The red wines from the 2013 vintage come into focus

Blending is always an exciting time for me.  Up until that time, the different wine lots in the cellar have been potential, and we're looking at them principally in terms of the problems that they might present.  One might not be through fermentation.  Another might be a little oxidized, or a little reduced.  Yet another might still be spritzy.  In each case, we're trying to round these component pieces into form so that we can make our evaluations on them and aim them at the appropriate wine.  This period can last as long as six months, starting with harvest and not concluding until April.

Once the lots are behaving, blending can happen startlingly fast, and these components that we have been regarding as potential problems (or, if you prefer, as diamonds in the rough) can in a week become the young wines that we'll spend the next years or decades getting to know.  In addition, that week provides our best opportunity yet to get to understand the personality of the vintage and try it next to its predecessor for context.  The finished products:

Red blends 2014

When we blend, we start by tasting every lot from each varietal, blind.  This year, we had 14 Grenache lots, 12 Mourvedre lots, 8 Syrah lots, 3 Counoise lots and 3 lots that we'd blended early in the fermentation process (including the Scruffy Hill lot that forms the base of our En Gobelet each year).  Each lot is given a grade between 1 and 3, with 1 being the best.  My notes from this year are below; note how many 1's there are and how few 3's: the sign of a good vintage and one that is polished enough to evaluate:

Red blending notes may 2014

Once we've graded and discussed each lot, we start from the top, blending the Panoplie first from the lots that received "1" grades and exceptional comments.  [In the notes above, I use an asterisk to identify the first Mourvedre lot and the sixth Syrah lot as clear Panoplie candidates.]  We taste a handful of possible blends blind against one another until we reach consensus. Once we're satisfied with the Panoplie, we remove the lots that went into it from our calculations and start the same process on the Esprit, and so forth through the Cotes de Tablas and our varietal wines and eventually to the estate lots that will be declassified into our Patelin de Tablas.

Since each blend may contain 20+ lots, each of which themselves might be composite blends of dozens of barrels, it takes the cellar a while to blend the wines we have to taste, and it's nearly impossible to make decisions on more than one tier a day.  So, the seven blending days that we took this year is just about the minimum possible, and another sign that the components were in good shape for blending.  Below are my notes from last Wednesday's tasting of the finished blends.  At this tasting, I was joined by my dad, my brother Danny and our winemakers Neil, Chelsea and Tyler.

  • 2013 Patelin de Tablas: A spicy, meaty nose with leather and mineral notes.  In the mouth, Syrah is at the fore: creamy, with chalky texture, very savory, with charcuterie and tobacco coming first, then brambly black fruit, and some welcome black licorice on the finish. Final blend: 45% Syrah, 29% Grenache, 22% Mourvedre, 4% Counoise.
  • 2013 Cotes de Tablas: The nose is juicy, generous, raspberry and spice, with a little leather lurking behind.  The mouth is clearly marked by Grenache, with juicy wild strawberry and chalky tannins that balance the lushness. The finish is long and silky, with red licorice notes lingering.  Neil said he thought it was "the deepest, most thoughtful Cotes we've made".  55% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Counoise, 5% Mourvedre.
  • 2013 Esprit de Tablas: A nose of dark red fruit, currant and plum, black cherry and meat drippings, and a loamy minerality that Neil called "after a rain out in the vineyard". The wine is mouth-filling, rich with bittersweet chocolate and blueberry and the powdered-sugar tannins that are for us a sign of great Mourvedre. Danny called it "classy and refined". 40% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 22% Grenache and 10% Counoise.
  • 2013 Panoplie: The nose is rich, inky and inviting, with spicy purple fruit, a meaty note that someone identified as reduced beef stock and I thought was like a leather armchair.  In the mouth, plums, black raspberry and black cherry vibrate between red and black and the texture is rich and chewy.  Despite only being 10% Syrah, it was the darkest color, with an exceptionally long finish showing off grilled meat, licorice and chalky tannins.  Wow.  70% Mourvedre, 20% Grenache, 10% Syrah.
  • 2013 Grenache: The nose was immediately identifiable as Grenache: milk chocolate and cherry, with a little white pepper adding spice. The mouth was open and generous, with more red cherry and strawberry fruit and a nice chocolatey note.  Tangy acids come out on the finish to keep things balanced, but the impression is of lusciousness and baby fat right now.
  • 2013 Mourvedre: The nose has an appealing, classic cedary, foresty, loamy note on top of mint and currant fruit.  The mouth shows very similar flavors, with nice chunky tannins at the end. It's serious, dry, and long, and should be fun to watch evolve.
  • 2013 Syrah: Classic Syrah nose, with chalk, black olive, coffee grounds and squid ink predominant. Not much fruit showing yet, but a little sweet oak.  In the mouth, you find the fruit: blackberry, with big tannins that suggest it will benefit from the next year-plus in barrel, and likely additional time aging in bottle.  Very chewy and dark.

One of the things I was happiest with was the definition between the different blends, between the different varietals, and between the varietals and the blends that were led by those grapes.  It's important to us that the Cotes de Tablas not taste too much like the varietal Grenache -- and that it not taste too much like the Esprit or the Patelin.  This year, I think we nailed it: each varietal wine is a classic expression of its varietal characteristics, and each blend shows the signature of its leading grape but is, as we typically find, more than the sum of its parts.

It will be a pleasure to get to know these wines over the coming years.


Malolactic, Misunderstood

There is a recurring item on the Wine Spectator Web site called "Ask Dr. Vinny".  In it, the Spectator writers take on commonly asked questions about winemaking and wine consumption.  Last month there was a question from a reader in the United Arab Emirates: "Is there any change that can be made in viticulture practices to produce low-alcohol wines apart from using reverse osmosis?"

I was pleased to see that the response included the obvious: "Want lower-alcohol wines? Pick sooner rather than later."  You might think, "well, duh" but implicit in the question is a commonly-held reliance on the technological solution in the world of modern winemaking.

I've fielded several questions recently about a related topic: whether our wines go through malolactic fermentation.  To understand what this means, please bear with a bit of science (or skip ahead, if this is old hat or if the thought of chemistry equations makes your skin crawl).  Grape juice undergoes two different types of fermentation in its transformation into wine.  In the first, and most dramatic, fermentation (typically called "primary fermentation") yeasts convert sugar into alcohol, carbon dioxide, and heat. This fermentation is the core one that turns grape juice into wine:

Sucrose (C6H12O6) ==> 2 Ethanol (C2H5OH) + 2 Carbon Dioxide (CO2) + energy

But there is another chemical reaction (technically a decarboxylation, not fermentation) caused by a family of bacteria that converts sharp-tasting malic acid into the gentler lactic acid and carbon dioxide:

Malic Acid (C4H6O5) ==> Lactic Acid (C3H6O3) + Carbon Dioxide (CO2)

620px-Malolactic_fermentationMalic acid, commonly found in apple skins and the primary flavor in rhubarb, is an aggressive acid, with a pH of 2.2, while lactic acid, commonly found in milk products, is much gentler, with a pH of 2.4.  That difference may not seem like much, but because pH is a logarithmic scale, a liquid with a 2.2 pH has 60% more acidity than one with 2.4 pH. An image of the process (courtesy of Wikipedia) is to the right.

OK, enough with the chemistry.  In practical terms, while all wines go through primary fermentation, only some go through malolactic fermentation.  It's pretty easy to understand why you would want a wine to do so: it produces a creamier texture and smoother mouthfeel, as long as there are enough other acids in the wine to maintain balance.  Red wines nearly always are let go through malolactic; they contain much higher levels of tannic acids from the skins of the grapes since they are fermented with the skins, while most white wines are pressed first and fermented separately. These tannic acids tend to be highlighted in an unpleasant way by malic acid, while the lactic acid produces a softer, richer, more appealing mouthfeel. 

Why wouldn't you want a richer mouthfeel on whites, too?  Well, it comes with some costs, when grapes are super-ripe and therefore lower in natural acidity.  Historically, nearly all whites did go through malolactic fermentation, because the technology to stop the process (typically some combination of sulfur dioxide addition, refrigeration, and sterile filtration) hadn't been developed yet.  But as these techniques came into relatively widespread use, some winemakers chose to block the malolactic fermentation on whites with sweeter or more floral profiles, where brighter acidity was a desirable foil to the wine's character.

And so things stayed, until recent years when the trend toward riper and riper wines left the stopping of malolactic fermentation as a standard practice for many winemakers. Leave the grapes on the vines for another couple of weeks, pack extra rich and tropical flavors into them, then stop the malolactic fermentation to give a balancing dash of acidity to an extravagantly rich wine.  Sure, you end up with a lot of alcohol, but if you're trying to make the biggest, most impressive wine, and don't want it flabby, it's a relatively easy choice.

What's the problem with this?  Well, it's in the eye of the beholder. For many people, nothing.  But I find that the extra ripeness and alcohol typically mask expression of the soils, and abundance of power with often disconcertingly elevated acidity makes for wines that are fatiguing rather than refreshing.  It's like the trend toward IPA's with extra hops, extra malt, and extra alcohol.  Sure, they're impressive, but I rarely finish even my first glass, let alone order a second.  More isn't necessarily better.  In this, I realize I'm out of step with current trends.  So be it.  I'm still waiting for the artisan lager revolution to start.

Is stopping the malolactic fermentation always bad?  Of course not.  There are times when it's the right choice on a particular lot or in a particular vintage.  We've done it from time to time, though not in the last five years or so.  But picking earlier, when you have enough natural acidity that you can let malolactic go through and still have wines with balance, seems to me to be much more desirable.  The wines are more expressive, less alcoholic, and show an appealing, creamy texture that seems to show off our limestone soils.

To choose another analogy, I'm finding myself, more and more, seeing white wines with high alcohol, intense tropical flavors and lots of malic acid as the equivalent of a celebrity who has had too much surgical enhancement.  The net result often isn't beauty, and can border on the grotesque.  You can have Pamela Anderson.  I'll take Gwyneth Paltrow.


Reining In Harvest 2013

By Chelsea Franchi

I was standing in the entrance of the cellar on Monday with my hand wrapped around a steaming mug of coffee, watching as a storm rolled over the hills of Paso Robles and finally touch down on our vineyard.

And I had a smile on my face.  

I have a certain fondness for inclement weather, but typically at this time of year, weather like that can be panic inducing.  This year's a bit different, though, as all of our fruit is off the vine and resting comfortably, tucked away safely in tank and barrel.  You can almost feel, and sometimes hear, the soft, gentle crackle as the wines finish up their fermentation.

This cozy, mellow scene feels a world away from where we were just a few weeks ago.  We all knew harvest was going to be early, and it seemed as though we were all parroting the words "harvest is starting soon!" without thinking about what that actually meant.  And then harvest really did start early, and when it started, it was in earnest.  One moment we were leisurely prepping the harvest equipment and suddenly we were hit with a deluge of fruit, with the bulk of it flooding in at once and filling each of our available tanks in the blink of an eye.  We were forced to put our heads down and focus on the tasks directly in front of us and only on October 10th (the last day of harvest) did we dare to glance up and marvel at all we had accomplished in a rather short amount of time.

Harv13_PressWash
Cleaning up after a long day of pressing the pomace (or solids) of red wines

Harv13_HandSort
Hand sorting fruit before it gets pumped into a tank to ferment

Harv13_TankDrain
Draining off juice to add to Dianthus rosé

Not only is everything picked, it's also pressed, and so last Friday, the cellar crew grabbed a thief and a handful of glasses to taste through the wines of 2013.  Initially, we were giddy to be tasting through the cellar so early.  However, after the first few wines, the full weight of the situation settled in. Harvest 2013 is in the books.  And you know what?  It's good. The whites seem to have an exuberant quality. They dance across the palate with both brightness and gravity.  The reds are a bit more tricky to read at this stage. Across the board, during punch downs and pump overs, the lots of red were smokey, meaty and rich.  Now, in barrel, many of them are starting to show promise of an unfurling of fruit, spice and depth.  

Harv13_CellarTasting

I'm going to miss harvest a little bit (but trust me when I say that I can definitely wait until fall of 2014 for the next one).  The easy comraderie that comes with working with people so closely (and for so many hours) is a pretty unique perk of the job.  And this harvest, we had a cast of invaluable characters working alongside us.  I'd like to offer them a public thank you for all their hard work.  We couldn't have done it without them.

Harv13_Neil
Winemaker Neil Collins pulls samples from a barrel of Grenache Noir

Harv13_Levi2.jpg
Viticulturist Levi Glenn takes a break from the vineyard to feed the pigs

Harv13_David2.jpg
Vineyard Manager David Maduena enjoys a much deserved glass of Mourvedre - in a block of Mourvedre

Harv13_Tyler
Cellar Master Tyler Elwell pumps over a fermenting Syrah lot

Harv13_Madeline
Lab Technician Madeline Vanlierop-Anderson collects a day's worth of coffee mugs

Harv13_Craig.jpg
Cellar Assistant Craig Hamm demonstrates what forklifts are really for (lifting forks)

Harv13_ErichHarvest Intern Erich Fleck fills barrels with espresso in hand

Harv13_Jordan
Harvest Intern Jordan Collins pumps over a fermenting tank of red under the watchful (but sleepy) eye of the cellar mascot, Millie

Harv13_Gustavo
Above, Harvest Intern and Tasting Room Employee Gustavo Prieto takes a Tannat shower.  Below, Jordan and Madeline celebrate in a stop animation film of the last bin of Harvest 2013.

 

For the moment, I'm looking forward to the halcyon cellar days to come.  We'll finish cleaning up the mess that harvest left behind and then move forward with looking closely at what we have in the winery and monitoring the fermentation progress of our wines.  The storms have cleared - both the proverbial storm that came crashing through our cellar in the form of fruit, as well as the actual storm that came Monday.  I'm anxious now to see what those two storms yield. 


A Tale of Two Rosés

For the last two years, we've been making two rosés.  If that sounds nuts, it kind of is.  But it's in keeping with using our wines to try to express something fundamental about the grapes that go into them.  The first of our rosés, which we've been making since 1999 under one name or another, is the Dianthus.  It's designed to showcase the richer, more substantial side of dry rosé, and it's based on Mourvedre and spends 24-48 hours on the skins, giving it a darker pomegranate color and a bit of bite.  Think Tavel and you won't be too far off.

The second rosé we make debuted in the 2012 vintage, and is called the Patelin de Tablas Rosé.  It is an homage to the higher-toned rosés of Provence and like those rosés is based on Grenache.  It is largely direct-pressed, which means that the grapes are picked, destemmed, and pumped directly into the press, where they're pressed before they can leech much color or flavor out of the skins.  [I took a cool video of this process last year.]  This base is later given a smaller addition of Mourvedre and Counoise that has spent about 24 hours on the skins, giving a pale salmon color.

Of course, right now, neither is the color it will be when it's clear, but the 2013 vintage of both rosés is dry and we're at the point where we're starting to assess their progress.  I love this photo of Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi holding up a glass of each, Dianthus on the left and Patelin Rosé on the right:

Chelsea and two roses

The cloudiness of the wines is typical at this point; those lees will drop to the bottom of the tanks over the next month or so and leave the color we want.  It should be similar to what we saw in 2012:

12_Dianthus 12_PatelinRose


We were worried last year that adding a second rosé to our portfolio might result in each selling half as well.  But we found that they sold in different places and didn't compete with each other.  The Dianthus has always been a little too expensive for restaurants to pour by the glass, and so we typically sold most of it in our tasting room.  We released the Patelin Rosé at a slightly lower price, and it found a very receptive audience, mostly in restaurants, to the point that we sold out of our 1000-case national release in mid-July.  And the Dianthus didn't suffer; as usual we sent it to our VINsider wine club members in March.  The other 500 cases were gone from our tasting room in August, the fastest sell-out ever. 

I think that the growing acceptance of dry rosés is one of the happiest developments in the American wine market.  These are generally great food wines, quite inexpensive in the grand scheme of things, and not easily conducive to pretense or overworked, overblown styles.  And producers love rosé; if you bring one to a party in wine country, you can watch the winemakers make a beeline toward it.  Here at Tablas Creek, it's my mom who deserves the credit for having encouraged us to make a little rosé back in 1999 -- to drink ourselves, if nothing else -- because of how essential a part of the culture of Provence dry rosé is, and because of how well suited these Rhone grapes we grow are for it.

That first year, we made two barrels, or 50 cases of rosé.

This year, we're making 2700 cases.

If that's not progress, I don't know what is.


We cruise toward the end of the earliest Paso Robles harvest since 2001

It's getting hard to find a vineyard block with fruit still on it.  As of the beginning of October, we'd harvested all of our non-Roussanne whites and our Syrah, and nearly all of our Mourvedre, Grenache and Roussanne.  The only grape that's hanging a majority of its fruit still out is Counoise, and we only have 3 acres of that.  We're something like 90% done as of this morning, and expect to be completely finished by early next week.  The Counoise, looking pretty in yesterday's late afternoon sun:

End Sept - Counoise on Vine 2

The last two weeks of September we brought in most of our Grenache, Mourvedre and Roussanne.  It's normal these days to have us pressing reds that are dry or nearly so and moving them to barrel, cleaning the tanks they were in and filling them right back up with newly de-stemmed reds that have just been picked, all while also picking and pressing whites.  The cellar dance is remarkable, often with multiple forklifts moving bins of grapes around.  We've been using our entire 7-person team most days.  A shot from yesterday shows three different red lots (our last Grenache lot for the Patelin, and Mourvedre and Counoise from our estate vineyard) organized on the crushpad while the red press works to make space:

End Sept - Busy crushpad

For us, the quality of the harvest is always most determined by the quality of the Mourvedre we pick, as that is our most-planted grape and the showcase variety in our Esprit red.  What we're getting this year looks marvelous: rich and meaty, with very thick skins and enough acidity to keep things in balance.  It's amazing that the grapes are this complex given that we're picking them nearly a month earlier than normal.  One of yesterday's bins:

End Sept - Mourvedre

It really has been a compressed harvest.  The only year since 2000 that we finished harvest before October 28th was in 2001, when a frost-reduced crop was ripened quickly by a very warm summer.  This year, it looks like we'll pick our last grapes sometime around a week from now, which would make our last picking October 9th.  That would make the harvest just 44 days long, about 23% shorter than our 57-day average over the last decade.

Each ripening and harvest marker point has gotten farther and farther ahead of normal: flowering, a few days; veraison, a week; first picking, 10 days; last picking, 3 weeks).  We attribute this to the consistently warm but not hot summer we've seen.  Grapevines ripen their fruit optimally on days that top out between 85 and 95.  On hotter days, they stop photosynthesis and close the pores in their leaves to conserve moisture.  On cooler days, they spend too much of their time (late evening, night and mornings) under the 70-degree threshold below which ripening is very slow.  This year we've seen optimal ripening conditions, with an average high temperature since mid-July of 88 degrees, only one day that topped 100, and only seven that failed to reach the 80's.  This level of consistency over this long a stretch is unprecedented in our experience.

We have seen things cool down over the last week or so, with nights generally in the low 40's and a couple that even squeaked into the 30's.  We're pleased to see the cooler weather, with the vineyard nearly all ready to pick and us tight on space in the cellar.  The cool nights also encourage the vines to color up for fall.  Click on the Roussanne (left) and Mourvedre (right) photos below for a larger illustrations of the different fall colors we're starting to see.

End Sept - Roussanne Leaf End Sept - Mourvedre Leaf 2
Quality really does look tremendous.  We're starting to hear comparisons to 2007, which is the best vintage here in the last decade, and I think they're warranted.  The wines are remarkably deep in both color and flavor, with good acids and substantial but ripe tannins.  It's going to be a pleasure putting the blends together.

Yields are coming in lower than we expected, down perhaps a third from 2012's large crops, and will likely fall just below 2.5 tons/acre.  That's in keeping with 2007, too.

When we're done next week, I'll have a more complete recap with year-over-year comparisons by grape and by block, and will step back to look at some bigger picture questions.  Until then, we'll enjoy the beautiful days and cool nights, our last chance to see grapes on the vine for 2013, and make sure that there's actually space in the cellar for the last grapes we're picking. 

Final question: if there's no more harvesting to do during Harvest Festival, is it still a harvest festival?


Mid-September Harvest Report: Vibrant Whites and Dark, Electric Reds

What a difference two years makes.  As of September 15th in 2011 (and 2010, for that matter) we were looking at each other and re-sampling the vineyard, trying to figure out what to do with ourselves as we waited for the delayed harvest to begin.  Even last year, as of September 15th we'd only brought in 52 tons (14%) of the eventual 370 tons we'd harvest off of the estate.

Fast forward one year, and we've picked 119 tons off of our estate (43% of the roughly 275 tons we're expecting).  The numbers are even more dramatic when you include the Patelin harvests; because the Patelin Blanc is based on the early-ripening Grenache Blanc and Viognier, and the Patelin red on Syrah -- and because the majority of the vineyards are in warmer parts of the appellation than we are -- the Patelin harvest skews earlier than our estate fruit.  We brought in the last Patelin Blanc lot on Saturday and have already picked 75 tons for Patelin red, roughly three-quarters of what we're expecting to get in all harvest.

The cellar is a beehive of activity, with white grapes being pressed, red grapes being destemmed and moved to tanks, and other red tanks being pressed off.  It smells amazing: the unique, yeasty, juicy, tangy aroma of fermenting grapes. 

A few photos will give you a sense of what's going on.  First, a photo of bins of Grenache Noir assembled at the cellar door, waiting to be de-stemmed for fermentation:

Bins of Grenache

We make tank space for these new arrivals by pressing off the tanks that have reached the level of extraction we want.  Leave grapes in too long and they start breaking down the seeds, which adds bitterness.  I love this next photo of red juice (a Syrah/Grenache co-ferment that will go into Patelin) splashing into the pan below the press, from where it's being pumped into tanks to complete its fermentation:

Red Dripping into Pan

At the same time, we have white grapes arriving, which need to be pressed right away and then moved to tanks or barrels to ferment.  Our last Picpoul Blanc arrived yesterday:

2013 Harvest-Picpoul

The harvest chalkboard is growing, to the point that we're running out of space:

Harvest Chalkboard - Sept 17

Quality looks strong, and yields appear to be down by some 20% - 25% compared to last year, confirming that we're in the range of 2.5 tons/acre or a touch more.  The dark, electric colors and rich flavors we're seeing in our early lots suggest we're looking at something special.  If you don't think a color can be dark and electric at the same time, check out the Syrah -- Still fermenting! -- that Cellarmaster Tyler Elwell is holding:

Tyler with electric Syrah

The weather forecast for this week (cooling off to highs in the lower 80's, and cool, perhaps foggy nights) should give us a bit of a respite.  But with most everything ready or nearly so, we're not planning on much of a break.  We've still got most of our Roussannne and Grenache Noir, and all of our Mourvedre and Counoise, out on the vines.  Grenache is first up.


Harvest 2013 begins, fast and slightly less furious than 2012

In my last pre-harvest assessment, written the first of August, I predicted that based on our veraison dates we'd start between August 25th and September 4th.  And I was right, but only barely.  It was August 26th when we brought in our first estate lots: two different Viognier blocks.  That was followed by our first Syrah the next day, Vermentino the day after that and suddenly (bam!) we were in the thick of harvest. 

August was consistently warm, which produced the relatively short time between veraison and harvest. Average daily high temperatures were 90°.  Only one day (August 6th) failed to make it at least into the 80's, and it topped out at 79.9°. At the same time, it hasn't been hot enough to force the vines to shut down; we've only topped 100° once, on August 14th, and only barely, at 101.1°.  The result has been perfect ripening conditions, and the vines responded.

We've reconstituted our cellar team over the last few months and think it's the strongest we've ever had.  From left, below, veterans Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Cellarmaster Tyler Elwell and Winemaker Neil Collins are joined by our two newest additions: Craig Hamm and Madeline Vanlierop-Anderson.

Winemaker Gothic - 2013 Harvest Team

This week, the second week of our harvest, we've brought in the rest of the Viognier and Vermentino, more Syrah, our first Grenache Blanc and Picpoul, and the first-ever picking off our tiny Clairette Blanche block.  We're trying to be more organized, and have been keeping an old-school chalkboard busy with our daily updates.  Note the Clairette Blanche at the bottom; it's California's first:

Harvest Chalkboard with Clairette

We've also been working to harvest more at night and early in the morning, when the grapes are cooler and the oxidation pressures are minimal.  This has turned out to be better in unexpected ways as well; our crew is happier because it's cool out and the many vineyard insects are dormant, it makes for better flow in the cellar because the first press load is in the press and running before the bulk of the winemaking team even arrives, and the staggered shifts we've been working mean everyone isn't here the same long hours driving each other crazy.  Long hours, sure... but varied ones.  A few photos (taken by Marketing Coordinator Lauren Cross) will give you a sense of the feel of a nighttime harvest. We pick using LED head lamps and the lights of the tractors.  No tower lights for us:

Night Harvest harvesting

The hand-harvested grapes are dumped into bins which our vineyard tractor then delivers to the crushpad.

Night Harvest tractor moving

To work in the cool and dark rather than the baking sun, and to do so knowing that the result will be wines that are fresher and more vibrant, is great.

Night Harvest headlights

Our sense all along has been that our yields will be down some from last year, and with two grapes finished, we have some confirmation: Viognier is down 21% and Vermentino down 33% compared to last year.  Of course, last year wasn't normal; we harvested the most total tons off our property ever, although because we've brought a few additional blocks into production, our tons per acre were slightly behind the record levels of 2005 and 2006.  Vermentino was even more unusually productive than our other grapes last year, but the Viognier seems representative, and we're estimating a decline from last year's 370 tons to something around or just over 300 tons this year.  Over our 109 acres in production, that will give us something right in our target zone of just under 3 tons per acre.  Recent years where we've ended up right around that yield per acre have been very strong, and include 2000, 2003, 2004, 2007 and 2008.

With 57 tons in off the property, we're something approaching 20% of the way done with harvest.  That's a full two weeks ahead of last year, and it seems like we might be mostly done by early October.  If so, it will be our earliest finish since 2001, when we finished a frost-reduced harvest on October 3rd.  Since then, our earliest harvest end date was October 28th, and we've stretched into November as often as not.

The quality looks tremendous.  The grapes are coming in with ideal sugars and pH levels, and looking and tasting juicy and intense.  It's early days, to be sure, but we're excited to be where we are.


Congratulations to Neil Collins - 2013 San Luis Obispo County Winemaker of the Year

It was with great pleasure that we received the news that our winemaker Neil Collins was voted by his peers the 2013 Winemaker of the Year for San Luis Obispo County.  You can read the full press release here.

Neil - Praise the Lard

With one exception -- the 1997 vintage, for which Neil was working at Beaucastel -- Neil has had a hand in every vintage of Tablas Creek since our first harvest in 1994, when he was Assistant Winemaker at Adelaida Cellars and we were renting space there.  We used this rented space to make our first few vintages of wine before we'd built our winery and gotten our French clones into production. (Props to anyone who can remember some or all of the names those early wines carried on their labels; leave a comment if you do.)

So that means that this 2013 vintage will make twenty years since we first began to work with Neil, and be the sixteenth vintage he will have overseen here in our estate winery.  What a luxury that continuity is.  Grapevines aren't like most agricultural products; they take years (decades, even) to show their full quality, and a winemaker who joins a project mid-stream might well second-guess the vineyard choices that a previous administration had made and yet not have much flexibility to change it.  To have worked with Neil for so long means that he was involved in turning our vision into reality from the very beginning, and his input in our early choices is reflected across our operations, from vineyard to cellar to the events we host.

Equally important is the fact that Neil oversees both the vineyard and the winery here at Tablas Creek.  These are not, in our view, different worlds, to meet only at harvest.  Our goal has always been to make wines that are at their core expressions of this vineyard, and the choices that we make in the vineyard are a direct result of what we want the grapes to bring to the winemaking process.  Neil has been central in shaping our viticulture efforts, including dry farming, organic and biodynamic viticulture, our animal program and our efforts to bring biodiversity into the vineyard.  This has meant that his work in the cellar begins with grapes that have been grown specifically to emphasize the character of place that our winemaking seeks to highlight.

Perhaps most importantly, it's not every winemaker who is excited to let the expression of place take center stage.  California is full of wines that bear the indelible stamp of winemakers' stylistic decisions, from signatures of new oak barrels to specific yeast strains, extreme levels of ripeness or extraction.  It takes a winemaker with a particular personality and a high level of self-confidence to let his or her own work be to modulate and reinforce the signatures of place, grape and vintage.  We are exceptionally fortunate to have found in Neil such a winemaker, who despite plenty of creative vision -- on full display in the wines he makes for the Lone Madrone label he owns with his wife Marci and his sister Jackie -- is willing and able to step into the background in order to give pride of place to ... well ... place.

Congratulations, Neil, and cheers to many more great vintages.


We check in on the vineyard's progress at the end of May

The end of May marks the end of our danger of frost and the end of any chance of spring rain.  As such, it is a good time to assess where we are.  Short version: things look good, and we're on track for a solid harvest at a reasonably normal time.  For the long version, read on.

Flowering2013_0004

We're toward the end of flowering, with even the latest-flowering grapes (like Mourvedre, pictured above) squarely in the middle of the flowering process.  Flowering has taken place under largely ideal conditions; rain, excessive heat, and strong wind can all impact flower fertilization and lead to shatter, the condition where large number of unpollenated berries leave clusters with an uneven, gap-toothed look.  We've had warm but never hot weather, with May's highs reaching the 50's twice, the 60's twice, the 70's and 80's ten times each, and the 90's six times, but only once topping 95, on May 12th.  It doesn't get much more ideal than that.  Our flowering time is about average, and suggests a harvest beginning the first or second week of September.

Looking back into April, we had only one frost night, on April 16th, the morning that Chelsea Franchi took the photos that illustrated her blog The Beauty of Frost Protection. Most of the vineyard had come out of dormancy by mid-April, but our frost protection was largely effective in staving off serious damage.  We estimate that some 10%-15% of the vineyard was affected, and expect to see some impact on yields in those areas.  Happily, that was the only night where we had frost damage this year, and the four nights in which we had to run our frost prevention systems was one of our lowest totals in recent memory.  The grapes most affected were Grenache and Grenache Blanc (typically among the most frost-prone because of their precocious budbreak) which is a blessing in a way, since these grapes are typically among the highest-yielding and typically need aggressive crop thinning anyway.

We finished the winter's rainy season at just under 15 inches, which is just over half of the 28 inches we'd normally expect.  Coming on the heels of a 17-inch rainfall in the winter of 2011-2012 (roughly 60% of normal) we're now firmly into a drought cycle here in Paso Robles.  The vineyard does not appear to be suffering, at least not yet, but we're keeping an eye on the vines' stress levels and may need to turn our our irrigation lines in a systematic way for the first time since 2009.  If we do, we'll be following the pattern we've used in previous droughts: deep watering once or twice early in the growing season, so as not to encourage root growth at the surface but instead to promote growth deeper, where natural reserves of water are more likely to be found in future years. 

As an indication of the level of drought in the area, Las Tablas Creek never ran steadily this winter (the few hours around our December rainstorms notwithstanding) and Lake Nacimiento, into which this area drains, is at just 44% of capacity.  It's disappointing that after such a promising start (we received nearly 12 inches of rain in November and December) the season ended up so far below average. But we're not worried about the drought affecting quality; looking back we've had two multiple-year drought cycles in the last decade, and the second year of the droughts (2003 and 2008) were both excellent vintages, with yields about average. 

Throughout the winter, we have been moving our animal herd from block to block, leaving them in place roughly a week while they chew down the cover crop and fertilize with their manure.  They covered about 40 acres in between December and mid-April, when we had to move them to unplanted areas to protect the new vine growth.  We've been pleased with the health of the vineyard blocks in which the animals have been kept, though we believe that the most powerful impacts will be felt only in the long term.

Sheep in the vineyard April 2013

Over recent weeks we've been concentrating on getting the cover crop that the animals didn't eat -- and the manure, when they did -- disked and spaded into the soil, both to eliminate competition for the available water and to make sure that the nutrient-rich organic matter is mixed in. And the vineyard looks great, vibrantly healthy, with new growth a spring-like yellow green and solid but not enormous crop levels.  We still expect to do some significant crop thinning through the vineyard, but it doesn't look anything like as heavy as 2012's banner year.  A vineyard view, taken yesterday:

Vineyard in the Setting Sun May 2013

In the cellar we've been finishing up the bottling of the 2011 reds and working on the blending of the 2012's, both red and white. One of the last cases of 2011 Esprit rolled off the line yesterday:

Case of 2011 Esprit rolling off bottling line

The 2012 blends look strong, and it's clear that it was a great year for Roussanne, Syrah and Mourvedre.  The 2012 Esprit Blanc includes our highest percentage of Roussanne ever (75%) and is rich and lush, but structured.  The 2012 Esprit, whose percentages aren't quite finalized yet, is going to include lots of Mourvedre and Syrah, both of which were luscious yet with excellent tannic structure, and relatively little Grenache, which was very pretty but less complex.  It will make a wonderful base for a terrific Cotes de Tablas, and we are also planning on about 800 cases of varietal Grenache, which we're excited about, as well as lesser amounts of varietal Syrah (which will be a knockout) and Mourvedre.  For whites, we were so impressed with our Viognier in 2012 that we have decided to bottle it on its own for the first time since 2006.  We're also continuing with varietal Roussanne and Grenache Blanc bottlings, though with the high percentage of Roussanne in the Esprit Blanc, quantities of varietal Roussanne will be low.

Next up for us in the cellar is getting the 2012 blends made and put into foudre or tank. In the vineyard, we'll be completing the shoot thinning process to make sure that the vines are carrying an appropriate quantity of fruit and that we ensure good air flow through and around the ripening clusters. Then we have a bit of a respite before the crush of harvest.  It will be nice to take a deep breath.


We conduct a vertical tasting of Syrah in honor of Paso Robles Syrah Month

It’s Syrah month here in Paso Robles.  At the beginning of the year, the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance launched a “varietal of the month” program that cycles through the major grapes grown here, and are supporting it with a grower blog, a winemaker interview and a new installment of the Paso Wine Man video series:

In celebration, we decided to open up every vintage of varietal Syrah we’ve made, going back to our first-ever varietal red wine: the 2002 Syrah that we made three barrels of for our new wine club back when three barrels was plenty to make it around to all our club members.  Since then, we’ve made a Syrah each year other than 2009 and 2011, when spring frosts cut our Syrah crop sufficiently that we sacrificed the varietal Syrah to protect our blends.

One other element of interest was tracking how the three-year stretch (2005-2007) when we added 10% Grenache to our varietal Syrah changed the wines’ expression.  For all our commitment to blending, at this vantage point at least the group generally preferred the wines we made pure. Our tasting notes:

  • 2002 Syrah (100% Syrah): A dusty, spicy, minty/menthol-elevated nose. In the mouth, it’s mid-weight, with an inky soy-like darkness and a little cedary oak. There’s the classic Syrah creamy texture, and still firm tannins on the end.  A nice showing for this wine, which was more youthful than any of us expected.
  • 2003 Syrah (100% Syrah): A higher-toned, balsamic and meat drippings nose with a chalky minerality showing through. More of the tangy meat drippings on the palate with dark red fruit. Less density than the 2002 but more elegance, and in a very nice place now.
  • 2004 Syrah (100% Syrah): The nose just screams Syrah, with meat, pepper, mint and mineral components. The mouth is juicier than the nose suggests, showing blackberry and pepper and dark chocolate, and black cherry coming out on the finish. Opulent compared to the first two wines, with fruit/acid/structure all in synch. A consensus favorite of the earlier vintages.
  • 2005 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): This began a three-year experiment where we put 10% Grenache into our varietal Syrah. A rich, gamy, wild meat and juniper nose. The mouth is less juicy and more savory than the 2004 with flavors of olive tapenade and meat drippings, and still with big tannins that come out on the finish. My dad noted that the addition of Grenache made it taste more like Tablas Creek but less like Syrah. One to wait on, we agreed.
  • 2006 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): A similar nose to the 2005, focusing on the savory, meaty, balsamic and tapenade-laced nose, but somehow more gentle. The flavors reminded me of the drippings from a garlic and rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb, with additional, and welcome, flavors of blueberry and licorice. Medium-weight and in a very pretty place for drinking now.
  • 2007 Syrah (90% Syrah, 10% Grenache): Less giving on the nose than the previous wines, a little kiersch liqueur note but not much more. The mouth is big, rich and creamy with flavors of milk chocolate and good acids but with massive tannins.  We all thought that there was a ton of potential but that the wine was still so tightly wound that its complexity was still masked by a layer of baby fat and those huge tannins. It did open up with time in the glass, so a decant is suggested if you must open one now.
  • 2008 Syrah (100% Syrah): An inviting nose of pine forest, juniper, and tangy blackberry. The mouth is reminiscent of the 2004, but with an added dramatic saline minerality that I loved and lingering flavors of bacon and blackberries and cream, but firmly dry. The finish is energetic and elegant with a brambly soy note. A consensus favorite among the younger vintages.
  • 2010 Syrah (100% Syrah): A nose unlike any of the previous vintages, inky and foresty, smelling dark and saturated. On the palate, powerful flavors of black licorice, chalk, and bacon, with a creamy blueberry note and a long, berry-laced finish. The palate is terrific but the nose still coming around, which suggests a short-term rest in the cellar.

A few final conclusions. One, that Paso Robles really is a spectacular place for Syrah.  We found a combination of the grape’s classic savory, bacony, blackberry notes with a creamy minerality and acidity that everyone around the table attributed to our limestone soils.  That set the wines apart from many Syrahs made elsewhere in California, and from the great Syrahs that come from Hermitage and Cote Rotie, none of which have limestone and all of which show a lower-acid, lusher profile.  The wines were instead reminiscent of Cornas, the Northern Rhone’s sole limestone-rich red appellation, perhaps a bit less polished than its better-known neighbors just to the north, but with an energy and vibrancy that we all were proud of. 

Two, we generally agreed that we preferred the purer expression the Syrah character in the wines that were 100% Syrah to the more Southern Rhone character of the three vintages where we added 10% Grenache, though those wines were appealing in a different way, with more garrigue and mid-palate texture, and had their proponents as well.  The tasting was a good reminder that relatively small percentages make a significantly difference in the finished expression.

Finally, our favorites were 2004 and 2008 in large part because of how each, in its own way, spoke powerfully of the Syrah grape in all its glory: meaty and minerally and fruity and creamy: the classic flavors that my wife Meghan called “butter in a butcher shop” when she first tasted it out of foudre. They also finish with substantial tannins but don’t come across as blocky or heavy.  I’m expecting a similar evolution with our 2010 Syrah that is going to wine club members next month.  We’re all in for a treat.