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:


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:


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.

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:


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:


Then, pull the cork:


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:


Pouring slower now, part way through the second decanter:


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:




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:




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.

Côtes (de Tablas), Côte (d’Or) and the pleasures of aged wine

By Robert Haas

The age of a wine is a relative thing. Some wines are old young and others are young old. Many great red wines are rushed to the table too young these days. Most restaurants and retailers do not have the financing or space to lay down wines and we, as consumers, have the same problems or simply lack the patience to wait. And many wines, maybe more now than ever, are made to consume young. Sometimes, however, we are presented with opportunities.

I recently tasted our 2001 Côtes de Tablas at the delightful Bistro Henry in Manchester, VT. Chris Kleeman, Henry’s good friend, takes charge of the wines and decides in some cases to cellar some of his choices for later release to the list – certainly a rare luxury these days. The 2001 Côtes is an interesting historical landmark. Since we did not make any Esprit de Beaucastel in 2001, only a little Founders’ Reserve, the Côtes was a blend of virtually the entire vineyard. The 2001 Côtes was still showing quite youthfully, with good color and absolutely no hint of bricky edges. It showed good blackberry, gooseberry and strawberry fruit on the nose and palate, was poised and bright with some dusty tannins at the back end.

What would happen today if we blended our entire vineyard into one wine? We try this each year, for fun, in part because our original intention for Tablas Creek was to make just one red and one white wine each year. Probably the result would be deeper and richer than it was in 2001; the 2001 vintage was marked by April frosts and uneven ripening, with the Grenache component probably the weakest of our three red varieties, and the vines were still young. Yet my feeling was that the 2001 Côtes de Tablas still has a long life ahead of it. At any rate, it was fun and interesting.

Maltroie Recently I had another wonderful and very different tasting experience: drinking a great mature wine from a little known and often much underrated premier crû vineyard in Burgundy. I was preparing wines for a tasting of old Burgundies when I ran across a 1985 Chassagne-Montrachet La Maltroie from Georges Deleger that had no following vintages in my cellar because Georges retired shortly thereafter. Barbara and I had it for dinner with some rare cold beef filet. The wine was brilliant. Still deeply colored and chock full of cherry and raspberry fruit, rich on the palate with beautiful ripe and rounded tannins, and handsomely structured. The sensation brought me back 25 years to the actual tasting in Deleger’s cellar in the spring of 1986. I was blown away. It was the first 1985 red Burgundy that I had tasted in the barrel. Even though I expected 1985 to be a great vintage I was not prepared for that terrific a red wine to come from a Chassagne vineyard (Chassagne-Montrachet is better known for its brilliant whites). That spring trip brought me to many other terrific wines from that lovely and long-lived vintage.

We are still enjoying a number of 1985 Burgundies today, wines that I tasted and bought back then, but this particular experience last week brought me back to a clear sensory remembrance of the scene in Georges Deleger’s cellar in Chassagne that spring day in 1986.

One of the traditional attributes of a great wine is its ability to improve with age. Great wine changes over time and has a life of its own: youth, adolescence, maturity, senility and finally death. In general, the greater the wine, the longer that each period lasts. Tablas Creek is still too young a vineyard for us to predict long-term aging. Give us another fifty years of experience. But tastings like my recent one of our 2001 Côtes de Tablas – a wine from young vines that was never meant for long aging – make me think we show promise. And wines like the 1985 La Maltroie remind me why it matters.

21 Beaucastel and Tablas Creek wines from 1985-2007 at one amazing dinner

Last week I had the pleasure of participating in a dinner in Los Angeles with a group of wine collectors who call themselves the "X-Pensive Winos".  They are a group of friends who met largely online and who share a love of wine and a love of challenging themselves and each other.  They organize their monthly events in turns, and each is on a theme.  Themes can be based on varietal, on style, on provenance, or around a winery or winemaker, and each member is expected to contribute wine out of their cellars as appropriate to the theme.  They invite winery principals to participate when the theme is appropriate.

I was the lucky recipient of an invitation from one of the group's members who happens also to be a Tablas Creek wine club member.  After a few months of back-and-forth on ideas, we settled on an exploration of Tablas Creek and Beaucastel, with side-by-site pairings when possible and appropriate.  The dinner was hosted at Bistro LQ, Chef Laurent Quenioux's outpost in an otherwise unremarkable area on Beverly Blvd. south of West Hollywood and east of Beverly Hills.  There were a ridiculous number of wines (21 in all) spanning two colors, two continents and more than two decades.  I found the experience fascinating, and thought it would be interesting to comment a little on the wines that we tasted and also share a few general thoughts on what the wines suggested about Tablas Creek as reflected through Beaucastel.

First, I should mention the food, which was extraordinarily inventive and also excellent.  I had two favorite dishes, from opposite ends of the culinary spectrum.  The first was a geoduck clam, thinly sliced, over sea urchin tapioca pudding with yuzu kosho.  The chewiness and relative simplicity of the geoduck contrasted in an amazing way with the creamy, unctuous, slightly sweet and complex urchin.  It's a dish I could never have even imagined, let alone made, but it played well with the complex flavors of the older Beaucastel whites.  My other favorite was a homemade papardelle with rabbit meatballs, salsify, olives and cipollini onions.  It was very traditional, absolutely classic, and not mucked about with.  As a pairing with the flight of older Beaucastel reds, it couldn't have been better.

Aperitifs (unusual Tablas Creek whites)
  • 2009 Vermentino: Just bottled about 6 weeks before, in its first public appearance.  Scheduled for the fall 2010 VINsider club shipment.  Citrus, spice and mineral, a little riper than the 2008 Vermentino, but not as big as 2007.  Less herby than many of our Vermentinos, more citrus.  Key lime?
  • 2008 Grenache Blanc: I think this is the best Grenache Blanc we've ever made.  Bright, rich and mineral all at once.  Preserved lemon, wet rocks, and broad texture.  Very long finish.
  • 2008 Antithesis Chardonnay: Rich but unoaked, apple and sweet spice, mid-weight, with minerality coming out on the finish.  Nice core of acidity cleans up what is a pretty robust white.  A very good vintage for Antithesis (as is typically the case with our cooler years).
First flight (Beaucastel and Tablas Creek whites)
  • 1987 Beaucastel Vieilles Vignes: A revelation for most of the table, who had never had a truly old Beaucastel white.  It was clean and vibrant, minerally, slightly nutty, saline, and lemony.  A very different texture from young Roussannes: much less of the oiliness that is characteristic of the varietal.
  • 1997 Beaucastel Vieilles Vignes: By contrast to the previous wine, which was looked in the glass like a young wine, this was almost orange, with a notable oxidation on the nose.  Still, it didn't taste dead to me, with flavors of creme caramel (burnt sugar), thick texture, and decent acidity.  I actually think this was too young, and will come back around.
  • 2003 Beaucastel Vieilles Vignes: Rich and tropical, with just the first hint of oxidation.  Very thick texture compared to the first two wines.  Lots of honey and spice, in need of big food.  Worked great with the urchin.
  • 2002 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Fresher than the 2003 Vieilles Vignes which immediately preceded it, a little more acidity and a little less weight.  A little quiet on the nose, beautiful, rich and balanced on the palate with a lingering flavor of fresh honey.
  • 2008 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: Notably different that any of the other whites, much more floral with citrus blossom and honeysuckle.  Good intensity but almost delicate on the palate, flitting between white flowers, fresh honey and herbs.
Second flight (Older Beaucastel reds)
  • 1985 Beaucastel: This felt to me like it was right at the end of its drinking peak and just starting to dry out (particularly by comparison to the next wine).  It was still wonderful, with fully mature tannins, a nice combination of plums and leather and Provencal herbs.
  • 1989 Beaucastel: Much brighter fruit and more evident tannin than the 1985.  Has a wonderful vibrancy both to the fruit and the acidity.  Just a joy to drink (as it has been each time I've had it).  My favorite wine of the evening.
  • 1998 Beaucastel: Definitely young and still not really opened up.  A much darker, more monolithic nose of soy and mineral and creme de cassis.  Still quite tannic.  Going to be great but still a few years away, I thought.
  • 1995 Beaucastel "Hommage a Jacques Perrin": Quite youthful but not as polished, to my taste, as the three previous wines.  Noticeably tannic with flavors more of rosemary and underbrush than of fruit.  Didn't quite have the lushness behind this that the 1998 did; not sure if it's a stage (this wine is 70% Mourvedre, far more than any of the others) or if the structure will continue to dominate the fruit.
Third flight (middle-aged Beaucastel and Tablas Creek reds)
  • 2000 Beaucastel: Clean and pretty, almost delicate on the nose, with flavors of cherry skin and a herbs.  Not a blockbuster, but beautifully balanced and quite elegant.
  • 2000 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel: Deep, meaty and minty, with a nose of cassis and fig.  Still quite tannic and thick with youthful fruit.  Sort of like a more rustic version of the 1998 Beaucastel.  Several people at the table commented that if they'd had the two 2000's blind they would have guessed wrong which was Californian and which was the Chateauneuf.
  • 2001 Beaucastel: Not giving much up on the nose right now.  Some mint, some cherry skin, some mineral.  On the palate, hard as nails, though there is a very promising underlying warmth to the fruit that suggests good things to come.  Definitely wait.
  • 2002 Tablas Creek Panoplie: Delicious.  Classic Mourvedre flavors of plums, currants and milk chocolate (the wine is 80% Mourvedre).  Still quite young, but with nice chewy tannins.  Not a lot of meaty secondary flavors yet, but I suspect they're lurking there for the right time to come out.
Fourth flight (young Beaucastel and Tablas Creek reds)
  • 2005 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel: Rich and earthy, with mint, sweet spices, roasted meat and still quite a lot of tannin.  A little wild brambly character on the finish is a surprising and appealing diversion.
  • 2007 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel: Plays back and forth between brighter and deeper flavors, from sweet red fruit (raspberry?) to soy and even darker aromas.  Lots of sweet spices.  A blockbuster wine with a long, exciting life ahead of it.
  • 2007 Beaucastel: A treat for me.  The nose has a seriousness to it, soy and crushed rocks and dark berries.  The mouth is rich and dense with a current of mineral coolness running through it that I can still remember vividly, four days later.  Just gorgeous, and while it showed great, strikes me as totally uncompromising in its ageworthiness.
I didn't really take any notes on the two dessert wines (2006 Tablas Creek Vin de Paille "Quintessence" and 2006 Tablas Creek Vin de Paille "Sacrerouge") but then again I also didn't really eat much dessert.  I was still going back to the cheese course and revisiting the 2007 reds.

For me, the family resemblance between the Tablas Creek and Beaucastel wines was illustrated powerfully, and a lot more salient than the compare-contrast differences that I suspect some of the group was expecting.  I would have liked to try the 2005 Beaucastel alongside the 2005 Esprit, but it was a last-minute scratch from the lineup.  Still, 21 wines, none corked, only one oxidized (and that one might just be going through a stage).  And a really wonderful evening.  I am encouraged about the long-term ageability of the wines we're making, and -- as often happens to me around Beaucastel -- humbled by the quality and personality of the wines we're inevitably compared to.

Holiday Wine Suggestions - What We're Drinking this Christmas

I am always skeptical of holiday wine pairing articles that tell you the perfect wine to pair with a holiday meal.  Holiday meals, of course, can vary enormously, and the right wine for your meal is the right wine for what you're eating.  But we thought it would be fun to share what we're all planning for our holidays, so I asked our winemaking team, our tasting room managers, and our other key staff what they'd be drinking, both Tablas Creek and otherwise.  I present their suggestions essentially unedited, so you can get a sense of everyone's personality as well as their wine choices.

And us?  We're having dinner with my parents this Christmas, so we get the benefit of their choices!  But the past few years, when we've been on our own, Christmas is a chance to break out a "special occasion" wine.  I typically make a standing rib roast, and pick something I'd otherwise be too intimidated to open.  Last year, we started with an old Saint Emilion: 1979 Haut Pontet.  The fruit was pretty much gone, and it was more intellectually interesting than satisfying.  So, we fell back to something safer and opened a 1989 Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape, which is at a spectacular stage right now.  Mature but still lush and pretty close to perfect.  And the warmth of the fruit from the Rhone made a dramatic contrast with the older and more herbal Bordeaux.  Wow. 

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 do change up the first course every year however, and we’ve settled on seared scallops with drizzled honey and apples. We’ll serve a 2006 Viognier (Guigal Condrieu) with the scallops and the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel with the hearty, rich roast.

Robert Haas, Founder
One favorite of mine is Champagne. I think that Roederer estate is the best of the California bubblys. In the imports, I would look for a vigneron estate-bottled wine. For red wine this year, I would be all for Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel 2006. Mom can choose the recipes.

Ryan Hebert, Winemaker
Tablas Creek 2006 Roussanne
This wine tastes exceptionally well right now and I really like how the rich honey notes play off the saltiness of the ham.

2007 Adelaida 2007 Pinot Noir
A very well made Pinot Noir that has the perfect elegance to compliment the turkey.

Chelsea Magnusson, Assistant Winemaker
Tablas Creek Vineyard 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel
In my family, we tend to skip the big meal on Christmas day and instead have a large sit-down meal on Christmas Eve. Almost every year, my family goes skiing on December 24thand we come home to have osso bucco for dinner. For us, this is a wonderful tradition, given the dish’s hearty, soul-satisfying character. A perfect pairing with this is the 2005 Esprit with its layers of earthy complexity and rich, deep fruit. As far as I’m concerned, this wine pairs wonderfully with tired muscles and a crackling fire in the fireplace.

Codorniu Cava
On Christmas morning, the whole family comes to our house where we open presents around the tree with a glass of sparkling wine. I love Cava for its exceptional value and bright, fresh quality, and this particular wine is perfect for Christmas morning. It is a Rosado Brut Cava made from Pinot Noir grapes and the color (bright pink!) and the palette are both about as festive as it gets. And the best part? With a dollar tag coming in at less than $20, we aren’t nervous sabering the bottles to kick off the holiday!

Sylvia Montegue, Tasting Room Assistant Manager
Slow cooked stuffed pork shoulder roast with figs, garlic and Mourvedre will be the main attraction on our table for Christmas dinner 2009. The Mourvedre will be incorporated into the sauce for the meat as well as served along with the meal. I love to serve several vintages of a Tablas wine to showcase the differences that each year brings and to help our guests understand why winemaking is so interesting and definitely a challenge. This succulent cut of meat with figs pairs well with the notes of plum, spice and roasted meats that is evident in the 2006/2007 Tablas Creek Mourvedre.

One can't celebrate the holidays without a bubbly. Period. On New Year's Eve we will have diver scallops with brown butter & shallots paired with Camile Bonville Grand Cru Brut. This is a bright, fresh splash of citrus that cuts the richness of the scallops and wakes up your palate on a dark winter's evening.

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager
I'm still working on the menu, but it looks like I'm going to start with a Bouillabaisse. I will likely serve the 2008 Tablas Creek Rosé. An obvious non-Tablas choice would be a Rosé from Bandol or Tavel, but I think a White Burgundy, a White Bordeaux, or even a Rosé Champagne would work.

The main course will include Lamb Chops with braised root vegetables. I'm leaning toward serving the 2005 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel, but might also substitute the 2006 Perrin et Fils Gigondas or a Mourvedré-based red from Bandol.

A work in progress!

Monica O'Connor, Tasting Room Team Lead
My two wine suggestions for the holidays are the Tablas 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel and J Vineyards 2006 Pinot Noir Russian River Valley.

Though the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel is a bit obvious given that it is just so elegant & pretty, this choice for me is about the pleasure and comfort of the holidays enjoyed with family and friends. The 2006 Esprit has a magical quality - lush body, serious earth and playful fruit, extraordinarily balanced. What it has to say, it whispers ~ and it says something new each time so you keep coming back.

I find this wine a sensational pairing with a great variety of foods: ahi or salmon, filet mignon, risotto, Tuscan bean soup with fresh herbs; and really fine over good conversation as well.

J Vineyards 2006 Pinot Noir RRV I really like for its interesting contrasts and the way they integrate. It has a lovely nose of cassis and darjeeling tea, some earth and berries on the palate, with gentle tannins and pleasing acidity. I would pair this wine with duck, perhaps with a reduction of pan juices, wine and figs.

Tommy Oldre, National Sales Manager
For my Tablas pick, I am selecting our 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, for a couple of reasons. First off, I think it is one of the prettiest wines we have ever made. Secondly, I think it is a great match for most preparations of ham, which I know I will be having this holiday season. Specifically, I really enjoy the way the ‘07 Esprit Blanc, with its Roussanne-based richness, courts the salty richness of the ham and also how the lemony acids in the wine can counterbalance the sweetness offered in most glazes.

For my non-Tablas pick, I select Gasoton Chiquet’s NV Tradition Champagne. Honestly, for me, this is an easy call. This wine is always enjoyable for me to drink; it pairs beautifully with many foods, it has a historically significant presence to it (as the majority of Champagne does for me), and my girlfriend is always happier with me when I bring it home.

Gustavo Prieto, Tasting Room Team Lead
I would pick the Esprit de Beaucastel 2003, because I love the richness of Mourvedre, especially in 2003 that's 50%, nice earthiness, softness and balance and it is drinking quite well now. Also I'm thinking of cooking lamb for Christmas...

For a non Tablas wine I would pick a sparkling wine, since the holidays are all about celebration and I think there is nothing better than a glass of good Champagne, maybe a 1990 Dom Perignon...