Harvest 2017 Update: A Start Like an Avalanche

Many years harvest starts gently, with a pick every few days as our vineyard and cellar crew ease into harvest. Not in 2017.

Harvest 2017 Bins of Grenache

On August 25th, we brought in the first Viognier grapes for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc. August 29th saw the Pinot Noir come in from my dad’s property in the Templeton Gap. And then, on August 30th, the floodgates opened. We got the first pick of Viognier off our own estate, and the first Grenache Blanc for the Patelin Blanc, more than 17 tons combined. The next day saw more Viognier for Patelin Blanc and our first Vermentino and Syrah off the estate, 13 more tons. The first day of September saw 50 tons enter the cellar, one of our busiest days ever: three different Syrah blocks off our estate, plus Grenache Blanc for Patelin Blanc and Grenache for Patelin Rosé. September 2nd (a Saturday) brought in 20 more tons of Viognier and Grenache. Sunday the 3rd was a much-needed day of rest, but Labor Day Monday was a labor indeed, with 29 more tons, evenly split between Syrah for the Patelin red and Viognier, Syrah, and Grenache off the estate.

All told, just over one week into harvest, we’ve brought 147 tons of fruit into the cellar. How unusual is that? It’s unprecedented. Looking back over our last several harvests, I don’t see a single week where we brought in over 100 tons.  And it’s even more unusual for so early in the harvest season; look at how much fruit we harvested in the first ten days the last decade:

Tons of Fruit by Harvest

Now there were a few vintages in here with smaller crops (2009, 2011, 2015), and before 2010, we didn't have as much early fruit because the Patelin program -- mostly based on earlier ripening grapes like Grenache Blanc, Viognier, and Syrah -- didn't exist yet. But still, that's quite a beginning. What caused this avalanche of fruit? A ten-day long stretch of some of the hottest weather Paso Robles has recorded.  For the nine days beginning August 25th and ending September 2nd, the lowest high temperature we recorded at the vineyard was 102.3°F. Seven days topped 105°, and we reached a scorching peak of 111.5° on September 2nd. During this period, seven different days broke the all-time record high for that day at the Paso Robles Airport.

It's not that 100+ days are unusual in Paso Robles. We average about 15 of them per year. But to have so many, back to back, right as the grapes are approaching ripeness, has a dramatic impact.

You might well be wondering how the vines held up through this heat wave. The answer is really pretty well. The overall health of the vineyard, thanks to the generous rainfall we received last winter and the ongoing focus on soil nutrition provided by our vineyard team and our Biodynamic program, has been outstanding. The canopies are notably lusher than in recent years, with some blocks looking like jungles. All this leaf area helps shade the clusters and keep them from singeing in the blazing sun. And it helps the vines photosynthesize. In other years, when we’ve seen hot stretches, the vines shut down photosynthesis to conserve water, and the only progress you see – if you can call it progress – comes from the grapes dehydrating, when sugars and acids both rise as water evaporates, while seed and skin tannins stay green. At the extreme, this can produce wines that are tannic, alcoholic, and green: not a good combination.

But this year, we saw ripening continue (and in fact accelerate) through the heat wave. Sugars went up, acids came down, seeds turned from green to brown, and flavors developed nicely. What was remarkable was the rate at which this happened, with some blocks jumping 1-2° Brix a day. So the windows in which we needed to pick to have grapes in balance were shorter. In conditions like these, you have to have the capacity to get the fruit off the vines as it ripens, and be prepared in the cellar for them all to come tumbling in at once.

And tumble it did.

It’s probably not a coincidence that I fielded three separate inquiries from journalists last week about whether we were able to find the picking crew we needed. Farm labor is, after all, scarce in California anyway, between the high cost of living and the competition with other crops. And the hostile turn the national immigration climate has taken in recent months has added additional stresses.  I have never been more grateful for the decision that we made back in 1996 to give our field crew year-round employment. And yet even with the fruit we contract for as a part of the Patelin program, our growers have been able to find the picking crew they need. So while everyone I talk to is concerned about the future availability of vineyard crew, it seems like for this year at least, it's not yet at a crisis point.

The quality of what has come into the cellar looks good. Sugars are a touch higher than we’ve seen in recent years, with Viognier and Syrah both coming off the vineyard between 24° and 25° Brix, whereas in recent years 22-24° Brix was more normal. But acids are good, balance seems on point, and the flavors are luscious and focused.

Despite the heat-accelerated first week, the start to harvest was not that early. An August 30th beginning off the estate is almost exactly what I projected a month ago, and less than a week ahead of our long-term average. This comparatively normal start time (after several years of mid-August beginnings) is thanks in part to the later beginning to the growing season from the wet, relatively cool winter, and in part to the cool stretch that we saw in mid-August. It’s hard to remember now, given the week long inferno we just experienced, but between August 14th and August 23rd our average high was 82°F and our average low 53°F, with some genuinely fall-like days.

Looking forward, we’re hoping that things slow down a bit now that the heat wave broke on Monday.  Typically, at harvest time, the cooler interludes allow us some breathing room, in which we can press off lots and free up the tanks filled during the previous hot stretch.  This week has been moderate, with days in the upper 80s and nights in the 50s. The long-term forecast predicts more of the same. That's absolutely fine with us.

Meanwhile, if you see a winemaker out at a bar in the next few days, buy them a drink. They’ve earned it.


Harvest 2017, the Beginning

By Brad Ely

[Editor's Note: With this post, we welcome Brad Ely, Tablas Creek's Cellar Master, to the Tablas blog.]

Friday marked the first day of harvest for us here at Tablas Creek. A whopping 8.72 tons of Viognier for the Patelin Blanc. This is just the soft start of our busiest season in the cellar. Soon the sweet smell of fermentation will be wafting from full tanks, our hands will be stained purple, and we will be busy with the task of guiding grapes through their transformation into wine.

Harvest is the culmination of an entire year’s worth of work in the vineyard. A year of sunshine, rain, wind, temperature fluctuations, frosty mornings, heat waves, all having an effect on the character of the next vintage in bottle. Countless hours of work, making sure the vines produce the best fruit possible. Our job in the winery is not to mess it up. Once the fruit is placed on our doorstep, the vineyard’s work for the year is done.  The vines can rest, and begin dreaming of winter hibernation. Now it is our time, our opportunity, to create something spectacular.

We have been preparing the winery for the last month, cleaning harvest equipment, pressure washing fruit bins, rebuilding pumps, making sure presses work, and tanks are sanitized. We have purchased supplies, new winemaking toys, and tools to fix the new toys when they inevitably break. At times it feels like preparing for battle, making sure every detail of preparedness has been taken care of. Our goal is to come out victorious, with new wines that have reached their maximum potential as our spoils. (Perhaps I have been watching too much Game of Thrones.)

We have also been preparing ourselves, both mentally and physically. We desire harvest to run smoothly, like a well-oiled machine. That means we need to be as equally prepared as the winery. Safety training, CPR and first aid certifications, training of excited interns, revisiting our standards and procedures for everything harvest related. The row of machines dedicated to supplying artificial energy has appeared in the lab. A coffee pot, espresso machine, and even an iced tea maker, to help us grind through the longest days.  Soon a beautiful leg of cured Spanish ham will appear, fondly known as “The Stinker”, for our snacking delight. The fridge has been stocked with cold libations to help us keep our sanity at the end of a hard day's work.  

We rejoice with the opportunity to stop shaving, (the men anyways) not worrying about looking presentable to the general public. The slow process of transforming into cave men has begun. We have had our last suppers and bits of summer vacation, both friends and family knowing we will be out of social commission for the next few months. Every bit of down time will be needed for sleep, a decent meal, and perhaps a stab at the pile of dirty, grape-stained laundry looming in the corner of the bedroom.

Relationships will be built, friendships made, stories told, and also created. So many hours spent with one another provides a connection deeper than the average 9 to 5 workday experience. Musical tastes will emerge, and then be sub sequentially suppressed by the opposition.  Senses of humor will arise, movie quotes rehearsed, dirty jokes told, and a few curse words may take flight. We have come together with a common objective, to raise wines through the start of their long journey to our dinner table. If we are successful, we will enter harvest as a team, and exit as family.

Harvest is the best time of year. Tensions are high, and so are emotions of excitement and thrill. Creating fine wine is an exhilarating feeling matched by very few experiences in life. It is the perfect combination of science and nature, with opportunity for artistic expression every step of the way. Hopes, dreams, and aspirations of creating something magical gain traction around every corner.

This morning, we way our first day of red fruit, beautiful clusters of Pinot Noir that will ultimately become the Full Circle. Perhaps an ironic foreshadowing of what harvest will signify for the vineyard? The last arc in the annual circle it takes on its mission to produce the world’s most noble beverage.

Meanwhile, we'll celebrate the beginning, in style.


Photos of each Rhone grape as harvest nears, and an updated harvest assessment

I've spent a lot of time the last week or two out in the vineyard. Some of that is because I was gone for a chunk of July and wanted to make sure that I understood what had happened in my absence. Some of that is because we've had several visitors who wanted to get their shoes dusty and see where things really come from. And part of it is that we're close to (maybe just a day or two away from) launching a beautiful new mobile-responsive Web site, and I've been looking for great images to populate the site with.

One of the results has been an ongoing Twitter thread where, each evening, I've posted one close-up cluster photo, working through all the grapes we have growing in the vineyard. That's been fun, but now that I have them all, I thought it would be fun to share them all here on the blog. We have a larger portfolio to work with than we did the last time I did this (in 2014). This year, our three newest grapes, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan, are ready for their photo ops. So, without further ado, in the order we expect to pick:

Viognier

We expect to get our first estate Viognier into the cellar this week.  It's looking ready, berries are softening, and it's sweet. And the vines themselves look bursting with health, with some canes ten feet long. Off we go!

Viognier

Vermentino

Vermentino, with its distinctive coloration and citrusy aromas, typically vies with Viognier for first into the cellar. This year, it seems a little behind, but we should still see it the first week of September.

Vermentino

Syrah

We expect to get our first Syrah in a couple of weeks. This cluster (whose photo I took two weeks ago) still shows a couple of green berries, but in my walk this morning I didn't see any green in Syrah, and the berries were starting to soften. With this week's hot weather, we're not far out. 

Syrah

Marsanne

We're looking forward to better yields off our Marsanne, which have been punishingly low the past two years. This year's crop looks better, and the honeydew melon flavors that come through in the wines already in evidence in the berries. We're likely to see this mid-September:

Marsanne

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc will likely take a while to pick, given that we have it planted in a number of different places and that how advanced it is seemed pretty variable to me as I walked around the vineyard.  We'll likely start in early September, but might not see it all in until the end of the month:

Grenache Blanc

Clairette Blanche

Clairette ripens typically in the middle of the cycle, and we'll expect it in late September sometime. But it already looks good, with the acidity that makes it so valuable as a blending component in evidence: 

Clairette

Grenache

Grenache is always surprisingly late to go through veraison, and even now, a week after I took the photo below, it's not hard to find pink berries in the Grenache blocks. At the same time, they've already accumulated a fair amount of sugar, and Grenache seems to take less time than most grapes between full veraison and harvest. We should see our first Grenache lots in mid- to late-September, but our last lots not until mid-October. 

Grenache

Picardan

I'm guessing a bit here, given that we've only harvested Picardan once.  But it came in fairly late last year, and we expect to bring it in right at the September/October cusp most years. 

Picardan

Tannat

Tannat is easy, in lots of ways. It is relatively late to sprout (protecting it from our spring frosts), it's sturdy and rugged in the vineyard, it ripens evenly, and it harvests right in the middle of the cycle, typically in early October.

Tannat

Terret Noir

We're still learning about Terret, but given that it tends to be high in both acid and tannin, and low in sugar, we try to wait it out. We should be getting it in in early October.

Terret

Picpoul

Picpoul, which gets its name from the root word for "to sting" is renowned for its ability to retain acidity. And our climate and soils here in Paso Robles exaggerate this tendency. So, as nice as it looks in this photo, we're a long way from when we expect pick it in early- to mid-October.

Picpoul

Roussanne

Roussanne is a little like Grenache Blanc, in that we'll likely pick it over a month or more.  I expect that we'll see our first "cherry pick" lots of the ripest clusters before the end of September, but might not see the last lots until late October.

Roussanne

Counoise

The cluster below is unusually advanced for the vineyard; our average Counoise cluster is only about 50% through with veraison.  And it doesn't hurry even after it's done; we expect to wait until mid-October to pick.

Counoise

Mourvedre

We have a lot of Mourvedre out there, in various stages of ripening.  Some, like the photo below, are mostly through veraison.  Others are still half green. And even once it's through veraison, Mourvedre takes longer than any of our other grapes to get to ripeness, so we probably won't see the first picks until early October, and the last until late October or early November.

Mourvedre

A quick note about this week's hot weather and an updated vintage assessment

Although we've brought in a little fruit for our Patelin de Tablas program (well, only Viognier for the Patelin Blanc so far), we haven't yet picked anything off the estate.  But given that it's forecast to reach 105 every day this week, things are going to move fast.  It's not ideal to have this blast of hot weather during harvest, but we think the vineyard is as well prepared for it as it could be, given the health of the vines and the vigor from last winter's generous rainfall.

Even with the speedup spurred by the heat, we're still looking at our latest onset of harvest since 2012, and nearly two weeks later than our earliest-ever start, last year.  My assessment that we were going to start about a week earlier than our 15-year average (September 4th) seems right on target.


Tasting the wines in the Fall 2017 VINsider Club shipments

Each spring and fall, we send out a selection of six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  In many cases, these are wines that only go out to our club.  In others, the club gets a first look at wines that may see a later national release. Before each shipment, we reintroduce ourselves to these wines (which, in some cases, we may not have tasted since before bottling) by opening the full lineup and writing the notes that will be included with the club shipments. Late last week, I sat down with our winemakers Neil Collins and Chelsea Franchi and we dove into this fall's collection. For what we found, read on.

We base the fall shipments around the newest releases of the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, and this fall's shipment is no exception. In addition, this year we reached back into our library to include not just the newest 2015 Esprit de Tablas, but also a bottle of the 2013 Esprit de Tablas that has been showing so well recently.  I'm excited to hear the feedback that we get.  

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

Fall 2017 Classic NC 2

2016 COTES DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: Although production levels on Viognier recovered significantly from 2015's record low levels, Marsanne continued to be exceptionally scarce, and all our Marsanne represented only 14% of the wine.  So, while the wine is as always led by Viognier, it is unusually marked by Grenache Blanc: 43% Viognier, 40% Grenache Blanc, 14% Marsanne, and 3% Roussanne. That additional tension and citrus character from Grenache Blanc's acidity is in evidence in the tasting notes.  The selected lots were blended in March 2017, and the wine was bottled -- under screwcap, to preserve its brightness -- in June.
  • Tasting Notes: An intense nose of peach pit, wet rocks, white tea and tarragon. The mouth is really nicely balanced, as its initial brightness and flavors of nectarine, preserved lemon, and mineral turn richer on the mid-palate, with sweet spices coming out.  The finish brightens up again with notes of pink grapefruit and lemon verbena.  Drink now and for at least the next five years.
  • Production: 1840 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2016 GRENACHE BLANC

  • Production Notes: Like all our white grapes except Marsanne, 2016 saw yields recover to near-normal levels for Grenache Blanc. But that doesn't mean the fruit lacked for intensity, and we used high percentages of Grenache Blanc in both our Esprit de Tablas Blanc and Cotes de Tablas Blanc in 2016. For the varietal Grenache Blanc, we chose lots that were fermented in stainless steel (for brightness) and foudre (for roundness), then blended in March and bottled in June, 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: A nose of peppermint, lemon zest, petrichor, and anise... very Grenache Blanc. On the palate, flavors of candied lemon peel and apple skin provide a nice balance of weight and brightness. The grape's characteristic acids build on the finish, with flavors of sweet spice and mineral balanced by a pithy bite. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 715 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2015 ESPRIT DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: The alternating quite warm and quite cool months during the 2015 ripening cycle produced an exceptionally long and varied Roussanne harvest, with many blocks producing lots with power and lushness, but relatively low acids. This made the vibrant acids of the Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc components particularly critical in 2015. In the end, we maxed out our Picpoul Blanc for the first time since 2009, using every drop of Picpoul in the Esprit Blanc. We used a relatively low proportion of Roussanne (55%, fermented primarily in foudre) for weight and structure, and added high percentages of Grenache Blanc (28%, from foudre and stainless steel) and Picpoul Blanc (17%, from stainless steel) for citrusy acidity and saline freshness. As we have done since 2012, we let the blend age in foudre through the subsequent harvest before bottling it in January 2017 and aging it an additional 8 months in bottle before release.
  • Tasting Notes: Powerfully fruity and floral on the nose, with an exoticism reminiscent to me of Gewurztraminer: ripe melon, honeysuckle, vanilla bean, mace, and a little savory cedar spice. The mouth is rich and powerfully Roussanne despite its relatively low percentage, with flavors of baked pear, creme caramel, and baking spices. The acids build on the finish to a mango-like intensity. A fascinating, structured Esprit Blanc that should be a pleasure to watch evolve in bottle.  Already delicious, it should also go out 15 years or more and gain additional nuttiness and complexity with time.
  • Production: 1700 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

2015 EN GOBELET

  • Production Notes: Our eighth En Gobelet, a non-traditional blend all from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks, and mostly from the 12-acre block we call Scruffy Hill, planted in 2005 and 2006 to be a self-sufficient field blend. We have found that in our drought, our head-trained blocks suffer less than our closer-spaced irrigated blocks, and the wine didn't reflect the vintage's warmer moments, instead showing a darkness and a tension that denote a cooler vintage. We chose a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 18% Syrah, 11% Counoise and 3% Tannat. As usual, the small addition of head-trained Tannat proved valuable for its chalky tannins and deep flavors. The wine was blended in June of 2016, aged in foudre and bottled in April 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: Spicy and cool on the nose, to me marked by Syrah (or perhaps the cool vintage): black cherry, crushed rock, and meat: the "butter in a butcher shop" description my wife Meghan had the first time she tasted Syrah out of barrel. The palate is vibrant: more cherry, roasted herbs, rare steak, and both the flavor and texture of baker's chocolate. The long finish shows more mineral and a smoky fire-grilled meat dripping character I found immensely appealing. Give this six months, if you can, and then drink for the next two decades.
  • Production: 880 cases
  • List Price: $50 VINsider Price: $40

2015 ESPRIT DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: The cool, windy weather that impacted flowering in 2015 was largely over by the time Mourvedre bloomed, and it ended up dodging the dramatically reduced yields that impacted most of our other varieties. This gave us comparatively a lot of Mourvedre -- and a lot of really terrific Mourvedre -- when we got to our blending trials in the spring.  In the end, we chose a blend with our highest percentage of Mourvedre (49%) since 2004. To this, we added  25% Grenache for juiciness and acidity, and relatively small portions of Syrah (21%, for structure) and Counoise (5%, for briary spice). The wine's components were fermented separately, then selected for the Esprit, blended in June 2016 and aged a year in foudre before bottling in June 2017. The overall low yields of 2015 made this our smallest-production Esprit since 2009.
  • Tasting Notes: The nose is immensely inviting: warm berry compote, given complexity by sun-drenched bay leaf and newly turned earth.  Mourvedre at its most appealing. The mouth is lush and dense, still quite tannic, with licorice, blackberry, and cedar notes. There is a Mourvedre-driven meatiness, but it's refined too, like a linebacker in a tuxedo. Young and bright on the finish, with lingering flavors of wood smoke, plum skin and spice.  The wine is still unwinding after its recent bottling; we recommend that you hold the 2015 Esprit for a few months, then drink either between 2018 and 2020 or again starting in 2023 any time over the subsequent two decades.
  • Production: 2850 cases
  • List Price: $55 VINsider Price: $44

2013 ESPRIT DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: Like all the 2013 reds, the Esprit de Tablas shows the results of the vintage's combination of intensity from drought-reduced yields and generosity from the classic Californian vintage.  The comparative lushness of the year convinced us to shift the blend toward the dark, smoky, savoriness of Syrah as opposed to the open juiciness of Grenache.  Still, Esprit is as usual led by the red fruit, earth and mocha of 40% Mourvèdre, with additions of 28% Syrah, 22% Grenache and 10% Counoise. The wine's components were fermented separately, then selected for the Esprit, blended and aged a year in foudre before bottling in August 2015. In the two-plus years since its bottling, the wine has grown richer, with Mourvedre's saddle leather component coming more to the fore. It still has many years ahead of it.
  • Tasting Notes: The nose is now unfolding and deepening after two-plus years in bottle, with aromas of meat drippings, mint chocolate, plum, sweet spices, and a potpourri/spruce/rose hips brightness that shows Mourvedre's floral side. Chelsea described it as "like shade on a hot day".  The mouth is nicely balanced, with a spicy cherry skin character, leather, and a little figgy, caramelly warmth that reminded me of bread pudding. It's still quite a youthful wine, which should make for very good drinking for the next year or two, then likely shut down for a few years before reopening in 2020 or 2021 and drinking well for another fifteen plus years.
  • Production: 3700 cases
  • List Price: $60 VINsider Price: $48

Two additional wines joined the Cotes de Tablas Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Esprit de Tablas Blanc in the white-only shipment:

White NC

2016 PICPOUL BLANC

  • Production Notes: The 2016 Picpoul Blanc is our ninth bottling of this traditional Southern Rhône white grape, used in Châteauneuf du Pape as a blending component, and best known from the crisp light green wines of the Pinet region in the Languedoc. On its own, it shows the vibrant acids for which it is valued, balanced by a tropical lushness from the generous Paso Robles climate.  We ferment it in a mix of stainless steel and neutral barrels, and use the majority of our production for our Esprit de Tablas Blanc, while reserving a small quantity for this varietal bottling.  The Picpoul lots were selected in March 2017, and bottled in June 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: A bright nose of mangosteen, passion fruit, key lime, citrus leaf, and a briny, wet rock mineral character. The mouth is richer but still bright: candied lime, lychee, and a little pithy tannic bite like a lemon meringue pie. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 250 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2016 VIOGNIER

  • Production Notes: The productive, consistently high quality 2016 vintage allowed us to produce our first Viognier since 2013. Viognier, known more from the northern Rhone than the area around Chateauneuf du Pape, sprouts first of all our grapes, making it the most prone to frost, but was spared in 2016 and thrived throughout the growing season. It was whole cluster pressed and fermented in stainless steel, then blended and bottled in May 2017 in screwcap, to preserve its brightness. 
  • Tasting Notes: An incredibly appealing nose, classic Viognier with a little extra lift: jasmine flowers and peaches and lemon zest, meringue, and mint. The mouth is flavorful but restrained, more peach pit than peaches in syrup, with nice pithy acids and a touch of mintiness to keep things in balance. Just 12.9% alcohol. This should hold for a few years at least, but really, I can't imagine it being any better than it is right now.
  • Production: 175 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28

Three additional reds joined the En Gobelet and the two Esprit de Tablas vintages in the red-only shipment:

Red NC

2015 COUNOISE

  • Production Notes: After no varietal Counoises between 2011 and 2013, this is the second consecutive year we've been able to make one. In 2015, like Mourvedre, Counoise's late flowering largely protected it from the cold May that produced low yields in our earlier varieties, and the vintage's alternating cool and warm months provided enough substance to balance Counoise's open-knit personality. It was fermented in stainless steel, aged in neutral barrels, and bottled -- under screwcap, to preserve its brightness -- in April of 2017. 
  • Tasting Notes: On the nose, red currant and curry spice sit on top of rose petals, watermelon rind and green plum. A similar balance between sweet and savory is found on the palate: elderberry, shiso, tangy acids and salty minerality. Bright cranberry flavors and a garrigue-like spice come out on the finish.  A pretty and intriguing wine: something to explore. You might serve this slightly chilled, as you would a Cru Beaujolais, and enjoy it any time in the next six to eight years.
  • Production: 200 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28

2015 MOURVEDRE

  • Production Notes: Mourvedre is the one red grape that we try to bottle on its own each year, because we think it is a wonderful grape that too few people know, and one we feel worthy of some proselytizing.  Thankfully, Mourvedre was largely spared the 2015 vintage's low yields, and the numerous cool stretches and late harvest gave the grape good time to develop complexity. We fermented it in large wooden fermenters, then moved it to neutral barrels to await blending.  The Mourvedre was blended from selected lots in the spring of 2016, then aged in foudre until bottling in April of 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: Absolutely characteristic of Mourvedre's tension between deeper and more high-toned elements, with aromas balanced between plum and currant fruit, dark chocolate, and a little tarry darkness. The mouth is classically balanced, with Mourvedre's signature cool minty plum, loam, licorice and rare steak. The tannins come out on the finish, with a pithy, floral note that reminded me of orange bitters.  Still a baby.  Open a bottle now, if you'd like, but expect it to really shine between 2020 and 2030.
  • Production: 360 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2015 FULL CIRCLE

  • Production Notes: 2015 is the sixth vintage of our Full Circle Pinot Noir, grown on the small vineyard outside Robert Haas's family home in Templeton, in the cool (for Paso) Templeton Gap AVA. Its name reflects his career: from a start introducing America to the greatness of Burgundy, through decades focusing on grapes from the Rhone, he's now growing Pinot at home. The grapes were fermented in one-ton microfermenters, half de-stemmed and half with stems for a more savory profile, punched down twice daily by hand. After pressing, the wine was moved into year-old Marcel Cadet 60-gallon barrels, for a hint of oak.  The wine stayed on its lees, stirred occasionally, for a year and a half before being blended and bottled in April 2017.
  • Tasting Notes: Notably Pinot on the nose: cherry cola, black tea, and a cool graphite-like minerality. The mouth is medium-weight, with sour cherry and baking spices, a little thyme-like herbiness from the stem inclusion, and a lightly tannic finish with nutmeg spice that felt to us like autumn. A wine to break out in front of a fire during the holidays. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 260 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

The tasting was a great way to hone in on the character of our two most recent vintages.  2015 is powerful and savory, with a noteworthy saltiness in the wines, showing the signature of a cooler, lower-yielding vintage. 2016 is sunnier in character, but I feel like we really nailed the picking dates last year, and the whites show good intensity and a vibrancy that is almost electric in its intensity.  I can't wait to get these wines in our club members' hands and find out what they think.

If you're a wine club member, you should make your reservation for our shipment tasting party, where we open all the wines in the most recent club shipment for VINsiders to try. This fall's party will be on Sunday, October 8th.  If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join us while there's still a chance to get this fall shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club


Direct Shipping is not a Zero Sum Game

Earlier this year, I was having lunch in Boston with a key account manager from our Massachusetts distributor.  We were talking about what I'd done on my last visit, which included a really cool dinner at (sadly now closed) Blue Ginger that had such a large consumer response that they had to move the dinner into a larger room.  I also conducted a sold-out tasting seminar at the terrific retailer Gordon's in Waltham.  I mentioned that we'd sent news about the events out to our mailing list and wine club members, and that I thought this was a big reason why we'd gotten such a good turnout for the events.  His response took me by surprise, though it shouldn't have.  He said, "I know, we oppose direct shipping, but I guess it can have its uses."

I've been meaning ever since to write a blog post about how misunderstood direct shipping is among most actors in the wholesale market, and how short sighted their opposition to it is. After all, our wholesale business in Massachusetts is up 38% this year, and was up in 2016 and 2015 after nearly a decade of essentially flat sales.  Our Massachusetts wholesaler is on a pace to sell 55% more wine than it did in 2014.  Most businesses would kill for this sort of performance.  So, what turned things around?

Direct shipping opened in February of 2015, bringing Massachusetts into the growing majority of states.

Shipping State Animation

At first, it seems counter-intuitive that opening up a state to shipments of wines from wineries in other states should help the sales of that winery's wholesaler.  Doesn't each sale offset another in-state sale?  Not really.  Here's why the ability for a winery to ship to a state should generally increase their wholesale sales there:

  • Wineries are better able to make and cultivate fans. This, I think, makes a lot of sense, and it works in at least a few ways. Each year, a winery like ours sees visitors from every, or nearly every, state.  Of course, more are from California than anywhere else, and a disproportionate number are from the larger western states, but we see a few hundred visitors from a state like Massachusetts each year.  
    • If these visitors can't sign up for our wine club and can't order wine from us, it's a lot harder for us to establish a meaningful connection with them.  That means that when these people return home and see a Tablas Creek wine on a wine list or the shelf of a wine shop, we're less likely to have developed enough of a connection with them that they choose that wine over others.  
    • They are also less likely to bring Tablas Creek to friends' houses, and therefore the critical peer-to-peer market is harder to activate.  
    • I also think -- though this would be hard data to gather -- that shipping bans discourage wine tourism from those states, since those consumers are likely to experience some degree of frustration in getting any new discoveries home.
  • The wines that people order are not the same wines they buy at retail. The idea that consumers will exchange a purchase at their local shop for a purchase of the same bottle online is pretty far-fetched.  Consider why:
    • Wine is fundamentally a difficult product to ship direct to consumers.  It's heavy and perishable, which means that even if (like us) you subsidize the shipping costs, it's at least a few dollars per bottle to get that product shipped across the country.  Because it's alcohol, all packages have to be signed for upon delivery.  You have to wait at least a few days to get the wine.  And because of the mess left behind by Prohibition's repeal and the 21st Amendment's decree that states have the rights to legislate how they treat alcohol, wineries have to jump through significant legal and compliance hoops to get shipping permits.  The net result is that it's not worth it to ship inexpensive wines, or wines that have good representation in distribution, direct to consumers. The average price of a bottle of wine sold in the United States is about $7. Even with growing demand for higher-end wines, the vast majority of wines won't ever make sense to ship direct.  From a winery's perspective, it's not until you get to the $20 and up category where the shipping costs don't outweigh the extra margin a winery makes on a sale.
    • So, what sorts of wine do make sense for both wineries and consumers to order direct?  Those they can't find, or at least can't find nearby.  Direct shipping opens up the power and opportunities of long-tail marketing to wine lovers and producers.  We don't produce enough volume or have enough demand to have wines on the shelves of dozens of stores in each state outside of California.  So, in many cases, consumers don't have any Tablas Creek on the shelf anywhere near them.  And if they do, it's likely that what's easiest to find is our Patelin de Tablas line, which makes up about 70% of what we sell wholesale nationally.  What if they've read about our Vermentino, or our new Terret Noir?  Too bad.  As you would expect, the Patelin wines represented a much smaller proportion -- just under 15% -- of what we sold direct last year.  What did we sell?  A mix of everything.  But more than half of what we sold was our small-production varietals and blends that aren't found in distribution.  
    • I would guess that most wineries' data would show the same thing, and it's backed up anecdotally.  On a visit to another high-end winery near us last week, our server explained that they have two entirely separate lineups of wine for their wholesale sales and their tasting room.  And, of course, a large number of wineries don't distribute any of their wine nationally. 
  • Restaurants work differently. Although many restaurants offer corkage, where customers can bring in their own wines and have them served at their table for a fee, and there are some states who allow wineries to sell direct to restaurants, the challenging logistics and planning (and cost) required means that nearly 100% of wine sold in restaurant comes through a state-licensed wholesaler.  Does opening direct shipping impact restaurant sales negatively?  Not at all.  And we have found that it is our wine club members -- read superfans -- who are the most likely to order our wines at a restaurant.  They feel a proprietary pride in the success of their favorite wineries, and when they are dining with friends it is often these restaurant opportunities that encourage the peer-to-peer sharing that starts new customers on the path to fandom.  If we can't ship direct to a state, it's a lot harder to sign up wine club members (they can, of course, have wine shipped to friends or relatives in nearby shipping-allowed states, but that's cumbersome and difficult). And the restaurant sales those club members will make don't happen.  
  • Direct shipping changes wineries' incentives. All those reasons aside, I think the most important reason that we have seen our wholesale sales increase in state after state after that state opens to direct shipping is this last one.  Judging from our own actions, it's not in our interest to lavish the same amount of attention on states to which we are prohibited from shipping directly as we do to states to which we can ship.  I know that before 2015, I hadn't visited the Massachusetts market in several years, despite that I went to both high school and college in Massachusetts and have lots of friends -- and sports teams -- in Boston I love to see.  It just wasn't worth it.  In a state like New York or Illinios, where we can ship, I can go, spend my days working with our distributor reps to get the wines into new accounts, and spend my evenings doing consumer events at restaurants or wine shops.  I can help ensure that those events succeed, making the accounts that host them happy, by promoting the events to our consumer mailing list in the area.  And I can hopefully come out of those events with a new collection of names that I can add to our mailing list.  This makes these people more likely to come out to Tablas Creek, and to eventually join our wine club or buy wine from us.  Everyone is happy.  In a non-shipping state, I can still do the work days with the distributor, but I can't do much to help promote consumer events (so they're less likely to be successful) and I can't do much with any consumer contacts I make at these events.  Both time and marketing dollars are finite for any winery.  Wineries are only behaving rationally by focusing their attention where they can have the greatest impact, which means that states without direct shipping don't get as much winery-level help with their wholesale sales.

Whatever the reason or combination of reasons, Massachusetts isn't the only state where we've seen wholesale sales increase in the aftermath of the state opening to direct shipping. It has happened again and again.  Between 2005 and 2013, our wholesale sales rose an average of 8% per year.  Check out how much some of the larger states (that opened to direct shipping over that period) grew in the first two years after they allowed direct shipping.  The year that we started shipping to each is in parentheses:

  • New York (2005): + 68.0%
  • Florida (2006): -38.1%
  • Texas (2006): +61.7%
  • Ohio (2007): +14.3%
  • Georgia (2008): +24.0%
  • Washington DC (2008): +72.5%
  • Maryland (2011): +160.9%

On average, our wholesale sales in these seven states increased 51.9% in the two years after we received our direct shipping permit.  Why was Florida the one state to decline?  I didn't realize it had, until I pulled this data.  But I have a few guesses.  First, it's a state from which we see relatively few visitors, at least for the size of its population.  It's also a state with a very spread-out population, where (unlike, say, in New York or Washington DC) it's hard to schedule events in places that are central to a collection of mailing list members.  We also struggled to set up good consumer events in our early years there, so I doubt we were able to leverage or build our mailing list particularly efficiently.  Anyway, the rest of the states show a pretty strong trend, and our sales in Florida have rebounded strongly in recent years, so I'm not going to worry too much about the one data point.

Instead, I just booked my flights for my second work trip this year to Boston.  I'll fly in Tuesday.  Wednesday, I'll work with one of the distributor's top reps, and we'll try to get the wine into some more cool restaurants, before I host a dinner at Porto in Boston's Back Bay.  Thursday, I'll do it all again, and Friday I'll fly home.  I'll catch the Patriots season-opener on TV with some friends who live there.  And none of this would have happened if Massachusetts -- with a push from former Patriot turned vintner Drew Bledsoe -- hadn't decided to open their borders to wine shipping two years ago.

 


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Picardan

Wednesday morning, we bottled our tiny (70 case) production of Picardan.  What's the big deal?  Well, this grape is one of the rarest in the world, with a total footprint of only a couple of acres.  And this bottling is likely the first 100% Picardan -- made anywhere -- in a century or more, given its general application as a blending grape.  It's so rare that we're working really without a road map; even our Perrin partners don't vinify it on its own. If that's not enough to get a Rhone geek like me excited, I don't know what is.

PICARDANHistory
Picardan is rare nowadays, but its first mention in the historical record from 1715 talks about it being "very common", with "greenish, sweet and soft berries".1  It was cultivated under various names, including Araignan Blanc, Oeillade Blanche, and Gallet, in much of the south of France.  The twin 19th Century plagues of powdery mildew and phylloxera appear to have dealt it a blow from which it never recovered2, and as of 2008 there was just over an acre reported in all of France. In fact, there is some debate as to whether it has survived a separate grape at all, as many of the samples that were selected for testing turned out to be either Clairette or Bourboulenc.3  Nevertheless, it is recognized in the official Chateauneuf-du-Pape regulations as a distinct grape, and the Perrins had enough confidence in its distinctiveness to supply us with a cutting when in 2003 we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties.

Picardan's name comes, apparently, from the same root as Picpoul: the French verb piquer ("to sting"). That said, it is not the same as Pacardin (note the different spelling), a white blend of Clairette Blanche and Picpoul Blanc that was widely exported from the Languedoc in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Nor does it have anything to do with the French region of Picardy, a district north-east of Paris (including the Somme) that saw some of the most famous battles of World War I. Confused yet? Because of the confusion with the name, and the grape's scarcity, even the small amount of literature that's out there on this rare grape is suspect.  So, we really are breaking new ground here.

We have Picardan not because of any particular expectations for it, but because we wanted to complete set of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes to evaluate. We took cuttings from Beaucastel in 2003, brought it into quarantine at UC Davis, and it spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in late 2010, propagated, and in 2013 planted into a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first production of Picardan off of these vines came in 2016.

Picardan in the Vineyard and Cellar

Picardan buds out in the middle of the spring cycle, making it somewhat less prone to damage in our spring frosts than early budding grapes like Viognier and Grenache Blanc. Its vines show moderate vigor, although they tend to hang a heavy crop, which we've had to thin the last two years.  The vines seem to struggle in areas where there is relatively little topsoil and the limestone layers are right at the surface.  Now this is true of all vines to some extent, but Picardan's reactions seem more pronounced to us, with significant variations in vigor between the lower down areas where the topsoil is deeper and the higher vines forced to contend with calcareous soils just a few inches below the surface.  We're not sure yet whether the vines will overcome this with more age, or not, but we'll be keeping an eye on it.

The canes are relatively thin, and the clusters small to medium sized and fairly loose. Berries are also medium sized and have an oblong shape. Although it is head-trained in Chateauneuf du Pape, the thin canes suggest that it might struggle in the wind, and we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens just past the middle of the harvest season, after grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Syrah, typically right as we're starting Grenache Noir.

As with any new grape, our initial picking decisions are educated guesses, and in 2016 we experimented picked our Picardan on September 22nd at 22° Brix and a pH of 3.6, all numbers pretty close to our targets for whites. We will experiment this year with a slightly earlier picking, to capture a bit more acid, but think we got a nice balance of richness and freshness.

Ultimately, we expect Picardan to join our blends. That said, we always bottle new grapes on their own the first few vintages, so that we can wrap our heads around them and so we can show them to other people and get their feedback.  So, it was with no small excitement that we bottled California's first-ever Picardan last week:

Picardan in bottle

We'd like to give the wine a couple of months to recover from its recent bottling, but look forward to releasing it this fall. If you're in our wine club, keep an eye on your monthly emails. 

Flavors and Aromas
Picardan is on the nose reminiscent in many ways of a softer take on Picpoul; in our newly-bottled 2016 I found aromas of chamomile, mint, and a little chalky minerality. On the palate, soft, rich, and peachy, with a sweet/tangy crystallized pineapple note. The finish was the brightest part of the experience, with flavors of Meyer lemon zest and key lime pie leavening the richness.  We have absolutely no idea how the wine will age, but are looking forward to finding out.

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. P. Viala & V. Vermorel, Ampelographie, Vol VI, Jeanne Lafitte 1991 Reproduction of 1905 Edition 
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009

Veraison 2017 suggests an early, but likely not record-breaking, harvest

I returned on Wednesday from three weeks away to a significantly changed vineyard landscape. When I left, we were through flowering but many of the grape berries were still pea sized, bright green, and hard. It looked like early summer. Fast forward three weeks and the grapes are much more mature. While almost all the grapes are still green, many varieties are full-sized. The white grapes -- except for Roussanne -- don't look all that different than they will at harvest. And, when I got to the Syrah block, I found veraison.

Veraison marks the point where a grape stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. At the same time, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. One of the most advanced Syrah clusters shows the beginnings of this color change:

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It's important to note that this cluster is exceptional. Even at the top of the hills, most of the Syrah clusters are green. Go even halfway down the hills (where it's cooler, since cold air sinks at night) and there's no color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, only in Mourvedre could I find even a hint of veraison, and that took some searching. The cluster below is about the most advanced I could find:

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Although it may seem like wineries mark veraison as a moment, it's probably better understood as a continuum, with the percentage of berries that show the telltale signs. By that measurement, I'd say we were 5% through veraison in Syrah, 1% through in Mourvedre, and 0% in Grenache and Counoise. So, we've got a ways to go. But still, when we first note veraison is one of the five major signposts in the vineyard year, each of which helps us know how it compares to other years. Veraison is the third, after bud break and flowering, but before first harvest and last harvest. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying.  For example, in 2014 our earliest-ever veraison (noted on July 9th) was mitigated by a very cool August, and we started harvest 45 days later, on August 23rd. By contrast, last year's first veraison was noted on July 13th, and combined with a very warm August to produce our earliest-ever beginning to harvest, just 36 days later. The last ten years are compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Harvest Begins # of Days
2007 July 20 August 28 39
2008 July 23 September 3 42
2009 July 20 September 1 43
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between August 25th and September 7th. If I had to lay bets, I'd guess we start toward the early end of that range, given that it's been a very warm summer so far and we've already made up ground from bud break that was two weeks later than 2016. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah and Mourvedre will be followed by Grenache soon, and Counoise a bit later. The white grapes have already started veraison -- though it's not something easily shown in photographs -- with Viognier and Vermentino well underway and the others soon to follow. It's an exciting time, with the view changing practically daily. I'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Instagram page. In the cellar, we'll be getting the last of the year's bottling done so there's space in barrels and tanks for the coming crush, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks, barrels, and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

So while veraison doesn't herald anything immediate, it's still a significant milestone. The timer has been set, and we now know -- roughly -- how much time is on it.


Back from the Rhone River Cruise

I am in Vermont, relaxing for a short time after a wonderful cruise up the Rhone River. And what an experience it was. We (Meghan and I, as well as our winemaker Neil Collins and his wife Marci) led a group of 62 up the Rhone, from Avignon in the south to Lyon in the north, with a short extension up the Saône to Macon for a little Burgundy experience to cap it off. From this floating home base, we made shore excursions each day to cultural, historic, culinary or oenologic destinations, reconvening each evening for a dinner paired with wines from Tablas Creek, Famille Perrin, Chateau de Beaucastel, and Maison Nicolas Perrin.  For those who made it, I wanted to share some photos. For those who didn't, but are considering coming next time (and yes, there definitely will be a next time) I hope this will give you a taste of what to expect. 

Our Home Base

Our home for this eight day trip was the Uniworld S.S. Catherine. This ship is one of the newest in Uniworld's fleet, named after Catherine Deneuve and showing much of the same glamour and elegance as her namesake. The exterior:

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The interior was beautiful, but the highlight for me was the roof deck, from which you could watch the countryside go by, the moon come up, or the sun go down:

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The Focus Visit: Beaucastel and Clos des Tourelles in Gigondas

Most of the itinerary of the cruise was that of the Uniworld ship we were on. However, we worked with our travel partners Food & Wine Trails to create two special experiences just for our group. A visit to Chapoutier, including both a tour of their Hermitage vineyards and a focused tasting and lunch in their cellars, was amazing. I'll dive into that more below. But the centerpiece of the trip for us (and, speaking to the attendees, for most of them) were the twin visits to the cellars at Beaucastel and to the Perrins' newer property in Gigondas: Clos des Tourelles. So that both visits could be more intimate, we divided the group into two. One half visited the first day of our trip, and the other half the second. We started with a tour of Beaucastel's Chateauneuf du Pape vineyards, with head-trained vines growing out of what looks like a moonscape of rounded river stones. That's Beaucastel's Hospitality Director Kirsty Manahan speaking to the group:

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Kirsty then brought us through the remarkable cellar, with stacks of bottles aging gracefully and big wooden tanks identical to those we use at Tablas Creek:

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We then moved to a tasting of the wines, including vintages back to 2001:

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One of the cool discoveries for me was a photo of my dad and Jacques Perrin from 1973: the beginning of the Haas-Perrin collaboration that ultimately resulted in Tablas Creek:

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From Beaucastel, we continued by bus to Clos des Tourelles, the Perrins' property in Gigondas. A former monastery -- the first permanent structure built outside the town's medieval city walls -- Les Tourelles is being renovated as the headquarters of the Famille Perrin umbrella, and is just a few months away from opening. We got to enjoy a reception on the property's patio, overlooking the walled vineyard that is the appellation's only "Clos":

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Charles Perrin joined us there, which was a treat for the guests:

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We walked up a short stairway to the town center, where the Perrins' restaurant l'Oustalet is located on a pretty shaded patio. I would submit Gigondas as one of the most picturesque villages in the south of France.

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The meal was delicious -- summer truffles, anyone? -- and the wines equal to the challenge:

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From there, fully sated, we continued to the first of our shore visits, a walking tour around the ancient town center of Arles.

The Shore Excursions

Each day, the participants in the cruise got a choice of ways to explore the towns and countryside we were passing through. Because it was a river cruise, and because we didn't have massive distances to travel, we woke up each morning in port, so the shore opportunities were daily and varied. Some were more sedate, like walks through quiet towns like Viviers (in which we also got to hear a short performance on the basilica's pipe organ):

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Other shore visits offered more activity, like the chance to kayak down the Gardon River to and under the remarkable Roman aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard. This was one of my top highlights of the trip, and a bucket list thing to do:

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One nighttime excursion was a bus tour of Lyon (the "City of Lights"), serendipitously as the full moon was rising:

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And, at the end of the trip, we spent a lovely day in Beaune, including a visit to the weekly market:

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And a tour of the lovely, historic Hospices de Beaune, a hospital for the poor started in 1433:

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Focus Visit #2: Chapoutier and Hermitage

As we made our way north, we watched the landscape change from the southern Rhone's broad valleys and pebbly soils to the northern Rhone's steep terraced vineyards. When we reached Tain l'Hermitage, we stopped for the night. The next day, we were greeted at the ship by two representatives from Maison M. Chapoutier, the historic wine family who have farmed their vineyards in Hermitage since 1808.  We walked through the town and into the vineyard blocks at the foot of the hill which forms the town's northern border:

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The small size of the appellation was striking, as was knowing that this hillside has been the inspiration for a high percentage of the world's producers of Syrah. The tasting in Chapoutier's cellars was equally convincing, as we got a chance to taste wines from Hermitage (both red and white), Cote Rotie, and even Chapoutier's Chateauneuf du Pape, which was particularly interesting given where we'd just come from.

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We finished with a lunch in their cellars, which was a remarkable way to end a great day.

The Towns

We were docking in a new town each night, which meant new places to explore. Some of these I knew well (Avignon, for example) so I skipped the planned tours in favor of some simple wandering.  Others I'd visited, but rarely or not for a while, and in these cases I very much enjoyed the more formal narrative on the town's history and culture. Arles was one of these. The remarkable Roman amphitheater is one of the best preserved anywhere in the world, and was actually hosting a bull race -- the Camargue version of the "running of the bulls" famous from the Spanish city of Pamplona -- that day.

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The small town of Tarascon, just south of Avignon, has one of the best-preserved medieval castles in the south of France. 

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The castle had been converted to a prison during the French Revolution, which saved it from destruction. It also meant that the rooms had graffiti (largely from 18th & 19th century English prisoners) carved into their walls, which I found fascinating:

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It's particularly nice, I found, approaching these towns from the river. Unlike the typical entry points of railway station, airport, or even outside-of-town road sprawl, the river typically shows a historic face, and the docks were all in the middle of town rather than the outskirts. And it seemed like our schedule meant that we often arrived at dusk, which is hard to beat:

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The Onboard Program

As our group represented more than two-thirds of the passengers, whether we were mingling at breakfast, taking in the views of the river topside, or exploring the differences between pastis and pernod in the lounge, the ship's activities became group activities. And the length of the stay meant that after the first day or two everyone felt like family. But we did add a few enhancements to the ship's program. We sent over (or procured in France) special wines for each night's meal, doing our best to mirror what we were drinking to what we had seen that day or the parts of the Rhone we were passing. That meant wines like Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape and Miraval rosé in the south (and the Tablas Creek equivalents), Famille Perrin Gigondas and Vinsobres as we made our way north, and then the wines of Maison Nicolas Perrin in Tain l'Hermitage and Lyon.  It was a particular treat to be sipping on the (delicious) Nicolas Perrin Condrieu with dinner as we passed the tiny village of Condrieu on our way north from Tain to Lyon.

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Neil and I also hosted a seminar, where we got the whole Tablas Creek group together during a longer sail and deconstructed our flagship Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends, tasting these wines and varietal bottlings of each of the grapes that go into them. Coming toward the end of the journey, this also gave Neil and me a chance to put the visit into context:

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The River

But the star of the show was ultimately the Rhone. The engineering on display as we traversed 13 locks, each bringing us 60 vertical feet higher, was a recurring highlight of the trip. We would slow down and the windows would get dark as we entered the lock, massive yet barely larger than the ship. Then, after a pause, we'd begin to climb out of the manmade canyon, up to a new landscape at a rate of a foot every few seconds:

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It was equally impressive watching the technology required to pass under the low bridges, with the ship's awnings, railings, and even the captain's wheelhouse retracting into the deck:

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Wherever we were on our journey, we had the Rhone's patchwork of grain fields, vineyards, lavender and orchards on display, with the honey colored building stone of the old towns sprinkled in. That landscape was the constant backdrop of the many visits, and a lovely reminder of what draws millions of visitors to the south of France each year:

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If you joined us on this journey, thank you. I'd love you to share your own highlights in the comments. If you weren't able to join us this time, we'll definitely be back. And we look forward to sharing this experience with you then. 


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Clairette Blanche

Terret Noir isn't the only new grape that we're getting to explore right now. In that same batch of imports, we brought in a white that is fairly widely planted in the Rhone Valley but new to California.  Clairette Blanche (pronounced Kleh-RHEHT BLAHNSH) is a grape that was once one of the most widely planted white grapes in the south of France, and while acreage has declined, is still used in a variety of ways, including as a component of the Rhone's best-known sparkling wine.

Clairette lithoHistory
Clairette is an ancient grape, first mentioned in the historical record in 1575 and famous as a component (along with Picpoul Blanc) of the renowned Picardin white wine that was widely exported from the Languedoc in the 17th and 18th centuries.1  Then, as now, it was valued for its adaptation to hot, dry climates; it can be picked early to show freshness and minerality, or can be left on the vine for a richer, more alcoholic result. As recently as the late 1950s there were more than 34,000 acres planted in the south of France, and while acreage has declined to some 6,000 acres now, it is still a major component of the white wines in the Rhone, the Gard, the Var, and the Drome.  In Chateauneuf du Pape, it is the second-most-planted white variety after Grenache Blanc, with about 175 acres planted2 and is actually enjoying a bit of a moment right now, with a growing number of Chateauneuf-du-Pape producers turning to it to produce wines with more freshness and minerality.

Although it is rarely acknowledged as a varietal wine in France, it is the only variety permitted in the appellation Coteaux de Die, in the Drome region east of the city of Valence. Curiously, it is not the lead grape in the sparkling wine "Clairette de Die", which must be at least 75% Muscat. Up to 25% Clairette is permitted, and it is used to provide "elegance and finesse" to the otherwise intensely floral Muscat grape.3

Clairette Blanche's name is somewhat redundant, as "claire" means clear, fair, or bright, and "blanche" means white. There is a pink variant (Clairette Rose) that is not widely planted, so much so that for most French winemakers, they simply refer to the white version as "Clairette". For the Francophiles out there, Clairette is one of very few French grape names that is feminine.  Most grapes are masculine, and the white variant is "Blanc". Because Clairette is feminine, the adjective white becomes "Blanche".

In 2003, we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties, and took field cuttings from Beaucastel of the seven grapes we had not yet imported. Clairette Blanche was one of these.  It spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in 2009, propagated, and in 2010 planted in a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first release of Clairette off of these vines came in 2014.

Clairette Blanche in the Vineyard and Cellar

Clairette Blanche is relatively late-budding, and therefore less vulnerable than most of our white grapes to the spring frosts that are the chief weather hazard we deal with each year.  It grows vigorously and very upright, and produces large, oval grapes. Its upright growth pattern means that it can be head-trained (and typically is in France) but we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens in the middle of the harvest season, after grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Syrah, and typically right as we're finishing Grenache Blanc and starting Grenache Noir.

As this grape is new to us, in 2015 we experimented and picked our block twice: once in mid-September (at 21° Brix and a pH of 3.6) and once late in the month (at 22.8° Brix and a pH of 3.9). We found that the grape lost more than it gained with the later harvest, picking up some additional richness but at the cost of the citrusy expressiveness we liked from the earlier picking.  To give more richness to the earlier picking, this year we fermented Clairette in neutral oak and stirred the lees regularly, and feel like this treatment gave us the best of both worlds: freshness and expressiveness, but also richer mouthfeel.

Clairette

As we do with our new varieties whenever we're in our first few years of production, we have bottled our Clairette Blanche on its own in 2014, 2015 and (just last month) 2016. That said, we expect it to ultimately be a blending grape most years. We were excited to be able to source in 2016 some Clairette from a nearby vineyard to include in the 2016 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. It's only 3% of that wine, but its citrus character fits in nicely with the Grenache Blanc that leads the blend, and its modest alcohols moderate the higher-sugar Grenache Blanc and Viognier components.

Flavors and Aromas
Clairette Blanche is quite pale in color (it name means "clear white" after all), and on the nose reminiscent in many ways of Picpoul; in our newly-bottled 2016 I found aromas of pineapple, key lime, and mint. In the mouth, it stands right on the edge between sweet and tart, with flavors of kaffir lime, green plum, and lemongrass. The finish is clean and slightly nutty, with an anise note. If you are interested in trying it, we will be releasing our 100-case production of the 2016 Clairette Blanche at the end of the month.

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
  3. Clairette-de-Die official Web site, June 2017

Bringing Sustainable Eating and Drinking Full Circle; Grilled Spareribs and Full Circle Pinot Noir

By Suphada Rom

What is the best thing about summer? Some may say it's basking in the heat of the sun's glow. Another may say it's about exploring nature in it's prime, with trees and flowers in full bloom. Here at the winery, summer's are some of the best times for us and it's not hard to see why. Clusters of grapes are thriving on the vine, the tasting room is packed with visitors on holiday, and our vineyard crew is prepping the property for what is most assuredly going to be another busy harvest. But what about the weekends and times when we're not at work? Chances are you'll find us outside and if it's around dinnertime, we'll most likely be grilling and cooking outside because that, to some, is the best thing about summer.

When you're going to a summer barbecue or cookout, chances are there'll be some sort of grilled meat. This spring, we unveiled a project that put the spotlight on our collaboration with Larder Meat Co., introducing sustainably harvested lamb (available now through 7/12) off our organic property to the local community (We wrote a blog piece on this back in February, titled Tablas Creek Lambs and Tablas Creek Lamb). This gives you all the opportunity to enjoy some delicious lamb, and hey, if you decide to have a bottle of Tablas Creek wine alongside, even better! And although the lamb program is fairly new, an event we have been hosting for the past 13 years is our annual pig roast. Something that our wine club members come back for year after year is a favorite among not only our members, but our staff as well! A fair amount of the meat is served at the event, however, we do hold onto a small amount for our staff to enjoy, and with the busy week coming to a close, I thought what better way to end the work week than with an Eat Drink Tablas pairing of grilled pork ribs! Here are the results from today's efforts:

Ribs and Pinot
Cherry glazed pork ribs, proper barbecue accoutremant, and a glass of our 2014 Full Circle Pinot Noir

Cornbread
Barbecue isn't complete without delicious crumbly cornbread!

Meat
A close up of the ribs (not shown, the aftermath- for lack of clean hands and faces!)

If you know a little bit about Tablas Creek, then you know that we're known for our Rhône wines, primarily blends but showcasing single varietal bottlings, like Mourvédre and Roussanne. You may also know that foundation of Tablas Creek started with the shared vision between Robert (Bob) Haas and the Perrin family of Château Beaucastel. What you may not know much about is the Pinot Noir we produce. If you're thinking Pinot Noir isn't from Rhône and more specifically, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you'd be correct- it's a grape found most famously in Burgundy. Burgundy, for Bob was the gateway for loving French wine. He fell in love with Burgundy and one of his many career highlights was introducing the American palate to the austere wines of the region. It was only fitting, since he started his career in Burgundy and with Pinot Noir that he would bring his love for the grape full circle by growing a small parcel at his home in maritime affected Templeton. 

Graced with some American and French oak character, the Full Circle Pinot Noir is rich on the nose with vibrant aromatics. Whenever I'm tasting the Pinot Noir, I am reminded of a talk led by Bob, out amongst the vines in his backyard. Describing the wine perfectly and giving a very interesting talking point that, through most of the wines at Tablas Creek, there is a certain fluidity and consistency that you can count on. The Pinot Noir still has the Tablas Creek stamp of elegance, but with slightly different character. The wine ages in year-old Marcel Cadet 60 gallon barrels, which is quite different than the 1200 gallon neutral oak Foudres we employ on a day-to-day basis. That being said, I love pouring this wine for people who know our wines, love our wines, and are curious to try something different. Combated with the fantastic story of Bob's importing career, this wine resonates on both the heart and palate. In the glass, it's gorgeous, deep, and just one whiff lets you know it's rich. Aromas of cherry and figs are fully present with nice spice notes, making me crave one of my grandmother's homemade pies. I also get this smell that reminds me of raspberry liqueur, rich and concentrated. On the palate, I get a lot of that cherry, but in the form of cherry cola. There's a lot of this creamy chocolate character that brings out the chocolate enthusiast in me. Drink this wine now, or don't. I think 2014 has to be one of the most lush and approachable vintages, allowing for youthful consumption.

If you do drink this wine now, drink it with a side of grilled spareribs. The recipe I pulled for this pairing (via Bon Appetit) called for reducing some cans of cherry cola with cherry preserves and Dijon mustard for what feels like hours, until you're left with this sticky, thick glaze. The glaze plays up the fruit notes in the wine and with the added vinegar and soy sauce, there's some tanginess that plays well with the mouthwatering quality of the wine. We loved this pairing for many reasons, one of them being that we brought our "work" outdoors for a delicious lunch at the top of the hill in the vineyard! A satisfying meal with friends, I'm not sure there's a better way to end the day.

If you recreate this dish (or create a TCV wine and food pairing of your own!), be sure to let us know on any of our social media handles - Facebook or Twitter or Instagram - or just leave us a comment here! When you do, tag @tablascreek and use #EatDrinkTablas

A few resources: