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:

1966_Perrin_CdP

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:

Beaucastel_vertical_0003

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:

Beaucastel_vertical_0002 Beaucastel_vertical_0001
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:

Decanting2_1

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:

Decanting_1

Then, pull the cork:

Decanting_2

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:

Decanting_3

Pouring slower now, part way through the second decanter:

Decanting_4

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:

Decanting_5

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:

Decanting_7

Cheers!

Decanting2_2


Tablas Creek Grenache retrospective: a vertical tasting of every Cotes de Tablas and every varietal Grenache ever

This weekend, we're delving into Grenache in what should be a fascinating seminar.  We'll taste each vintage of the Tablas Creek varietal Grenache (2006-2009), three different Grenache-dominated vintages of our Cotes de Tablas, and then four Famille Perrin wines that are based on Grenache.  Our goal is to explore the expressions of this, the second-most-planted grape in the world.  From our upcoming Tablas Creek events page:

Sunday, September 4th 12:00p.m.
Grenache Grand Tour

Grenache is the most widely planted grape in the southern Rhône Valley, and the second most widely planted varietal in the world. It works wonderfully in blends, and is also capable of making profound wines on its own. It drinks well young, and is typically more approachable in its youth than Syrah or Mourvèdre, yet makes wines that can age for decades. And at whatever age, in (nearly) every incarnation, Grenache is a wonderful partner with food. This September 4th, we will look at Grenache in all its glory. Join partner Jason Haas and winemaker Neil Collins as we taste every vintage of Tablas Creek Grenache, several of our Grenache-based blends, three different appellations of Grenache-based wines from Perrin & Fils in the southern Rhone, and a Grenache-dominated Beaucastel. We'll finish the day with a Grenche-friendly lunch prepared by chef Jeffrey Scott. This exploration of the vibrant world of Grenache is $55 for VINsiders and $70 for guests. Advance reservations are essential; contact Nicole Getty at 805.237.1231 x39 or events@tablascreek.com.

So, to get ready (and to decide which vintages of Cotes de Tablas we should open) Winemakers Neil Collins and Ryan Hebert, Wine Club & Hospitality Director Nikki Getty, and National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre joined me in a comprehensive Grenache tasting yesterday.  A look at the assembled wines:

Grenache_vertical_0001

The tasting was fascinating.  We found that the wines fell into two identifiable categories: those from more elegant years, with a classic, vibrant mid-weight Grenache signature (like 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008) and those from more powerfully structured years with more richness, more licorice and dark fruit, and more tannin.  Which sort of vintage a drinker will prefer is likely to be a matter of personal preference rather than qualitative difference.  But knowing which vintage fall into which camps should help you know which you're more likely to enjoy... or which you'll want to lay down. 

More relevantly, we came out of the tasting convinced that Grenache is already doing great here at Tablas Creek, and likely only to get better.  It's a variety that shows well both in more elegant and more powerful vintages.  It shows well young, but has proven to be remarkably ageable.  And these were not expensive wines, not consciously made to cellar.  The Cotes de Tablas retailed between $20 and $25 all through the 2000's.  It was a pleasure to realize that these wines have not just held up this well, but have gained in richness and complexity.  Tommy's comment toward the end of the vertical was "you know, anyone who was buying these wines and laying them down was getting a steal."  Kudos to any of you who did.

Grenache Flight

  • 2006 Grenache (90% Grenache, 10% Syrah): a pretty mid-weight nose and translucent color, spicy, with vanilla bean and lively red fruit.  It's in a nice place in the mouth, with plenty of fruit, slightly candied, and soft tannins.  Good acidity at the end keeps everything fresh.
  • 2007 Grenache (90% Grenache, 10% Syrah): richer and jammier than the 2006, with powerful strawberry and mineral nose.  In the mouth, still very young, rich yet cooled and lifted by mineral, showing a little sweet oak on the finish, and big tannins.  We thought that it was a wine to wait on, or to drink with big food.  Ryan's comment after just two wines: "I didn't realize I liked single varietal Grenache so much!"
  • 2008 Grenache (100% Grenache): An intriguing nose, both lifted and dark, with violets, tar and chocolate.  Intense yet not full-bodied.  Still quite primary, and needs some time for the finish to calm down.  Interesting progression through the mouth, with the initial attack sweet and the finish very dry, with big tannins.  Totally classic for Grenache at this stage in its life; lay it down for a year or two.
  • 2009 Grenache (100% Grenache): A tangy nose of barbeque spices, smoke and pepper.  The mouth is rich but still relatively tannic; Tommy called it "brawny".  Still very, very young.  There's a nice coffee note on the finish that suggests it's going to be gorgeous.  Won't go out for a while (it's scheduled to go out to our wine club in March 2012) and will still probably be a candidate to lay down for a year or two then.

Cotes de Tablas Flight

  • 1999 Petite Cuvee (65% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre): This was the precursor to the Cotes de Tablas, and we made just a few hundred cases in 1999 of lots that we thought weren't up to the standards of the 1999 Reserve Cuvee, mostly Grenache that we thought too tannic for its weight.  The wine was sold only in our tasting room, and we never thought it would go this long, but it's showing admirably, with the nose the only part showing any age, lots of soy and balsamic.  There's some sweet fruit on the attack, but then big tannins, still a little drying on the finish.  A nice licorice note lingers.  Neil commented that it would be really nice with a dry-aged ribeye, and it could even stand to age a little longer.
  • 2000 Cotes de Tablas (84% Grenache, 16% Syrah): Our first Cotes de Tablas, from about 600 cases worth of lots we thought pretty but not sufficiently intense to go into the 2000 Esprit, that to our surprise got a 92-point rating from Robert Parker and sold out in less than a month.  There are times when an outside perspective helps you realize the quality of something you've been overlooking each day, and this was one example.  Now showing lots of complexity, with a gamy, meaty, spicy, tobacco-y nose, just beautiful.  In the mouth, lots of sweet Grenache fruit, very lush, still fresh and mouth-filling.  Benefited from time in the glass; so if you have some, decant it for a little while before you drink.
  • 2001 Cotes de Tablas (38% Mourvedre, 34% Syrah, 24% Grenache, 4% Counoise): An anomaly for the tasting, as in 2001 we decided that the spring frost had scrambled up the vintage sufficiently that we weren't going to make an Esprit de Beaucastel, and declassified nearly the entire vintage into the Cotes.  So, Grenache was the #3 variety behind Mourvedre and Syrah.  The nose showed leaner than 2000, nice aromatics of cola & leather, definitely signed by Mourvedre.  In the mouth, nice balance, flavors of rare steak, spice and plum, mid-weight, pretty but less dramatic than the wines around it. Drink now and for the next few years.
  • 2002 Cotes de Tablas (45% Grenache, 22% Syrah, 21% Mourvedre, 12% Counoise): Our first "modern" Cotes de Tablas, blended primarily as a wine in its own right rather than as a consequence of lots we didn't want in the Esprit.  A powerful yet savory nose (Tommy called it "really cool") of asian spices, leather, cranberries and soy.  A sweet attack, the first signs of age showing in a mid-palate of roasted meat and dark spices, then a gentler finish than the initial impression would have suggested, with nice richness and soft tannins.  Probably not going to get any better, so drink up.
  • 2003 Cotes de Tablas (60% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre, 4% Counoise): A clean pretty nose of cherry cola, strawberry and a little pepper spice.  In the mouth, just lovely: fresh red strawberry and raspberry fruit, a dusting of dark chocolate, and a great middle-weight and texture with just enough tannins to clean up the wine's perception of sweetness.  Must be close to its apex, and the wine of the tasting for us.
  • 2004 Cotes de Tablas (64% Grenache, 16% Syrah, 13% Counoise, 7% Mourvedre): A very pretty color, a little darker than the 2003, with a slightly smokier, tangier nose.  Sort of halfway between 2002 and 2003 aromatically.  The mouth showed flavors of rare steak, balsamic and Tommy noted a cool spiciness that he nailed as paprika.  Good acids and relatively firm tannins suggest that this is still a year or two away from peak.

[Between 2005 and 2007 we bottled the Cotes de Tablas in both cork and screwcap versions.  We hadn't checked in on them in a while, so we tasted both.  They weren't tasted blind, which of course influences our perceptions of them, but since some of us are screcap proponents and others tend to favor corks, we were pleased that our impressions of the wines' relative merits were pretty consistent.  I've included notes from both versions below.]

  • 2005 Cotes de Tablas (43% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre, 18% Syrah, 15% Counoise)
    • Cork: Just a hint of bricking on the rim, with a nose rich and licoricey with savory aromas of dark soy.  In the mouth gorgeous and lush, with purple-black fruit.  Still quite a big, young wine, nice chalky tannins.
    • Screwcap: Color younger, more true red, with a nose that we variously described as mineral, flinty and gunpowdery.  The fruit took a few minutes to come out in the glass but was very pure when it did, higher-toned than the cork version.  The mouth hasn't gotten the same breadth as the cork finish, but got richer and richer with time open.  Both versions could probably benefit from a decant at this point, but certainly the screwcap.
  • 2006 Cotes de Tablas (72% Grenache, 11% Syrah, 9% Mourvedre, 8% Counoise)
    • Cork: Nose is spicy, minty, junipery, with a surprising (and welcome) orange peel note.  The mouth is sweet and slightly piney, with good richness on the mid-palate.  There is a nice, linering finish.
    • Screwcap: Nose is similar, a little less expressive and slightly higher-toned, almost pomegranate.  In the mouth, a perception of a little more acid, brighter tannins and a touch more minerality.  Not as different from the cork version as either 2005 or 2007.
  • 2007 Cotes de Tablas (50% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 25% Counoise)
    • Cork: The first bottle was corky, which drove home the risks of cork.  The second bottle showed a powerful, slightly gamy nose, sweet & rich, intensely grenachey with licorice, spice and purple fruit.  In the mouth, sweet fruit and nice tannins, relatively well resolved for such a young wine.
    • Screwcap: Powerful nose, a touch more perceptible alcohol than the screwcap, but with lurking dark red jam that came out more and more with air. The mouth showed similarly to the cork version, a touch younger and more tannic, with the tannins less resolved and integrated.
  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas (42% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 20% Counoise, 17% Mourvedre): Only bottled in screwcap. A beautiful nose, junipery, minty and citrusy like the 2006, but with an additional sweet spice note (cloves?) that was nice.  The mouth is mid-weight, with nice tannins and a cool, grainy texture with just a hint of oak from a new wooden fermenter than part of the blend spent some time in. Drinking great now, but can age, too.
  • 2009 Cotes de Tablas (43% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 18% Counoise, 15% Mourvedre): Only bottled in cork.  Smells dense & extracted, with cola and licorice notes and dark spice.  The flavor is intensely cherry, with broad texture, chalky tannins and quite dry on the finish.  Low-ish in acidity, but big tannins keep the wine balanced.  A great Cotes to lay down, if not quite ready now.

A few concluding thoughts.  First, on corks vs. screwcaps.  It seemed clear to us that, at least at the stage at which we were tasting the wines (fairly newly opened, about 5 years old) the cork version was richer, with better-integrated tannins.  But as the wine sat in the glass, and with time open in the bottle, the screwcap version gained breadth and approached the cork version, though always remaining a little higher-toned.  The difference seemed greater in the denser, more concentrated (and more tannic) vintages of 2005 and 2007 than it did in the more elegant 2006, which suggests that our decision to put the wine back under cork for the powerful 2009 vintage, and then going forward as we make a more intense Cotes de Tablas by declassifying less-intense lots into the Patelin de Tablas, was a good one.

Of course, the one disappointing wine was the corked 2007.  A dilemma.

It was clear to all of us that we've been giving Grenache short shrift in our evaluations of its capacity to age.  Cotes de Tablas wines a decade old were showing vibrantly, clearly right in their sweet spot at 6-10 years of age, but with the capacity to go happily several more years.  And lest we be tempted to attribute that to the additions of Syrah and Mourvedre, the varietal Grenaches, even the 2006, showed fresh and youthful.

Our favorite wine of the tasting was the 2003 Cotes de Tablas, which satisfied just about everyone, whether they were looking for more richness or more vibrancy.  Other favorites included 2000, 2004 and 2006.  That the 2003 Cotes should show best in its vertical, just as the 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel showed best at our most recent vertical of Esprit reds, suggests that these wines may age very well indeed... perhaps nearly as well as the Mourvedre-dominated Esprits.


Tasting a decade of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: 2001-2010

I got a question from my brother about a wine dinner we'll be doing together in Washington, DC this fall. (At Brasserie Beck, September 27th; should be amazing; more information here.)  He wanted to include an older vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc in the menu and had 2004 and 2006 in the cellar.  He wondered which was drinking better.  I realized that I didn't know.

This seemed to be as good an excuse as any to check in on our past vintages of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.  The soon-to-be-bottled 2010 will be the tenth vintage of our signature white, which makes for another nice reason.  To top it off, we have decided to include the 2007 Esprit Blanc in our Collector's Edition shipment this September and I wanted to see how it fit into the context of the surrounding vintages.  I was joined for the tasting by Winemaker Neil Collins, Viticulturist Levi Glenn and National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre.  The lineup:

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The tasting was fascinating.  Roussanne-based wines tend to go through three distinct stages: a youth of richness and breadth, with flavors of white flowers, herbs, honey and tropical fruits.  They then enter a closed period in middle-age, tasting heavy and often woody, before emerging as different wines, nutty and mineral, often spicy and caramel-tinged.  This tasting highlighted the reemergence of the 2004 (one of my favorite wines of the tasting) and the shutting down of the 2005.  But that closed 2005 provided a nice fulcrum: the four older wines, while all distinctive, showed the rewards of aging, while the four younger wines (plus the unbottled 2010) expressed to varying degrees the vibrancy and power of youth.  By vintage:

  • 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (44% Roussanne, 22% Viognier, 18% Grenache Blanc, 16% Marsanne): A clean nose of honey, mineral, petrol and saline.  The mouth is beautiful, mid-weight, with caramel apple and a little tannic bite that suggests that it still has a few years to go.  The relatively low percentage of Roussanne in this, the first Esprit Blanc, gave it a different character than the succeeding older wines, a little less weighty, a little higher-toned.  I would never have guessed that this was a decade old.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): Wood on the nose, a little dusty, with some cantaloupe lurking underneath.  Maybe still a touch closed?  Neil tasted the influence of the cork, though the wine wasn't corked.  The mouth was much more appealing, with buttered toast and caramel, excellent richness and a chewy, almost tannic character on the finish.  The wine blossomed after sitting open for 20 minutes or so.  As amazing as it seems, we thought that the wine was still too young.  If you're drinking it now, be sure to decant.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 27% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): Aromatics jumped out of the glass compared to the 2002 with honey and a touch of heat.  The mouth is rich and very long, with an appealing touch of jasmine lifting the flavors and some gingery spice deepening them.  The finish was maybe the least resolved piece of the wine, a touch disjointed, and didn't quite live up to the aromas or palate.  I'd tend to give this another 6 months or so, but it's close.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A more focused nose than any of the previous wines shows the signature of the Picpoul.  It's still amazing to me what a difference it made swapping out the 5% Viognier for 5% Picpoul at the time we were blending this wine... still a vivid memory.  It totally brought the wine into focus and brought out a startling saline minerality that wasn't there with the Viognier.  Now, it shows that saline character on the nose, with white flowers, a sense of power more held in check (think BMW rather than Mustang).  Nice acids come out on the finish, with a lingering character of honeydew and preserved lemon.  Easily my favorite of the older wines.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Levi commented that the wine smelled like oak-aged champagne, and he was right... a toasty, almost yeasty character on the nose with dried pineapple as the primary fruit.  On the palate rich but tasting a touch oxidized, lifted at the end by vibrant but not totally integrated acids and a touch of tannin.  Still a beautiful color.  Just in its awkward middle phase; should be spectacular in a couple of years.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Lighter in color than any of the previous wines, and the Grenache Blanc's green apple comes through on the nose.  Very pretty, with additional aromatics of fresh pineapple and a gentle herbiness that Tommy identified as white tea.  Gorgeous sweet fruit in the mouth, pretty and vivacious.  A long, clean finish.  Beautiful.  Great drinking now, but don't be surprised if it shuts down sometime around the end of the year... it's next in line.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): Rich and powerful compared to the 2006, 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 that same herby white tea note that we found in the 2006.  A really long finish... the longest of any of the wines that we tasted.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Banc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A bright nose, higher-toned than any before, which Levi nailed as passion fruit.  Neil called it "a little more wispy than the 2007".  Tommy contributed my favorite quote of the tasting: "more San Francisco yoga instructor than Hollywood starlet".  In the mouth a touch less structured than the past few vintages, with flavors of white peach, licorice, and white tea and a texture that Neil said reminded him of powdered sugar.  Deceptive richness because it's so balanced.  Just a beautiful showing for this wine.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul Blanc): A familiar smell to me as it's the wine I've been out showing to people.  Rich, youthful, creamy nose for fresh honey, almost toasted marshmallow in its perception of sweetness on the nose.  But on the palate richness gives way to structure with flavors of citrus zest and clove, ginger and lemon drop.  Still a baby.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Out of a very chilly tank; we're bottling this in 3 weeks and it's being cold stabilized.  Similar to the 2009 but a bit higher-toned, showing more yellow sweet/tart fruit like passion fruit, pineapple and mango.  A hint of lychee comes out as the wine warms.  In the mouth it's rich but has great structure, and is very clean and pure.  Should be a stunner.

A few concluding thoughts.  Compared to the Esprit red, which shows greater differences in personality from one vintage to the next, the Esprit Blancs displayed more similarities across vintages.  The blend has also stayed relatively stable through the years; except for 2001 every vintage has between 60% and 70% Roussanne.  But it was interesting to see the extent to which the older wines had moved since our last vertical tasting a year ago.  The 2003 and 2004 Esprit Blancs had come out of a closed phase and the 2005 had moved in; the 2002 was showing less well; and the vintages since 2006 were largely unchanged.

I was also struck by just how good these wines all were.  I know that's an odd thing to say -- of course I'm supposed to think they're good -- but the depth of richness, the minerality, the balance and the ability to age I think put this wine, vintage after vintage, up with the best rich, dry whites anywhere in the world.  Drop them in lineups with the best Alsatian rieslings, the best chardonnays from California and Burgundy, maybe a few top semillons... I think they'll shine.  And this in a region that was supposed only to be good for red wines!


What does it mean when a wine is in a "closed" phase? Think teenager...

Vintage_chart_Jul2011 I recently got a question from a friend who had been looking at the vintage chart that we keep on our Web site (a shot of the most current one is to the right; click on it to get a larger picture or on the link above for the PDF version).  Most wines are pretty straightforward: the start out young and exuberant, gradually lose some of the youthful lushness and often come into better balance for it, and eventually fade into old age.  Yes, this describes a life cycle.  Wines, while not sentient, are alive.

Not all wines improve with age, and in fact eventually all wines decline, though this may be many decades later.  But a wine's life cycle is not as simple as a linear curve, or even a bell curve, would suggest.  Some wines -- think most dry rosés -- are at their best when they're at their youngest, and fade relatively quickly.  Most ageable wines actually have curves with two peaks: a youthful peak a few years after bottling where the focus is on their lush, spicy fruit, and a mature peak some years later where the secondary flavors (nutty, caramel flavors for whites, and earthy, mineral flavors for reds) are more evident, and yet still in balance with fruit and spice that the wines displayed when they are younger. Sometimes wines transition gracefully from their youthful phase to their mature phase.  But mostly not.

Perhaps you've had a red wine which has lost some of its youthful fruit but still provides a mouthful of tannins.  Or one that seems less giving, aromatically, than it was some months before.  It's actually fairly common: many wines have an intermediate stage where they are less enjoyable than they were, and less than they will be.  This intermediate stage is often referred to as "closed" or "shut down". You can equally think of them as teenagers: no longer children, with the charms of youth, but not fully adult either, often gangly and awkward, prone to moodiness and unpredictability.

As it happens, two of our most important grapes are particularly notorious for this closed phase.  One grape is Roussanne, which has a bizarre tendency to turn dark and oxidized at about age 5, stay that way for several years, tasting heavy and tired.  Then, miraculously, it turns lighter again, much of its weight drops away, and you're left with an intensely mineral, nutty wine like very fine, dry sherry that the Perrins feel is the single best reflection of terroir that they make.  The other grape is Mourvedre, whose (underappreciated) youthful red fruit character can fade several years before its substantial tannins have resolved to the point that it is again in balance.  But the rewards of waiting are enormous, as Mourvedre produces wines that balance primary flavors like mineral, fruit and mocha with secondary flavors of leather, truffle and smoked meat.

We note wines that are in this in-between stage with the purple boxes in our vintage chart.  If you have a wine in that phase, try to be patient; it will come out the other side.  If you've opened one by mistake, give decanting a shot.  It often helps.  But the best thing to do, if you can, is wait.

PS For those who are interested, I participated in a remarkable dinner last summer that featured 21 different vintages and wines from Tablas Creek and Beaucastel.  In my writeup, I note some of the wines that are in their closed phases.  If you're the type who likes tasting notes and might want to know what "closed" tastes like, you might find it interesting.


Tablas Creek Vintage Reports 1997-2010

New_website We're working on a new Web site, to debut later this summer.  (A screenshot of the home page of the new Web site is to the right.  Click on it to get a bigger view.  Yes, we're excited.)  One of the things that we're looking forward to being able to do more flexibly with this new site is to allow people to browse through the different wines we've made.  Right now, our Wines page has an overview of the different wines we make, and links to current releases, but beyond that you have to look wine by wine to get information.  On the new site, you'll be able to select, for example, all the wines from 2007... or every Rosé we've made... or all whites currently for sale.

We realized that we could make these categories more useful by adding information about the categories, including summaries of each vintage.  Most of this information is out there in pieces, either on individual wines' pages or in a blog piece I wrote a few years back called Ten Years of Vintage Grades: Paso Robles Report Card 1999-2008.  But that last blog piece was not particularly descriptive of the wines, and not specific to Tablas Creek, focusing instead on evaluating Paso Robles as a whole.  Plus, what was here on the blog and what was on the individual wines' pages was not always in perfect harmony.

So, I cleaned everything up, went back and researched our earliest vintages, and wrote vintage summaries for every vintage we've seen here at Tablas Creek.  It occurred to me that this information would be of interest to our blog followers, so here it is.  I've linked recent vintages to the harvest reports that we kept, if you're interested in digging more deeply into them or in seeing photos of what it was really like.

  • The 2010 vintage saw healthy rainfall after three years of drought. The ample early-season groundwater and a lack of spring frosts produced a good fruit set. A very cool summer delayed ripening by roughly three weeks, with harvest not beginning until mid-September and still less than half complete in mid-October. Warm, sunny weather between mid-October and mid-November allowed the later-ripening varieties to reach full maturity. The long hangtime and cool temperatures combined to produce fruit with intense flavors at low alcohol levels. White whites display bright acids, good concentration and intense saline minerality.  Red wines show dark colors, spicy aromatics and granular tannins.
  • The 2009 vintage was our third consecutive drought year, with yields further reduced by serious April frosts. Berries and clusters were small, with excellent concentration. Ripening over the summer was gradual and our harvest largely complete except for about half our Mourvedre at the time of a major rainstorm on October 13th. Crop sizes were 15% smaller than 2008 and 30% lower than usual. The low yields and gradual ripening resulted in white wines with an appealing combination of richness and depth, and red wines with an great lushness, rich texture and relatively low acid but wonderful chalky tannins.
  • The 2008 vintage was our second consecutive drought year, with yields further reduced by spring frosts. Berries and clusters were small, leading to excellent concentration. Ripening over the summer was gradual and harvest about a week later than normal. Crop sizes were similar to 2007 and about 20% lower than usual. The low yields and gradual ripening resulted in white wines with good intensity, lower than normal alcohols and an appealing gentle minerality and red wines that were unusually fresh and approachable despite appealing lushness.
  • The 2007 vintage was a blockbuster vintage in Paso Robles. Yields were very low (down between 15% and 30% from 2006, depending on variety) due to a cold and very dry winter, which produced small berries and small clusters. A moderate summer without any significant heat spikes followed, allowing gradual ripening, and producing white wines with deep color and powerful flavors, and red wines with tremendous intensity, excellent freshness and a lushness to the fruit which cloaks tannins that should allow the wines to age as long as any we've made.
  • The 2006 vintage was a study of contrasts, with a cold, wet start, a very hot early summer, a cool late summer and a warm, beautiful fall. Ample rainfall in late winter gave the grapevines ample groundwater, and produced relatively generous crop sizes. The relatively cool late-season temperatures resulted in a delayed but unhurried harvest, wines with lower than normal alcohols, strong varietal character, and good acids.  White wines show freshness and expressive aromatics, while red wines have impeccable balance between fruit, spice, and tannins, and should age into perhaps the most elegant wines we've made.
  • The 2005 vintage was one of nature's lucky breaks, with excellent quality and higher-than-normal yields. The wet winter of '04-'05 gave the grapevines ample groundwater, and a warm period in March got the vines off to an early May flowering. The summer was uniformly sunny but relatively cool, and harvest began (relatively late for us) in the 3rd week of September, giving the grapes nearly a month longer than normal on the vine. The resulting wines, both red and white were intensely mineral, with good structure and powerful aromatics.  Red wines have big but ripe tannins that reward cellaring.
  • The 2004 vintage was our third consecutive drought year, with a very early spring balanced by a long, warm (but rarely hot) summer. These favorable conditions led to a fairly early harvest: most of our whites and all the reds but Mourvèdre were harvested before an early onset of the fall rains on October 14th stopped harvest for a short time. Two weeks of sunny, cool, and breezy temperatures allowed us to harvest the rest of the Mourvèdre.  The extended ripening cycle gave the grapes intense aromatics, pronounced minerality, and good structure that has allowed reds to age gracefully.
  • The 2003 vintage was a second consecutive drought year, though not as dry as 2002. A relatively early flowering, combined with a warm but not overly hot summer to produce a beginning of harvest about two weeks later than normal.  This long hangtime produced grapes with concentrated flavors and a distinct minerality, and beautiful fall weather allowed us to bring in fruit when it was at peak ripeness, and allow other blocks to continue to mature.  White wines showed good richness and classic varietal character, while red wines showed lush fruit balanced by good acids and firm tannins.  Time has brought an unexpected complexity to 2003's red wines that at first showed mostly rich fruit.
  • The 2002 vintage began with a warm, dry winter with the lowest rainfall in five years. Spring remained dry and cool, while June, July and August were very warm.  Moderate temperatures returned in September and weather stayed ideal well into November.  Cool nights prolonged the hangtime of the grapes and produced wines that were concentrated, rich, and ripe, with just enough acidity to balance the richness.  Roussanne-based whites have proven to age remarkably well, and the powerful tannins on 2002’s reds have mellowed into wines with remarkable complexity and years of development left ahead of them.
  • The 2001 vintage began with moderate vigor from average rainfall and cold temperatures.  A warm March led to early budbreak, which allowed a serious frost in mid-April to inflict major damage and dramatically reduce yields by nearly 50%. The summer was hot and sunny, but cool nights preserved the aromatics of the fruit.  Low yields (1.5 - 2.5 tons per acre) produced intense flavors in both reds and whites.  The erratic ripening from the spring frosts and particular challenges with Mourvedre encouraged us not to make an Esprit de Beaucastel red this year, but  and chewy, chalky tannins have allowed 2001's red wines to age very well.
  • The 2000 vintage saw average rainfall, with warm springtime weather, early budbreak and no significant damage from frosts.  Summer daytime temperatures were about normal while cooler than average summer nights helped extend the growing season.  Harvest began two weeks later than normal, but warm harvest weather led to an earlier-than-normal conclusion to harvest.  Both white and red wines had good intensity despite slightly higher than normal yields, and the reds had big tannins that encouraged mid-term cellaring.
  • The 1999 vintage began with slightly below average winter rainfall that reduced yields. Ripening was further accelerated by a warm, dry spring and summer.  Harvest began in mid-August, the earliest date on record at Tablas Creek.  The wines were intense and the red wines tannic when young, with slightly elevated alcohol levels.  The wines needed some time to come into balance, but many have aged magnificently.
  • The 1998 vintage was the coldest, and one of the wettest, on record at Tablas Creek.  After a late budbreak but no damage from frost, the summer remained cool and the harvest did not begin until early October.  A warm, sunny October and November saved the harvest, and produced wines that were fresh and balanced, with low alcohols and gentle tannins.  The white wines were beautiful from the beginning, and the red wines needed a few years to unwind into classic elegance, and continue to drink well today.
  • The 1997 vintage was hot and dry, with early budbreak, low yields and an early onset to harvest in late August.  This vintage saw the first significant contributions from our French clones, and produced wines that were juicy and lush from the start despite serious tannins.  The wines drank well young and have aged better than we could ever have expected given the youth of the vineyard and the heat of the vintage.

An accidental 1996-1998 Tablas Creek vertical in Chester, Vermont

In consecutive coincidences this week, a few days after chose to open at home in Chester, Vermont a 1996 Tablas Hills Cuveé Rouge, we were served by our long time friend and neighbor Tory Spater a 1997 Tablas Creek Vineyard Tablas Rouge and a 1998 Tablas Creek Vineyard Rouge at a dinner at her house.  Wow!  I had no idea that she was cellaring those first Tablas Creek releases.

Tablas Creek Vertical

We have been making wines from our vineyard in our Las Tablas/Adelaida district of Paso Robles since 1994 -- three years before we built our own winery in 1997.  It was Jean-Pierre Perrin and I who made the 1996 in space rented at Adelaida Cellars with the help of Neil Collins, then Assistant Winemaker there.  We called the wines made at Adelaida Tablas Hills (and before that Adelaida Hills) because we wanted to save the name Tablas Creek Vineyard for wines that were produced in our own winery.  In retrospect, the name changes muddied the waters to the point that there are still people out in the market who think that these first few vintages were from purchased grapes.  But no, they were from our vineyard.

In 1997 Neil was spending the year at Beaucastel, so Ryan Hebert and I made the ’97 by the seats of our pants in our brand new Tablas Creek winery, finished just a few weeks before our earliest-ever beginning of harvest on August 16th.  We were not even sure that the wines would ferment with only native yeasts in the new space, but they did, and nicely.  A problem we had was that the quantities were so small that we had lots of air on top of the juice in all of the stainless fermenters, increasing the chance of oxidation.  But the sturdy grapes resisted. 

In 1998 Neil was back to take charge of the cellar and greeted by the coldest year in our history, when we didn’t begin our harvest until October 6th.  Pierre Perrin was there and had the unusual experience -- unthinkable in Chateauneuf du Pape -- of seeing the last grapes brought in the week before Thanksgiving.  Quel climat!

All three wines are blends of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, and Counoise.  In 1996 we didn’t yet put the varieties on the label, but had roughly equal portions Mourvedre, Grenache and Syrah (Counoise was just getting into production and produced only a few barrels).  In 1997, the blend was 34% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 30% Syrah and 6% Counoise (remarkably similar to our 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel).  In 1998 we began our move toward the more Mourvedre-heavy blend we used for our flagship wines for most of the last decade, with 44% Mourvedre, 24% Grenache, 21% Syrah and 11% Counoise.  Yet for their differences in composition the Mourvèdre leads the character and style of all three wines, as it does today in our Esprit.  All of the wines were still tasting young and healthy, without a hint of old age, and I thought could be cellared happily for another five to ten years.

Clients often ask us how long our wines will live.  If this week’s experience is an example then the answer is, “A long time.”

Bob Haas


A vertical tasting of Tablas Creek flagship red wines, from 1997 Rouge to 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel

Last week, we had the pleasure of one of Francois Perrin's semi-annual visits to Tabas Creek.  In this immediate post-harvest time, we tasted through the cellar, did our best to evaluate the 2010 components, and took one last look at the 2009 reds before they start to go into bottle.

We also took the opportunity to look back, and pulled a bottle from our library of each vintage of our signature red wines.  Of course, when we were first starting, we only had one red wine, but we pulled that anyway.  We were impressed with the life still left in even the oldest of these wines, and thought it would be fun to share our notes on how they are tasting now.  First, a look at the lineup:

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At this tasting, in addition to Francois, were me, my dad, Neil, and Chelsea.  Note that we didn't taste a wine from 2001, when we declined to make an Esprit de Beaucastel after spring frosts scrambled up the ripening cycle.  We declassified our entire production into the 2001 Cotes de Tablas (which made it one of the greatest bargains we've ever produced; if you have any, drink up; it's at a great stage but probably won't last much longer).

  • 1997 Tablas Rouge: A nose that shows cherry and eucalyptus, with some of the deeper, slightly balsamic character of age.  Still deep in color, though starting to brick a little.  Quite fresh in the mouth for a wine of this age from such young vines, with good acids framing cherry fruit, and a little drying tannin on the finish.  Not the most polished or concentrated wine we've made, but still totally viable.
  • 1998 Rouge: Aromatics are cool and dark, showing more loam and spice than fruit.  The color is a touch light and shows noticeable bricking.  The wine is a little simple, perhaps, but beautifully balanced, and would be a great dining companion.  Neil called it "Nordic".  Some appealing cocoa notes come out on the finish.  Just 13.8% alcohol, from quite a cool year.
  • 1999 Reserve Cuvee: A pretty, dark, youthful color.  Definitely more marked on the nose by Mourvedre's meatiness, Francois immediately said "more animal".  The mouth has a very nice balance between fruit that is round and lush and structure that is cool and mineral.  Must be pretty close to its peak.  The finish shows perhaps a little rustic, but we all thought it would be tremendous right now with osso bucco or cassoulet.  It opened as we were tasting; try decanting if you're drinking one now.
  • 2000 Esprit de Beaucastel: An animal, meaty, almost gamey nose with plums coming out with some air.  It's nicely rich in the mouth, though showing more signs of age than the 1999.  Still not at all tired, with complex notes of olive and tapenade coming out on the long, slightly drying finish.  This too got better with air; we'd recommend a decant.  And with its notable earthiness, it's always been a great ringer for a lineup of old-school Chateauneuf-du-Papes.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel: A nice mineral, chalky, dark fruit profile on the nose, much more polished than any of the previous wines.  At 57% Mourvedre, our highest ever, it's perhaps unsurprising that it's still so youthful.  In the mouth, rich, full, mature, deep, and ripe.  Notably lush, and much more like our current releases than the ones that preceded it.  Cocoa and chalky tannins at the back end, with lots of length.  Still years ahead of it.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel: A bright mint chocolate on the nose, very appealing.  The mouth was rich with sweet dark red currant and plum fruit, but enlivened by great acids.  Quite a long, luscious finish.  This wine had been closed for a while, and even this summer showed well but was overshadowed by the 2002 and 2004.  Not right now; this was perhaps the most impressive wine of the tasting.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel: A nice, restrained nose.  The mouth is in a good place, with beautiful acids, evident minerality and a long finish of chocolate-covered cherries.  Still very fresh, and pretty.  Not as big a wine as 2003 or 2005, but great balance.  It should continue to age gracefully, and we all expected that it would just be better a year from now.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: A rustic nose of grilled meat, licorice and a bright note that Chelsea identified as mandarin.  Great sweet fruit in the mouth but big tannins, too.  The finish is a little disjointed right now, with the tannins and the acids reverberating off each other a bit.  It's going to be a very nice wine, but we'd recommend you forget it for a few years to let it integrate.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel: Very different from the 2005, pretty, clean, bright purple fruit, nicely mineral.  In the mouth, it's seamless.  Boysenberry and blackberry fruit, medium weight, nicely integrated chewy tannins, and a dark, almost soy-like tone that lends depth.  The acids come out on the long, rich finish.  Very pretty now, and looking forward to a bright future.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel: A dense black-red.  Powerful but somehow closed on the nose, with more mineral and rocks (and a little alcohol) coming through than fruit.  The mouth shows lots of sweet fruit, very lush, and big but ripe tannins.  There is a texture to the tannins that Neil commented reminded him of melted licorice.  It's impressive now but we'd recommend that you wait if you possibly can, and check back in in a couple of years for more complexity and better integration.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel: An open nose of red fruit, perhaps even strawberry, a lighter red fruit than is typical of Mourvedre.  The nose is given complexity by a balsamic, mineral note.  In the mouth, sweet fruit, medium body, and very open, forward and pure, almost Pinot Noir-like.  Reminiscent of the 2006 at a comparable age; we expect the 2008 to also darken and put on weight with some time in bottle.  Enjoy now for its purity, but wait for depth.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel (from barrel): All of the 2009 reds showed well, but the 2009 Esprit was the star, outpacing even the Panoplie at this stage.  A dark, mineral, blackberry and cocoa nose, with flavors of crushed rock, licorice, lots of spice, and black raspberry.  The texture is wonderful, with great, granular tannins that reminded Neil of powdered sugar.  Francois thought this was the best Esprit he'd ever tasted at this stage.

It's always valuable having one of the Perrins over at Tablas Creek, and Francois, who has spent the last three decades as the principal architect of Beaucastel's wines, brings a particularly interesting perspective. That he was as impressed as he was with the 2009's bodes very well for their quality.  One more photo, of Francois Perrin and Bob Haas, at the end of the vertical tasting:

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From my own perspective, as much fun as the vertical tasting was, I was most pleased by how well the 2010's showed.  It's typically a difficult time to taste, a few months after harvest while wines are just finishing primary fermentation and just starting malolactic fermentation.  But with the exception of Grenache -- which in my experience is always problematic for at least three months after harvest -- all the red varietals showed richness, balance, and a persistent saline character that seems to be a hallmark of the limestone soils here, and which frame the fruit and structural elements in all the wines.  I have never been as impressed with a vintage at this early stage, and am actively looking forward to getting to know the components we have in the cellar as we start the blending process.