Pre-Harvest Jubilation

By Chelsea Franchi

We had our scale certified last week, which was just one more reminder of the ever-present fact that harvest is barreling down on us (no pun intended).

Steaming barrels in the afternoon sun

Harvest is what we live for (well, work for) here in the cellar.  It is the hub of the winemaking cycle.  Without harvest, what would we do the rest of the year?  Harvest is, without a doubt, the most exciting time of year for me.  It's exhausting, exhilarating, and stimulating.  You really get to know the people you work with during harvest (to everyone I work with: my most sincere apologies).  With everyone being pushed to their limits mentally and physically, you're bound to let your true colors show.  That's part of what makes harvest so exciting - getting the opportunity to push yourself and becoming familiar with your own breaking points.  While most people would look at that as a negative (and I can understand why), it's one of the many reasons I love my job as much as I do: it's challenging, in every sense of the word.  And I like that.

The start of this year is even more testing.  The lab equipment was dusted off and fired up last week to start running numbers on fruit samples (mostly for Patelin fruit) and Neil and Ryan are off in France.  Which means, those of us who are left here have the opportunity to own the cellar (for a few weeks, at least).  And by all accounts, it looks like we're more than up to the challenge.

Lab equipment at the ready

We've been checking numbers (sugar, pH and total acidity) and tracking the progression of said numbers.  The presses are clean and ready and the sorting table and must pump are both lying in wait.  Picking bins have been brought out from storage and for the early part of this week, we're focusing on sanitizing barrels and tanks so they will be ready for the new juice of 2012.

The barrel brander

RackingArms IMG_6313
Racking arms waiting to be scrubbed clean and tanks getting power-washed

It's nice to have these rituals before the full force of harvest smashes down around us - the misty fall mornings spent chugging coffee as the first bins of fruit pull onto the crush pad, driving a forklift through the silence of night with only two tiny headlights and the stars to light the way, the incessant squishing of my water-logged boots, the hammering sound of fruit raining down onto the sorting table.  The wet heat of a fermenting tank and the thick, rich smells of grape juice evolving into wine.  Lead-heavy exhaustion replaced by buoyancy the second the stereo is cranked up (Journey, please!).  Climbing into the press after its first use of the season - and for that matter, climbing into the press after its last use of the season.  And what harvest mosaic would be complete without those six beautiful words spoken at the end of an impossibly long day:  "Hey, who could use a beer?"

It would be interesting to see how my co-workers would arrange their harvest montage, but this is my view.  These are the snapshot experiences I look forward to every year.  I'm ready.

Is 2010 our best vintage ever? Perhaps...

This is bottling week.  We're mostly done with putting eight different wines into bottle: the 2011 Cotes de Tablas Blanc and seven of our red varietal wines from 2010: Counoise, Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, our two Pinot Noirs and our first-ever Cabernet.  Most of these are small production wines, with only Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah over 300 cases in production.  But it's still the most extensive lineup of varietal reds we've ever done, thanks to the high quality, plentiful 2010 vintage.

When the last of these rolled off the bottling line this afternoon, I took the opportunity to pull a bottle of each and open one up (plus the 2010 Tannat, bottled two weeks ago).  They'll surely be better in another few months, but even fresh off the bottling line, when many wines don't show their best, all were expressive and varietally true.  All show depth of flavor without any sense of extra weight. Taken together, they provide more evidence that 2010 is going to be a classic vintage for Tablas Creek.  The lineup:

2010 red varietal wines

2010 Counoise: A rich, tangy, spicy nose of low country barbeque, smoke, pomegranate and figs.  The mouth is silky at first -- surprising for a Counoise -- with a milk chocolate note and a polish that I've never seen in one of our Counoise bottlings.  Then the flavors explode into sour cherry, spice, tree bark, blood orange and cola, an amazing collection of powerful, vibrant flavors hard to imagine in one wine.  The finish (like many of the 2010s) reverberates between tangy fruit and sweet spice. 13.5% alcohol; 277 cases produced.

2010 Grenache: A composed, restrained nose of mineral, plum compote, and cola.  More expressive in the mouth, showing sweet fruit, crushed rock, and wild strawberry, quickly reined in by Grenache's classic front-palate tannins.  The finish opens back up with mouth-watering acidity that reminded me of watermelon rind and cherry pit. 14.8% alcohol; 733 cases produced.

2010 Mourvedre: A nose of herb-rubbed roast, figs, balsamic and mint: totally classic aromas for Mourvedre.  The mouth is cool and minty, very fresh, with nice dark red currant fruit, fresh herbs, mineral and a hint of sweeter fruit coming out toward the end that made me think of watermelon, all surrounded by chewy tannins.  A beauty that will likely provide pleasure early and with age. 14.1% alcohol; 720 cases produced.

2010 Syrah: A rich, round, creamy nose that reminded me of my wife Meghan's first description of Syrah, tasted out of foudre: "butter in a butcher shop".  Additional aromas of licorice, white pepper, crushed rock and a little cedary oak.  The initial impression in the mouth is one of freshness, but it packs a punch of flavor with blackberry, creamy minerality, mint and beautiful tannins.  I think it's the best Syrah we've ever made. 14.5% alcohol; 708 cases produced.

2010 Pinot Noir: Ripe, round, spicy Pinot fruit on the nose, showing potpourri, roses, juniper and cherry.  The mouth is rich but somehow gentle, strawberry candy and root beer, but not sweet.  Good tannins provide a welcome touch of firmness and a nice clean finish. 14.5% alcohol; 72 cases produced.

2010 Full Circle (100% Pinot Noir, Haas Vineyard): This is a new wine for us, from the 3-acre vineyard surrounding my dad's house in one of the coolest pockets of Templeton.  It's called "Full Circle" because it reflects his career: from a start introducing America to the greatness of Burgundy, through decades focusing on grapes from the Rhone, he's now growing Pinot at home.  Shows broader and deeper, if less exuberant, than the Tablas Pinot: an absolutely classic old world Pinot Noir nose of sweet spices, black tea, plum and earth.  The mouth is similar, but leading with the loamy minerality and following with purple fruit, good acids and granular tannins.  A wine to get to know and watch evolve, and a testament to the potential of Pinot Noir in the right parts of the Paso Robles AVA. 13.6% alcohol; 53 cases produced.

2010 Cabernet Sauvignon: Another new wine for us; in previous years our tiny block of Cabernet has been blended into our Tannat.  But this year it was too compelling to blend away, so we made four barrels.  After the Rhones and Pinots, it's a totally different world: a classic Cabernet nose of eucalyptus, sour cherry, sawdust, wood spice and green peppercorns.  The mouth is richer than the nose suggests, with plum, Christmas spices (I found juniper, clove and allspice) and a very long finish that vibrates between sweet fruit, firm tannins and spice. 13.5% alcohol; 88 cases produced. 13.5% alcohol; 88 cases produced.

2010 Tannat: A rich, deep nose of balsamic reduction, grilled meat, black pepper, smoke and mineral.  The mouth is surprisingly supple, with flavors of strawberry-rhubarb pie, figs, dark chocolate, and wood smoke.  Drinking this felt like sitting around a campfire, smelling meat that's grilling, or sitting in front of a fireplace in wintertime.  Wild. 14.5% alcohol; 760 cases produced.

A few concluding thoughts.  To my taste, this is the best collection of varietal wines we've ever made.  Each is absolutely characteristic of the varietal that it comes from, with remarkable depth and complexity of flavors.  But none feel heavy, and none feel to me like I need to bury them in the back of my wine cellar for several years (as I have with some of the bigger vintages, like 2005, 2007 and 2009).  And while they won't need lots of time at the front end to be approachable, I am convinced that these wines will age very well, with the vibrant acidities keeping things together as they develop secondary flavors and their tannins soften.  And the alcohols are all pretty low, with several under 14%.  The end result should be wines with remarkable elegance and silky texture, for those with the patience to wait.

It won't be easy.

Assembling Our 2011 Vintage Blends: Done. And Wow!

By Robert Haas

Thursday of last week we completed our decision-making process for the blending of our estate red wines: Panoplie, Esprit, En Gobelet, and Côtes de Tablas. This vintage we’ll also be making a varietal Mourvèdre.  We also found time to make the final decision on the Esprit Blanc, which had given us trouble in our white blending trials in March. Now that the proportions and lots have been selected, the wines will be assembled and the reds put into our 1200-gallon oak foudres for ageing until bottling in 2013.   The Esprit Blanc will go back into foudre as well until it is bottled before harvest.

Neil, Ryan, Chelsea, Jason and I form the core of the selection jury.  We like also to include a visiting Perrin, and when he’s in town, National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre as well.  Our general practice is to taste all the varietal lots first, blind, so we don’t know which vineyard block or which cellar lot each comes from: just what the variety is.  We give each lot a grade.  It’s not a complex grading system; the grades are 1, 2 and 3.  1 identifies wines with richness, elegance and balance, typically lots destined for, or at least of a quality suitable for, the Esprits.  Lots with a 2 rating are ones that we like, but which seem less balanced or less intense than those with a 1 rating.  These typically form the Côtes de Tablas and our varietal wines.  3’s are lots that are showing less well.  If the problem, such as oxidation or reduction, is correctable in the cellar, or incomplete fermentation, we revisit the tasting later in the cycle.  The  “3” grade serves as a flag for the cellar crew that something needs some attention, and typically, over time, the 3’s resolve themselves into 1’s or 2’s. The components:


The next stage is selecting for lots that we feel should be declassified out of our estate wines into our Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc.  These lots tend to be friendly and pretty, but less intense and showing less character of place than we like to see in our estate bottling.  This year it was very difficult to “select out” any of the varietal lots, and the 2011 Patelin wines reflect this: each has less than 5% Tablas Creek fruit in its final blend.

After this process (which we completed last month) we work from the top down, starting with the Panoplie.  In our tastings of the different lots, we discuss the character of the best lots, trying to identify those that seem somehow “above and beyond” the high quality we choose for the Esprits.  Then we taste a handful of possible blends for the Panoplie, reflecting different percentages of the different varieties of a suitable quality.  We taste these blends blind, not knowing which blend has which percentages, so that we’re free from our own biases.  Knowing only that a blend is one of 4 possible Panoplie blends keeps us all honest. 

We don’t move on until we reach consensus.  These trials are not a democracy, where if 4 of the 6 people around the table prefer one blend, but the other 2 believe a different one is the best, the 4 win by default.  We talk it out, coming back to the blends with new ideas until we reach agreement.  This process can take several days, and in fact with the Esprit Blanc we decided that the wines themselves needed a little more time in barrel before we felt comfortable making the right choices, so we kicked the final decision down the road in March (when we blended most of the whites). We finalized the wine last week.

In the end, we chose what for us is a classic Panoplie blend: 60% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, and 10% Syrah.  Then we moved on to the Esprit, leaving out the lots that were now destined for Panoplie.  So each round went, eliminating from each succeeding round the wines that had been chosen for the higher tiers.  When we had decided on the Esprit (40% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Counoise) and En Gobelet (33% Mourvèdre, 31% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 16% Tannat) we took stock of what we had left and realized that due to the low crop levels, particularly on Grenache and Syrah, we weren’t going to be able to produce varietal red wines other than Mourvèdre.  This made the blending of the Côtes de Tablas fairly straightforward: we knew the rest of the Grenache, Syrah and Counoise were going in, and needed to decide just on the right amount of Mourvèdre.  We tasted three different potential Côtes de Tablas blends, with differing Mourvèdre quantities, and settled on a blend of 49% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 15% Mourvèdre, and 8% Counoise. That left us 800 cases of a varietal Mourvèdre.

All this was done in three days, Tuesday-Thursday.  This is the first time I can remember that we reached consensus on each of the red blends on our first time around.  The quality was uniformly high, even as we reached the third and fourth tiers down, which made it easier: we just had to focus on what profile we liked best for each wine.

It was not obvious last fall that 2011 would be such a high quality year.  Much of the west coast suffered from unusually cold, foggy weather, and there were some early rains that began in late September.  This all on top of April frosts.  But we’d had a good sense since early December, when François Perrin visited.  Having heard of all the challenges of the 2011 vintage in California, he was anxious to taste through the vintage in the cellar.  It was early to taste.  We had just finished the harvest on November 9th.  Many of the wines were not even through their primary (sugar) fermentations, not to mention the malolactic fermentations, which often occur later in the cycle.

However, we plowed ahead, starting with the whites.  And with each lot that we tasted François became more excited.  “This is going to be a truly great white vintage,” he commented.  “Even this early I can see that the wines have great structure, fine aromatics, good intensity, saline minerality, individual personality, and lush fruit.  Can the reds be as good?”

Reds are less “tasteable” than whites in the early stages of their development, but experienced tasters can get a good idea of their overall style and quality even six or seven weeks after the harvest, as was the case here.  And with each lot we tasted, François expressed optimism for the 2011 reds.  They were showing concentration, richness, intensity and elegance.  As our blending sessions showed, the optimism was justified.  The wines are uniformly terrific.

What accounts for the extraordinary wines of 2011?  Several things combined to make it an exceptional vintage:

  • We started out with good moisture in the ground after two years of wet winters, so the vines were healthy and we did not need to irrigate.
  • The frosts we suffered on April 8th and 9th reduced our yields to a miniscule 2.15 tons per acre.  But the damage was not uniform; while our Viognier and Grenache and much of our Syrah was decimated, Mourvèdre and Roussanne (our two most important varieties) were largely spared damage.  These low yields provided excellent concentration.
  • We had a very cool growing season, so that all of the grape varieties had a longer than usual hang time even though the vines were carrying a smaller crop.  The result was balanced wines with excellent acidities, particularly important and unusual in a year with such great concentration.
  • Although it was cold, Paso Robles’ geography spared us from the persistent fog that plagued many California wine regions more open to the Pacific.  We avoided the issues with mildew and rot that many other regions saw.
  • The harvest rains turned out to be less than had been forecast, and significantly less than in many North Coast regions, which allowed us to wait for ripeness in this cool year without suffering through bunch rot, and a week of good weather in early November brought in several high quality lots we’d effectively written off two weeks earlier.

What next?  The wines will be blended and put to rest in the foudres you can see from the tasting room.  They’ll sit there ageing quietly through the coming harvest, and then be bottled next summer before the 2013 harvest.  We hope that 2012 will provide equally great raw materials as 2011.

Another detour along the road to American organic wine

About three months ago, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) made a ruling that didn't get a lot of press, but is likely to produce a remarkable trifecta of negative results, discouraging organic viticulture and ensuring that the reputation of American organic wine remains dubious, all while putting American wineries at a competitive disadvantage to their counterparts around the world.  The NOSB's decision: to keep the rules prohibiting sulfites in organic wines, against the unanimous recommendation of the committee tasked with studying the issue.

The current state of affairs for organic wine is not a satisfactory one.  Sulfites play two roles in fine wine, preventing oxidation and discouraging the action of vinegar-causing bacteria.  Organic wines, which must be made without added sulfites, tend to be unstable and unsuitable for aging.  Nearly all oxidize rapidly, and in order to prevent them turning to vinegar, they must be filtered sterile.  The resulting organic wines are of uneven quality, have to be consumed young, and are marketed toward consumers who choose organic but who are not wine knowledgeable.  Most sell in the $8-$12 range.  It is small wonder that the reputation of American organic wines is low.

All this might be understandable -- a sacrifice made in the interest of a worthy ideal -- if sulfites were a synthetic product.  But they are not.  Sulfur is a naturally mined mineral, both legal and widely applied to organic vineyards.  Sulfites are also naturally produced in the fermentation process.

Sulfites do have potential health impacts, although most of the people who have negative reactions to wine are not sulfite sensitive.  I wrote about this in detail a few years ago in the post Sulfites in Wine - What's Causing my Headache.  The relatively small number of people with sulfite allergies (roughly 0.2% of the US population) need to be very careful with what the eat and drink, not just with wine, but with condiments, dried fruits, potato chips, and many other products.  But wines with sulfites already have to show the "contains sulfites" warning on the label.  The EU, typically more rigorous than the United States on labeling and safety requirements, has for years allowed their organic wines to include a maximum 100ppm of sulfites and required these wines to add "contains sulfites" to their labels. 

It is a testament to the positive impact that organically farmed grapes have on the wines they make that that so many vineyards and wineries have chosen to farm organically even thought the market has not rewarded it.  These wineries have mostly not bothered with certification.  But I think that it is indisputable that there would be more wineries farming organically, and more certifying themselves organic, if, as with vegetables, the market rewarded organic wines with premium prices.

There is a category written into the National Organic Program (NOP) standards for wineries who -- like us -- use organic grapes but also sulfites.  But it's not ideal either.  These wines are permitted to print "made with organic grapes" on their labels.  This "made with..." phrasing is what is allowed for other consumer products that include a minimum 70% organic ingredients, but don't qualify for the 95% threshold of "organic".  Think "pizza made with organic tomatoes".  This carries the implication that there are other things in there that aren't organic, and possibly other things that aren't even grapes.  Sulfites, which are measured in parts-per-million, typically make up less than one one-hundredth of one percent of a finished wine.

Back to the recent NOSB ruling.  We have not been alone in recognizing the perverse impacts of the organic standards on wine.  A group of nearly 100 growers, wineries and their supporters petitioned the NOSB in 2010 to allow all wines that were farmed organically to be labeled organic, whether or not they used sulfites in the winemaking process. This would have put us in line with the EU and Canada, among others.  When the NOSB handling committee voted 5-0 last October to recommend the change, it seemed likely that American organic wine was on its way out of its labeling purgatory.  But after a group dominated by a handful of market-leading no-sulfite-added wineries lobbied against the change, the full NOSB board voted the change down 9-5.

Where does this leave us?  The same place we've been, I guess.  But I worry that the window for public acceptance of organic wine is closing.  Certainly we'll see a continuation of the trend toward wine-specific third-party certifications like Biodynamic and SIP (Sustainability in Practice), both of which permit the use of sulfites in winemaking.

But it does feel like the world of wine is trapped in quicksand, at the same time that organics are making dramatic inroads into many foods and consumer products.  As evidence, I wrote about the challenges facing organic wines in the very early days of this blog back in 2006, musing on the low market image of organic wines and considering a proposed marketing campaign to raise their image.  I thought that was premature:

I remain convinced that if there is a marketing campaign planned, it should be aimed at revising the laws so that they are in synch with Europe, where wines that are organically farmed, and which are under a certain maximum number of parts per million of sulfur, can call themselves organic.

I can't help but feel that with the NOSB's recent decision, the wine community has missed an opportunity to both rehabilitate the reputation of organic wine and to dramatically increase the rewards for and prevalence of Earth-friendly viticulture.

Tannat: the Perfect Grape for Paso Robles?

Tannat2Although we specialize in Rhône varietals, we continue to experiment with other grapes that we feel might thrive in the shallow rocky soils and dramatic summer climate of Tablas Creek. Tannat is one of these grapes, and its intense fruit, spice and powerful tannins combine to make remarkable wines here, in a distinctly different style than our Rhone grape varieties. 

In addition, we've come to believe that it is perhaps the easiest grape to keep happy in Paso Robles' challenging climate.  If there's an empirical sign that a grape is suited to an area, it has to be that it excels without an extraordinary amount of work on the part of those who grow it.

Early History
Though many scholars believe Tannat originated in the Basque region, Tannat is most closely associated with the winemaking region of Madiran, at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains in southwestern France and just north of the region that is traditionally thought of as the Basque heartland. The grape has been grown in that region for centuries, and 17th and 18th century French kings accepted Madiran wines as payment for taxes. Madiran appellation laws mandate that Tannat be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, but Madiran producers have recently begun receiving notable press for their 100% Tannat wines.

Tannat continues to be grown in the Basque country, most notably in the tiny appellation of Iroulèguy, on the Spanish border. In 1870, Basque immigrants brought the grape to Uruguay, where it adapted well to the local soil and climate. It has since become the national red grape variety of Uruguay, accounting for approximately one third of all wine produced in that country; more Tannat is grown in Uruguay than in the varietal’s native France.

Tannat at Tablas Creek
We did not originally intend to produce a Tannat. In fact, the Perrins’ French nurseryman included Tannat cuttings of his own volition when he also packed up the Rhone varieties we'd asked for in 1990.  These cuttings were entered into quarantine at the USDA station in Geneva, New York and it was a couple of years before we untangled the mystery of how this non-Rhone grape came to be under our account with the USDA. When we traced it back to the nurseryman we asked him why he'd included this (to us) unrelated grape.  His response was "I know this grape, and from what I've learned about Paso Robles, it should grow well there. You should try it."  When in 1993 the Tannat cuttings were declared virus free and released to us, we decided that with little of our vineyard yet planted we might as well see if he was right.  In 1996 we planted just under an acre, and while we received a tiny production that was tossed in at harvest with other varieties starting in 2000, we first harvested enough to ferment on its own in 2002.

In the vineyard, Tannat is one of the easiest varietals to grow. It is frost hardy and a solid producer whether trellised or head-pruned. Yet unlike most of our other red varietals (most notably Grenache) it is not prone to overproduction, and we do not have to thin the shoots to keep production down. Its berries have thick skins, which make it resistant to powdery mildew and botrytis.  It ripens in the middle of the ripening cycle, typically in late September or early October, and we can harvest it nearly every vintage at numbers that we consider ideal: around 24° Brix and a pH of around 3.3.  The sole difficulty with growing Tannat is its thick stems, which cling tightly to the berries and can be difficult to de-stem at harvest. 

Tannat is quite tannic (due in part to the berries’ thick skins), and we ferment it in open-top tanks to expose the juice to more oxygen and soften the tannins.  We age Tannat in small (usually neutral) barrels to expose the juice to some oxygen in the aging process.  We typically either co-ferment or blend into our Tannat our small nursery parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon.  In France, Cabernet is traditionally added to Tannat to open it up and make it more approachable.  That fact alone should give you a sense of just how powerful Tannat can be.  But the grape gets riper here in Paso Robles than it does elsewhere in the world, while still maintaining its wonderful structure.  When I asked Winemaker Neil Collins for his thoughts on Tannat this morning, he replied "Tannat is very happy in Paso Robles, where our climate and terroir allow the tannin to become an asset not a detriment".

Because of our enthusiasm for the grape's potential, we have since 2002 planted two more parcels to Tannat, and now have a total of 3.5 acres at Tablas Creek, off of which we harvest on average 9 tons of fruit per year.

Tannat and the BATF
Although Tannat had existed in the University of California’s vine collections since the 1890s, when we began growing Tannat it had not yet been recognized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

When we decided to bottle it, we petitioned the BATF to recognize Tannat as a separate varietal, a process we had recently undergone with both Grenache Blanc and Counoise. We amassed literature on Tannat to demonstrate it was a recognized varietal in other countries, and compiled descriptions of its characteristics to show that it had positive value as a wine grape in the United States. In September of 2002, our petition was formally approved.

As of 2010, there were 248 acres of Tannat planted in California, most from Tablas Creek cuttings.

Aromas and Flavors
Tannat makes decidedly robust wines, with pronounced aromas of smoke and plum, significant tannins and a wonderfully spicy finish. Here at Tablas Creek, we’ve found the wines to be dense purple-red in color, with a nose of tobacco, smoke, and ripe berries. The rich palate has juicy flavors of plum and raspberry, with a long, generous finish. The tannins are impressive, but nicely balanced with the intense fruit and spice flavors of the wine. Unlike most Old World examples, you can enjoy our Tannats young, but we believe that they benefit from three to five years of bottle aging and should evolve gracefully for two decades. As for food pairings, Tannat's smoky character makes it a perfect match for roasted meats and game, as well as sausages and strong aged cheeses.

In addition to bottling Tannat as a varietal wine each year since 2002, we have recently started including it in our En Gobelet blend of head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard blocks, where Tannat's firm structure and smoky minerality balance the relative opulence of Grenache and Mourvedre.  In this blend, it assumes the role typically played by Syrah -- which does not head-prune well -- in the southern Rhone.

Tannat and Health
Recent research, led by Dr. Roger Corder (a cardiovascular expert at the William Harvey Research Institute in London) makes the case for oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs) as the source of red wine’s health benefits. All red grapes, particularly those with thick skins and high skin-to-pulp ratios, contain OPC’s. But, after measuring the OPC concentration of several common red wine grapes, Dr. Corder identifies Tannat as the grape with the greatest concentration. The real-life evidence of Tannat’s benefits can be seen in the surprisingly long lifespans of residents of the département of Gers in southwest France, whose local wine appellation is Madiran. Gers contains more than double the national average of men in their nineties.  I wrote a few years ago about the link between Tannat, heart health and longevity.

2009 Tannat: Featured Wine for February 2012
We taste through our cellar regularly to see which wines are showing particularly well given the season and the wines’ own inherent evolution. As a way of sharing these observations with you, many months we spotlight one of our wines as our featured wine. To encourage you to try this featured wine, we offer it, for the designated time only, at a 10% discount. This discount is applied above and beyond any other discounts that might apply, such as for case purchases or wine club membership. The February featured wine is the 2009 Tannat, featured through February 29, 2012.  It recently received one of the highest ratings (90-93 points) ever bestowed on a Tannat-based wine by the Wine Advocate's Antonio Galloni, who called it "absolutely fabulous" and "a captivating wine".  You can read the complete review.

Getting to know the newly-finalized 2010 red varietals and blends

This week, Francois Perrin made one of his semi-annual visits to Tablas Creek.  We always like to see Francois after harvest; it gives us our first outside perspective on the most recent vintage, and gives us a chance to bounce the ideas we had during crush off of someone whose experience with these grapes is unmatched.  We also typically taste through the blends of the previous vintage of red wine, to decide if all is well or if any of them need some final adjustments.

Blending the 2010 reds was unusual because they are still in their component pieces in November, more than a year after harvest.  Typically, we've made our blending decisions on the previous vintage's red wines by early summer, and they're blended and sitting quietly in foudre for the subsequent harvest.  But this year, thanks to the late 2010 harvest and the cold 2010-2011 winter, the wines weren't ready to be evaluated in the late spring.  When my dad returned to Vermont in late May we'd only been able to taste through and identify the lots that we were going to declassify into the 2010 Patelin de Tablas.  But as for the decisions beyond that first cut -- i.e. should this Mourvedre lot go into Panoplie, Esprit, Cotes or varietal Mourvedre -- we just didn't feel confident making them while the wines were still finishing up their fermentations. [You can read the blog post I wrote in May with my initial impressions of the 2010 reds] So, we put the wines to bed as components and awaited my dad's October return from Vermont, knowing that we were unlikely to be able to turn our attention to blending the 2010's until the 2011 harvest was complete.

So the last two weeks have been blending weeks.  It was a relatively easy blending (much easier than was the blending of the 2010 whites) thanks to how finished the wines were and to the fact that the first cut of friendly but less impressive lots had already been made.  I took notes on the wines during our final run-through with Francois yesterday, and have noted some comments by the others who were in the room.  For the tasting, my dad, Francois and I were joined by our winemaking team of Neil, Ryan and Chelsea, as well as National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre and Francois' son Cesar, who is in the middle of a year here at Tablas Creek.  We began with a flight of the varietal wines, and moved on to the blends. The lineup:


2010 Grenache: Spicy, peppery nose with strawberry fruit lurking behind and coming out -- along with a floral note -- more and more with air.  On the palate at first fruity, then nice acids, then an appealing loamy character.  Juiciness and tannins both come out on the finish.  Neil called it "very fresh, very clean" and Chelsea thought it had a "nice, friendly affability".  I was impressed with how evocative of Grenache it was: not a blockbuster, but classic.

2010 Mourvedre: Rich on the nose, with pepper steak, bitter chocolate, and dark red fruit.  The mouth is plummy with a nice earthy richness, chewy tannins and a moderate-length, slightly cedary finish right now.  Francois called it "closed but deep".  I thought it was the least giving of the varietals now, but also right in keeping with where Mourvedres usually are at this stage.  It will benefit from 6 more months in foudre.

2010 Syrah: Dense & inky nose, minty and chocolatey, with a touch of iodine-like minerality.  The mouth was rich with black, tangy fruit and chalky tannins.  This has nice vibrancy for Syrah, reflective of the cool 2010 vintage.  There's a long finish with a touch of oak that will surely integrate more in time.  Cesar called it "classic syrah".  My dad thought it tasted like Cornas.

2010 Cotes de Tablas (46% Grenache, 39% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, 5% Counoise): A fruity, spicy, brambly purple fruit nose, with sweet spices like nutmeg and cinnamon coming out with air.  The mouth is nicely vibrant, with plum and loam and a nice generosity, framed by good acids.  An impression of sweetness on the finish, though it's a dry wine.  Chelsea said "I'm ready to take this home and drink this with dinner today" and Cesar thought "everybody can like this".  A great showing for the Cotes... maybe our best yet.

2010 En Gobelet (35% Mourvedre, 31% Grenache, 13% Syrah, 11% Counoise, 10% Tannat): Very dark in color.  A slightly tarry nose, with black and purple fruits lurking behind.  The mouth is first sweet fruit, then savory and somehow feral, then tannic with some oak, rounding out with a surprisingly gentle finish.  Clearly big but needs to develop.  Neil called it "Rustic but in a good way" and Cesar thought it "closed but with beautiful potential". I was least sure where this was going, but I know it will be impressive.

2010 Esprit de Beaucastel (45% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 4% Counoise): Dark and backward on the nose, not yet giving much away other than a little oak and a sense of inky richness.  The mouth is broader and richer than the nose suggests, with a really nice mouthfeel and a very long finish where in turn dark red fruit, chalk, tannins and a tangy soy/teriyaki character take the fore.  Francois called it "great but definitely needs some time".  I thought it was terrific in its sense of power held in reserve, and can't wait to see it develop.

2010 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): Very different and much more exuberant on the nose than the Esprit.  Big, spicy nose with lots of purple fruit and an appealing mintiness.  The mouth is velvety and rich, with an initial impression of sweet fruit gradually drawn back into big tannins.  Francois thought it "not polite yet but powerful potential".  My dad thought it showed nice Mourvedre character.  I thought it both bigger and less finished than the Esprit, and definitely a wine that will benefit from its time in foudre.

We'll make a few other wines from the 2010 vintage, including our first Counoise since 2006, our first-ever Cabernet, our Tannat and a couple different small-production Pinot Noirs, but those components mostly weren't candidates for these blends, so we didn't taste them again with Francois.  I'll post notes when we're getting closer to bottling them.

A few final thoughts.  This was an impressive tasting, and all the wines showed a coolness and a vibrancy that seems to be a hallmark of the 2010 vintage.  This plays into our hands, as we tend to gravitate toward wines that are more about their balance and their restraint than about their sheer power.  I thought that all these wines are going to age beautifully, particularly those based on Mourvedre.

We're offering the 2010 Esprit and the 2010 Panoplie now as part of our en primeur futures program, and we'll be tasting the wines with 125 or so of our club members this Saturday.  I'm very much looking forward to sharing them in public for the first time and seeing what people think.

Harvest 2011 Recap and Assessment: Yields Down 15% vs. Normal and Quality High

Harvest 2011 finished on November 9th with a flurry of activity, including at one point 62 different bins of grapes scattered around the winery and on the crushpad, waiting to be destemmed.  My favorite part of the photo (blow it up to see it) is the bemused look on Ryan's and Chelsea's faces as they survey the sea of grapes:


Much of this fruit was unexpected, though no less welcome for it.  With most of our estate harvested and wet, frosty weather looming November 4th-6th, we figured that we'd be lucky to get anything additional in.  But lucky we were.  The rains amounted to little more than half an inch, and frosts that affected most of Paso Robles (for once) missed us.  So with sunny weather resuming on the 7th we scurried to finish harvesting our own property.  And some of the later-ripening Patelin vineyards escaped sufficiently to contribute as well.  All together, we finished harvest with 100 different lots, 70 from our own vineyard and 30 from various other vineyards for Patelin and Patelin Blanc.

Yields in 2011 were low, though thanks to this late flurry of grapes not as low as we'd feared.  Over the entire 105 producing acres, we harvested 243 tons, or 2.3 tons per acre.  That's down significantly (about 34%) compared to 2010, but probably more like down 15%-20% compared to a normal year.

Compared to 2010, every variety except Roussanne was down.  But 2010 was not a normal vintage; it was one of our most plentiful vintages, even if its 3.5 tons per acre were still modest by most standards.  An idea of a more normal vintage might come by averaging high-yielding 2010 and low-yielding 2009.  Compared to this theoretical "normal" vintage, we saw significant declines in Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc.  We saw essentially average yields in Mourvedre, Counoise, Tannat, Marsanne and Vermentino.  And we saw an increase in Roussanne.  The degree to which this correlates to which varieties were out at the time of our April frosts should perhaps be unsurprising.  All the low-yielding varieties except Picpoul were out.  And all the normal-yielding varieties except Marsanne weren't.  Roussanne, the only grape to show an increase, is both late-sprouting and notoriously frost-resistant.  For our principal varietals, our yields were (in tons):

Grape2011 Yields
2010 Yields 2009 Yields % vs. Avg.
Viognier  6.5 22.5 12.2 -62.5%
Marsanne  9.0 13.2
Grenache Blanc  17.1 34.8
Picpoul Blanc  4.7 9.4
Vermentino  11.9 19.1
 43.2 33.9
Total Whites  92.4 132.9
Grenache  42.1 71.1
Syrah  23.3 47.7
Mourvedre  52.9 69.3
Tannat  9.8 14.5
Counoise  11.7 16.8
Total Reds  139.8 219.4
Total  232.2 352.3

Our average sugars at harvest continued their gradual decline.  This is, we believe, partly due to the cool vintage (2011, like 2010, was one of the coolest on record in Paso Robles) but also due to the continuing capability of older vines to deliver fully ripe flavors at lower sugar levels.  Our average Brix at harvest since 2007:

2007: 24.42 avg. Brix
2008: 23.87 avg. Brix
2009: 23.42 avg. Brix
2010: 22.68 avg. Brix
2011: 22.39 avg. Brix

Delving deeper into the sugar levels, the average sugars at harvest of our principal varieties this year were:

Counoise: 22.5
Grenache Noir: 24.4
Grenache Blanc: 21.8
Marsanne: 21.1
Mourvèdre: 22.8
Picpoul Blanc: 20.7
Roussanne: 20.9
Syrah: 22.6
Tannat: 21.9
Vermentino: 21.0
Viognier: 22.3

The harvest was shorter than most.  We began on September 20th and finished on November 9th, a span of 51 days.  By contrast, 2010 harvest took 59 days, 2009 took 64 days, 2008 took 58 days and 2007 took 66 days.  Our longest harvest ever, 2004, took a whopping 89 days.

The quality of the fruit looks terrific.  The whites are generally bright and expressive, with beautiful acidities thanks to the late, cool spring and the unusual lack of heat spikes during the growing season.  The reds are deep in color and wonderfully aromatic.  But that's not to say it wasn't stressful.  Winemaker Ryan Hebert says "I think the quality is going to be great, but it's going to be different than anything we've ever seen before.  It's paid off that we've had to learn to be comfortable with ripeness at lower sugars, so this year didn't scare us too much."

Winemakers generally are critical judges of quality at this stage.  That the cellar team is as excited as they are -- with the memories of the year's challenges still fresh -- bodes well for vintage 2011.

The sun sets on the 2011 Harvest, light in yields but intense in character

Sunset with mourvedre

OK, I guess I didn't mean that literally, though that was the last two bins of our estate Mourvedre coming in from the vineyard under the setting sun and rising moon yesterday evening.  But our last grapes are coming in today, both off our estate (where we're picking down in our nursery block and generally cleaning up "last pick" fruit from any sections that had anything left) and for our Patelin (where we have Mourvedre and Grenache from a handful of cool, late-ripening sites arriving throughout the day).

Over the last two weeks, the bigger picture of the 2011 harvest has come into focus.  We're going to be light in quantity, probably in the neighborhood of 225 tons of estate fruit.  Most varieties are down between 40% and 50% compared to last year, and between 20% and 30% compared to normal.  Quality looks excellent, with dark colors in the reds and remarkable intensity with surprising freshness In both reds and whites. 

This overall picture, of course, is both messier and more interesting when you look in more detail.  Some varieties (most notably Viognier) are almost nonexistent in the cellar.  Roussanne will actually have more tonnage this year than in 2010.  Of our key reds, Mourvedre did best in terms of yields (down about 30%) while Syrah was hardest-hit (down about 55%).  Still, things could have been much worse.  2010 was an unusually bountiful vintage, and yields down 45% are still going to be OK.  We've spoken to some neighbors whose crops are down 75% or more.  And what we're seeing looks great, with very thick skins and beautiful balance of sugars, flavors and acids.  It's hard to show just how deep the colors are on the red wines, but this photo of Mourvedre in a bin gives you a sense.  Mourvedre is normally a mid-color red grape, between the lighter pink-purple of Grenache and the deep blue-black of Syrah:


The last few weeks of harvest have been driven by the fear of two storm systems.  The second is forecast to arrive tomorrow.  The first dropped just over half an inch of rain on us between November 4th and 6th, and knowing it was coming meant that the end of October and the first few days of November were the time to push to get things in.  With most other varieties already harvested, we focused on Mourvedre.  During that time, we harvested six different Mourvedre blocks totaling about 30 tons, and also brought in 15 tons of Grenache, 5 tons of Roussanne, 3 tons of Counoise and our tiny harvest (.4 tons) of Petit Manseng. 

The change in the weather included two frosty nights and two rainy days, but the frosts (for once) were more severe elsewhere in Paso Robles than they were out at Tablas Creek, and the rainfall totals were less than had been feared.  While we were ready to sacrifice what hadn't yet been harvested, the ground sucked up the water and by Monday conditions were dry enough to resume.  Since then we've brought in another 8 tons of Mourvedre, 6 tons of Grenache and 4 tons of Roussanne.  Even more unexpected, we'll get what looks to be some great fruit, both Grenache and Mourvedre, to round out the Patelin red 2011.  I'll have a complete harvest recap with final quantities next week.

In addition to the harvesting, with an already-full cellar and more fruit coming in, we've been working hard to get finished red fermentations out of the tanks they're in, into the press and eventually into barrels so we can reuse the tanks for new fermentations.  That means lots of draining and shoveling.  Cesar Perrin demonstrates technique on the left, below.  On the right, Chelsea shows a messier -- but sometimes necessary -- method.

Cesar shovels Chelsea in tank

We're feeling fortunate to have received this mid-November reprieve.  It looks like our weather is supposed to turn definitively toward winter at the end of this week.  We're forecast for our first serious winter storm of the year, and expecting a couple of inches of rain and some decent winds on Friday.  Neil, Levi and the vineyard team have been focusing on getting cover crops seeded, compost spread, and straw put down on erosion-prone hillsides.  In this effort, the rain we got in early October is beneficial, as there is already cover crop growth.  Things are starting to look quite green out there:


Overall, we feel fortunate to have gotten in what we did, and are genuinely excited about the quality of what we have in the cellar.  Next week, we'll turn our focus back to the 2010 vintage and start the process of putting together our red blends from last year.

Meanwhile, we'll be trying to stay dry as we enjoy the last few days of autumn.

A Day in the Life of a Limousin Oak Fermenter

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:

Cuve ecoulage

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.

Cuve bottom door Cuve interior

Looking up from inside the cuve shows its open top with its safety grid:

Cuve top grid_0001

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?

Cuve recoulage_0001