The end of fall and beginning of winter is the season that we enjoyed wonderful black truffle dishes during our travels to visit vineyard proprietors in France.  Alas, although we have learned to produce fine wines in California, we have not been able to do black truffles yet.

So, when the yearly truffle yearning comes along, we sometimes yield to the temptation of buying imported French truffles on line.  We do scrambled eggs with truffles (yum), as served at Beaucastel or chez Perrin, and last night, with our California family, a poulet demi-deuil (literally “chicken in half-mourning” for the dark color given to the chicken’s skin by the slices of truffle nestled underneath. Once appropriately dressed, the chicken is poached in chicken stock).  It is a dish y which we were stunned at first exposure at La Mère Brazier, just outside Lyon, many long falls ago.

What wine to serve with the poulet?  I had recently discovered an old bottle of Château de Beaucastel originally from my Vermont cellar, transported to California in the ‘90s, label damaged and vintage unknown, and wondered when to serve it.  The answer became obvious last night.  I knew that we would discover the vintage on the cork.  It turned out to be 1981: a great vintage at Beaucastel although dodgy almost everywhere else in France.

Beaucastel 1981 cork

The wine was absolutely perfect: mature yet no hint of oxidation, truffly in itself, echoing the dish, velvety, rich, leathery, with dark red fruits and a long finish.  Thirty-one years old and fully mature, in beautiful balance. What a nice memorable evening with food, family and a great wine!


We celebrate the holidays with a vertical tasting of Panoplie

Over the last few months, I've gotten several questions on how the Panoplie was tasting, and I realized that this isn't a wine I'm fortunate to open enough to know what to tell people.  So, on Friday, the last day before our offices closed for the Christmas holiday, I decided to reward myself and our team with a chance to taste every vintage of Panoplie we've made, and share the notes so that anyone who's lucky enough to have a few bottles in their cellar can see what we think.

The Panoplie, for those who don't know it, is our elite red wine modeled after the Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques Perrin, with a very high percentage of Mourvedre and an extremely limited production.  This is not a wine that we put into distribution; it goes exclusively to our wine club members each spring, with the opportunity to purchase 2 or 3 more bottles maximum after each shipment.  Even so, it rarely lasts more than a month.

The lots that we choose for the Panoplie are the richest and most compelling in the cellar, and these wines are made to age.  In the tasting, all but the oldest (from 2000) tasted still to me like young wines, with decades ahead of them.  But one revelation for me that came out of the tasting was that there were only two vintages I'd caution people away from at the moment: 2009, which is just too big, young, and wound up, and 2006, which appeared to us to be in the in-between teenage stage that many Mourvedre-based wines go through 5-7 years after their vintage date.  The other wines all offered immense pleasure, even in their youth, and while they will undoubtedly add complexity with additional time in bottle, no one will be disappointed if they open one up this holiday season. Joining me and my dad for the tasting were Winemakers Neil Collins, Ryan Hebert and Chelsea Magnusson, Viticulturist Levi Glenn, and National Sales Manager Darren Delmore. The lineup:

Panoplie vertical

The notes, by vintage (note that we didn't produce a Panoplie in 2001):

  • 2000 Panoplie (55% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 15% Grenache): Rich and deep on the nose, with some deeper soy and roasted meat flavors from maturity but no sign of fatigue.  The mouth shows more of the mature meatiness of Mourvedre, still with some significant tannins on the finish that were different than later vintages perhaps because of the youth of the vines and perhaps because of the much higher percentage of Syrah than we used in any future vintage. Chelsea called it "sinewy", for its lean power. It made me want a braised meat dish to serve it with.
  • 2002 Panoplie (80% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache, 7% Counoise): An immensely appealing nose of milk chocolate and rich red fruit, with a mouth-filling weightiness in the mid-palate that was quite different from the lean power of the 2000.  The finish showed nice acidity and tightened a bit, suggesting to all of us some extra time in the cellar. My dad commented that "you'd never guess this was a 10-year-old wine" and we all agreed.
  • 2003 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 7% Syrah, 3% Counoise): The showstopper, in my opinion, of the first five vintages, with a nose balanced between sweeter aromas of jam and confectioner's sugar and more savory elements like juniper and sage. The mouth is packed with sweet fruit, almost raspberry jam, and great length with a smoky garrigue note that was welcome after the palate's lushness. A great Christmas wine, with all the classic Christmas flavors wrapped up inside.
  • 2004 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 10% Syrah): The nose is wonderfully seamless and refined, if less exuberant than the two previous vintages: more leather, licorice and plums.  The mouth was showing an almost unctuous richness with flavors of milk chocolate with a creamy texture that made me think of marshmallows. Then the wine lengthens on the dry finish with lots of ripe tannins and wild berry fruit, and a little sweet oak. Perhaps a touch on the sweet side right now for my taste, but an obvious crowd pleaser.
  • 2005 Panoplie (70% Mourvedre, 25% Grenache, 5% Syrah): A different nose than the previous three wines, smokier with grilled herbs and dark fruit. The mouth is very rich but clean on the mid-palate and adds an appealing sweet mintiness on the finish, more wintergreen than juniper. The wine's big tannins come out at the end, suggesting that people need be in no hurry to drink it. Like the other 2005 reds we've opened recently, it's a sexy wine, with what Darren called "racy tannins" and my dad called "come-hither" aromatics.
  • 2006 Panoplie (68% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 5% Syrah): More restrained aromatically (Neil called it "almost Pinot-esque") with a woodsy, foresty, savory nose.  It was fresh in the mouth with a raspberry brightness on the palate and something zesty that I thought reminded me of quince. The finish was shorter than the vintages around it, with a little menthol character that came across to several of us as a little hot.  This struck me as a bit disjointed right now, not unpleasant but neither what it was nor what it will be.  I'd wait another year or two and check back in.
  • 2007 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): Amazingly rich and dense on the nose, but not at all sweet: mint and iron and soy and roasted meat drippings. The mouth is just spectacular, rich and potent with big tannins cloaked by lush fruit and a spice box character, broadening out on the very long finish to show roasted meat and a lifting aromatic note that reminded me of a clove-studded orange. Neil commented that "it immediately took me to Beaucastel". Chelsea said "that one smells like a special occasion". A consensus favorite, along with 2010. If you're opening this in 2013, be careful to check our vintage chart; the clock suggests that this will start to shut down in the near future and it's so good it would be a shame to catch it at anything less than its peak.
  • 2008 Panoplie (54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah): Very pretty, with some of the same Pinot character to the nose that we found in the 2006. A coolness to the tone of the aromatics showed pine forest, spice, and red berries. The mouth is elegant, translucent in comparison to the 2007, with tobacco, purple fruit, and a clean, pretty finish. Not the blockbuster that some other vintages are, but wonderfully expressive and, as Levi pointed out, "super cohesive".
  • 2009 Panoplie (65% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 9% Syrah): The nose was a little unfocused after the two previous wines, and showed a touch of heat. The mouth is rich and coating, but clean, with powdered-sugar tannins, cherry, and tobacco flavors, and big tannins that come out on the finish and dominate the fruit a bit at this stage. Neil commented that there is "lots of stuff going on, but just not all together yet". Very young and wound up, but with lots of potential.
  • 2010 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah), will go out to VINsider club members in March: A really nice stony fruit character on the nose, blueberries and plum pit and a savory olive tapenade note. The mouth shows a lovely melted licorice character, rich yet tangy, with a saline note that I've noted in many of our 2010's, red and white. It's spicy, but in great balance with fruit and mineral components. The finish is long, clean and complex, with beautiful balance. And as good as this is now, Neil commented that "five years from now, this will be at another level".
  • 2011 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah), in foudre right now, will be bottled in July and released spring of 2014: So young, fresh and juicy, with a licorice note that we typically associate with Grenache and a campfire smokiness that owes nothing to barrel and everything to the unique combination of lushness and savoriness we find in the 2011 vintage. There's a creamy, white chocolate texture in the mouth, with lots of herbs and spice, and a long finish highlighted by 2011's characteristic fresh acidity. Shows wonderful potential.

Overall, we were impressed with how, even within a relatively narrow range of blends, the wines showed the character of the different vintages.  Years that showed more freshness and more translucency (like 2006, 2008 and 2010) showed that character in more elegant Panoplies, though they still showed plenty of power. More blockbuster years like 2003, 2005 and 2007 showed that lushness, but balanced it with savory notes.  All the wines seem like they have a long, happy life ahead of them.  But other than the couple of vintages noted (2006 and 2009) don't feel like you need to hold off opening one in the nearer term, particularly if you have a few bottles.  I know that we'll be picking out one for the New Year's Eve dinner at our house tomorrow. If you do the same... please share how it's tasting!


We finally open the iconic wine that began the Haas-Perrin collaboration

Regular readers of the blog will remember my post from May which detailed the discovery on the incomparable wine list of Bern's Steak House of the first Haas-Perrin collaboration: a 1966 Chateauneuf du Pape under the Pierre Perrin label (pictured below).  If you missed that post, go read it now and we'll wait for you.

66PierrePerrinCdP_1

OK, welcome back.

I brought that bottle back to California with me, but wanted to wait to open it with my dad, and he spends summers in Vermont and didn't get back until last month.  Then, in the busy harvest season, it took us another month.  But last weekend, we opened it:

66PierrePerrinCdP_2

Here are our notes: a very pale, orange-amber in color, but clear.  The nose is clearly that of an elderly wine, but in no way flawed: aromas of coffee grounds, orange liqueur, creme de menthe and nutmeg.  The mouth is still very nicely balanced with candied orange peel, forest floor, and a minty heathery note that I often find in old wines. There's something meaty and savory there too... the closest I could come was mincemeat pie, which also suggests the wine's brandyish character. It's not particularly a fruity wine at this stage, but amazingly, with air, some prune and pomegranate comes out.  The finish is clean but short, and leaves only a hint of unsweetened cocoa powder.

My dad's comment was that "it's still honorable... there's still something there." He added that he picked lots -- mostly or perhaps all Syrah -- for their appeal at the time, and fully expected them to be drunk up within the first few years.  He was as amazed as anyone that there's still some of this wine out there to be found.

If you should find yourself at Bern's, it's definitely worth a taste (particularly at Bern's incredibly modest price).  How often, after all, do you have the chance to drink a 46-year-old Chateauneuf du Pape of which there were only 300 cases originally?  But whatever its current state, it's most amazing as a landmark in the history of the American Rhone movement.  Without it, we quite literally wouldn't be here.


An anniversary dinner of rack of lamb, roasted tomatoes and avocado salad with Esprit de Beaucastel

This is a busy week of celebrations for me. Meghan's birthday was Friday. Sebastian's birthday is Monday. And our anniversary was Saturday. As it's squeezed between other parties, we often keep it low-key, and certainly compared to Friday night's amazing dinner at the Cass House (and even Sebastian's Star Wars-themed birthday party) Saturday night's dinner was relaxed. But it's such a spectacular time of year for our back yard garden and for our local farmers' markets that what started as a simple weekend meal turned out to be pretty extraordinary. It was also easy and relatively quick to prepare, and seemed like a good time to put the new camera that I got for my own recent birthday through its paces.

The menu: rack of lamb, roasted tomatoes, and avocado salad. I particularly like the combination of lamb and tomatoes, as lamb needs something with some acidity to balance its richness. 

The rack of lamb is basically no prep.  I got a small rack (about 1.25 lbs) and rinsed it off, patted it dry, rubbed it with salt and pepper, and let it come up to room temperature.

Last Import - 10

The tomatoes were almost as easy. I modified a recipe ("roasted cherry tomatoes with basil") from one of my favorite cookbooks -- Vegetable Love, by Barbara Kafka -- to suit the many smallish heirloom tomatoes our backyard garden has been producing.  I cut the tops off the tomatoes and cored the larger ones, then put them in a baking dish with some peeled garlic cloves and poured olive oil and sprinkled salt over everything.  After I'd rubbed the oil around, it looked like this:

Last Import - 02

To cook the lamb, I used the tried-and-true Joy of Cooking recipe: sear both sides for 2 minutes on the stovetop then put the whole pan (rack bone-side-down) in a 425° oven until a meat thermometer reads 130°, about 20 minutes.  The tomatoes took about the same amount of time: 25 minutes at 500°, with everything shaken around bit once mid-way through the cooking. While these dishes cooked, I made the avocado salad. I used local Bacon avocados, a large-pitted, thin-skinned avocado that makes its appearance every summer at our local farmer's market at such cheap prices it seems a shame not to use them at every opportunity. I cut up two of these avocados and added a small red onion, chopped, from our garden. Onto this I poured a simple vinaigrette made with champagne vinegar and good dijon mustard.  The result is one of the simplest, most delicious salads imaginable:

Last Import - 17

When the tomatoes came out of the oven, they were smoky and sweet, their natural flavors intensified by the roasting. I'm sure they were particularly good because it's been a great tomato season here in California (hot and sunny) but honestly, I think you could cook grocery store hothouse tomatoes this way and they would be delicious. The garlic softened and sweetened to the point that our boys were fighting over the cloves. The photo below was taken just before I added some strips of fresh basil onto the top, the coup de grace:

Last Import - 18

When the lamb had cooked, I took it out and let it rest for about 10 minutes, then sliced the chops:

Last Import - 19

To pair with the meal, I chose a bottle of 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel. Lamb, with its stronger flavors, likes more strongly flavored red wines, and is a great match for Mourvedre. I chose a younger Esprit because I thought that its more robust flavors would do better with the sweetness and tanginess of the tomatoes. Though I think just about any vintage would have been a success, the 2008 showed beautifully, and complemented the meal just the way great pairings should: the chewy tannins of the wine were softened by the fattiness and richness of the lamb, each bite of tomato added a burst of sweet-tart-smoky flavor that brought out the wine's generous fruit, and each component somehow made the others taste more intensely like themselves. The scene, mid-dinner:

Last Import - 23

Our boys are pretty good eaters, but it's still rewarding to make a fully grown-up meal and have them fighting over the last servings. Even the dog got in on the fun. A success, all around. Two of the happy customers:

Last Import - 28  Last Import - 50

Happy summer, everyone. May your celebrations be equally successful.


Selecting the library wines for the 2012 Collector's Edition

One of the treats we get each summer is to choose which older vintage of the Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel 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 announcing to our VINsiders next week that registration for the Collector's Edition will be open for a short period.  We are able to add slightly to the membership in advance of this fall's shipment. [A little housekeeping: 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 the 2005 and 2006 red and the 2005, 2006 and 2008 white to see which we could use this year.  I had not planned it this way, but it was clear that of the wines that I tasted, the 2005's were both clearly the best choices.  The 2006, in both red and white, felt closed down to me, perfectly nice but not nearly as deep or giving as the 2005's, and less expressive than they were a few years ago.  The 2008 Esprit Blanc was very pretty, but wasn't yet showing any significant signs of time in the bottle.  (If you're wondering why I tasted only those vintages, we used the 2007 Esprit Blanc last year for the Collector's Edition, and I didn't want to repeat with the same wine the following year, and the 2003 and 2004 Esprit red went out to Collector's Edition members the last two years and are now too scarce to permit another release.)

My tasting notes:

CE 2012

2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: A rich nose of creme caramel, lanolin, cotton candy, menthol and beeswax.  The mouth is rich but higher-toned than the nose suggests, with flavors of pear, butterscotch, preserved lemon and mineral, and a floral note that reminded me of honeysuckle.  Surprising and welcome acidity comes to the fore on the long finish, emphasizing the mineral notes and playing off the dominant honeycomb profile.  This has come out of a closed phase and is likely at the beginning of a 5-year peak.

2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: The nose is rich, deep and wild, with dark red fruit, game meat, black olive, Provencal herbs and mint.  The mouth, conversely to the white, shows sweeter than the nose suggests, with rich flavors of currant, plum, grilled meat and orange peel, with chewy tannins that frame the tangy and complex finish.  With air, this added an iron-like mineral note that I found fascinating.  I strongly recommend a decant 30 minutes or so before drinking.  While this is beautiful now, I have the sense it can age for easily another decade in the cellar.


A great dinner, an amazing restaurant, and a wine that marks the beginning of Tablas Creek

Last weekend Cesar Perrin and I were honored to host the keynote dinner at the Bern's Winefest.  Hosted by Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Florida, the festival included dinners, seminars, and a grand tasting.  So far, nothing unique about this.  The dinner that we hosted was excellent, five courses and eight wines, including side-by-side flights of Tablas Creek and Beaucastel, library vintages from both wineries (1996 Beaucastel and 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel, and the remarkable 2000 Hommage a Jacques Perrin).  Terrific, but still not unique.  It was a wine dinner, masterfully prepared and expertly paired, with a selection of wines going back a decade and a half.  At Bern's, that's routine.

If you're unfamiliar with Bern's, it's Mecca for wine lovers.  Opened in 1956 by Bern Laxer and run today by his son David, the restaurant boasts a wine cellar of nearly a million bottles, much of which was purchased by Bern on his annual trips to France and has never been inventoried.  The working cellar of over 100,000 bottles is staggering in its own right, and the wine list (183 pages in the 62nd Edition) is legendary.  It includes big names from Burgundy and Bordeaux, but it's more than trophies.  It encompasses the deepest collections of old wines from California, Spain, Australia and the Rhone Valley that I've ever seen.  And the sommeliers there keep finding more.  When Bern's shipments of wines would arrive from France, the entire Bern's staff would be called on to grab a hand-truck and help move the new arrivals the two blocks from the end of the rail line to the warehouse across the street from the restaurant.  Thousands of cases would be packed into the warehouse, with the only master plan in Bern's head.  To this day, the sommeliers treat a visit to the warehouse like a treasure hunt, and estimate that there are 200,000 bottles, most from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, not on any inventory list. These discoveries keep the list from getting picked over, as there is a steady supply of treasures to uncover.

Even more remarkable, the restaurant does not mark wines up based on how long they've held the inventory.  So browsing through the list will uncover any number of unbelievable values.  I could choose between a half-dozen California wines from 1973 (my birth year) including names like Parducci, Louis Martini, Souverain, Franciscan, and Trentadue for between $45 and $70.  Had I been born a year earlier, I could have chosen a magnum of 1972 Inglenook Cabernet, an icon from one of the greatest vintages in Napa Valley, for $129.  A year later and I could have had a 1974 Ridge Zinfandel for $72.70.  The list goes on and on.

Knowing that the winemaker dinner would have a set menu, with wines that we knew, Freddy Matson (the Vineyard Brands manager for Florida's Gulf Coast) made a reservation for Cesar and me the night before our wine dinner.  When we arrived, we put ourselves in Sommelier Brad Dixon's hands, and enjoyed an amazing string of wines, beginning with a 1954 Rioja, continuing with great Burgundies from 1978 and 1961, and including not one but two different wines from 1973, both from Souverain of Alexander Valley: one a Zinfandel and one a Pinot Noir.  It was one of the great epicurean experiences of my life.

On the wine list, Cesar and I noted a curiosity: half-bottles of 1966 Pierre Perrin Chateauneuf du Pape.  Pierre Perrin was Cesar's great-grandfather, Jacques Perrin's father, but there are other branches of the Perrin family in Chateauneuf and -- until the Hommage a Jacques Perrin debuted in 1989 -- we weren't aware of the Perrin name appearing on a Beaucastel label.  When we asked Brad about the wine, he didn't know anything about its story, but brought us a bottle:

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More than the Perrin name, the Leeds Imports strip label identified it as a wine of interest.  My grandfather created Leeds Imports because New York law at the time prohibited retailers (he owned M. Lehmann) from also acting as importer/distributor.  In the late 1960s my dad was the buyer for the wines that Leeds imported, both to sell at M. Lehmann and to offer to distributors in other states.  We decided we needed to find out more. From the restaurant, Cesar texted his father a picture of the bottle. Francois hadn't heard of the wine (of course, he was thirteen during the 1966 vintage).  I emailed my father but didn't hear back.  So Brad gave us each a bottle and asked us to let him know what we discovered.

The next day, I spoke to my dad and got the scoop.  In the late 1960's, my dad had decided that the American market was ready for wines from some regions outside the traditional bastions of Burgundy and Bordeaux.  So he was visiting appellations that he thought were making high quality wine and looking either to find new suppliers or quality wine in bulk that he could then have bottled and out of which he could create a brand.  He visited Beaucastel with a broker in 1967 and found that while Jacques Perrin wouldn't sell him Beaucastel (their American importer at the time wasn't selling much wine, but had an exclusive agreement) he was able to convince Jacques to let him taste through the lots and assemble his own cuvee for bottling.  This is that wine: made by Jacques Perrin, chosen by my dad in Beaucastel's cellars, bottled under a semi-anonymous label in Bordeaux, and imported into the United States.  My dad thinks that there were perhaps 300 cases produced total.  I'm not sure if any is left anywhere other than at Bern's, but I tend to doubt it.

There were no subsequent vintages of Pierre Perrin Chateauneuf du Pape.  The American importer got wind of the wine and asked Jacques not to do it again.  But my dad's interest in Beaucastel was sparked; he kept visiting and in 1970 convinced Jacques to give him the American import agency.

So, there it is: the beginning of the Haas-Perrin partnership that would become Tablas Creek.  Just a great discovery, during an amazing night of food and wine, at a restaurant unlike any other in the world.  If you haven't been to Bern's, you owe it to yourself to go.  You never know what you'll find, but you know you'll find something you couldn't have found anywhere else.


A farewell treat: Cesar Perrin presents a Chateau de Beaucastel vertical

We've had the pleasure of hosting Cesar Perrin here at Tablas Creek for the last year.  Cesar is Francois Perrin's youngest son, a few years out of enology school in France, and proceeding through a series of apprenticeships at notable wineries around the world while being groomed to eventually take the reins at Beaucastel.  During his stay he has helped in the cellar during harvest, in the vineyards during our integration of our grazing herd, and at events around the country.

Last week was his last full week here, and he took the opportunity to say thank you by leading the cellar and management teams here through a vertical tasting of eight different vintages of Beaucastel.  The vintages selected were a combination of wines that the winery had available and those that members of the team had managed to accumulate over the years, so there are some notable vintages like 1998 and 2001 that weren't available.  But this is not necessarily a bad thing.  The list focused on the wines in the roughly 20-25 year old range, which is historically a sweet spot for these famously long-lived wines.  There were also two young examples (2005 and 2007) from great recent vintages, still showing the power and polish of youth.  The one wine in what might be termed middle age (the 1999) was from a vintage that was a bit overlooked in the great Chateauneuf-du-Pape run between 1998 and 2001, and showed better than we were expecting, with some of the younger, fruitier characteristics balanced by welcome secondary balsamic and mushroom characters.

Overall, the tasting was a treat, showcasing the remarkable personality and ageworthiness of the estate's wines.  The lineup, lined up and ready to go:

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My tasting notes, starting with the youngest wine:

  • 2007 Beaucastel: A very rich, minty and herby nose, with aromas of rosemary and roasted meat.  The mouth is rich and dense but not yet very giving, with power more than nuance right now.  I found this less expressive than I did when I tasted it last, where a powerful undercurrent of iron-like minerality framed the lush fruit in a way not evident at this tasting.  Stock this away for a long while yet.
  • 2005 Beaucastel: A nose less dense than the '07, more spicy, though overall on the same continuum, with juniper and chocolate/cherry and a slightly foresty wildness.  The mouth was rich and nicely tannic, with red apple skin, licorice and menthol flavors and a little noticeable oak.  There was a nice coolness and balance on the finish, with granular tannins and cherry skin acidity.  I found this more drinkable now than the '07, with a wonderful future ahead of it.
  • 1999 Beaucastel: From a vintage, according to Cesar, with an unusually high percentage of Mourvedre.  On the nose rare steak and pepper, bright, with a note reminiscent of aged balsamic.  In the mouth clean and long, fruity and spicy with good acids coming out on the finish.  There was an appealing forest floor character that Neil called "mushroomy... in a good way".
  • 1993 Beaucastel: From a cold vintage where much of the later-ripening Mourvedre and Grenache didn't get ripe, so a notably high percentage of Syrah for Beaucastel.  A perceptibly older nose of leather, thyme and juniper.  The nose is so dry that the little burst of sweet fruit on the palate is both surprising and welcome.  Cesar declared that he's a big fan of this "lesser" vintage for drinking now.
  • 1992 Beaucastel: Another cold vintage, with some rain during harvest.  The nose is a little denser and showing younger than the '93, with cedar, cocoa and leather predominant.  The mouth is nicely constructed, with flavors of pencil shavings and cherry skin.  There is a little nice saltiness on the finish.  Not sure if I'd have identified this as Chateauneuf tasting it blind... very Burgundian.
  • 1990 Beaucastel: The nose is rich, with plum and some game meat, juniper, allspice and clove.  Wow.  The flavors are still intense, like marinating meat, with a distinctive Worcestershire Sauce flavor that was unlike any other wine in the tasting.  Spicy red fruit and cocoa powder on the finish.  According to Cesar, this was another vintage with an unusually high percentage of Mourvedre, and it showed in the red fruit/chocolate/meat character.
  • 1989 Beaucastel: Rich, mature and spicy, but smells higher-toned than the 1990, a little fresher and more open.  Aromas are cola and herbs and meat and balsamic, with a nutty almond-like character I kept coming back to.  The mouth was just spectacular, rich, with nice cola and spice high tones, pure, clear and notably mineral in the mid-palate, and then herby with sweet spices on the finish.  A great Grenache vintage, according to Cesar, and my favorite wine of the tasting.  An outstanding vintage of a superb wine, at its peak.  Just a treat.
  • 1988 Beaucastel: A classic year, according to Cesar, overlooked in the excitement for 1989 and 1990, but very good in its own right.  The nose shows a little older, with charcoal, pepper and caramel notes.  The palate is sweeter than the nose suggests, with cola and tart cherry flavors.  Still quite powerful, with tannins that could even use another few years.

Two more photos from the tasting, on the left Cesar pouring for my dad, and on the right the 1990 and 1989, two of the tasting's highlights:

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A few concluding notes.  First, the quality of even the lesser vintages is a testament to the work that Francois Perrin and the rest of the Beaucastel team do.  I think that this is the best measure of the quality of a winemaker: not what he or she does with the great vintages, but his or her results from the vintages that present challenges.  I know how great a winemaker Francois is, and I still came away impressed.

I also came away reconfirming my conviction in the value of blending.  Each vintage can then reflect what was great that year, without having to incorporate elements that were less impressive.  And each vintage also shows more individual personality.  That recognition of personality -- that each wine expressed something unique about its vintage -- was my most lasting impression from what was a truly wonderful tasting.


Recipe and Wine Pairing: Sauteed Diver Scallops and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc

By Robert Haas

I got to do dinner for two last night because my wife, Barbara, had a 6 o’clock meeting to attend.  I had planned on diver scallops from our excellent local fish market, Pier 46 Seafood in Templeton.  As I was walking out of the winery to my car I saw walking in Chris Couture, the vineyard manager at Chequera Vineyard where we get much of our Syrah for Patelin de Tablas.  He was carrying a box of fresh asparagus from his organic farm picked that morning.  He kindly offered me two bunches.  What good timing!  I had been on my way to shop for veggies.  Now I could head straight to Pier 46 for my scallops.  I bought three quarters of a pound (8) of the big diver scallops.

2007_esprit_blancThe menu was to be sautéed scallops and simmered asparagus with a chopped hard-boiled egg vinaigrette dressing.  One of the great things about the menu was very little prep and very short cooking times: 15 minutes to hard-boil and chop the 2 eggs, and shave and trim the asparagus and make the vinaigrette.  Add about three minutes to chop a teaspoon of tarragon while simmering the asparagus and a total of about five minutes sautéing the scallops.

Scallops Recipe:

  • Heat the pan over medium heat and then add about two tablespoons of butter to melt. 
  • Add the scallops and sauté, half at a time, about three or four minutes each lot.  Don’t overcook! 
  • When each lot is done, transfer it to a bowl. 
  • After transferring the second lot to the bowl, add to the pan the chopped tarragon, the juice of one lemon and the scallops.
  • Cook just until everything is hot, turning the scallops to coat them in the glazed pan juices.

Asparagus Recipe:

  • Boil two eggs for 14 minutes until hard boiled, then cool and chop.
  • Make a vinaigrette by dissolving a generous pinch of sea salt into a teaspoon of good white wine vinegar, then stirring in a half-teaspoon of Dijon mustard.  Add 2 tablespoons of good olive oil, then whisk to combine.  Add fresh-ground black pepper to taste.
  • Trim the ends of the asparagus and shave the skin off the bottom portion of any thicker stems.
  • Simmer the asparagus in boiling water until tender but not mushy, 2-3 minutes.  Let cool slightly.
  • Arrange the asparagus on a plate, then top with the chopped egg and the vinaigrette.

We drank a Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2007 with the meal and I was reminded what a muscular vintage it was: rich and flavorful without being alcoholic or heavy.  Our tasting notes from a review tasting last year were:

Rich and powerful, with an explosive nose of ginger and honey, rose petals, and licorice stick.  In the mouth it's thick and broad, lifted nicely at the end by a herby white tea note.  A really long finish, the longest of any of the wines that we tasted [in our review tasting of 10 vintages].” 

And that is exactly the way it tasted last night: almost four years in the bottle and still young and vibrant.  It was terrific with the buttery scallops and even handled itself well with the asparagus with its egg vinaigrette.


How (and Why) to Decant a Wine

One question we get fairly often is whether to decant one of our wines.  My typical answer is that most of our wines will benefit from some air when young, though it's more important for some wines than others.  And a few of our older red wines have started to show some sediment.  Decanting these wines is highly recommended, as even if you stand a bottle up in advance, pouring the wine around the table will re-mix any sediment.  We've started marking on our online vintage chart wines that particularly benefit from decanting.

The examples above illustrate the two different sorts of wines that you might want to decant. The first is what I'm usually asked about: young wines whose powerful structure can be softened, and whose subtler aromatic elements encouraged, by some exposure to air.  It's not actually that important how you decant this sort of wine.  Often, the more the wine splashes around, the better.  But for the second sort of wine -- an older red wine which has accumulated some sediment over time and which you'd like to be able to enjoy without having to strain it through your teeth -- technique is important.

Over the holidays, the Haas clan gathered in Vermont, and we enjoyed many wonderful wines.  Perhaps the highlight was a magnum of the 1989 Hommage a Jacques Perrin that we drank on New Year's Day with a dinner of truffled roast chicken and a gratin of potato and fennel.  The wine was rich and luxurious, powerful with dark red fruit, licorice, and earth.  It was still quite youthful, but had already accumulated significant sediment.  We'd have decanted it even if it were a 750ml bottle, but as magnums are awkward to pour at the table due to their heft, decanting the bottle into two 750ml decanters made the logistics of serving the wine easier.  Robert Haas demonstrates how it was done, step by step.  My sister Rebecca took most of the photos; you can see more of her great photography on her blog Campestral.  The scene, with the bottle having been stood upright two days before:

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To start the process, remove the capsule completely so you can see through the neck of the bottle, and light a candle (a small flashlight works, too, but is less focused and less romantic) to shine through the neck so you can tell when the wine flow starts to include sediment:

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Then, pull the cork:

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Pour out the bottle carefully and gradually, in one smooth motion, with the goal of creating as little turbulence as possible.  The beginning, with the first decanter partly full and the second decanter at the ready:

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Pouring slower now, part way through the second decanter:

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If you've poured smoothly enough, the sediment should have collected in the shoulder of the bottle, and you can pour out almost all the liquid without getting any grit.  You can actually see the sediment still in the bottle:

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Done:

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We put the bottle on the table so it could enjoy the dinner too, and so we could read the label if we had any questions:

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Cheers!

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