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!


A Summer Dinner in Vermont

By Robert Haas

One of summer’s greatest challenges for the Vermont gardener is keeping up with the zucchini production.  So we need to find recipes in order to benefit from our garden and, of course, wines to accompany them.  Here is an old standby recipe inspired by The Victory Garden Cookbook, by Marian Morash, published in New York in 1982 by Alfred A. Knopf.  Mr. Knopf, a customer of mine at M. Lehmann, was a great lover of good wine and food, and a frequent publisher of works by knowledgeable food and wine writers.

2 eggs
2 cups grated zucchini
2 ears local corn, scraped off the cob
¼ cup flour
1 Tb melted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup coarsely grated VT cheddar cheese
2 Tb oil for frying 

  • Grate the squash on the coarse side of a box grater, put into a colander and salt to drain of excess liquid.  
  • Slice the corn off the cob and scrape off the milky residue with the back of a knife. 
  • After about 20 minutes, gently squeeze the liquid out of the squash with your hands, and continue with the recipe.
  • Beat the eggs and combine with all remaining ingredients except the oil.
  • Heat a well-seasoned iron or non-stick pan or a griddle and add the oil.
  • Spoon the batter with a ladle into the hot oil and fry until crisp on both sides.  Smaller fritters are easier to turn.  
  • Drain on paper towels and serve hot.

For the wine, ironically I discovered one from about the same vintage as the book: a 1981 premier crû Burgundy: Vosne-Romanée Orveaux of Jean Mongeard, tucked away in the cellar.

Orveaux 1981

I brought it up expecting a gentle, elegant wine, albeit from a disregarded vintage.  Wrong!  The wine was rich and full-bodied, redolent of ripe sun-dried cherries, with a velvety palate and ripe tannins: unexpectedly intense, and at a perfect age, with a touch of that now unfashionable “barnyard" character which I learned to appreciate.  It went beautifully with the fritters.  I had put away several cases of 1981's from Mongeard and Ponsot in my Vineyard Brands days because both vignerons had beautifully farmed a vintage with heavy spring frosts, frequent storms during June and July and damaging hail in August.  However, they saved their harvest of a tiny crop by careful navigation during a difficult September.  The trade and the press wrote it off: “A vintage to forget.”  I’m glad that I didn’t.  And best of all, I still have some of the wines in the cellar.


In defense of expensive rosé

A few years ago, I was out to dinner at Villa Creek with friends.  Dining at Villa Creek is always a treat because not only is the food terrific, but owner Cris Cherry and GM Erick Cadena always put together a great and reasonably priced wine list that showcases not only the best of local wines but also a terrific selection from around the world, particularly from the regions that border the Mediterranean and specialize in the same grape varieties that we (and Villa Creek Cellars) focus on.  I ended up picking a classic: a bottle of Domaine Tempier Rosé, for which, if I remember right, I paid something like $70.

This experience came back to me thanks to a recent comment on our Facebook page, after we had posted a link to an article in our local paper in which wine columnist Laurie Daniel named our 2011 Rosé the "Wine of the Week".  The commenter said, "It's great but bring the price down. It's more than Tavel."  Now our Rosé is not a cheap one; our suggested retail is $27 per bottle.  But the comment begs two questions.  First, why shouldn't our Rosé cost more than a Tavel?  And second, what is it about rosés that means that they should be cheap, anyway?

I'll address the first question briefly; I'm more interested in the second.  Tavel is a wonderful appellation in the southern Rhone (more or less due west of Avignon and southwest from Chateauneuf-du-Pape) which makes some of the world's best rosés.  The appellation is exclusive to rosé, and the wines from Tavel have been among the world's most recognized examples of pink wine for centuries.  But, for all that, it is a Grenache-dominated appellation, with an average yield, according to the Tavel AOC, of roughly 2.8 tons/acre (42 hl/hectare).  So, our Tablas Creek rosé, made from a mix of Mourvedre, Grenache and Counoise at a yield of 2.4 tons/acre in 2011, doesn't seem out of line, particularly given that Mourvedre and Counoise are more difficult to grow than Grenache.  And we farm the Rosé organically, entirely from estate fruit, which most Tavel producers don't.  But does the quality measure up? Independent reviews suggest it does. The Wine Spectator has rated 48 Tavels since the 2009 vintage. Of these, 8 have received 90+ point ratings. They have reviewed our Rosé in the last three vintages, giving us an 88, an 89 and (just this week) a 90 point rating.  I don't say any of this to suggest that our wine is better than the average Tavel (though I think it is) but instead just to illustrate that whether you're measuring by cost of production or quality we belong.  After that, it's up to each of you to decide what warrants you opening your pocketbook. But the idea that the original home of a particular variety should always command a higher price than those same grapes translated elsewhere in the world strikes me as silly.  Drink what you like and which you believe delivers value.

The second question, of why rosé should be cheap, is more interesting. Understanding why requires a brief diversion into winemaking techniques, so bear with me. Many red grapes are harvested with less intensity than a winemaker might want. Since most of the character of a red wine comes from the skins of the grapes, a winemaker can choose to concentrate his or her red wine by removing some of the free-run juice during fermentation and leaving less juice to be concentrated by the full quantity of skins. Just as a teabag in a small teapot will produce more intense tea than the same teabag in a large teapot, a given volume of skins in less juice will produce more intense wine than the same volume of skins in more juice. This technique is called saignée (the French word for "bleeding"). The winemaker then has the choice of pouring the juice that has been removed down the drain, or fermenting it dry and making a rosé out of it. Are these rosés any good? They can be, but often are not. Typically, the reason that the winemaker was bleeding off the juice to start with was that the raw materials were not sufficiently concentrated, which means that the bled-off juice is often uninteresting. What is more, these grapes were picked at optimal ripeness for the red wine for which they were intended: typically riper and with lower acidity than would be desirable in a rosé.

For a winery making a rosé like the one above, any revenue from the reclaimed juice is a bonus.  And often these rosés are dirt cheap. In France, many are available for a few euros a bottle, and there are respectable bottles that make it into the United States for $5-$7.

While these sorts of rosés make up the majority of the world's production, they are far from the only kind made.  There are regions like Tavel where red wines are not allowed, and where any grape that is grown is selected and vinified specifically for rosé, typically pressed off after a day or two and fermented dry away from the skins.  And there are regions like Bandol, where the rosé is sufficiently renowned that a significant portion of the wine is made intentionally as rosé, often picked sooner than the grapes for the reds and requiring a sacrifice of potential red production to produce.  This second reason is one that we've always found compelling.  Far from needing to concentrate most of our red lots, we struggle to find lots that won't be harmed by extra concentration, and base our Rosé on a vineyard block that we harvest specifically for our rosé program.  Each bottle of our Rosé that we make is one less bottle of red wine.

Still, there are two good reasons that argue against very high price tags for rosés.  One is based on cost of production, the other on ageability.  Rosés tend to be relatively inexpensive to produce because they typically don't see any new oak (which is expensive) and they come to market quickly and so don't take up much space in the cellar or accumulate many winemaking costs.  And as, in general, the highest price tags in the world of wine are reserved for the most ageable wines, rosés, which are mostly to be drunk young, don't get a collector's premium.

But why is this any different than, say, an aromatic white like Sauvignon Blanc?  Essentially, it boils down to fashion.  Rosés are just now becoming fashionable, internationally.  Top Bandol brands like Domaines Ott and Domaine Tempier have seen enough demand worldwide that their prices have risen in the last few years from mid-$20s to around $40.  And you're starting to see a few rosé-producing wineries releasing luxury cuvées, most notably Chateau d'Esclans whose top-of-the-line Garrus rosé, aged in new French oak and limited to 6 barrels per year, carries a price tag of around $100.  In a rosé-themed tasting last summer (the always worthwhile RAP tasting in San Francisco) I got to taste four different tiers from Chateau d'Esclans, and preferred the freshness of the less expensive wines to the creamy oakiness of the elite levels, but that richer style clearly has its adherents as well.

So, why did I order the Tempier Rosé from Villa Creek that night?  How often can you find the best example, anywhere in the world, in an important category for $70 on a wine list or $40 on a shelf?  When I do, I feel like it's a shame to turn it down for a mid-range example of a more exalted category.  As for the Tempier, boy, was it good.  And that is my defense of expensive rosé: that even the most expensive examples are relatively inexpensive in the world of fine wines.  Because the category is still not particularly fashionable, you can get some of the world's most compelling wines for relative peanuts.  And then, unlike the big red or oaky white you might have been considering instead, you can go ahead and drink it with those very same peanuts.


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:

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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.


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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A Winter Dinner and a Beautiful 1985 California Cabernet

By Robert Haas

As our late Indian summer in Paso Robles turns toward winter our appetites turn toward winter dishes. This last Sunday we had friends over for dinner and we served a Moroccan tagine, a savory slow cooked mixture of sweet and savory from a recipe in The Heart of the Artichoke, by David Tanis, published by Artisan. The book is a collection of delicious, traditional dishes organized by seasons.

Pine Ridge 1985

A tagine is a North African cooking vessel and tagine also is the name of the dish that my wife, Barbara, served us: Fragrant Lamb With Prunes and Almonds. The recipe includes, besides prunes and almonds, a panoply of spices: garlic, ginger, cinnamon, coriander, cumin, and cayenne. We did not have a tagine handy so she used a heavy Le Creuset French oven for the two hours stay in our oven. We purchased shoulder of San Luis Obispo County lamb from J & R Custom Meat and Sausage in Templeton.

One would think that all the sweet and savory elements would be tough on a dry red wine but no! We ended up with a perfect match: a 1985 Pine Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon that has been in my cellar since the days back in the eighties that my Vineyard Brands company represented Pine Ridge in the U.S. market. The wine was perfectly aged and absolutely brilliant: soft, delicious, and beautifully balanced and accommodating the food and the palate at 12.7% alcohol.

It and the dish echoed each other beautifully: the dish bringing out the sweet fruit flavors and ripe, mature tannins of the cabernet and the wine accenting the savory lamb flavors. Yum!


Other Wines We Love: 2009 Bishop's Peak Pinot Noir

The next in an occasional series of our non-Tablas Creek wine discoveries.

I greatly admire Brian Talley and his team at Talley Vineyards.  They make great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir year in and year out, both their vineyard-designates (Rosemary's, Oliver's, and Rincon) and their estate wines.  The vineyards are farmed sustainably and the wines are made naturally (all with native yeasts) and taste unmanipulated and pure.  Brian has also been at the forefront of expanding the concept of sustainability to include addressing the challenges of vineyard and farm worker housing, and created the Mano Tinta line of wines to support the Fund for Vineyard and Farm Workers that he and his wife Johnine established in 2004.

Bishop Peak Pinot Noir generic1 Even better, all their wines are priced reasonably.  Everyone has their own price/value calculation that they make, and while their Bishop's Peak label (list retail prices between $15 and $20) are the most obvious values, even the most expensive Talley vineyard-designate wines strike me as bargains for their quality.  So, it was with some anticipation that I picked up a bottle of their Bishop's Peak Pinot Noir 2009 at our local Albertson's a month or so ago. 

The Bishop's Peak Pinot Noir was only $16 on the shelf, and I figured with the pedigree -- sourced from grapes around San Luis Obispo County, and made by the Talley winemaking team -- it was worth a shot.  It seriously over-delivered, to the point that I went back to the supermarket and bought a case, and have been enjoying it regularly this summer.  It's pure Pinot Noir, nicely mid-weight on the palate, with fresh, spicy fruit, good acidity, and just a tiny kiss of oak.  It has made several other California Pinots we've opened recently feel overripe and ponderous, and entry-level Bourgogne appellation Pinots from Burgundy taste thin and sharp.  Just a beautiful wine, at a bargain price.

On a related note, I've thought for a while that the Edna and Arroyo Grande Valleys, in the southern part of San Luis Obispo County, were ripe for discovery.  They have great soils, a cool but regular climate with lots of sun, and are in the heart of the Central Coast's prime real estate, about half an hour south of Paso Robles, half an hour north of the Santa Maria Valley, and forty-five minutes north of the Santa Ynez Valley.  Even more importantly, they have two wineries among the most highly acclaimed in their categories, to help make the area's reputation: Talley (for Burgundy varieties) and Alban Vineyards (for Rhone varieties).  It hasn't quite taken off yet the way that I've been expecting, but I have every belief it will in the next decade.  Meanwhile, enjoy that you can get wines from this tremendous growing region without an appellation-driven price surcharge.


Holiday Wine Suggestions from the Tablas Creek Team

The idea that there is one perfect holiday wine is silly.  There is no one single holiday meal, and no one single holiday group.  But at the same time, it's fun to peek into other worlds and see what people are planning.  I asked several key members of the Tablas Creek team what they'll be drinking at the holidays this year.  There was no requirement that the wine be a Tablas Creek wine, and as you'll see, several non-Tablas suggestions were offered.  But there's a healthy amount of Tablas Creek in the plans, too, which has to be a good sign. 

As usual, I've left the recommendations in the contributors' original words.  In alphabetical order:

Neil Collins, Winemaker and Vineyard Manager
I think for our holiday meal we will begin with a dry Bristol's cider which is always a good fit for the season and the food. With old Tom himself I think I will seek out a demi-sec Vouvray, I suspect that the sweetness will pair well with the turkey coupled with the fact that I am currently intrigued by the Loire Valley wines. And needless to say there will be a bottle of TCV Roussanne on hand, probably the 2002 because that is a sure thing. HAPPY HOLIDAY

Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker
This is going to be a very special holiday season for my family for many reasons, so we’re going to pull out all the stops when it comes to food and wine. Last year, I had the great privilege to sit in on a Panoplie vertical tasting at the winery just before Christmas, and the 2004 Panoplie struck me as a wine my parents would thoroughly enjoy. Its character is deep, lush and ripe with bittersweet chocolate, gorgeous sweet plum and profound fig notes. It certainly carries a “wow” factor upon first impression and only becomes more impressive with time in the glass. Honestly, I don’t think it matters what this wine is paired with – I’m sure it’ll please its audience regardless.

We traditionally kick off our Christmas morning with a few bottles of bubbly to enjoy as we open presents with the whole family. I’m a fan of just about all bubbles, but my favorites are always on the creamy and yeasty end of the spectrum. My choice this year, the Mumm Napa Brut Prestige Extended Tirage, is a wonderful value in my opinion, considering the extended sur lie aging and the use of méthode traditionelle fermentation techniques. I love finding wines that taste more expensive than they really are, and this happens to be one of them.

Nicole Getty, Director of Wine Club, Hospitality and Events
The traditional Christmas feast at my family's house is a standing rib roast and Yorkshire pudding. We usually change up the first course every year but last year was such a success, we’re doing it again! We will be pairing seared scallops with drizzled honey and apples served with a 2008 Viognier (Halter Ranch Vineyard) and the 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel with the hearty, rich roast.

Robert Haas, Partner
This year, the family is going seashore for our Christmas dinner with Maine lobsters from Barbara Scully's Oyster Farm located at the mouth of the Damariscotta River.  They will be arriving at our house live on the 24th after less than 24 hours out of the water.  We eschew fancy preparations for simply boiling them in salt water and serving them with lemon and melted butter.  Yum!

Our wine choice is Tablas Creek's Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2007: an intense minerally white with ripe, full flavors of stone fruits balanced with bright acidity that goes beautifully with this quite rich shellfish presentation.

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager
As always, we'll begin Christmas Eve dinner with a fish or shellfish course.  This year we’ll look back to a favorite, Steamed Mussels with Garlic Sabayon, from the Herbfarm Cookbook.  Really, just about any clean, dry white will work.  The Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas Blanc loves garlic and would be a great choice, as would our Vermentino.  But a dinner guest promised to bring a favorite Chablis (I don’t know the producer), so we’ll put that front and center and go from there.
 
For a main course we’ll have a rack of pork coated in herbs, crushed fennel and black pepper, roasted fingerling potatoes with rosemary, and braised fennel.  An earthy red wine of medium weight seems to me to be the ticket.  The Tablas Creek 2008 Côtes de Tablas is the obvious choice from our current roster, with its deft texture and fruity, slightly herbal underpinnings.  I’m also going to open our 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel, which was the star of a recent library vertical tasting.  It may be slightly weighty for the pork, but it’s so delicious right now that I really don’t care if it’s the perfect match.  Other wines I would try are an old-school Rioja (read: not over extracted or oaked), or a high-quality, Grenache-based Rhone.

Tommy Oldre, National Sales Manager
It looks like most of the holiday gatherings I will be attending will be in the potluck category and, for me, this equates to bringing our 2008 Cotes de Tablas.  It's versatility and friendly profile make it a great match for many dishes, and many palates, and it's always a nice way to introduce Tablas Creek to any new faces I may meet.  I also plan to have Champagne at the ready.  I'm not sure which producers I will be drinking, but Bonnaire is a safe bet, as is Billecart-Salmon.  I enjoy drinking Champagne for all that it is as a beverage and for all of the celebratory emotion it can inspire.  For me, the chance to celebrate family and friends, and to celebrate with family is friends, is what this time is year is really all about.

Marc Perrin, Partner
Family time. Burgundies and Rhones. Magnum of Beaucastel 62 will be one of the highlights. Also Clos St Denis 96 from Dujac. Amities.

Deanna Ryan, Assistant Tasting Room Manager
We plan on serving an English style prime-rib dinner, with Yorkshire pudding of course, and Trifle for dessert.  At this point, I am thinking of opening an 01 Founders Reserve and the 03 Esprit de Beaucastel.