By Robert Haas
When you enter our new tasting room you can see our Séguin-Moreau 1600 gallon Limousin oak cuves in the background:
We really love them. But they are much more than a mise en scène for our visitors. They are valuable because of their flexibility. With the flat bottom and the wide door at the base, they can be used to ferment red wines (unlike our foudres). They have a large stainless-steel door on the top, and if we want to ferment without oxygen (as we often do for Grenache and Counoise) we can close the door. But if we want to use them for open-top fermenting (as we typically want for Syrah and Mouvedre) we just leave the door on top. Instant flexibility. And they're useful during the rest of the year, too: when their covers are fitted, they act like a foudre and provide large oak ageing before bottling.
Four of them are new this year. We are running several fermentations through each in order to minimize the influence of new oak on our wines, so when the primary fermentations are finished we remove the wine to other storage and the berries to the press, in a process known in French as écoulage, literally translatable as "detanking". Then we reuse the cuves for the next lot of harvest. A photo of the écoulage, below:
The interiors of the cuves are fairly high-tech, and include heat-exchange piping for cooling or warming as needed. In the two photos below you can see the floor of one just emptied and cleaned and the inside with its piping.
Looking up from inside the cuve shows its open top with its safety grid:
We are picking mourvèdre today. The grapes are going to fermentation in the emptied tank. They arrive from the vineyard in half-ton bins, are taken off with a fork-lift, weighed and dumped onto our vibrator belt to be conveyed to the de-stemmer. From there the de-stemmed berries and their natural juice go into the newly emptied cuve (below) to restart its cycle of use. Simple, huh?
We've made an amazing amount of progress over the last couple of weeks. The conditions have been perfect, with an average high temperature of 83 (range 72-91) and an average low temperature of 50 (range 44-55). We've had ample sun every day. These conditions have meant that everything is ripening steadily but not under much stress, and we can choose the ideal moment to harvest each block.
Over the two weeks, we've brought in a little over 107 tons of fruit off the Tablas Creek estate, and another 19 tons of purchased fruit for the Patelin wines. The estate fruit includes our first pickings of Counoise (October 12th), Tannat (October 13th), and Mourvedre (October 22nd) and lots more Grenache, Syrah, and Roussanne. We also completed our Viognier (October 13th), Marsanne (October 17th), and Grenache Blanc (October 20th) harvests which along with Vermentino makes four varieties we've finished and our first chance to look at yields compared to previous years.
By varietal, our yields have been:
|Grape||2011 Yields (tons) ||2010 Yields (tons)||2009 Yields (tons)|
We have known all summer that our Viognier was essentially wiped out by the frosts in the spring. And the other varieties we've completed are all relatively early varieties that were impacted by the frosts. So the fact that we're above 2009's historically low yields is a good thing. But it's clear that we're well below what we harvested in 2010 in every grape variety except perhaps Roussanne, and that our yields overall will be closer to the roughly 200 tons that we harvested in 2009 than to the 350 tons we harvested in 2010. As of the end of last week, we'd harvested 154 tons off the estate. We figure that at that point we were somewhere around 70% done, which puts us around 225 tons of estate fruit for the year.
The quality, though, looks amazing. We've never seen such thick skins, and such deep colors, in the reds, and the sugar/acid/pH numbers look like they came from enology textbooks. A few photos will give you a sense of things. First, two photos of Grenache, one on the vine and one in a bin. Given that Grenache is usually one of the ligher-colored red grapes, the colors we're seeing are particularly impressive. On the left, a cluster still on the vine. On the right, in a bin outside the winery:
The grapes aren't the only thing that are showing exceptional color. The sky has been an amazing dark blue with exceptionally low humidities. The colors in the photo below (golden barrels, green wild roses trailing over the cream limestone rocks, and the amazing sky) are about as intense as it gets around here:
The Mourvedre is looking (and tasting) wonderful. We've seen remarkably even ripening in this notoriously uneven grape. Below, it shades on a sunny day last week under its canopy of leaves:
In the cellar, we've been running both red and white presses nearly every day, as the last whites come into the cellar at the same time that the earlier reds are ready to be pressed off their skins. We'll be delving more into the cycle of grapes through the cellar in our next post, but visitors this past weekend for the Paso Robles Harvest Festival and the previous weekend for our Harvest & Winemaking Seminar (below) saw a beehive of activity: red grapes coming in, being sorted, destemmed and pumped into tanks, while other reds are being pressed off and moved to barrel and whites are being pressed whole cluster the same hour they arrive in the cellar.
For all the benign weather, we know that fall is ending. The forecast for tonight calls for a good chance of frost, and tomorrow night is supposed to be nearly as cold. There's not much out that could be hurt by a frost (everything is nearly ready to pick and frost only impacts a vine's leaves' ability to photosynthesize, not the grapes themselves) but it's a good reminder that we're nearing the end of the ripening season. And the vineyard is starting to look autumnal; both Mourvedre and Syrah (the two most colorful grapes) are starting to show red and orange in their leaves. I'll leave you with one particularly fall-like Mourvedre leaf, below. We'll be enjoying the colors as we get the last grapes in over the next week or so.
After a slow start to harvest, the accumulation of warm days produced a rush at the end of September. Between September 26th and October 4th, we harvested 112 tons of fruit, including most of what will go into our Patelin Blanc (mostly Viognier and Grenache Blanc) and perhaps half of what will go into our Patelin (mostly Syrah). We also brought in 28 tons of estate fruit, principally Vermentino, Roussanne and Chardonnay, though also a little Syrah, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and even Grenache Noir. Two photos from that period will give a sense of what we were working on. First, a photo of bins of Grenache Blanc lined up outside the winery, waiting to be pressed:
And then a photo of our destemmer, working on Syrah. Our newest piece of equipment for this year's harvest is a vibrating conveyor to even out the flow of clusters to the destemmer. Rather than a traditional conveyor belt, with moving parts and hinges that are almost impossible to keep clean, this is a slightly inclined stainless steel channel that vibrates, moving the clusters downhill toward the destemmer in an even flow. It's been a remarkable success, reducing the number of clusters that have made it through the destemmer undestemmed and producing nicer-looking berries with less stem particles:
Just as it looked like all of the 2011 harvest was going to come tumbling in in a rush, the weather changed. A storm front on Monday, October 3rd dropped a negligible amount of rain (0.08 inches) but paved the way for a larger storm on Wednesday, October 5th. This second storm dropped 1.6 inches of rain on the vineyard, not insignificant for early October, and we haven't harvested anything significant since.
With mid-harvest rainfall, you worry not so much about what happens with the rain as you do about what happens after. If it stays wet and cloudy, you can have outbreaks of rot spread quickly through the vineyard. Happily, the storm blew through quickly and by that afternoon the sun was out and the wind was blowing. I took the below video, in which you can hear the wind whipping the vine leaves, less than 12 hours after the rain stopped:
A little rain during harvest can actually be a good thing in these conditions, as the water invigorates the vines and actually increases their ability to ripen the grapes that they hold. But it typically puts at least a brief stop to the harvest as the grapes swell with the new water and then need at least a few days to reconcentrate.
Since the rain came a week ago, the weather has been mostly clear and dry, but not that warm, with daily highs generally in the 70's. We've resumed testing around our own vineyard and with the vineyards with whom we're working on Patelin, and it looks like we'll resume harvesting on Thursday. It is forecast to warm up the rest of this week, which should accelerate the process. Meanwhile, we've been pressing off some of last week's harvest, which looks and smells great. The photo below is Syrah in the press, wonderfully inky and minerally in the cellar:
So far, we've harvested just under 50 tons of estate fruit (about 15% of the 350 we're expecting off Tablas Creek Vineyard) and about 110 tons of purchased fruit (about 70% of the 160 tons we're expecting to contract for in total). So our focus over the next few weeks will turn to our own vineyard. Look for lots more Syrah, Grenache, Grenache Blanc and Roussanne over the next 10 days, any hopefully the first Mourvedre.
By Chelsea Magnusson
A few months ago, my husband, Trevor, and I sat down to dinner in our backyard with a bottle of our new go-to wine: the Patelin de Tablas. I was so struck by the warmth and the casual feel exuding from the moment, I grabbed my camera and took a picture (and yes, I am that person... you know, the one who's always taking pictures of their food?) Looking back at the photo a few days later, I realized that I took the picture because to me, the moment perfectly captured what I see Patelin to be: easy, comfortable, casual, and genuinely, solidly GOOD.
For those of you who are not yet familiar with this wine, you can read notes on the 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc and the 2010 Patelin de Tablas. A little historical background from the cellar perspective:
In 2009, we had a pretty rough year in terms of harvest tonnage we brought in from our vineyard. In many ways, it's great to be an estate winery - we have complete year-round control of what happens in our vineyard, we know the subtle nuances of each individual block, we can experiment with different farming techniques, etc. Basically, it boils down to this: the fruit was grown on our property, in our soil, under our watch. However, being all estate comes with challenges. One of them being that we are at the complete mercy of mother nature. If we have one good frost, not enough heat, not enough rain, too much rain at the wrong time, or any number of other issues, our production can be decreased.
For the 2010 vintage, it was decided that Tablas Creek would start a new project. Fruit would be purchased from neighboring vineyards, hence the name of the new wine: "Patelin de Tablas" (the word "patelin" means "neighborhood" in French). All of our other wines remain estate grown, and we do contribute some of our estate fruit into both the Patelin de Tablas Rouge and Patelin de Tablas Blanc.
For those of us in the cellar, the Patelin project has proved to be challenging in a wonderful way. And it is fun. Really fun. The personalities that have come into the cellar (and I mean both the growers and the fruit) are fascinating. The people we have met are all so outstanding, and the fruit they bring us carries with it a character that we physically cannot produce on our estate.
So I think it goes without saying that I am unbelievably excited about this new wine. When I was looking back on the photo I took in our backyard, I thought it would be fun to see what kind of moments others at Tablas Creek would capture if given the prompt "how do you like your Patelin?" I wanted to see the way others enjoy this wine and I was so pleased with what I received, I thought I should share:
The Haas family - Bob, his wife Barbara, Jason and his sister Rebecca - celebrating at Bob and Barbara's home in Vermont. Rebecca sent me the photo and I am told they are Glidden Point and Belon oysters from Barbara Scully (who was recently featured in a blog post by Bob).
General Manager Jason Haas had this wonderfully charming photo snapped at Shakespeare in the Park in San Luis Obispo. Patelin apparently pairs beautifully with theatre on the lawn at dusk!
National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre sent this photo with the question, "how else would I enjoy Patelin?" Here, he is pictured doing what he does best: making new friends and pouring Tablas Creek wine at Venokado in Santa Monica.
Tasting Room Manager John Morris took this photo from the beautiful new patio at Tablas Creek. As usual, his plate is full of gorgeous bounty from his home garden.
Accountant (and self-proclaimed Spreadsheet Queen) Eileen Harms and her husband, Paul enjoying what looks like a bottle of Patelin Rouge and a bottle of Patelin Blanc in their backyard under a full moon... a wonderful lesson: if you can't choose, indulge in both!
Wine Club and Hospitality Assistant Manager Monica O'Connor just couldn't resist and was forced to submit two photos: the first is a photo of her son and daughter-in-law who live in New York (what better way to enjoy Patelin than with loved ones?) and the second, a photo of Humphrey Bogart with a quote that was originally intended for Lauren Bacall, now directed toward Patelin: "You'll fall in love with her like everyone else."
Wine Club and Hospitality Assistant Dani Archambeault submitted this unbelievable photo of a shared bottle of Patelin looking out over Paso Robles wine country. Such a stunning photo... perhaps the Paso Robles Chamber of Commerce should think about using this shot for travel and tourism advertisements?
Assistant Tasting Room Manager Jennifer Bravo submitted a few photos, but this was my favorite: a bottle of Patelin, the newspaper, and a tin of smoked oysters. Perfect.
Viticulturist Levi Glenn sent in a Patelin still life that made me wish it was dinner time.
Rat de Cave (a self-professed term meaning "cellar rat") Shawn Dugan enjoyed Patelin out of a mason jar at the Templeton Concert in the Park summer series.
Winemaker Ryan Hebert and his wife, Laura, definitely went above and beyond with their "assignment". I received a memory card with a whopping 86 photos. Seriously. Now, I thought I was excited about this wine! This was my favorite, but I also had to share one more that Laura submitted, because I thought it was funny (and wonderful) how two people in the same household enjoyed Patelin differently:
And finally, this is my photo that spurred the whole photo essay; dinner with some of my favorite boys at home in our backyard:
After looking through all of the photos, it looks as though everyone enjoys their Patelin in more or less the same fashion - with wonderful company and great food in fun settings. We hope you do the same, and would love to see your photos. Please send any that you take to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll publish the best in a later blog post!
As is typically the case, the 2011 harvest began quietly, with a few grapes trickling in over the first week or so before picking up steam. The first grapes of the season arrived on Thursday, September 15th: about three tons of mostly Viognier (there was a little Roussanne mixed in) from two small vineyards in the El Pomar section of Templeton. These will go into the 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. A photo of the first bin to reach the winery is below. The hand belongs to Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Magnusson:
The next day saw us bring in our first red, Syrah, for the Patelin red. This is fermenting in open-top stainless steel fermenters and in our wooden upright tanks. A cool photo from last week through the opened top of the upright shows the Syrah bubbling away like a witch's brew. As typically happens for us, the native yeast fermentations started right up, no problem.
The week of the 19th saw the first fruit from Tablas Creek Vineyard: about six tons of Vermentino off a beautiful parcel planted in 2007 at the western edge of the property. Most encouraging about this picking is that we had estimated that there were about 9 bins in that section but found that there were really 12. This and other similar results bode well for yields throughout the vineyard, which I had been worried would be at 2009 levels: below 2 tons per acre. I'm no longer so worried about that. The photo below shows the Vermentino, bins in the cellar in front and a press full of Vermentino behind:
The next day saw our first estate Roussanne, which looked great and allayed another fear we'd had, that with the cold spring and the late start to harvest we might be looking at an end of harvest in mid-November like last year. But it appears that while the varieties that had sprouted before April's frosts are delayed, those that were still dormant are more or less on schedule. That will mean that while we'll have a crazy October we're not likely to have as much fruit hanging in November as we did last year.
At the end of last week we got in our first Grenache, from La Vista Vineyard just down the street from us on Adelaida Road. This was a very strong component of last year's Patelin, and this year's Grenache looked great:
The last two weeks have been warm, with most days topping out in the low- to mid-90s, and nights that dropped down only to the mid-50s. This is perfect ripening weather, and it was clear at the end of last week that this week harvest was going to hit us full force. We put in our first Saturday of the season (La Vista Syrah) and for this week we're looking at Syrah from several blocks, Pinot Noir from my dad's vineyard in Templeton, more Viognier, Vermentino and Roussanne for sure and perhaps Chardonnay, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne. Happily, things cooled off on Sunday and Monday (highs in the 70s) so we could assess. But with a warm day today and more warmth forecast for the rest of the week, we might see nearly 100 tons before the end of September.
We're buckled up and ready to roll.
By Robert Haas
Last night a long-time friend and wine lover asked why we planted and utilized so many different varieties of Rhône grapes in our Tablas Creek wines and what their individual contributions are to our six different blends, or assemblages as they are known in France.
Well, there are multiple reasons that there are multiple grapes.
First, and probably foremost, since we were confident of California’s ability to produce fine Rhône style wines, and we were partnering with the Perrins, we selected the varieties they favored: the traditional grapes of Châteuneuf-du-Pape and the Rhône Valley. The appellation of Châteauneuf–du-Pape permits thirteen different varieties: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picardin, Vaccarèse, Terret Noir, and Muscardin. The Beaucastel poster below shows all thirteen, all of which they use though the last four only in trace quantities. If you count Grenache noir and blanc – both very much planted – the number actually comes to fourteen.
We decided to import the bud wood from France of nine varieties we thought would best perform in our chalky clay soils and our hot-in-the-day, cold-in-the-night climate: Mourvèdre, Grenache (Noir), Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, and two traditional Côtes du Rhone white varieties that are not allowed in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation: Viognier and Marsanne.
There is tradition but there is also practicality. A second reason for the different varieties is the viticultural usefulness of varieties that bud and mature in different calendar periods. This spring, for example, we suffered extreme frosts on two consecutive early April mornings. The early budders Viognier, Grenache Noir and Blanc, Marsanne sustained near 100% damage while the later-budding Roussanne, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Picpoul and Syrah were not yet out and were relatively undamaged.
Another viticultural plus is that with different ripening cycles we enjoy a longer harvest. Our harvest is typically spread across 10 weeks, from early September to early November, which allows us to make more efficient use of our cellar and our winemaking team. Of course, we won’t enjoy this benefit this year: the frosted vines that re-sprouted will be delayed in ripening and everything will be coming in late and together. We will be heap plenty scrambling this October.
Probably most important in our choices, however, is the different roles that the different varieties play in the makeup of our Rhône style blends. Just as different ingredients in a dish can complement or highlight specific flavors, so can the diverse flavors of different varieties create a blended wine that is more than the sum of its parts. The Rhone blending tradition developed over thousands of years because blending these varieties consistently produces more complex, more elegant and more intriguing wines than any of the varieties vinified alone.
Red wines are the most associated with Rhône varieties so let’s start with our red assemblages. First, a review of the characteristics that each of the four principal red Rhone grapes brings to a blend:
These four grapes combine in each of our three red Rhone blends to make very different wines.
The Esprit de Beaucastel is our flagship blend of the best lots in our cellar, and based on the structure, firm, ripe tannins, red fruit, full body and the ageability of Mourvèdre. Syrah firms up the back palate and brings savory spice, dark color and minerality, while Grenache contributes ripe dark chocolate and cherry flavors and lush fruit. A touch of Counoise unifies and brightens the blend with its brambly spice.
Our Côtes de Tablas celebrates the lush fruitiness, dark chocolate, chalky tannins and licorice of Grenache. Syrah balances Grenache’s lushness with minerality and pepper spice, while Mourvèdre’s structure and plum flavor should come out with age. Counoise, at its highest percentage in any of our wines, gives raspberry brightness and opens the wine for near- to mid-term consumption.
Our Patelin de Tablas is a blend focused on Syrah’s dark color, peppery spice and minerality. We add a significant percentage of Grenache for its generous red fruit and roundness of flavor, some Mourvèdre for backbone and ageability, and just a touch of Counoise for brightness and spiciness.
Although the Rhone Valley, like Paso Robles, is better known for reds than whites, there are nearly a dozen white grapes traditional there, and we’ve imported five of them. These have thrived in Paso Robles – so much so that from our original plan to plant 20% whites we’ve increased our white plantings to roughly 35% of our production. Let’s again review the characteristics of each of the five:
As with the reds, these grapes combine to make three very different white wines.
Our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc is the flagship of our white wine fleet, modeled consciously after Beaucastel’s renowned white. Roussanne provides the core richness, minerality, and flavors of honey and spice, while Grenache Blanc adds green apple and anise flavors, lush mouth feel and bright acids. Picpoul Blanc completes the blend, bringing out a saline minerality present in Roussanne but latent without Picpoul’s characteristic acidity.
The Côtes de Tablas Blanc showcases the lushness of Viognier, but with Viognier’s tendency toward softness and heaviness mitigated by its blending partners. Grenache Blanc provides crisp acids while Roussanne adds structure and Marsanne minerality. As the wine ages, a transformation occurs as what was once an overtly floral, fruity wine – clearly marked by Viognier – becomes more mineral as Marsanne takes the lead.
Our Patelin de Tablas Blanc focuses on the crisp acids and minerality of Grenache Blanc. We add Viognier for lush, tropical fruit, and Roussanne and Marsanne for structure and complexity, but the balance is intentionally different from the Côtes Blanc. We’ve chosen brighter Grenache Blanc lots for the Patelin Blanc, so that it is the lemon and mineral side of the grape that shows at the fore, with its richness and Viognier’s lush fruit playing secondary roles.
So, the utilization of these multiple Rhône varieties in different proportions and from different cellar lots allows us to create a broad palette of six wines that fit different occasions and different foods, ranging in the whites from the crisp bright acidity of the Patelin Blanc through the power of the Côtes Blanc to the full-bodied elegance and ageability of the Esprit Blanc. The reds go from the firm, spicy character of the Patelin through the powerful and luscious Côtes to the structured, full-bodied richness and elegance (and ageability) of the Esprit.
By Chelsea Magnusson
The addition of the new tasting room and foudre rooms has been a bit of a challenge for those of us in the cellar. Where before, we could do most of our work on the foudres in private, it now feels as though we are on display in a big glass cage (someone mentioned that we should put up a sign that said "Please Do Not Feed the Winemakers" - which I thought was a terrible idea... you're more than welcome to feed us if you feel so inclined). On the other hand, with the foudres finally having a room built just for them, where they are organized and settled in their permanent home with beautiful warm lighting, the space can be incredibly peaceful and inviting.
I love being in there before the tasting room has opened, when everything is still and quiet. But it can't be still and quiet forever. We have been through a marathon bottling schedule for the past few months, and now the foudres that once held the wines from the 2009 vintage are all empty. We try to keep the foudres full throughout the year in order to keep the wood staves supple and healthy (when they dry, they can shrink and crack and when left open, are more prone to bacteria making itself at home in the wood). So, for the last two weeks, Ryan and I have been working through the cellar finding lots that we can build that equal 1,200 gallons (the capacity of a foudre). It's quite a challenge: not only does the math need to work out, but we need to find lots that are similar enough to combine while at the same time, the lots need to possess the ability to better a potential counterpart with the union. For instance, we can combine an 873 gallon tank of Grenache VF OV V (which is translated to the fifth pick off of the French vinifera old vine block) for its brightness, vibrancy and candied strawberry quality with six barrels of Grenache VF OV III (the third pick off of the same block) to bring a little weight, density and tannin to the blend.
Before the foudres are filled, they need to be cleaned, and we have a new toy to help us do that: a specialty ultraviolet light that is used to sterilize the surface of the wood. The ultraviolet bulb is carefully slid through the top of the foudre and the metal box affixed to the bulb rests on the outside.
We have read that more serious versions are installed in ambulances to sterilize the interior of the vehicles and apparently, similar models are also being used for water treatment. While it may be new, we're excited to give it a try and see how it goes.
You can bet that I'll be enjoying the serenity that the foudre room has to offer for a few more days before it becomes a blending madhouse in there. And sincerely, if you see us working in there and you have a snack you'd like to share, please - don't hesitate to tap on the glass.
By Chelsea Magnusson
The last time we sat down to go through the 2010 reds in the cellar, winemaker Ryan Hebert commented that the vintage was like a Batman movie. And the funny thing? That was a perfect descriptor for what we had tasted and I was blown away at the accuracy of the comparison. For the most part, the reds in the cellar were dark, deep, sinister, powerful and brooding. It doesn't hurt that Batman has always been my favorite superhero (as a result, I'm now especially partial to the 2010 vintage...)
This was not the first time we've described our wines using something akin to character traits. In fact, that's typically how we talk about wines in our cellar - as if they are actually people. While it may be an endless source of laughter and entertainment for us, when you really get down to it, I'm not actually sure we are joking. For the most part, we've got most of the varietals (as well as some of the blends) pegged in terms of personification. However, if asked to describe a wine I'm not familiar with, I'll give the standard response: breaking it down systematically and running through descriptors for mouthfeel, balance, aromatics, flavor profiles, etc. And how is that any different than describing a good friend versus a casual acquaintance?
My younger brother, who is just getting interested in wines, asked me to describe the Cotes de Tablas Rouge. Talking wine with someone like him, I would like to keep it on a level that he can relate to, and one thing I want to avoid at all costs when discussing wine is pretension. So I told him something like this: imagine the Cotes de Tablas as a person. A girl, in fact. The perfect girl. This is a wine that is naturally pretty - no makeup (or oak) is necessary to make it more attractive. This wine can be effortlessly casual, but can get dressed up and fit into any situation with ease and grace. This is a wine you'll want to introduce to your parents (and if we're lucky, you'll also introduce it to your friends and coworkers!)
It's always fun blending or moving wine, too, when the cellar fills with the aromatics of a varietal, which prompts a discussion about "who" that varietal is. The following is a rundown of some of our most recognizable characters in the cellar:
For me, the Grenache in our cellar is the kid in high school who struggled when asked to do the following: sit completely still, focus on what was going on, or understand that sometimes you need to get things done in a timely manner - and yet, that kid was adored because they were extraordinarily affable and full of charisma. And that's how it goes here, too. Grenache tends to take its sweet time finishing fermentation (sorry, no pun intended) and has a character that, when young, can be flighty and unfocused. However when that wine is given time to mature a little (or is blended with the proper mate), the piquancy and friendliness remain, and audacity, depth, soundness and sureness of self emerge that are dazzling and unforgettable. Imagine meeting that wine at your ten year high school reunion; my, how things can change, eh?
Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge
This wine conjures an image of masculine old Hollywood glamour - always impeccably dressed and charmingly debonair with an air of implied importance, distinction, and eminence. Yet, there's a glimmer in its eye that hints of something unknown. The Esprit carries a shadow of divergence from its polished and lush exterior. This is a wine with secrets - there is not cut and dry, no black and white with this wine. There's something about this wine that draws me back to it again and again in an effort to unearth whatever that mystery may be.
Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc
This wine, like its red counterpart, conveys a timeless elegance. The Esprit Blanc personification comes from old money. Probably from a well-known and established European family, which means it has grace, refinement, and allure running through its veins (and perhaps an enthralling accent?). I always imagine this wine in a classic Chanel suit and pearls - beautiful, aristocratic, clever and infallible. And again, like the Esprit Rouge, this wine has the ability to surprise me with something new each time I meet it, giving me an infinite number of reasons to love this wine.
This presentation of our "family" of wines just grazes the surface - the stories and personalities behind the wines are ever evolving and changing. My only hope is that I was general enough so as not to seem completely crazy. But keep in mind, winemaking is a creative process. So I guess this is our normal. And now you're privy to it; so... welcome to our world.
Fans of Tablas Creek on Facebook this week saw something unexpected: a photo of a bottling we've never done before. In fact, it's a bottling that no one in California has done before, that we know of at least. It's Petit Manseng, a white grape traditional to France's southwest, which has made admired but not widely disseminated sweet wines for centuries in the region of Jurancon.
Jurancon, in the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, is a mountainous region that includes a small stretch of the rocky Atlantic coast and a larger stretch of the Spanish border, high in the Pyrenees mountains. Culturally, it forms a part of the Basque community that spans the French-Spanish border. A larger, interactive version of the map at right can be found on Wikipedia.
There are three permitted grapes in Jurancon (Corbu and Gros Manseng, in addition to Petit Manseng) but it is generally agreed that Petit Manseng is the finest of the three, and the most suitable for making the sweet wines that made the region famous. Gros Manseng, which we also imported but have not yet harvested, is more suited for the dry Jurancon Sec wines, while Petit Manseng achieves sufficient concentration and sugar content to make naturally sweet wines without botrytis. This character was so valued that Petit Manseng is noted as the only wine used to baptize a king of France: Henry IV, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty, in his native Navarre.
After several decades of disfavor, the sweet wines of Jurancon have returned to fashion since about 1970, and the acreage of Petit Manseng have increased correspondingly, from less than 90 hectares in 1968 (90 hectares was the combined plantings of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng) to nearly 650 hectares in 2006. Two images of the grape are below; to the left a lithograph from a 19th Century ampelography and to the right a photo of one of our Petit Manseng mother vines, in a pot on our patio.
In addition to its ancestral home in Jurancon and the neighboring Pacherenc, Basque settlers brought Petit Manseng to Uruguay, and it has found homes in the neighboring Languedoc and the more surprising (to me) Virginia, where its resistance to rot is particularly valuable in the often humid climate.
When we decided to bring in Petit Manseng, we had not yet discovered the Vin de Paille process for making dessert wines, and were fresh off a disastrous experiment where we had tried to freeze grapes to make a pseudo-ice wine. Given the success we'd seen at Tablas Creek with Tannat, another French Basque grape, Petit Manseng seemed a natural extension. The vines were brought into USDA quarantine in 2003, and released to us in 2006. The first small vineyard block was planted in 2007.
Petit Manseng is so named for its small, thick-skinned berries (Gros Manseng has larger berries). It is capable of achieving very high natural sugar content without the benefit of botrytis. Petit Manseng in France is often left on the vine until December to achieve its high sugars, and its ability to withstand rot is noteworthy. In Paso Robles, where fall moisture and rot are rare and sun more reliable, its ability to maintain almost inconceivably high acidity is perhaps more valuable. As an example, our first tiny harvest of Petit Manseng came in 2009. We had forgotten about the small block and when we rediscovered it in early November and measured the grapes -- three weeks after a 10-inch rainstorm rolled through -- they tipped the scale at an incredible 37° Brix and a pH of 3.3.
In 2010, we picked our Petit Manseng in mid-October at a more manageable 26.2° Brix and a pH of 3.10. We fermented it in a single barrel, and stopped its fermentation when it had about 50 grams/liter of sugar left and sat at an alcohol of 13.5%. We were stunned that there was so much sugar left at the point where we felt the flavors were in balance. The very high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest. The wine was aged on its lees in barrel and bottled last week. We'll make a small amount available through an offering to our wine club members sometime later this summer or fall.
The flavors of Petit Manseng wines are rich but tangy, perfumed and tropical. It's possible to identify pineapple, mango, papaya and honey, as well as white flowers and spice. Due to its residual sugar and high acidity, Petit Manseng wines have tremendous ability to age. For food pairings, the literature nearly always suggests foie gras, which makes sense to me. Foie gras is hard on dry wines due to its richness, but unless the chef makes some very sweet accompaniment the sweet wines it's typically paired with can be overpowering. A semi-sweet wine with excellent freshness like Petit Manseng could be a natural fit. I'd also think that it would be a great wine with cheeses, but would need to do some experimentation to have confidence in the right fit.
Where will Petit Manseng take us? Who knows. But we're sufficiently intrigued with the grape's capabilities that we're planting another half-acre at the western edge of the estate. And we may just have to come up with a foie gras-themed event to test the pairing hypothesis of the experts.