We Taste a Vertical of Full Circle Pinot Noir, 2010-2015

For the last six vintages, we have found ourselves in the Pinot Noir business.  This is, of course, because we've been making wine from the 3-acre vineyard outside my dad's house in Templeton, on which he decided to plant Pinot Noir due to the cool microclimate, the north-facing hillside, and the calcareous soils so reminiscent of Burgundy.  [For the full story, see the blog from 2013 Robert Haas comes Full Circle on Pinot Noir.]  Each year that we make it, we've felt we learn something important about the winemaking of this notoriously fickle grape.  So, now that the oldest vintage is five years old, we decided to open all of them to see what larger trends we could discern.  The lineup:

Pinot Vertical

My notes on the wines:

  • 2010 Full Circle: The nose was rich but not particularly signed by Pinot: figgy, a little chocolaty, with some dusty, resinous, non-fruit element too.  The mouth is clean, plummy and savory, with bakers' chocolate and cola flavors and nice balance.  Just a little hint of age.  Quite a nice wine, but without the vibrant high-toned fruit we associate with Pinot.
  • 2011 Full Circle: The nose felt more massive than the first wine, with chocolate-covered cherry, coffee grounds, and a hint of oxidation.  The mouth is richer than the 2010, with bigger tannins and some still-unresolved oak.  The finish was long, though a touch pruney.  More like many California pinots we taste, a touch on the massive side for us.
  • 2012 Full Circle: The nose is deeper, more savory, with a little brooding black cherry and some baking spices.  The mouth shows clean dark fruit, with nice acids... kind of a sweet/tart black cherry skin experience.  Still pretty tannic.  We liked the weight and the acids, and thought that they both boded well for the wine's future.
  • 2013 Full Circle: The first wine, for me, whose nose was immediately recognizable as Pinot, vibrant and spicy, with the signature red cherry skin and sarsaparilla aromas.  The mouth was also classic, clean and refreshing if not particularly concentrated.  Silky, with some oak evident on the finish.  A delicate wine, quite classic, which should be fun to get in front of people in the next year.
  • 2014 Full Circle (from barrel): The nose was rich with watermelon and plum fruit and undertone of cola that marks it as pinot.  The mouth showed more watermelon fruit, still some youthful tannins and a little sweet oak.  This was most of the group's favorite, though I preferred the lighter-bodied 2013.
  • 2015 Full Circle (from barrel, only free run juice): The nose was primary, still grapey, very powerful.  The mouth was still so young (it hasn't even gone through malolactic fermentation yet) that it was hard to evaluate.  I got kiwi and passionfruit (likely from the malic acid), maraschino cherry, with good tannins and acids.  It seemed like it struck a nice balance in style between the elegance of the 2013 and the power of the 2014.

For me, the tasting was particularly interesting because of how many of the characteristics I really like in our Rhone reds (like weight and texture) tended to me to obscure the ethereal character I like best in Pinot Noirs.  So, the classic ways of judging how strong a wine or a vintage was didn't really work for this tasting.  The 2013 was easily the lightest in color of the tasting, and had the least body... but it was my favorite.  Go figure.

In any case, it was clear to everyone around the table that we're learning every year, and that every year we have done a little better at allowing the grape's essential character to show through.  The vines won't hit 10 years old until 2017, so we're going to have to remind ourselves to be patient with them.  I remember this being hard when our main vineyard was this age... we wanted to somehow accelerate a process that just takes time.


In the spirit of a winemaker- Q & A with Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi

Editor's Note: This is the second interview in a series that we hope will help readers get to know the key people at Tablas Creek a little better.  If you have questions for Chelsea, please leave them in the comments.

By: Lauren Phelps

I recently sat down with Chelsea and asked her a few questions about her life, what brought her into the wine industry and how she became an essential member of the Tablas Creek family.

Tablas-161-Edit

Where were you born and raised?

I grew up in El Dorado Hills, the Sierra Foothills of California in an area between Tahoe and Sacramento. Which is now an exceptional wine growing region but when I was living there I didn’t notice much of a focus on winemaking. We went back up last year and the wineries there just blew me away. It is just so cool to see what people are producing up there. We found a lot of Rhone producers and a lot of great Barbera.

When and how did you get into wine?

My parents were always really into wine, not in a professional sense, but we always had wine open for dinner. I grew up with wine and was surrounded by people in the wine industry. Wine was never an industry that seemed overly romantic, it always seemed attainable.

When you went to Cal Poly, was your intention to become a Winemaker?

It was a rather serendipitous turn of events because both of my parents went to Cal Poly, and had met there so I always knew I was going to go there. Originally I applied for business but was only accepted after I reapplied under ag-business with an intention of later switching my major. After taking a few of the ag-business classes I realized that I really liked the people in that major and if they were any indication of the people I was going to be working with professionally for the rest of my career I decided, I can do this. So I stayed in ag-business and thanks to my advisor’s recommendation I tried wine and viticulture which turned out to be a great fit.

Can you tell me a little about how you started working at Tablas Creek?

Initially when I was going to school at Cal Poly I knew I really wanted to work at a winery and I applied to Tablas Creek. I had been wine tasting here and the Esprit Blanc, in particular, changed the way I thought about wine, not just in Paso Robles, but I fell in love with the Esprit Blanc and the other Tablas wines too. At the time, the only available job at Tablas Creek was a greeter at the door of the tasting room. I had just turned 21 and I knew that being a greeter wasn’t what I wanted to do but it was where I wanted to do it. After a while, I was able to worm my way into the tasting room which I really loved. I loved being able to talk to people about wine and about all of the crazy things I was learning about at Cal Poly. Then when I graduated I knew I wanted to go into production and thankfully Tablas Creek created a cellar position for me. That was at the end of 2007 and I’ve been here ever since.

Why did you transition from the business side to wine making?

I think it was mostly growing up with a more tomboy sensibility; I always liked the idea of a challenging physical job and being able to create a tangible physical object at the end of the day: this is what I made with my hands today. I really liked the idea of creating something, especially if it’s something that you’re really proud of.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

I think it’s to make the best wine you possibly can. I have definitely adopted the Tablas Creek philosophy which is that it starts in the vineyard. The way that we do things in the vineyard is so labor intensive, handpicked… everything is hand-done, in the cellar too, we don’t have the high tech equipment that some of the newer wineries do. Everything is very traditional. We are actually touching every single berry that goes into the tanks and I think that makes a difference. I am surrounded by very passionate people and it’s very infections. You can’t help to love what you do.

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

Growing up I always liked the Au Bon Climat wines. The things that Jim Clendenen does with his wines and that winery are incredible. Those wines have always been so consistently good, consistently beautiful and elegant. John Alban, I mean, he’s John Alban! Those two guys are just historically notable. They don’t just make wines to follow trends they both commit to consistency and quality.

What’s your favorite wine region in the world – other than your own?

That definitely changes, but for the last couple of years, I’ve really been into the wines of Portugal mostly because they are lesser known, especially here, and you have to hunt them out. And when you do find them, a lot of them are rustic, and I really like that. The wines are not overly polished, they’re cool and country. I love the earthiness, the smokiness. And going to Portugal a couple of years ago and being able to understand the wine within the context of its culture, its cuisine and understand the terrior more intimately was just so great. It makes so much more sense when you have that complete picture.

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting?

The best wine I ever tasted was a 1985 Stags Leap cabernet. My parents had purchased it, as it was my birth year, and on my 21st birthday my parents took me to Napa. We had an over-the-top fantastic tasting experience and for dinner that night we opened that bottle of ‘85, it was such a great experience, being there with my parents and celebrating with them like that. That is one thing about winemaking that I really love is having the ability to create something, like an Esprit or a Panoplie that a parent may buy for their child’s birthday and having a hand in someone else’s experience... their celebration.

How do you spend your days off?

It depends on the season; my husband Trevor and I are going up to Mammoth on opening weekend. In the winter we are skiing a lot. In the summer we do a lot of paddle boarding and hiking both here and in Mammoth. We like to spend time with our Labrador.

How do you define success?

If you go to bed every night and think, “that was a killer day” then that is success. I think being happy with where you are in life and really enjoying the people that you surround yourself with, I can’t really think of any better way to go through your day than that.

Chelsea Pooch


A look back at every vintage of Vin de Paille "Quintessence"

This holiday season, we've made the decision to try to look back systematically at several of the wines that we don't open that often, and try to wrap our heads around how they age and at what stage(s) they are particularly good.  This information will be incorporated into the vintage chart that we maintain.  Last week we took a look at some vintages of Panoplie.  This week, we turned to our Vin de Paille Quintessence.

If you are unfamiliar with the vin de paille process, it is a traditional method for producing sweet wines by concentrating the grapes on straw.  The advantage of this technique (compared to, say, a late harvest) is that you pick the grapes at ripeness, rather than overripeness, and concentrate not just the sugars, but also the acids, varietal character and mineral character.  [For a detailed look at the process, see my blog piece from 2010: Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed.]

The Quintessence is a wine we've made five times: each vintage between 2003 and 2006, and then again in 2010.  It is 100% Roussanne, made by selecting one or two barrels out of the larger number (typically 4-6) of barrels of vin de paille we made that year.  After choosing the most concentrated barrel or two, we let it age an extra year in barrel before bottling it along with that same year's reds.  The time in barrel gives it extra depth of flavor, and allows it to pick up a little more oak, which we think suits this sweet, powerful Roussanne well.  The wines:

Quintessences

I was joined for the tasting by my dad, along with Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and National Sales Manager Darren Delmore. The tasting notes (with alcohol and residual sugar listed):

  • 2003 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (9.1% ABV; 233 g/L residual sugar): A nose of candied orange peel, wheat, dried roses, and the caramel sauce from a crème caramel.  There is also a little volatility to the floral aromatics that I found a little challenging, like an aerosol spray of a floral scent.  The mouth is very sweet -- I found it inescapably reminiscent of golden raisins -- while others around the table called out dates and baked pear.  The texture was quite thick, and my dad's comment was that he felt the wine was "not winey enough; a bit on the syrupy side". Not my favorite of the the lineup, but I'm not sure if it's a stage it will come out of or if it's getting over the hill.
  • 2004 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (14.5% ABV; 153 g/L residual sugar): On the nose, it showed older and a bit more oxidized than the 2003, with aromas of caramel, hazelnuts, and (the first time I've ever called this in a tasting note) suede leather.  The mouth is fascinating: crystallized ginger, burnt sugar, maraschino cherry, and a little welcome bitterness that reminded me of pear skin.  My dad's comment was that it was "not for everyone, but would be really impressive with a caramel dessert".
  • 2005 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (8.6% ABV; 310 g/L residual sugar): Dark amber in the glass, even more so than the first two wines.  On the nose, brandy-soaked pears, yeasty, with some nice wood smoke (from the barrel, we thought) and a nutty, caramely pecan pie aspect.  On the palate, very sweet (the highest residual sugar of the five wines) but with more notable acidity than the two earlier wines.  The flavors of candied lemon peel and milk caramels were still young, rich, and massive.  Chelsea called the experience "bananas foster" which I thought nailed it.
  • 2006 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (8.6% ABV; 280 g/L residual sugar): On the nose, more stone fruit than the earlier wines, with dried apricots, baking spices (someone called out oatmeal cookie), and an almost-honey character that Darren identified as "bee pollen".  The mouth is tangy and seemed younger and fresher than the three older wines, with more pit fruit and dried mango, and great acidity on the finish.  My favorite of the older wines.
  • 2010 Vin de Paille "Quintessence" (11.5% ABV; 199 g/L residual sugar):  On the nose, vibrantly and immediately Roussanne, with peppered citrus, ginger, mango, star anise, and a hoppy, savory bite that provided nice balance to the sweetness.  The mouth was very fresh, with more mango, passion fruit, wildflower honey and something floral that reminded me of once when someone had shared with me home-made candied violets.  There are excellent acids on the finish, which is quite a bit cleaner and more refreshing than the older wines.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • I think we may have been telling people to wait too long on these wines.  In general, the younger they were, the more I liked them, though there was more complexity in, say, the 2006 than in the more primary 2010.  With holiday season coming up, I'm looking forward to breaking into my stash of wines I've been saving!
  • The wines with more sugar (and correspondingly richer texture) seemed like they needed food more badly.  It would have been interesting to have this tasting done with a variety of desserts.  With something like a crème brûlée these richer wines would almost certainly have shown better, whereas they might have overwhelmed a fruit-based dessert like a peach or pear tart (for those types of dessert, the less-sweet 2010 seemed like a natural fit).
  • Boy, is acidity important in sweet wines.  The tasting reinforced my opinion that for wines like these, picking on the early side, and capturing more acidity to then concentrate, is highly recommended.
  • I really like the change in packaging that we made between 2006 and 2010, to put the wine in a clear glass bottle.

I hadn't focused on the fact that we haven't made this wine now in five vintages (though we did make our standard Vin de Paille in 2012).  In large part, this has been because of our low yields during the drought, and our desire to leave enough Roussanne for our dry wines.  But the fact that there's not a huge market domestically for dessert wines has also played a role.  That said, the wines really were impressive, and I've always gotten a great response when I've included them in a winemaker dinner.  if we have decent yields in 2016, I'd like to take another crack at this.


Choosing a Panoplie for a Naples Vintners Dinner

In 2016, we'll be appearing for the first time at the Naples Winter Wine Festival.  Our invitation was a pretty big honor; the event is typically one of the top few grossing charity wine auctions in the country each year, and has raised over $135 million for the Naples Children & Education Foundation since its inception in 2001. They only invite some 45 vintners each year, selected from top wineries around the world.  

The highlight, for us, of our participation will be a vintners dinner my parents will be co-hosting at a private home with Francois and Isabelle Perrin and Chef Dustin Valette of Valette in Healdsburg, CA.  Each course will be paired with a wine, poured from Magnum, from Beaucastel and a comparable wine from Tablas Creek.  We'll show our newest Esprit de Tablas Blanc (paired with a Beaucastel Roussanne Vieilles Vignes) with the first course, and an older Esprit de Beaucastel (paired with a Beaucastel Rouge) with the second. The fourth and final course is dessert, and we'll provide one of our Vin de Paille wines out of our library.

For the third course, Beaucastel is sending their 2001 Hommage a Jacques Perrin.  For those of you unfamiliar with the wine, it is their elite cuvee, made only in great years, and 2001 was one of the greatest of Beaucastel's (relatively) recent vintages.  The wine should be mind-blowingly good, just entering maturity at age 14. It was for this wine that we needed to find a partner.  

We have been making Panoplie, which we model after the Hommage a Jacques Perrin, most vintages since 2000.  Like Hommage, it's a cherry-pick through the cellar, typically two-thirds or more Mourvedre, showing off the combination of lushness and structure that Mourvedre can provide in a great vintage.  We always add some Grenache, and typically a little Syrah.  A few times, we've added Counoise. Looking at our magnum library narrowed our choices some.  We didn't bottle magnums before 2002.  We were nearly out of magnums of 2004 and 2006.  We were providing the 2005 vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel for the previous course, and thought it would be more interesting to show a different vintage.  And we didn't think that anything from 2008 or younger would have the age-given depth to stand up to the 2001 Hommage.  So, we pulled samples of 2002, 2003 and 2007 to choose between:

Panoplie 3 vintage vertical

Short story: we're sending the 2003 Panoplie to Naples.  My notes on each of the three wines are below, with why we preferred the 2003 at the end.  I've linked each wine to the page on our Web site with detailed production notes.

  • 2002 Panoplie (80% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache, 7% Counoise): A deep nose, showing some age, of old leather, black tea and herbs, not at all fruity.  Very classically Mourvedre.  The mouth is broad and almost thick in texture, very chewy, with baker's chocolate, red cherry, and cassis. A nice tanginess highlights the fruit on the palate, which isn't evident in the nose.  To us, this was incredibly evocative of Mourvedre, powerful, but a bit one-dimensional. This may not be surprising given it contains the highest-ever proportion of Mourvedre for a Panoplie.
  • 2003 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 7% Syrah, 3% Counoise): A higher-toned nose, with crunchy red raspberry fruit, deepened by garrigue and rosemary.  The mouth is deeply fruity but still vibrant, higher toned and fresher than the 2002, with flavors of milk chocolate, red cherry, and ripe plum. It isn't quite as chewy as the 2002, but more than makes up for it with liveliness. The finish shows more raspberry and herbs, ripe tannins, and confectioner's sugar.  Lovely, and interesting too.
  • 2007 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): The nose is amazing: intensely fruity (blackcurrant and plum) but with earth and leather and aged meat underneath.  The mouth is big, still a little thick with fruit, then a little hollow on the mid-palate in this stage of its development, with massive tannins coming out and leaving lingering flavors of wild undergrowth, black currant and a steely minerality that is more impressive than friendly on the finish. We all thought that the wine would likely be stunning the next day, but that opening it (in magnum, no less) for a dinner in two months carried some risk.

So, we felt a little like Goldilocks. The 2002 wine was showing a little on the older side, not quite enough fruit or liveliness for what is likely going to be a blockbuster comparison.  (My dad said, "if I were serving this alone at my dinner table, I'd love this, but I worry about it sitting beside the Hommage".)  The 2007 was a little too young, too undeveloped and brawny, and we thought it would seem uncivilized beside its six-year-older partner.  The 2003 was just right: rich but vibrant, fruity but savory, appealing but thought-provoking too.

A few other concluding thoughts:

  • We have consistently underestimated the quality and longevity of the 2003 vintage.  When we made it, the wines seemed so appealing, so juicy and effortless, that we thought they wouldn't have the complexity to age.  Boy, were we wrong.  At each of our vertical tastings, from reds to whites, from Esprit to Cotes, the 2003's have been standouts.  If you have one in your cellar, open it up.
  • We opened and tasted these wines in the fairly compact time frame of roughly half an hour.  We all thought that the 2007 was opening up throughout the tasting, and would likely have been great another 12 hours later.  If you're opening one of these younger Panoplies, definitely decant it in advance.
  • I'm jealous of my parents, who will get to host the dinner.  

At least I got to try these three wines!


Photos from the Gathering Storm

Yesterday, we had our second (small) storm of the winter come through Paso Robles.  Late Sunday night, the main frontal boundary pushed through the area, dropping about 4/10" of rain on us and similar amounts across most of the Paso Robles region.  Yesterday, the storm's low pressure center moved over us, producing another 2/10" of rain in a few discrete cloudbursts.

I went outside around mid-day to get a photo of the approaching storm, hoping for a shot (or even a video) of the first drops of rain.  Instead, when I got into the middle of the vineyard, a small hole opened in the clouds overhead, and I ended up with about twenty minutes of beautifully illuminated sunlit vineyard foreground, and impressive swirling dark grey clouds in the background.  As the skies opened up:

From truck looking west

A few more favorite photos are below, starting with the one I ended up posting to our Facebook page, looking up our main hill across our Grenache and Mourvedre blocks.  As always, click on the images to see them larger, and visit us on Instagram for more visual treats:

November Storm Gathering over Tablas Creek

From the top of that hill, the contrast between the vines and the skies was even more dramatic, and looked to me like a movie set:

Movie set vines

The sky was a show in itself:

The sky

But the light was equally friendly to the autumn colors.  I like the feel of this photo, looking down through our oldest Grenache block down over the center of the vineyard:

Autumn Long View 2015

Back at the winery, autumn was definitely in the air, with puddles on the crushpad, leaves swirling, and a chill that promises frost the next few nights:

Winery and puddles

This is a firmly wintery pattern we're in at the moment.  We're getting modest storms every week or so (each of the first two have produced about a half-inch, with another similar one forecast for a week from now) and cool days and cold nights in-between.  I've had frost on my car most mornings the past week, though the vineyard has until now escaped with temperatures in the mid-30's.  That's likely to end over the next few nights, which is a good thing.

There are the first inklings of a real winter storm, that might -- hopefully! -- produce multiple inches of rain, forecast for the end of next week (around November 19th).  If so, great.  But whether the serious rain starts sooner or later, these mini-storms are perfect ways to begin our winter, because they'll allow our cover crop seeds to germinate and hold the soil in place once the rain really gets going.  We can't wait.


Outtakes from Zester Daily's Focus on Grenache

Yesterday, I had an article published in Zester Daily.  That article (Grenache Returns to Bask in the California Sun) tracks Grenache's remarkable journey from supplier of innocuous juice for California jug wines to one of the hottest grapes in the state, with over 1000 acres of new planting in the last two decades. The article:

JH Zester Grenache

One of my motivations was to give a little plug for the Rhone Rangers Los Angeles Tasting, coming up this Friday and Saturday, November 6-7.  The focus of the seminar this year is Grenache (both red and white, both monovarietal and blended).  I just heard that the seminar has only 4 seats left, and the grand tasting not much more space.  I love hearing that there's enough interest in Rhone varieties in southern California to fill a venue.  If you haven't gotten your ticket left and want to try for one of the last few spots, you can do so here.

There were a few pieces of the research that really jumped out at me, that I wanted to address in a little more detail than was possible in the main piece.

The first was the cost of Grenache relative to other more exalted grapes.  That the $1,797 price per ton in our district (which includes San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, and Ventura Counties) was 23% higher than Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% higher than Zinfandel, 32% higher than Syrah, and 70% higher than Merlot seems noteworthy.  Of course, this may be a moment-in-time phenomenon; there is less Grenache planted than any of these other grapes, so an increase in demand isn't easily satisfied, and the price can be pushed up quite a bit.  One would think that more Grenache will be planted in coming years, and the price will come back down somewhat.  It is, after all, a productive and relatively easy-to-grow grape.  But the fact that demand has ramped up fast enough to outpace planting is a sign of the speed of the growth in interest.

The second was the amazing quantity of fruit that is being harvested per acre in parts of the Central Valley.  I looked at Grape Crush Pricing District 13 (including Fresno, Madera and Tulare Counties) where Grenache averaged 13.74 tons/acre in 2012.  I had wanted to compare that to other grapes, to show just how productive Grenache can be, given enough water and nutrients, but I ended up leaving it out of the piece because most other grapes showed similarly massive yields. Merlot from the same district yielded 11.95 tons/acre. Chardonnay yielded 10.61.  Cabernet was the least, at 8.23 tons/acre, and Zinfandel showed such a large yield (20.85 tons/acre) that I double- and triple-checked the data, but kept getting the same result.  If you'd like to look at the raw information, it's all public domain, and fascinating: 

The third thing that stood out to me were the number of organizations that are out there advocating for Grenache, in part because it is still a relative underdog despite its massive worldwide footprint and the recent critical interest.  Between the Grenache Association (and the International Grenache Day it organizes), the Rhone Rangers, Hospice du Rhone and Inter-Rhone, there is no lack of advocates out there for this grape.  Yes, several of these organizations advocate more broadly for the grapes in the Rhone family, but there is really nothing comparable for Syrah, or Viognier, or Mourvedre.

Finally, I wrote enthusiastically about the potential for Zester Daily back in 2009.  Having the excuse to circle back around, six years later, and see the success that it has become was remarkably gratifying.  I hope that it continues as a successful model for innovative food and wine journalism in this increasingly online world.

 


Harvest 2015 Recap: Mourvedre and Roussanne (somewhat) to the Rescue

The last two days, we picked the last batches of Roussanne off of our estate.  This makes in one case six passes through a single block, harvesting what's ripe, leaving the rest to ripen a bit more, and repeating every week or two.  In a year like 2015, when yields are so low that you treasure every single grape, the extra investment is worth it.  And, it seems like this extra care has been warranted, as our latest-ripening grapes have turned out to be the ones whose yields are down least.

Last Pick Chalkboard

Two weeks ago, before the Counoise, Mourvedre and Roussanne harvests were quite done, it looked like every grape was going to be down between 40%-50%, as we'd seen in the earlier varieties.  But these last three grapes came in much better, down 19%, 9% and 2% respectively, which leaves us overall with an estate harvest that's down 27.6%: serious, but better than the 40%+ that we'd feared.  The details:

Grape2014 Yields (tons)2015 Yields (tons)% Change
Viognier 11.4 6.3 -45.1%
Marsanne 9.9 5.9 -40.3%
Grenache Blanc 31.9 22.0 -31.0%
Picpoul Blanc 7.5 5.0 -33.0%
Vermentino 17.3 8.7 -49.4%
Roussanne 42.8 42.0 -1.8%
Total Whites 120.8 89.9
-25.6%
Grenache 50.7 30.7 -39.5%
Syrah 38.1 21.4 -44.0%
Mourvedre 52.3 47.5 -9.1%
Tannat 15.4 9.8 -36.6%
Counoise 17.0 13.7 -19.4%
Total Reds 173.5 123.1
-29.0%
Total 294.3 213.0 -27.6%

We had speculated at the beginning of harvest that while the drought was playing a part, a big piece of the lower yields on the earlier-sprouting varieties was the cool, wet, windy May that impacted these grapes' abilities to set fruit during flowering.  The weather in June, when Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne flowered, was benign.  Knowing that these grapes were down roughly 10% while the earlier grapes were down an average of 40% suggests that in fact the majority of the blame should go to the May weather rather than to the four dry years.

Overall yields off our estate ended up at 2.01 tons per acre, which is (barely!) our lowest ever, just a hair below the 2.03 tons per acre we saw in 2009's drought- and frost-reduced crop.  If the intensity is comparable to 2009, then we're in for a treat when we get to the blending stage this spring.

Looking at average sugars and pH at harvest gives a quick way of measuring a year's ripeness.  Since 2007:

YearAvg. SugarsAvg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59

I think that in this measurement is where you see the largest impact of the drought.  The sugars look more like the cool years of 2010 and 2011 than they do like the warmer years we've seen before and since.  And, of course, until late August, this year was actually cooler than our 10-year average.  For a more graphical look at how the 2015 vintage progressed, take a look by month at the accumulation of degree days out here at Tablas Creek.  As you can see, we alternated between warmer-than-average stretches and cooler-than-average stretches:

2015 Degree Days vs Average

The difference between normal and 2015 is even more dramatic when you look at it as a percent change.  May saw fully 30% fewer degree days accumulated than our eighteen-year average, October so far has been more than 40% above normal, and only June was within 10% of normal:

Temp Pct Chg vs Average

The above graph gives a hint as to why we think we saw relatively modest sugars for our latest-ripening grapes. While warm weather is good for ripening, hot weather actually causes the vines to shut down photosynthesis, and you don't get the same sugar accumulation you do when it's more moderate. We had three separate heat spikes at the end of the ripening cycle.  Hence our last two lots of Roussanne, which despite an exceptionally long hang time averaged only about 19° Brix. Yet the flavors were good, the grapes and clusters looked good, and we expect to find a happy home for all the lots we brought in.  A few Roussanne clusters, from last week, illustrate the russet tinge that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne Clusters

I mentioned at the beginning of this piece that we had gone multiple times through even more of our blocks than normal, to maximize our quality while getting as much yield out of this reduced crop as possible.  We will keep these lots separate until we start to consider our blending options in the spring.  And boy will we have a lot of options.  You can see on our harvest chalkboard that around the end of September, Madeline (who maintains this chalkboard) realized that because we were picking so many blocks multiple times we were ending up with enough lots to warrant doubling up lots per line.  Even so, she ran out of space in mid-October:

Final Chalk Board

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but the combination of very low yields and moderate sugars/acids suggests we are working with a vintage unlike any we've seen in our recent memories.  Clusters and berries have been very small all year, which means that skin-to-juice ratios were high on our red grapes.  Flavors should be intense.  Some of the last-harvested lots of Mourvedre illustrate:

2015-10-13 15.04.57

At 63 days between its August 26th beginning and its October 28th conclusion, this harvest clocks in at a week longer than average (our 10-year average is 56 days) and about average in terms of start and finish dates.  This is a far cry from many growers to our south, who started and finished nearly a month ahead of us.  I'll have some additional thoughts on what made Paso's experience of the 2015 harvest unique in an upcoming blog.

I had speculated mid-summer that our dry-farmed, wide-spaced blocks looked like they suffered less in the drought than our traditional trellised, close-spaced blocks.  And it looks like this turned out to be the case, as we got 13.90 tons off of our Scruffy Hill picks, down less than 1% compared to last year's 13.94 tons.  Our other head-trained, dry-farmed blocks showed a bit of a decline, down 9.8% to 17.32 tons, but still held up better than the closer-spaced blocks.

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  We've been preparing the vineyard for this rain, seeding our cover crop, spreading compost, and putting out straw in areas that might be prone to erosion.  A storm that looked like it might hit this week dissipated before it got here, but there's another in the forecast for early next week.  Bring on el nino.


We Help the Vineyard Don Its Autumn Coat

This is the time of year when things start to slow down enough that you take new stock of what's around you.  Harvest is mostly done (look for more on this later in the week).  The days are getting quite short, and the nights notably cooler.  The quality of the light changes with the lower sun angles, with richer yellows to the sunlight.  And the vineyard is responding, with the vine leaves losing chlorophyll and the yellows, oranges, and reds emerging for their brief autumn before everything fades to brown with the first frost.

A Mourvedre vine will give you an idea.  We're done with our harvesting here, although as you see there is the occasional second-crop cluster remaining.  These will provide treats for our animal herd as we get them back out in the vineyard.

Mourvedre colors_med

Though the bright green of summer fades in all cases, not every grape's foliage colors up so dramatically, as you can see from Roussanne, below, which turns more yellow than red.  Roussanne is the only grape for which we have any significant crop remaining on the vines:

Roussanne banner_mid

Even as we finish up this year's harvest, we're getting the vineyard ready for winter. This means seeding the cover crop that will hold the soil in place during our (hopefully) torrential el nino rains this winter, and putting out the compost that we've been making all year.  The compost spreader, poised and ready:

Compost Spreader_mid

It hasn't come close to freezing yet -- our lowest nighttime low this fall has been 42° -- but we typically get our first frost night sometime between late October and mid-November.  These frosts are a good thing for the vines, in that they force them into dormancy. Right now, relieved of their crop and with warm sun still available, many of our vines (like the Tannat vine below) have started growing new leaf growth at the end of this year's canes:

Tannat regrowth_med

In this climate, a grapevine's late-season growth serves no purpose, as the energy and carbohydrates needed to fuel the new growth will be lost at first frost and would be better stored in the root system for next spring.  So, bring on our chilly nights.

As for the weather outlook, we've had some cool, unsettled weather over the last few days, including 0.08" of rain on Thursday (we posted a video of one of these cloudbursts on our Facebook page) and daytime highs in the mid-70s.  It's supposed to warm up a bit over the next week, before a series of fronts start to weaken California's high pressure and are predicted to eventually open California to the westerly rain-bringing winds.  If all goes as planned, we'll welcome our first winter storms around Halloween.

I'll leave you with one final photo, which feels to me even more fall-like than the others.  I took it near our straw-bale barn, in the bowl at the center of our vineyard.  We have trained the Mourvedre vines there up high to allow cold air (that in the spring can bring damaging frosts) to more easily drain underneath them.  One second-crop cluster remained, among mostly-brown leaves and a nascent cover crop.  Soon enough, the whole vineyard will look like this:

Fall Mourvedre Cluster_med


We wind toward the close of a high quality but painfully low-yielding 2015 harvest

I snuck out yesterday morning to get some photos of the ever-diminishing portions of the vineyard that still have grapes on them. One block that I particularly wanted to see was Syrah, given that it was scheduled to be picked in the afternoon.  It was looking suitably autumnal:

Last Syrah pick

We're pretty much done with everything except Roussanne and Mourvedre, and even Mourvedre is more than two-thirds picked.  This week we'll be cleaning up the parcels we've harvested already, going through to get the bottoms of the hills, the cool pockets, and the slightly less ripe clusters we left behind on our main picks.  After that, we'll just be waiting on Roussanne, which is doing its normal late-season swoon, with leaves turning yellow and ripening slowing to a crawl.  It will get there, but it will take its time.  Overall, we're probably about 85% done.

It is clear to us now that our hopes for near-normal yields on our late grapes like Roussanne and Mourvedre will not come to pass.  They may be down a little less than the 50% reduction we saw in early grapes like Syrah, Vermentino, and Viognier, but they'll still be down something near 40%.  This will make the 2015 harvest our smallest ever in yield per acre, and our smallest estate harvest in tonnage since frost-diminished 2001, when we had 45 fewer acres in production.

I'll have more details in an upcoming harvest recap, but we're already conducting triage, doing our best to figure out what we're going to do to adjust to the tiny yields.  Grapes we're used to having comfortably enough of to include in a wine club shipment and still have a few hundred cases to sell after (think Vermentino) won't even make enough to get a bottle to each club member.  We'll be making a lot less Dianthus rosé (and by a lot less, I mean like 85% less) because (firstly) the red grapes don't need any further concentrating at 1.5 tons per acre, and (secondly) we felt that dedicating the 3800 gallons we'd need to make the same 1600 cases of Dianthus we did in the 2014 vintage would leave us unable to make many of our red wines.  As I said, triage.

Still, there are three saving graces at the moment.  First, we feel lucky to have gotten reasonable quantities of wine (down only slightly compared to normal) in both 2013 and 2014, and it's becoming increasingly clear to us that those two vintages are the best back-to-back vintages in terms of quality in our history.  Second, we have the Patelin de Tablas program, and we've been able to find some terrific additional sources for all three colors and keep our production more or less where we wanted it. Third, the quality of the 2015 vintage looks comparable to the last two years.  If there's not much of it, at least it will be stunning.

One last photo, of Mourvedre sheltering under its canopy.  Not long now, and photos like this one will be history, for another year.

Mourvedre on the vine


Harvesting under the stars

By: Lauren Phelps

I arrived at the vineyard today at 4:00 AM in the crisp morning air to photograph the "night harvest" of one of our last blocks of Mourvedre.  Our crew used only head-lamps and the lights from the tractors to harvest which was challenging to photograph and made for some very interesting and rewarding shots.  

Group Tractor Row

Row Pick

Toss_cube

I found our 17-person harvest crew deep in the vineyard at a newly planted block of head-trained, dry-farmed Mourvedre on the parcel we call Cross-hairs. This block was part of an experiment that we're excited about, using some very old-fashioned, deep-rooting rootstocks in high stress parts of the vineyard.

Head Trained Sunrise

This block of about 3 acres (there are also 3 acres of Grenache) was planted in 2013 and is now on its third harvest (in vineyard jargon, "third-leaf"), which is the first year you expect to pick any fruit, though only a small amount even in the best of situations, which 2015 has not been.  Given the drought and our low yields overall this harvest, we were pleased that the crew was able to pick about 3/4 of a ton. The quality looks excellent!

Leaf_cube

Just as the crew was finishing up the sun began to rise over the mountains.  What a treat!

Fruit In

This is our third year harvesting in the very early morning.  Night harvesting is great for the fruit; picking them at lower temperature protects them from oxidation and allows the fermentation to start more gradually and predictably.  It's also better for our harvest crew than picking in the heat of mid-day.

I absolutely love getting out into the vineyard for these photo excursions; I felt like a National Geographic photojournalist on-site documenting an ancient, rarely seen event.  And it's true, it is not very often that we get an in-depth look into the process of harvesting, especially in the dark.  I feel honored to witness and become a part the crew that is responsible for hand-harvesting the fruit that will soon become the next vintage of Tablas Creek wine.