Drying Mourvedre Grapes for Vin de Paille "Sacrérouge"

We don't make our vin de paille dessert wines every year.  First, the grapes need to be in great shape before they're put on the straw, or they rot rather than drying, making some vintages unsuitable for the technique.  Second, Americans don't buy large quantities of sweet wines, so we don't need to make that much.  (Perhaps I should more accurately say that while many Americans like their dry wines with some sweetness they don't buy large quantities of truly sweet wines.)  And third, given that the setup and winemaking are pretty labor-intensive and that the wines age effortlessly, more wine less-often gives us efficiency.

So, it's exciting that today we're beginning the process of making our first Vin de Paille  "Sacrérouge" since 2010. The process is interesting, I think.  The grapes (in this case, Mourvedre) are harvested into picking baskets, but not then dumped into half-ton bins for transport, because the weight of the grapes on top is enough to bruise the grapes on the bottom and encourage rot.  Instead, the baskets are carried by hand -- or loaded onto the back of a flatbed and driven -- down to our greenhouse:

Sacrerouge bins

Then, they're laid out on the straw, as demonstrated by Juan Gomez below:

Sacrerouge

The grapes will spend two or three weeks on the straw, dehydrating gradually in the greenhouse heat, until they're semi-raisined, at which point we'll pick them back up and transport them to the winery for foot-crushing (they're too dense at this point to run through a de-stemmer or to get a punch-down tool through) and eventual fermentation.  If you're wondering why these wines are usually expensive, this makes three times that they have to be handled plus some pretty labor-intensive daily cellar work.  But the reward is worth it: a sweet wine that has freshness, isn't overly alcoholic (reds typically in the 13% range, whites in the 9%-10% range), and has concentrated minerality and varietal character, not just sweetness.  But that's still several weeks away.  For now, we'll be watching the drying grapes as we finish the rest of harvest.  One more photo, for those of you interested.  One of our greenhouse benches is nearly full, with another to go:

Sacrerouge on benches

If you're interested in more technical explanation of how the vin de paille process works compared to other common techniques for making sweet wines, or photos of the grapes further along in their drying, check out my blog post from 2010: Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed.


Harvest 2014 at the Midway Point: Very Like 2013, which is a Good Thing

We finally feel like we're in the middle of harvest.  Every day brings a mix of new fruit coming in, sample teams going out, both presses running as we press off fermented red lots and newly-harvested whites, winemakers on the sorting table and de-stemmer processing newly-harvested reds, and even the first outline of our rosés taking shape.  The harvest chalkboard is filling up!

Chalkboard 9.11

Happily, for our sequencing at least, the arrival of Patelin lots via truck have slowed to a trickle.  You can see in the chalkboard: the top of the board has mostly blue lots, indicating fruit from Patelin vineyards, while the bottom is mostly white, which denotes estate fruit.  It has been great not to have to worry about too much of our Patelin harvest once our estate fruit started coming in in earnest.  Here's some of what we know, so far:

The Patelin is mostly done.
We've received 126 tons of fruit for Patelin: 53 tons of white (mostly Grenache Blanc and Viognier), 45 tons of red (mostly Syrah, with a little Grenache), and 28 tons of Grenache that we've direct-pressed to make the base of the Patelin Rosé.  We're expecting another 25 or so tons of red, mostly Grenache and Mourvedre, and a few more tons of Mourvedre for the Patelin Rosé.

Harvest off our estate vineyard is heating up.
So far, four grapes are done.  The Haas Vineyard Pinot -- often an outlier -- was the first, on 9/3.  We completed our harvest of Viognier on 9/9 and Vermentino on 9/11, and picked our last Grenache Blanc this morning.  We're probably 80% of the way through Syrah, 40% through Grenache Noir, 25% through Counoise, 15% through Roussanne and Mourvedre, and are yet to start Marsanne (coming in tomorrow), Tannat, or Picpoul.  Still, we expect the year to end with Roussanne and Mourvedre, as usual.  Overall, we figure we're maybe 40% done with our estate, and expect to hit the halfway mark around the end of the week. This week has been the beginning of a Grenache onslaught.  It looks super: intensely colored, with beautiful flavors.

Grenache

The fruit that's still out looks great, too. 
A few photos.  First, Roussanne, starting to show the classic russet tint that gives the grape its name:

Roussanne on Vine 9-12

Next, Mourvedre, still fully inflated, sheltering under its canopy, and likely a couple of weeks away from coming in:

Mourvedre on Vine 9-12

Overall, the vineyard doesn't appear to be struggling as much as we thought it would given how dry it's been.  Sure, Roussanne is looking ragged, but it always does this time of year.  The Viognier made it, barely.  Mourvedre, which also often looks pretty haggard by the time it's picked, is holding up pretty well, as are Grenache and Grenache Blanc, and Counoise.

An early harvest? Not so much.
For all our worries that this would be an exceptionally early harvest, it turns out we're not actually ahead of last year's pace. Looking at the grapes that are done, we finished Viognier and Vermentino roughly a week later this year than last, the Haas Pinot at the same time, and Grenache Blanc one day earlier this year.  As of September 13th, 2013, we'd harvested 119 tons off our estate.  This year, it was 110 tons at the same date.

The cellar is a moving three-dimensional puzzle that needs a new solution each day.
The challenges in the cellar are logistical: how do we make enough of the right kind of space for the fruit that's coming in.  This means pressing off lots that have reached the extraction levels we want (typically about 10 days after harvest) and moving those lots into barrels, cleaning those tanks and then getting them ready to refill with new juice.

We've begun the process of assembling the Dianthus Rosé by bleeding off a tank of Counoise 24 hours post-harvest.  A 40-second video takes you through how it's done:

Yields look similar to 2013.
Of the grapes we've finished harvesting, Vermentino's yield is up about 10%, Grenache Blanc nearly identical, and Viognier's down 30% (largely due to wild pig depredation).  It looks like Syrah totals will be very similar to last year.  The grapes we're thinking might be lighter are Roussanne (which seems to be struggling more than most grapes due to the drought) and Grenache (whose berries and clusters seem small this year; check out the photo below). 

Grenache cluster in JCH hand

But overall, we don't expect big yield differences from 2013. Since we consider last year's yields of 2.66 tons/acre to be characteristic of our best vintages, having similar results this year would be just fine with us.  And the weather seems to be continuing to cooperate, with hot-but-not-scorching spells broken by stretches of cool weather that give us a chance to catch back up.  Fitting the pattern, it was hot over the weekend, but is forecast to cool down this week.  Even so, it looks like we've got maybe another month of harvest, at the outside.

So, looking ahead, that el nino they're now not forecasting for this winter?  It can arrive any time after October 15th.  If any of you have any pull with the weather gods, that is.


Harvest 2014 slowed with a cool second half of August, but is picking up speed

It often happens in harvest that you get your first burst of fruit and then enter a lull, where it seems like half your vineyard is sitting there almost-but-not-quite ready.  Because you're into the routine of daily punch-downs, and you've broken out your harvest equipment, it seems like you should be in the full swing of harvest, but when you look back at the totals you realize you were really in a holding pattern.  That was our story for the second half of August.

That story ends today.

First, a quick recap of what we've seen the past two weeks.  Our first few days, where we welcomed 30 tons of Patelin fruit between August 13th and 15th, were busy indeed.  But the next two weeks saw a slower pace, with another 47 tons of Patelin fruit spread over the period.  This included 8 more tons of Grenache Blanc and 12 more tons of Viognier for Patelin Blanc, 12 more tons of Syrah for Patelin, and 15 tons of Grenache Noir for the Patelin Rosé.  We've also been guiding the early red lots through their fermentations, keeping the skins and juice mixed by pumping them over (or in some cases, using compressed air to inundate the cap of skins) twice a day:

PumpOver Syrah

More exciting, we saw our first harvest off our estate, with 2.8 tons of Viognier on August 23rd and another 2.8 tons two days later.  We also made a first pass through the Pinot Noir at the Haas Vineyard, for our Full Circle:

Pinot in bins

And, we've been out in the vineyard every day, taking samples and assessing whether or not blocks are ready:

Sample buckets

The pause during the second half of August was not surprising, in retrospect, because it turned out to be quite cool for us, historically.  Most days topped out in the 70's or low 80's.  Between August 15th and August 31st we accumulated just 304 degree hours (a common agricultural measurement of heat), 20% less than either 2012 or 2013 and 5% cooler even than the cool 2011 and 2010 harvests.

That cool weather ended over the Labor Day weekend, with five days topping 90, and the vineyard has responded as you would expect.  Samples we took yesterday suggested that Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah and even one block of Mourvedre were ready to pick, and we're now entering the period where sequencing what gets picked and pressed, and in what order, becomes a daily challenge.  Knowing this fruit was coming, we pressed off four upright tanks of Syrah yesterday, so they're ready and waiting for the new arrivals:

Emptied upright

We've already run two press loads of Vermentino today, and will try to squeeze in (pun intended) two more of Viognier.  We've got another picking of Pinot Noir on the way, and will in all likelihood see close to 100 tons this week alone.

Happily, the heat has already moderated (forecast high for today: upper 80's) and we're supposed to have another cool week this week.  This will give us a chance to catch up, and slow down the vineyard's progress a touch.

In terms of character, the grapes look very much like they did last year: intense yet balanced, with thick skins and dark color, moderate sugar levels, and good acidity.  So far, so good.


Harvest 2014 begins: How our earliest-ever start also has longer-than-average hangtime

This Wednesday, August 13th, we welcomed sixteen tons of Syrah into our cellar, marking the beginning of the 2014 harvest.  These bins were from Estrella Farms, in the warm heartland of the Paso Robles AVA, and will form the juicy core of our Patelin de Tablas.  The fruit looked terrific, and the numbers were textbook: 23.5° Brix and 3.39pH.

002

The next day, we got four more tons of Estrella syrah and our first white: a little over seven tons of Grenache Blanc from Coyote Moon Vineyard, on a vineyard that we had grafted over to Grenache Blanc specifically for the Patelin Blanc up near the town of San Miguel.  This fruit looked great too, with intense flavors, modest sugar levels and great acidity: 21° Brix and 3.38 pH.

Grenache Blanc in bins

The two locations have in common that they are from areas of the AVA that are on the warmer side.  We think we're still a week away from harvesting anything off of our estate vineyard.  For our planning in the cellar, it's great that we're seeing this slug of fruit before anything else.  The roughly 30 tons of fruit is about 20% of what we're expecting for our Patelin, and to have it already safely put away before we're also dealing with the much more complicated harvest off our estate is a gift.  It also allows us to break in our wooden upright tanks and start building the population of native yeasts in our cellar.

This mid-August beginning feels early, but it's not unprecedented.  Yes, August 13th is the earliest that we've ever had fruit in the cellar, but it's only one day earlier than 1997, when the lot of estate Syrah that we harvested on August 14th was the first fruit we crushed in our newly-built winery.  Given that the fruit we've welcomed so far this year comes from warmer parts of Paso, I'm not sure even that we'll break our modern record for our earliest picking off our estate, August 23rd in 2004.

More than the calendar date when we start harvesting, what we look at as important is the length of the ripening cycle, and of course the balance and intensity of the fruit.  Because we saw such an early budbreak this year (two and a half weeks earlier than average) an estate harvest that begins ten days earlier than average, as this one appears poised to, actually gives us hang time about a week longer than normal.  And the fruit conditions that we're seeing so far bear this out: the fruit is intensely colored and perfumed, with beautiful deep flavors and acids exactly where we'd like to see them.

So, it's early yet.  But we couldn't ask for a better beginning.


A first timer's visit to Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Château de Beaucastel

By: Lauren Cross

I arrived in Paris with two bags. One small bag was full of camera equipment.  A second large suitcase held a few clothes and lots of packaging material.  I had come with the intention of taking France home with me to California, bottle by bottle and image by image. While I cannot share with you the wine I brought back, I can share a few images and thoughts which I hope will get you into the spirit for a trip to your local wine merchant if the Rhone itself is out of reach.

PicMonkey Collage CdP3

As I rolled south from Paris on France's wonderful high-speed train, the scenery through the windows transitioned from flat green meadows dotted with red brick villages to the rolling hills, tall trees and beautiful rivers of southern France. I rented a car in Avignon and followed directions to the tiny winding streets of the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  It was clear that these passageways -- and those similar in the other ancient villages of France -- were not intended for vehicular travel, but dated from the days when horsepower had a more literal meaning.

PicMonkey Collage Village

When you decide to visit Château de Beaucastel, take my advice and don’t follow the directions of your GPS, however well-intentioned its electronic voice may sound.  It was an absolute miracle I finally found the vineyard and made it to my appointment with Cesar Perrin on time.

PicMonkey Collage_Outside

Château de Beaucastel is more than vineyard, offices, winery and cellar.  It remains the spiritual center of the Perrins' work in the Rhone, and has been a literal home for the Famille Perrin since 1909. César’s grandmother Marguerite, widow of Jacques and father of Jean-Pierre and Francois, lives there still. 

PicMonkey Collage_Vineyard2

We started our tour in the vineyards that surround the winery.  I had heard about the “rocky soil” of Châteauneuf-du-Pape but I was not expecting this!  Large rounded rocks, rolled down by the Rhone River from the Alps, cover the vineyard, storing up the sun's warmth during the day and radiating the stored heat late into the evenings.  There are vines here that are over 80 years old.  It looks like a miracle that anything grows at all!

PicMonkey Collage_Winery

There were more similarities than differences when comparing the wineries of Tablas Creek and Beaucastel.  Both use large barrels, foudres and stainless steel for whites.  Uniquely, Beaucastel uses concrete vessels lined with porcelain tile for some of their reds where Tablas would use steel.  Why don't we use tile-lined concrete here in California?  One word: earthquakes.

PicMonkey Collage_Foudre Room

At Beaucastel they have entire huge halls of foudres.  These large aging vessels are the same size as -- in fact, made by and built in the same place as -- those that we have at Tablas Creek.  They have one larger foudre almost double the size of the others.

PicMonkey Collage_Cellar

Down a winding staircase, below the winery and offices, is the aging cellar of Chateau de Beaucastel. Winding hallways are stacked unimaginably high with unlabeled, unboxed bottles.  Bottles ranging back a decade and more are piled on sand-covered floors, awaiting the special event for which they'll be labeled, boxed and shipped away. Since Beaucastel is sold in nearly 100 countries, each with their own language and labeling regulations, it's best to store the bottles unlabeled until they know their final destination.

PicMonkey Collage_Tasting

The highlight of my trip was the cellar tasting.  I sampled the newest 2012 Beaucastel Blanc and 2011 Beaucastel Rouge (both delicious).  Then we tasted the 2009 Rouge and a very dusty half bottle of 2007 Rouge (very reminiscent of their Tablas Creek sisters but with unmistakable flavors of the Beaucastel terroir- deep, earthy and spicy).  Finally, Cesar asked me what else I wanted to taste.  I was so blown away by this time that I left it in his hands.  He dug around for a while and returned with another very dusty half bottle and after pouring me a taste asked me to guess the vintage.  He gave me a hint, that this was the vintage Château de Beaucastel was named #1 wine of the year by Wine Spectator….drum roll please… I guessed 1989 correctly! (I did my homework, you see.  It was incredible!  The wine was silky smooth with unparalleled depth and additional aging potential.)

My visit done, I headed back north to begin my homeward journey.  As I traversed the crowded Paris subways with a suitcase loaded with wine, I decided that drinkable souvenirs may be cumbersome but are worth every exhausting step and sideways Parisian glance.  I had the adventure of a lifetime and feel even more connected to the wine and wine loving people that give Tablas Creek its unique connection to France.


Finding Closure(s) in Portugal

By Chelsea Franchi

Here at Tablas Creek, we do things by hand and with care.  In the vineyard and the cellar, it's paramount that everyone feels pride for their work and I'd like to think that attention and consideration translates to the product in the bottle.  I certainly appreciate that I work in an industry that is focused on craftsmanship and old-fashioned elbow grease (that's food grade, of course) especially when so many things around us are produced via automation.  I should be clear that I don't have a problem with mechanized production for most items, and these days I tend to assume that large scale production facilities are manned by machines.  So it's nice to discover I'm wrong (every now and then).

Last week, I had the extremely good fortune to be invited on a trip to Portugal with a group of eight other wine industry professionals, hosted by our cork supplier, M.A. Silva.  The purpose of the trip was to tour around Portugal, watch the cork harvest, and see what a cork manufacturing facility does.  And in our spare time, educate ourselves a bit on the subject of Portuguese wines (*ahem*).  And before you ask, the answer is "yes".  I do know how lucky I am.  Truly, I do.

Just so you don't think I was sitting on the bank of the Douro drinking Touriga Nacional and eating bacalhau the whole time I was there, here are some bite sized facts you're welcome to pull out at your next cocktail party:

  • The cork tree is an oak
  • The first harvest of cork oak bark happens after the tree reaches about 25-30 years of age
  • A cork tree can only be harvested once every nine years
  • A single cork tree will live anywhere from 150-200 years (allowing approximately 14-15 harvests during its lifetime)
  • Harvesters of cork bark are the highest paid agricultural workers in Portugal, due to the highly skilled nature of the job

To see the cork harvest in action, we drove to the Alentejo region, which is held in high esteem for the quality of cork produced.  These forests are regulated and protected with rigorous standards, and it was clear, after spending just a  short time watching the harvest, that there is great respect for the land, the trees, the product, and the culture surrounding all of it.  I've never seen anything quite like a cork harvest.  I had a general idea of the process, but seeing it in action was one of the most fascinating and mesmerizing things I've ever witnessed.

By the time we pulled into the cork forest, the harvest crew was already well into their day.  There were workers everywhere - typically about two per tree.  One worker would scramble into the high branches and begin his work from the top while the other worker started in on the base and trunk.  Each worker carries a long-handled hatchet and begins carefully hacking a line into the cork bark.  If the cut is too deep, they risk killing the tree - hence the need for trained and experienced laborers.  From there, the bark is stripped off in long sheets where a tractor comes by to pick it up.

 

 

20140616_012805 20140616_012828
A freshly stripped cork tree (left) and the harvested cork bark (right)

20140616_013123Loading the cork bark onto tractors for transport out of the forest

20140616_020422Cork bark stacked and awaiting transport to the M.A. Silva processing facility

20140616_121231The grading and sorting area 

After the cork has dried, it's taken to a facility where it's sorted (by hand), graded (by hand) and sterilized.  All of this manual labor was an impressive sight to behold (we'd seen hundreds of workers by this point), but it was the next step that really surprised me.  I'd seen a piece of cut cork bark with wine corks punched out of it - in fact, we have one such model in our tasting room that I recommend asking about next time you're here (if you're into that sort of thing).  But to see how it gets to that point was a bit of a shock.  One worker cuts the cork plank into uniform strips while workers down the line punch the wine corks from the strip of bark.  Different workers choose different methods: some prefer to use an automatic punch tool that they manually feed, while others choose a foot pedal for increased control (as seen in the video below).  The reason I was so taken aback by this process was the knowledge that we purchase approximately 180,000 corks each year.  And every single one of those was punched by hand.

  

From there, each individual cork goes through a very thorough set of tests conducted by computers: checking density and visual aspects (including but not limited to: holes, pores, cracks, chips, hardwood, etc.) before going onto a conveyor belt where the presorted and computer inspected corks were inspected once more by two sets of human eyes.

It was a delight to see that we're not the only ones so concerned with putting in the effort to responsibly grow, harvest and produce our product.  To learn that others, especially those that have direct contact with our wines, respect and practice the same values was an incredibly pleasant surprise.  I'm not saying we're about to abolish screwcaps here at Tablas Creek.  I am, however, saying the next time I have the opportunity to pull a cork from a bottle of handcrafted wine, I'll certainly take a moment to appreciate the craftsmanship of the closure before turning my attention to what's in the glass.

20140619_152500Let's be real.  While I didn't spend the whole time drinking wine on the Douro, I did spend some time drinking wine on the Douro.


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.

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

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

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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.  

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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.

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Winemaker Neil Collins pulls samples from a barrel of Grenache Noir

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

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

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Cellar Master Tyler Elwell pumps over a fermenting Syrah lot

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

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

Harv13_ErichHarvest Intern Erich Fleck fills barrels with espresso in hand

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

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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:

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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.