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

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

Tasting the newly-bottled 2016 whites

This is an exciting time of year. The vineyard is growing (enthusiastically, this year). The grape clusters are forming on the vines. The long days mean more evenings spent outside, and more cookouts. It's also the time of year when most of our wines are being bottled. Bottling happens in phases; we start in February with our rosés and Vermentino from the most recent vintage, and the Cotes de Tablas from two vintages before. In April, we bottle the rest of our estate reds, minus Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie. In May, it's our Patelin de Tablas Blanc. In June, our non-Roussanne estate whites. All that remains at this point are Esprit and Panoplie from two years before (typically bottled in July), our Patelin de Tablas from the most recent vintage (typically bottled in August) and our Roussanne and Esprit Blanc (typically bottled in December).

So, June means lots of recently bottled wines that we have the opportunity to get to know. I needed to open some of these because we'll be releasing them soon and wanted tasting notes for the wines' Web pages. I figured blog readers might like a preview. The lineup:

2016 whites

As a whole, the 2016 vintage is turning out to be even better than I'd expected. The reds (as documented during our blending week) show a great balance between lush, juicy notes and deep, savory notes. The handful of whites (and rosés) we've bottled are electric in their vibrancy, without sacrificing richness. So it was with some anticipation that I sat down to taste these five new wines. My notes: 

  • 2016 Clairette Blanche: Just our third bottling of this relatively obscure white Rhone grape, and I'm still wrapping my head around what it's like. On the nose, reminiscent of a Picpoul with pineapple, key lime, and mint on the nose, a palate poised 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 a lingering anise note. 100 cases made.
  • 2016 Picpoul Blanc: Spicy and powerful on the nose, with Meyer lemon, watermelon, crushed rock, and a rich yeasty note. On the palate, richer than the nose suggests (and richer than the Clairette) with flavors of grilled lemon, fresh mango, sweet baking spices, and saline minerality. The acids (which are cloaked initially by the richness) build in the mouth and the wine finishes with lingering flavors of wet rocks and lemon zest. 250 cases made.
  • 2016 Grenache Blanc: An explosively mineral nose with petrichor, citrus blossom, green apple and white pepper. Rich on the palate, with flavors of pineapple, lychee, orange peel and crushed rock. The finish is generous and long, with more rocky minerality and a candied grapefruit note. 715 cases made.
  • 2016 Viognier: Our first Viognier since 2013, and gratifyingly typical of the varietal: peaches and mint and coconut and tangerine and more peaches on the nose. On the palate, a beautiful expression of stone fruit, more nectarine in its restraint than the cling peaches some Viogniers can suggest. Nicely rich on the palate despite its just 12.9% alcohol, and the peaches and cream on the finish are undercut by a welcome touch of citrus pith. 175 cases made.
  • 2016 Cotes de Tablas Blanc: Fascinating to taste after Grenache Blanc and Viognier, as it sets a course right down the middle between the two: a nose of honeydew melon, sweet spice, mint, and green apple. The mouth shows richer than the nose, with flavors of peach pit, cream soda, and bright mandarin orange acids that clean up the long finish. Quite different than the Roussanne-dominated texture of the 2015 Cotes Blanc, and a beautiful summer-weight wine. 1790 cases made.

It's worth noting that we were one wine short in this tasting. The 2016 Picardan hadn't quite finished fermenting in time for its bottling date, and so will go into bottle a little later in the summer. Still, it's a pleasure to taste the almost-complete set, and get confirmation that the wines from 2016 are consistently striking that middle ground where they show fruit and richness without -- any of them -- coming across as heavy or monolithic. And those acids! The electricity that these 2016 whites are showing will make them welcome dining companions in the warm months ahead. We are looking forward to sharing these wines with you over the summer; club members should watch their emails for their release announcements.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Terret Noir

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one here at Tablas Creek who thinks that one of the most fun things I get to do is to work with new grapes. In some cases, these grapes are ones that are pretty well known in France, but new to California. There, we have a frame of reference, and what's fascinating is where our versions do (and don't) line up. Vermentino and Picpoul Blanc would fit that category. In other cases, we start working with new grapes that have been little used in France in recent decades, and we get to make discoveries without really knowing whether what we're making is true to what the grape "should" be like. That's a different sort of fun. Terret Noir, which we planted in 2010 and have been harvesting since 2013, fits into that category.

Terret noir lithoHistory
Terret Noir is an ancient grape from the Languedoc, one that like Grenache or Picpoul has three color variants (Terret Blanc and Terret Gris are the others). It is first noted in the historical record in 1736, when it was noted for generous production ("Terret noir: produit beaucoup")1.  Never very widely planted (unlike Terret Gris, which a half century ago showed more than 20,000 acres in Languedoc, much of it used to distill into vermouth) Terret Noir's acreage has declined in recent years, down to some 460 acres in 2008, nearly all in Hérault, the French département that surrounds the university town of Montpellier. Even in Hérault, Terret Noir produces less than 2% of the 900,000 hectoliters of wine the region produces annually2, and is typically blended into the more-planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Grenache, and Mourvedre.  Although it is one of the permitted varieties in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it is barely planted there, with just over two acres planted as of 20093.

The grape was valued for its productivity, its freshness, and its moderate alcohols. In his authoritative ampelography from 1910, P. Viala writes of Terret (translation by my dad), "it produced an abundant harvest that could reach 80 hectoliters per hectare [6 tons per acre]. It was prized on the hillsides because, aside from its fertility, it brought qualities of lightness and freshness of bouquet to the strong and acid varietals (Grenache, Espar, etc.), and to which it married perfectly".

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. Terret 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 production off of these vines came in 2013.

Terret Noir in the Vineyard and Cellar
Terret Noir is valuable in part because it is late-budding, and therefore less vulnerable to the spring frosts that are the chief weather hazard we deal with each year.  It grows vigorously, and produces large, oval, pinkish red grapes that look more like table grapes than they do like a darkly pigmented grape such as Syrah or Mourvedre. 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 relatively late in the growing season, about a week before the very end of harvest each of the last three years. This puts it in timing in synch with grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise.  

At harvest, it is relatively modest in sugars (we've picked it between 21.0° and 21.6° Brix each year) and mid-range high in acids (pH between 3.6 and 3.9). The skins are light in pigment and the berries large, so it is not a grape that picks up much color during fermentation.  In fact, the first year we fermented it, after two weeks it still looked like a rosé, so we kept it on the skins for another week, at which point it hadn't picked up much more color but had accumulated quite a bit of tannin.  We have since gone back to a more normal 2-week maceration, accepting the lighter color but keeping the tannins modest.

Ultimately, we expect this to be a blending grape, and in fact beginning in 2016 will be using it in a blend with Syrah and Grenache (for that full story, see here). In a blend, its spiciness, herby savoriness, and low alcohols provide a moderating effect on the more powerful, deeply fruity Syrah and Grenache, while those darker grapes give to Terret substance.  On its own, as we've bottled it in 2013, 2014, and 2015 vintages, it is reminiscent of pale color, fairly tannic grapes like the Jura's poulsard.

Flavors and Aromas
Terret Noir is pale garnet red, with spicy, lifted aromatics of dried herbs and wild strawberries. On the palate it shows a persistence surprising for such a pale red wine, with crunchy red fruit like pomegranates and red currants, complex notes of black tea and dried roses, good acids, and some grippy tannins on the finish. We have no idea how it will age, and the literature doesn't provide much insight here. If you are interested in trying it, we just released our 2015 Terret Noir, and we hope you'll let us know what you think.

Terret Noir 15

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Sud de France WineHub, http://www.suddefrancewinehub.com/en/terroirs/igp-pays-dherault-2/
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost: Q&A with Cellar Master Brad Ely

By Suphada Rom

Brad Ely, a native of the Central Coast, has found his way back to the area after several years of travel and cellar experience, taking him from the far reaches of Australia and New Zealand all the way to Washington state and the Rhone Valley. I sat down with him recently to talk all things travel, winemaking, and what makes Tablas Creek special to him.

Brad truck

I know you're local to Central Coast- where did you grow up?
I grew up in Arroyo Grande, California, so about 45 minutes south of Paso. It was a good town to grow up in- close to the beach, which was great since I surfed a lot. Small town but a really good place to raise a family, and it's on the central coast so that's definitely a plus. After high school, I went to Cal Poly.

Did you study wine and viticulture at Cal Poly?
So I was torn between wine and viticulture, construction management, and business. At the time, I thought business would be the most versatile option, but really all my work experience after college has been in the wine industry. My first job was at Saucelito Canyon in Edna Valley. I went into it thinking I'd just do a quick harvest, then do a ski season somewhere else, but I stayed on for two harvests. After that, I took off around the world for 3 years, to travel and continue my passion for making wine.

Brad Barrels

Where have you traveled and worked?
The first place I went to was Australia, to work harvest for Two Hands in the Barossa Valley. I stayed beyond harvest, took some time to travel to Asia, then moved up to Washington to work for Owen Roe, making everything from Pinot Noir to Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. I worked there until winter and went straight back to Two Hands in Australia to work another few months, leading into harvest. After that harvest was done, I hopped on a plane to go to New Zealand for another. Literally, our harvest ended on a Friday and that following Monday morning I was scheduled to start in New Zealand for a custom crush facility called Vin Pro in Central Otago. After that, I traveled through Indonesia and the Philippines, before going to France. While in France, I worked for a producer called Domaine La Barroche under Julien Barrot. The vineyards there have been in the family for centuries, records going back to about the 14th century. Originally sold to negociants, Julien decided to keep the wines and start a label. The year that I was there was the first year they were producing out of their new cellar, which was just a beautiful cellar. All concrete fermenters, large foudres, and gravity flow. I came back and it wasn't long until I heard about an opening at Tablas Creek. I've been here about a year now, which has been a huge blessing!

What makes Tablas Creek special to you?
It's just an amazing property, with a completely different feel than a lot of wineries in the area. I think that has a lot to do with being co-owned by a French family. Just walking through, it feels very French, especially coming from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and basically going straight to Tablas. Not only are the winemaking philosophies pretty similar, but it has that French feel; and that's part of why I like our winery so much. Tablas is a special place and an awesome piece of land to grow grapes on. Everything we do here really reflects tradition, as well, which I am a huge proponent of. 

As Cellar Master, what are your tasks?
It's everything in the cellar and everything winemaking oriented. We have an awesome team and between Craig, Chelsea, Neil, and I, we pretty much have all the bases covered and organizationally speaking, things run really smoothly here. Working in the cellar, it's fruit to glass. During harvest time, it's everything from processing fruit to pump overs to digging the tanks. No job is too small or too big, we're doing it all. When harvest is over, it's a lot of moving wine around, lots of tasting, and making sure everything is going in the direction we want it to. Working in the cellar is very mechanical and you have to wear all sorts of hats. You may be a plumber and then an electrician and a repairman. And cleaning... a lot of cleaning!

Brad Tractor

What would be something people would be surprised to hear about working in the cellar?
Well a lot of people think we drink wine all day, which isn't true! You've got to drink in moderation, which doesn't include drinking at work, so we're constantly spitting. I believe you can taste a lot better when you're spitting, as well. And depending on who you talk to, not everyone knows how much work goes into making a bottle of wine. I've had people shrug it off and say, "Oh yeah, you know... you pick grapes and then make the wine." That's when I have to tell them it's a bit more complicated than that!

What is your personal winemaking philosophy?
Wines that are pretty close to Tablas. I like to be pretty hands off and I don't really like oak. I like natural fermentations, and getting away from additions if you can, even in terms of acid adjustments. I like lower sulfur wines, as well. Basically, trying to make wine as naturally as possible, while still making clean drinkable wines that reflect terroir and sense of place. In terms of what I want to make, I want to make Rhone wines- that's where my passion lies. If I could, I would make Grenache and Roussanne all day, those are the two I care most about. 

When you're not cleaning tanks or moving wine, what are you doing?
I like to travel. I just got back from Cuba, which was really cool. I like to ride motorcycles and work on them. Growing up, I surfed a lot, which I still do a fair amount of. I'll also golf with my Dad and although I'm horrible at it, it's something we can do together. And then of course wine stuff!

Brad Lamb

Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing?
I always love pork and Grenache, like a pork loin or something with a little bit of gaminess. I had a pairing recently with rabbit and Pinot, which was pretty tasty too.

Finally, how do you define success?
I think you’re successful if you’re happy. If you’re happy and you feel like you’re in a good spot then I think that’s success. I wouldn’t tie it anything monetary. I’ve never been into status symbols and nice things, don’t get me wrong, I would love to have nice things, but it’s not a make or break for me. If you’re happy and healthy and the relationships you have are meaningful, that’s success.


Harvest 2016 Recap: Solid Yields, High Quality and a Furious End to our Earliest-Ever Vintage

And boom, after a flurry of activity last week, we're done with harvest.  Last to arrive, on Saturday, was a final pick of Grenache, but the final week saw 72.8 tons from a whopping six different grapes: Tannat, Counoise, Mourvedre, Roussanne,  and our small bock of Cabernet, in addition to the Grenache. And not just one pick of each.  We saw six different Mourvedre picks, five Grenache picks, and two picks each for Counoise and Roussanne.  This is not usually how things sequence out; in a normal year, we'd expect the last week to be dedicated to Mourvedre and Roussanne, while the other grapes are done.  No wonder our hard-working cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Crew final bin

The compressed and overlapping picks were characteristic of 2016's harvest.  Because we plan to use each of our fermentation tanks and casks as many as 6 times each harvest, the shorter the total duration of the harvest, the more pressure we have on our available space.  But in the end, we managed to make it all fit, and were very happy with the quality we saw. But you can see from the below chart that it didn't follow a normal bell curve distribution, with a slow beginning and end.  Instead, after a modest start, we stayed busy, with at least 70 tons coming in all of the last five weeks. In fact, our last two weeks were our two busiest weeks in terms of tons harvested off the estate. In the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit:

Harvest by week - tons

Yields were much better than 2015, and even a little above the levels we saw in 2013 and 2014.  The increases were particularly noteworthy in the early grape varieties whose yields were so low last year, with grapes like Viognier, Vermentino, Grenache and Syrah all up 70% or more (of course, all those grapes were down at least 40% last year from our 2014 levels).  But even with the later varieties, on which we weren't expecting much of an increase, we saw some, with Roussanne up 11.9% and Mourvedre up 32%.  The complete picture, with 2014 added for some context:

Grape 2014 Yields (tons) 2015 Yields (tons) 2016 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2015
Viognier 11.4 6.3 14.2 +125.4%
Marsanne 9.9 5.9 4.5  -23.7%
Grenache Blanc 31.9 22.0 30.6 +39.1%
Picpoul Blanc 7.5 5.0 7.7 +54.0%
Vermentino 17.3 8.7 19.0  +118.4%
Roussanne 42.8 42.0 47.0  +11.9%
Total Whites 120.8 89.9
123.0
+36.8%
Grenache 50.7 30.7 58.8  +91.5%
Syrah 38.1 21.4 36.8  +72.0%
Mourvedre 52.3 47.5 62.7  +32.0%
Tannat 15.4 9.8 12.3  +25.5%
Counoise 17.0 13.7 18.0 +31.4%
Total Reds 173.5 123.1
188.6 +53.2%
Total 294.3 213.0 311.6 +46.3%

Overall yields ended up at 2.97 tons per acre, right at our ten-year average.  Other years in which we've seen yields between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre have included 2003, 2004, 2007, 2008, 2013, and 2014, which includes many of our favorite vintages. Those crop levels seem to bring a balance of intensity and elegance that make the blending a pleasure in the spring.

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

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. 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
2016 22.04 3.71

2016's average sugars were our lowest-ever at harvest. Nearly every grape saw declines in average sugar levels, though most were small; only Tannat and Grenache Blanc saw (slightly) higher average sugar levels than in 2015.  At the same time, we saw higher average pH levels than we have in the last decade, particularly in grapes like Roussanne and Mourvedre. I think that in this measurement is where you see the largest impact of our ongoing drought, as well as the impact of the warm weather starting mid-September.  This idea is borne out by the fact that the vineyard looks exhausted now, in mid-October, at a time when in many years it's still leafy and green.  Overall, it was a warm year, just a hair cooler than our warmest-ever year, 2014.  Every month except May was warmer than average, even with a cool stretch that lasted nearly a month between mid-August and early September.  The chart below summarizes (October's information is for the first 8 days, as we finished harvesting on October 8th):

Degree days - growing season final

We picked even more lots this year (114) than last, when we ran out of space on our harvest chalkboard.  This too was necessitated by the drought; we wanted to get the fruit off the healthiest vines while they had good acids, while letting the clusters that were ripening more slowly continue to accumulate sugar, even at the price of lower acids.  

Harvest chalkboard - finished

All this happened in near-record time.  At just 51 days between its August 18th beginning and its October 8th conclusion, this harvest clocks in at nearly a week shorter than average (our 10-year average is 57 days). The beginning was our earliest-ever, about two weeks earlier than normal, and the end our third-earliest, trailing just 2013 (by one day) and the warm, frost-reduced 2001 vintage (by 5 days).  We're done nearly three weeks earlier than normal, and will face our third Harvest Wine Weekend (coming up this weekend) in the last four years with no fruit left to harvest. 

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but two things give us good hopes for its prospects.  First is the overall similarity in sequencing, weather, and yields to 2014, which we consider our best recent vintage overall.  Second is the deep colors and intense aromas of what we've been harvesting.  Skins on our red grapes appear to have been very thick. Flavors should be intense.  One of the late-ripening Mourvedre clusters illustrates:

Late Mourvedre cluster

The last project for us for harvest 2016 is to make our first Roussanne Vin de Paille since 2012.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 35°-40° Brix -- after about 3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. We laid our last Roussanne pick, from Friday, down on straw in one of our greenhouses, and will spend the next few weeks tracking its progress.

Vin de Paille greenhouse

A closeup shows the natural honey color of the Roussanne, which will only get more golden as it dries:

Vin de Paille closeup

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time.  There is a hopeful forecast that suggests our first rain of the season may come as early as this weekend.  Meanwhile, we're enjoying the autumnal views of the vineyard without having to worry that the cooler nights and the coming chance of precipitation may interfere with what, in a normal year, would still be harvest season.

Colorful owl box


Harvest 2016 at its midpoint: things heat up, literally and figuratively, in Paso Robles

On Friday, Neil came to me and said that according to their estimates, they'd reached the midpoint of harvest that day.  And looking at the numbers, that seems right to me.  We're done with Viognier, Vermentino, and Marsanne. We're nearly done with Syrah and Grenache Blanc. We're perhaps one-third done with Grenache, and have made a start at Roussanne. All the grapes for Patelin Blanc, most of those for Patelin red, and the majority of the Grenache for the Patelin Rose have been picked.  Off the estate, only Picpoul, Tannat, Counoise, and Mourvedre are untouched so far.  The cellar is humming, with both presses running, new fruit arriving, and barrels and tanks getting cleaned to make space for all the arrivals:

Craig on forklift through press

Our hopes that yields would be much improved over 2015 seem to be holding up.  Of the grapes that we've finished, we saw more than twice as much Vermentino and Viognier as we did last year.  Marsanne was down 25%. But with a couple of small blocks still to go, Syrah is already up 62%.  I'm not expecting the late grapes like Mourvedre and Roussanne to be up much from last year (after all, they were hardly down compared to 2014) but overall, we're likely to be up around 2014's levels, which would be great.

One big project last week was getting the Grenache in off of the dry-farmed, head-trained block we call Scruffy Hill.  It was quite a scene, on a cool, crisp day that felt more like late October than mid-September.  A big fog bank was sitting over the Santa Lucia Mountains to our west, and the day topped out at 71°F, a rare treat at this time of year. A few photos, starting with Vineyard Manager David Maduena overseeing things, fog bank clearly visible:

David

The fruit looked amazing, deep blue and plentiful on the widely-spaced vines:

Scruffy Hill Grenache vimne

It looked just as good back at the winery. The block produced about 25% more fruit than last year, at picture perfect numbers. Flavors were intense:

Grenache bins in front of empty bins

We had one more very cool day last Tuesday, when the sun peeked through the thick fog only at around 4pm, and the temps topped out at 65°F.  Then, a warming trend began, with each day 6-8 degrees warmer than the one before.  By this past weekend, we had two days around 100°F, and and all of a sudden, everything looks like it's ripe.  Looking at our daily highs compared to our 1981-2010 averages will help show the swing:

Aug-Sept Daily High Temps

Before this weekend, temperatures since August 10th had averaged 2.5°F below normal. The last few days have been a different story.  Still, while we're happy to have had a fairly moderate beginning to harvest, it's not a bad thing that it's heating up now.  The later grapes (like Mourvedre, Counoise, and Roussanne) have all been losing chlorophyll, and with it ripening capacity, over the last few weeks.  Having a warm stretch now, while the vines are still mostly green, will do more good than a similarly warm stretch three weeks from now. And with a grape like Mourvedre, which always struggles toward the end of the season, a little boost is just what the doctor ordered. A photo of the Mourvedre from late last week shows the autumn-tinged foliage:

Mourvedre mid-Sept

Looking forward, we've got one more hot day in the forecast tomorrow, and then it's supposed to cool off mid-week before warming back up again next weekend.  An alternating pattern like this often works out well for the cellar, as the cooler periods allow them to catch up on all the lots that have gotten ripe during the warm stretches.  Full speed ahead.


A Cool Stretch Lets Us Ease into Harvest 2016; Yields Seem Solid

The cellar is full of bins of fruit. Our white press is running all day pressing newly harvested Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Clairette Blanche, and Vermentino, and our red press has been working on the first loads of Syrah. Everything smells yeasty and spicy, with the tang of CO2 in the air. We are fully in the thick of harvest.  

Clairette in bins

After a very warm June, July, and beginning to August, cooler weather returned about two-thirds of the way through August, and it's been relatively cool ever since.  In fact, the first week of September has been significantly cooler than normal, with degree days down 24%.  We can complete one more month in the heat graph, and you can see that while August is usually about 20% warmer than June, this year it was cooler, though still a touch above our 20-year average:

Degree Days 2016 pct difference Sept

The cooler respite has been welcome, as there were lots of blocks that were getting close even a few weeks ago, and the cooler weather has allowed us to sequence them a little more gracefully into the cellar.  So far, we've picked about 163 tons of fruit, roughly evenly split between reds and whites.  The bulk of what we've brought in so far (about 70%) has been purchased fruit for the Patelin de Tablas program, both because many of the Patelin vineyards are in somewhat warmer parts of Paso than we are, and because the grapes that these wines are based on -- Grenache Blanc and Viognier for the white, and Syrah for the red -- are harvested on the early side anyway.  We're probably two-thirds done with Patelin.

We're really just beginning the estate harvest. The 50 tons we've picked so far has been mostly Viognier and Vermentino (14 tons each), Syrah (10 tons), Pinot Noir (7 tons) and Grenache Blanc (2 tons).  We've also picked most of our Marsanne, though we only got a ton in so far and are expecting yields on this grape to be down.  The other grapes offer hope for a more generous harvest, though.  In 2015, we only harvested 9 tons of Vermentino and 6 tons of Viognier, totals we've already surpassed with a little more still to come in. One Syrah block (our Syrah "C" clone) we picked just 2.63 tons last year and received 5.16 tons this year, nearly double.  Of course, we're comparing quantities to grapes that saw cripplingly low yields in 2015, so it's not like we're seeing a windfall of grapes.  But yields look a lot more like 2014 (when we ended up harvesting 298 tons off the estate, just a hair below our 10-year average) than like 2015 (where totals ended up at 215 tons only because our late-ripening grapes were down much less than our early ones).  So, while it's early, we're feeling cautiously optimistic about quantities.  If we do end up around 2014's totals, that would mean that we're about 17% done so far.

Quality seems super.  Our sugar and acid numbers are pretty close to textbook, and we're seeing deep colors and tasting vibrant flavors.  We don't see any impact from the two weeks of intermittently smoky weather caused by the nearby Chimney Fire, and feel pretty confident that the smoke wasn't thick enough or long-lasting enough to have left any residue on the grapes.

As for what's next, we're sampling virtually the entire vineyard this week, as well as all the remaining Patelin vineyards.  We're expecting most of the Grenache for us to press directly into the Patelin de Tablas Rosé before the end of the week, as well as more Syrah and Marsanne off our own estate, more Grenache Blanc for Patelin Blanc, and the first Grenache for our Patelin red.  The floor of the cellar looks like a painter's palette:

Samples

In the vineyard, even the latest ripening grapes have completed veraison and are looking (from the outside, at least) like they're ripe.  On the inside, however, grapes like Mourvedre (below) are still weeks, maybe even a month, away from being ready to pick.  Sugars are still in the mid- to high-teens, pH levels are still in the high 2's, seeds are still green, and flavors are not yet developed.  They may look great (and in fact, they make good eating) but we know we have to be patient.

Mourvedre on Vine Sept 2016

The pattern we've seen so far -- early budbreak, warm summer, then a cooldown as harvest approaches -- reminds us a lot of 2014.  Yields seem similar as well.  Given that 2014 is the best vintage in our recent memory, that's got to be a good thing.  Stay tuned.


White blending gives us our first detailed look into the scarce, concentrated 2015 vintage

This week, my brother Danny flew out to join me, my dad, Neil, Chelsea, and Tyler around the blending table as we took our first comprehensive look at the whites from 2015. As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Because of the many varieties that were very short compared to recent years [for why, see my 2015 harvest recap] there were fewer lots than usual, and many lots were smaller. Of our major components, only Roussanne saw similar quantities to 2014:

Grape Gallons (2015) Gallons (2014) % Change
Viognier 972 1750 -44.5%
Marsanne 948 1560 -39.2%
Grenache Blanc 3621 4827 -25.0%
Picpoul Blanc 804 1176 -31.6%
Roussanne 6853 6781 +1.1%
Clairette Blanche 144 92 +56.5%
Total Whites 13342 16186
-17.6%

As you would guess from the chart above, we knew going in that we were likely to be constrained by our quantities in what we could make.  Still, the first stage was to go through the lots, variety by variety, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage:

Blending2016_components

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from last year). My quick thoughts on each variety:

  • Viognier (3 lots): A really good year for Viognier, with 2 of the 3 lots getting 1's from me. Concentrated, tropical and deep, with surprisingly good acids and a little welcome minty lift. Absolutely worthy of bottling solo, but in this short year it will all go into the Cotes de Tablas Blanc.
  • Picpoul Blanc (3 lots): Very strong for Picpoul, too, with luscious depth and electric acids. The one lot that got a 2 from me could have been a 1 as well.
  • Roussanne (13 lots): A very heterogeneous mix, with a relatively large number of lots with very low acids.  Some of these had the richness and charm to carry their weight; others felt heavy. Those with the best acidity were really powerhouses, with a creamy, honeyed charm that should be very crowd pleasing. My grades: six 1's, five 2's, one 3, and one incomplete (for a lot that was still fermenting actively).
  • Grenache Blanc (5 lots): Very classic and polished for Grenache Blanc at this stage, quite uniformly good (three 1's and two 2's from me), with lots of the variety's signature green apple. We just wish there was more of it.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): Pretty clearly Marsanne's best showing ever for us, to the point that my dad (who in past years has suggested we think about pulling Marsanne out entirely) mused out loud that we should look to plant more acreage. Great minerality, nice acids, elegant and complete. If there had been more, we'd love to have bottled it on its own, but like the Viognier, it will all go into Cotes Blanc.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): Just the 3rd vintage of this new grape for us, the Clairette was pretty: like new-cut grass drying in the sun. Not much complexity here, but fun for us all. We'll bottle this on its own, to continue to share it with others.

Tuesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends.  The last few years, our Esprit Blanc has been 70% or more Roussanne, though in very rich years this has not always been true. Case in point: the 2009 vintage, whose combination of drought and frost produced yields that approximated pretty closely those we saw in 2015.  And like 2015, it was a warm year, with Roussannes with a great deal of weight and relatively low acids.  In our blending trials the following spring, we ended up preferring our blends with more Picpoul and Grenache Blanc, and less Roussanne, though we could only use 12% Picpoul because that was all we had.  The 2009 Esprit Blanc ended up containing 62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, and 12% Picpoul Blanc. This year, knowing how strong the Picpoul and Grenache Blanc were, we tried out some blends with high percentages of both, and ended up choosing in our blind trials (blind meaning we tasted not knowing the percentages in each wine) a blend that maxed out on Picpoul again. Happily, we now have more Picpoul in production than we did in 2009, and our preferred blend contained 55% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, and 17% Picpoul Blanc. This wine will be blended in the next month or so, be moved to foudre to age for another year, and be bottled next spring.

Once we'd decided on the Esprit Blanc blend, the other wines fell into place with remarkable speed.  I figure that our minimum quantity of Cotes de Tablas Blanc, for its various demands to our wine club, in our tasting room, and to the national market, is 1500 cases.  This wine is always led by Viognier, and using all our Viognier only made up 26% of a 1500-case lot. All the Marsanne made up 25% of the lot.  Because these two varieties were so strong, we were confident in that the finished wine would be great, and chose some of the brighter, more mineral-driven Grenache Blanc (25%), and some of the least assertive Roussanne (24%) to finish off the blend.  We tasted it, ready to make adjustments if necessary, and decided we couldn't think of anything that would improve it.  Those who get some 2015 Cotes Blanc are in for a treat.

At this point, we'd used all our Viognier, Marsanne, and Picpoul, and had enough Roussanne left for about 1200 cases of a varietal bottling, and enough Grenache Blanc for about 600 cases. And that, as often happens in short vintages, was that. Wednesday morning, we tasted the five wines we'll make from 2015 (including the Patelin de Tablas Blanc, that received one declassified Roussanne lot to add to its purchased fruit), to make sure that each felt complete and fell into its appropriate slot relative to the lineup.  They did: 

Blending2016_whites

We wrapped things up yesterday afternoon with a prowl through the cellar, tasting a selection of barrels to begin the process of wrapping our heads around the reds from 2015.

Blending2016_cellar

We won't blend those until late April, but it was clear that the vintage will be a strong one there too. As for the details, stay tuned.


En Primeur: a Tablas Creek tradition since 2003

By Lauren Phelps

Today, we were joined by many of our most enthusiastic wine club members for our annual futures tasting, which provides the first opportunity for anyone outside the cellar to taste (from barrel) our newest vintage of Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie.  

Group
Our Cellar, Newly Decorated for the Holidays

For a little background, 13 years ago we began offering wine en primeur, which is a time-honored French tradition most often associated with first-growth Bordeaux estates. In outstanding vintages, valued customers are offered the opportunity to secure a limited quantity of sought-after wines at a special price in advance of bottling and subsequent general release.

Info
The Tasting List

Our focus today was on the 2014 vintage, which we have felt since blending may turn out to be one of our best.  We showed our two top red wines from the vintage, the Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie, each of which was blended this past spring.  They have been resting in foudre until this morning's tasting, and are only about halfway through their barrel aging; they'll remain in foudre until bottling next summer.

Bottles
The Wines

Jason Haas provided a bit of context for the tasting by summarizing how 2014 compared to other recent vintages, while Viticulturist Levi Glenn and Winemaker Neil Collins dove into the details of the challenges and opportunities that 2014 presented in the vineyard and cellar.  Finally, Robert Haas shared his thoughts on how these wines have come together and express themselves, and where they may go in the future.

The 2014 vintage produced wines that are notably luscious, but with good tannins behind them. Jason compared it to 2007, a similarly intense vintage with plenty of fruit balanced by substantial but ripe tannins.  We think that the wines will be impressive young (they showed very well today) but will also be among the most ageworthy we've made.

Neil
Neil (foreground) and Levi (behind) speak to the group

Bob
Founder Robert Haas

We find that often the most interesting topics are raised by the participants in our events, and very much enjoyed the lively question and answer session that followed the vintage discussion and tasting.

Wreath
A wreath hangs on a Roussanne tank

Because we feel it is important to taste these wines both on their own and with food, we asked Chef Jeffery Scott to make a dish that would pair well with them.  He chose a coq au vin, braised in syrah, and we contributed the 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel out of our library to give guests a chance to see how a (relatively) mature version of the wine might look. [Editor's note: we're working with Chef Jeff to get the recipe, or at least a version that doesn't require a 3-day preparation of the stock, and will post it here on the blog if and when we do.]

Yum
Chef Jeffery Scott's delicious coq au vin

We hold this tasting every year, always in early December, if you're setting your calendars for next year. And if you missed the tasting,  you haven't missed your opportunity to buy the wines at their futures-only discount. Members interested in ordering wine en primeur should contact our Wine Club team no later than Monday either by email at vinsider@tablascreek.com or by phone at 805.237.1231 x36.

Mavis
Mavis