Tasting the wines in the Fall 2019 VINsider "Collector's Edition" Shipment

Each summer, I taste through library vintages of our Esprit and Esprit Blanc to choose the wines for the upcoming VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment. We created the Collector's Edition version of our VINsider Wine Club back in 2009 to give our biggest fans a chance to see what our flagship wines were like aged in perfect conditions. Members also get a slightly larger allocation of the current release of Esprits to track as they evolve. This club gives us a chance show off our wines' ageworthiness, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.

This year, our selections will be the 2011 Esprit de Tablas and the 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. Although the vintages were quite different (2011 was one of our coolest, followed a wet winter, and saw crop levels reduced by 40% from an April frost, while 2013 was on the warm side, two years into our drought but with still-solid yields) both produced wines that we thought at the time would reward cellaring. And indeed, both the wines were still youthful when I tasted them today.

So, how have the wines changed? The 2013 Esprit Blanc has picked up a nutty note that plays nicely off the honey and green herbs it had when it was first released. And the 2011 Esprit, which was always dark and dense from its combination of chilly vintage and low yields, has opened up to show a lovely chocolaty character and tannins that have softened and come into balance with the wine's fruit, spice, and mineral notes.

And because of the stuffing that these wines began with, they will both go out another decade, at least. The pair:

2019 Collectors Edition Wines

My tasting notes, from today:

  • 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc: Lovely medium gold. A nutty nose of marzipan, creme brûlée, fennel spearmint, and candied orange peel. The mouth shows a sweet butterscotch note on the attack, then nice acids and a little bit of Grenache Blanc's characteristic pithy bite, and finally mandarin, sweet spice, and chalky minerality on the long finish. 71% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc.  Delicious now, but will certainly be good for another 5-10 years, or more.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas: A dark nose of juniper forest, bramble, bakers chocolate, peppermint, tamari, and black plum. The mouth is similarly savory, with flavors of rosemary, chocolate-covered black cherry, a clean loamy Mourvedre-driven earthiness, and a leathery, meaty note that is just starting to emerge. The finish is back to the flavors promised on the nose, especially juniper, plum skin, and black tea. 40% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Counoise. It's only getting better, and if you have the patience to wait it could go out another decade or more, continuing to soften and open for most of that time. 

The complete Collector's Edition shipment is awfully exciting, at least to me, between the combination of the library vintages and all the wines from 2017, which I think will go down as one of our greatest ever:

  • 2 bottles of 2011 Esprit de Tablas
  • 2 bottle of 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 3 bottles of 2017 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2017 En Gobelet
  • 1 bottle of 2017 Mourvedre
  • 1 bottles of 2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2018 Cotes de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2018 Grenache Blanc

We will be adding to the Collector's Edition membership, subject to available space, in the next few weeks. If you're on the waiting list, you should be receiving an email soon with news, one way or the other, of whether you've made it on for this round. We add members, once a year, in the order in which we received applications to the waiting list. If you are currently a VINsider member and interested in getting on the waiting list, you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online or by giving us our wine club office a call. And if you are not currently a member, but would like to be, you can sign up for the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition, with all the benefits of VINsider Wine Club membership while you're on the waiting list.

Those of you who are members, I'd love to hear your thoughts.  And thank you, as always, for your patronage. We are grateful, and don't take it for granted.


We open every vintage of Panoplie, from our first-ever 2000 to the newly-blended 2018

This year, we've been looking for various ways to celebrate our 30th Anniversary. Just a couple of months ago, we opened every vintage of our flagship red, from 1997 Rouge to 2017 Esprit de Tablas. It was fascinating. But for our summer vertical tasting (in which we pick a different wine each year and open a range of vintages to show how it's evolving) we thought it would be appropriate to turn our attention for the first time to Panoplie. For those who don't know it, Panoplie is our elite red wine modeled after the Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques Perrin, with a very high percentage of Mourvedre and an extremely limited production.  Because it's not a wine that we put into distribution -- it goes exclusively to our wine club members each spring -- it's our chance to make as spectacular a wine as we can, without worrying about having to make it in quantity. Members have the opportunity to purchase 2 or 3 more bottles maximum after each shipment. Even so, it rarely lasts long. Because of the wine's scarcity and the fact we don't distribute it, I don't open Panoplie very often. That made Friday's lineup of 18 wines all that much more special:

Panoplie Vertical Jun 2019

I invited some of our other key people (Chelsea Franchi, Senior Assistant Winemaker; Austin Collins, Cellar Assistant; John Morris, Tasting Room Manager; Monica O'Connor, Direct Sales Manager; and Ian Consoli, Marketing Coordinator) to join me. While the principal goal was to choose eight representative (and spectacular) wines to share with the guests who are coming for the July 21st Vertical Tasting, I thought it would be fun to share my notes from all the wines, as well as some thoughts about the wine, how it evolves, and how our thinking about it has changed over the years. The wines didn't disappoint, but I'll save the rest of my conclusions until the end.

A few notes on the wines, and the names. Note that we didn't produce a Panoplie in the frost-impacted 2001 vintage. And we've moved the wine's name around a couple of times. In 2004, the Perrins pointed out to us that it was a little awkward that there was a wine in our hierarchy above the "Esprit de Beaucastel", so we renamed the Panoplie "Esprit de Beaucastel 'Panoplie'" starting that year. It wasn't ideal, and I can't tell you how many times we had people complain that they opened a Panoplie when they didn't mean to, or that they couldn't tell them apart in their wine racks. So, when we rebranded our flagship wine to Esprit de Tablas with the 2011 vintage, we reverted back to the simpler "Panoplie" again. Finally, if you want detailed technical information or to see the tasting notes we wrote shortly after bottling, each wine is linked to its profile page on our Web site:

  • 2000 Panoplie (55% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 15% Grenache): A nose of menthol, pine forest floor, juniper, meat, and plum. John called it "very wild boar-ish". On the palate, showing some signs of age in its leathery notes, but still quite rich with dark cherry fruit, chewy tannins, and full body. I'm not sure this was as good as it was the last time we tried it in 2016, but still an admirable performance for our first and oldest Panoplie, made from vines no more than 8 years old.
  • 2002 Panoplie (80% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache, 7% Counoise): Dark, savory, and meaty on the nose, like a leg of lamb marinating in soy and rosemary. On the palate, more youthful than the 2000, with red cranberry and currant fruit, a sweet Chinese five spice note, and some muscular tannins. The finish turned savory again.  In a nice place, and while there's no hurry, it seems wise to drink this if you've been saving it.
  • 2003 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 7% Syrah, 3% Counoise): Mint chocolate, meat drippings, and sweet tobacco on the appealing nose. On the palate, lovely red currant fruit and a sweet chocolate truffle note. Lovely acids and just enough tannic bite to keep it fresh. The long finish offers luxardo cherries and a rose petal floral note we loved. Our favorite of the older vintages, and just in a beautiful place.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 10% Syrah): The nose is complex but also a touch older than the previous wines, with mature notes of cocoa powder, menthol, teriyaki, and prune.  The mouth shows sweet figgy flavors and is quite tannic, with a little raisiny note alongside the chocolate on the finish that I didn't love. This was an era where we were trying to build more perception of sweet fruit into this wine, and looking back with 15 years of perspective, I think we pushed a little too far on ripeness, at the expense of freshness.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (70% Mourvedre, 25% Grenache, 5% Syrah): Sweet fruit on the nose, but in a fresher, more integrated way than the 2004. The mouth is lovely, rich and luscious: chocolate-covered strawberries, big tannins that feel in keeping with the wine's other attributes, and notes of baker's chocolate and violets on the finish. An unapologetically dense, lush wine, but unlike the 2004, I thought it worked. Should be great for quite a while longer, too.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (68% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 5% Syrah): The nose was all savory, and may have suffered a bit compared to the 2005: marinating meat, bone marrow, juniper, bay leaf, and soy. With air, a little maraschino cherry and dark chocolate appeared. On the palate, by contrast, the sweet fruit takes center stage, with sugar plum, cassis, and chocolate-covered cherries the dominant notes before the wine's tannins reassert control on the finish. But still, my lasting impression was one of opulence. 
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): A savory Old World nose with chaparral, meat, and spice. Monica commented that it "smells like a food, not a drink". And we agreed; we spent a while deciding which holiday is smelled most like before coming down on Christmas dinner. The mouth is very complex, with dark leather, substantial dusty tannins, a sweet Chinese five spice note, and more herby thyme/bay notes coming out on the finish. More than any other wine in the lineup, this kept evolving as it sat in the glass, and we feel like it's going to go through a number of different stages in what's going to be a long future life.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah): There was a noteworthy break between 2007 and 2008, with the 2007 and older wines all feeling bigger, riper, and fully mature, while the 2008 felt much closer to what we're doing now, more fresh and delineated. The nose showed spearmint, red plum, bay leaf and new leather. The palate had milk chocolate, chamomile, cherry, and redcurrant fruit. The finish showed sweet clove and candied orange peel, red licorice, anise, and fresh black fig. A real pleasure, and my favorite of the "middle aged" wines.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (65% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 9% Syrah): A very aromatic nose of anise, leather, mint, figs, and an orange liqueur note we eventually named as triple sec. On the palate, more composed, and in fact we felt it was still unwinding: plums and cedar, a little black licorice, an some substantial tannins. A tangy note comes out on the finish, with flavors of roasted meats flinty minerality. This may still be emerging from its closed phase and seems likely only to get better over the next decade.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): Different and notably quieter on the nose than the previous wines, though still appealing: loamy earth, cardamom, braised meat and ginger. On the palate, more generous, with flavors of blackberry, black raspberry, teriyaki, bay, and a meaty little caramel smokiness on the finish that Austin called as jamon.
  • 2011 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): On the nose similar to but more giving than the 2010, with a slightly redder tint to the cola, red licorice, crushed rock, and fresh prosciutto-wrapped figs. In the mouth, plum and sarsaparilla, loam and roasted root vegetables in which we identified roasted beets and parsnips. It's possible that we were getting hungry by this point in the tasting.
  • 2012 Panoplie (70% Mourvedre, 20% Grenache, 10% Syrah): High-toned spicy fruit on the nose, with cherry cola, juniper, bergamot, and a complex note that reminded me of angostura bitters. In the mouth, more spicy red fruit flavors of wild strawberries, green peppercorn, and yellow raspberry. Cool, minty, and tangy on the finish. Chelsea described the wine's Nordic character well: "like a high altitude meadow". A bit uncharacteristic for the Panoplie, without some of the bass notes we tend to look for, but complex and refreshing.
  • 2013 Panoplie (75% Mourvedre, 15% Grenache, 10% Syrah): A lovely expressive dark fruited nose, with teriyaki, black licorice, bay, and a meaty roast pork character. The mouth is lush and silky and delicious, powerful and complex without any sense of overripeness: wild mushrooms, black plum, chalky mineral, and licorice. Still very much on its way up, and a consensus favorite among its cohort.
  • 2014 Panoplie (65% Mourvedre, 28% Grenache, 7% Syrah): A spicy red fruit nose more like the 2012 than the 2013, seemingly marked by the higher Grenache percentage: red plum, pine forest, new leather and clove. On the palate Grenache's characteristic tangy red fruit character, surprisingly complex and mature for only being five years old. Salted plums and baking spices give way to a lingering smoky note.
  • 2015 Panoplie (71% Mourvedre, 24% Grenache, 5% Syrah; from foudre): A very evocative youthful Mourvedre nose: thyme and oregano on top of mineral-laced red fruit. On the palate, concentrated salted watermelon, yellow raspberry, with firm tannins that promise a long future, and a finish of mint and blueberries. Like many of our 2015 reds, it feels powerful without any sense of extra weight. Still deepening and opening up, and should be great in another year or two.
  • 2016 Panoplie (66% Mourvedre, 25% Syrah, 9% Grenache): More powerful and plush (and darker) on the nose than the 2014 or 2015, perhaps driven by the higher Syrah content, with rich brambly plum skin, minty dark chocolate and crushed rock aromas. The mouth is textured and complex, perfectly balanced between sweet and savory notes, with a meaty, spicy jerky note. Significant, lingering tannins frame a finish with black licorice and an iron-like minerality. Our favorite of the youngest vintages, recently sent out to VINsider Wine Club members this spring.
  • 2017 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 17% Grenache, 14% Syrah; pulled from foudre, where it has been aging for the last year): Mostly dark on the nose for me, with black currant, black licorice, and black pepper slowly softening to show an appealing cocoa butter and crushed rock note. On the palate, very fruity, with sweet plum and blackberry fruit on the attack, then substantial tannins to restore order, then tangy teriyaki and iron mineral notes come out on the finish. This will be bottled in about a month, then held in bottle before it's sent to VINsiders next spring. 
  • 2018 Panoplie (64% Mourvedre, 24% Syrah, 12% Grenache; newly blended just last week): Smells so young and primary, like grape essence, but undercut by a little dark chaparral spiciness. The mouth is thick with young fruit, still more grape than anything else, and still because of its recent blending cloudy and settling out. It's about to go into foudre, where it will rest for the next year-plus. A baby, but with tons of fascinating potential.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • It seems like we're settling in on ideal drinking windows for Panoplie. With nearly 20 vintages under our belts, and some of our oldest wines starting to feel like they've peaked, I feel more confident than I ever have in suggesting that wine lovers drink Panoplie either in the 3-6 year window (before the wine shuts down) or in the 9-15 year window (once it reopens). It's not that the wines will fall apart after age 15; I think that many of them will provide fascinating drinking for a decade more, but it's hard for me to imagine those older wines being any better than they are now.
  • All the wines were excellent.  I asked the six people around the table for their votes on some favorites, and fourteen of the eighteen wines received at least one vote.  The highest vote-getters were 2016 and 2013, which both got votes from all 6 of us. 2007 and 2003 received 4 votes each, while 2008 and 2012 received 3 votes each. But I'm confident that even the wines which didn't receive any favorite votes in this tasting (2000, 2004, 2010, and 2015) would make for exceptional drinking if you open one.
  • Flavors evolve, but favorites stay favorite. Looking back at our last Panoplie vertical from 2016 some favorites that we noted were 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011, and 2013. All five of those received multiple favorite votes this time too.
  • Nothing seemed like it was in a "closed" phase. Unlike in our last tasting, there weren't any vintages that I was confident were in their closed phase. It seemed like 2009 was still unspooling, but it was far from closed. 2010 might have been a little quiet, but it too was still delicious. And neither 2011 nor 2012, which we'd think would be next in line, seemed diminished at all. But if you're worried, check our vintage chart periodically.
  • Don't be afraid of young Panoplie.  I know that when we let people know that these wines can age for decades it often scares them away from opening one young.  But the young wines in this flight were almost all drinking beautifully, and anyone who opens a vintage like 2013 or 2016 in coming months is in for a real treat.
  • Those of you coming for our July 21st Panoplie tasting are in for a treat. We've decided to show eight vintages: 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2017.

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Muscardin

We have some big news. With last week's grafting of some 250 Muscardin buds into the vineyard at Tablas Creek, we've achieved our goal of having all the Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes in the ground here at Tablas Creek. This is the culmination of a 30-year project, and meaningful for me in part because it's the realization of one of my dad's dreams.

But what, you ask, is Muscardin like? That's a difficult question. I've been answering it by saying, "well, it's red, but not very" and making a joke that that's all I know. But it's only sort of a joke, because there is so much we don't know yet. Muscardin is barely planted even in its Rhone Valley homeland, and there has been none that I've been able to find that ever made its way outside of the Rhone. But still, I've done what I can to pull together everything we know about it here.

MuscardinHistory
Muscardin is rare nowadays, and it appears never to have been very common, or found anywhere outside the Rhone. Its first mention in the historical record from 1895 talks about it being one of the "old southern grape varieties", along with Grenache, Piquepoul, Tinto, Terret noir, gris and blanc, Counoise, Vaccarese, Clairette, and Picardan.1  Its combination of relatively low vigor, pale color, and sprawling growth appears to have been three strikes against it in the period after Phylloxera2, and in 2009 there were just 11 hectares (27 acres) in Chateauneuf du Pape, and less than that in the rest of France.3 Nevertheless, it is recognized in the official Chateauneuf-du-Pape regulations as a distinct grape, and the Perrins have been one of its advocates, valuing the wine for its freshness and floral lift. When we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties in 2003, our Muscardin cutting came from the Beaucastel estate.

The origin of Muscardin's name is obscure, but the one thing that practically everyone agrees with is that it has nothing to do with Muscat or Muscadet. And the grape's scarcity (it doesn't even appear in Viala & Vermorel's seminal 1905 Ampelographie) means that there is just not that much literature out there on this rare grape.  So, we really are breaking new ground here.

The grape did not have an easy time getting into California either. We took cuttings from Beaucastel in 2003 along with Picardan, Terret Noir, Cinsaut, Vaccarese, Bourboulenc, and Clairette Blanche, and all entered quarantine at U.C. Davis at the same time. But while the other grapes were released to us after one, two, or three rounds of virus cleanup, Muscardin took four separate rounds and wasn't released to NovaVine until last year. They have been working on producing buds ever since.

Muscardin in the Vineyard and Cellar
In order to speed up our production of this last grape, we made the decision to graft the 250 buds we were able to secure onto existing vine stock. About 50 of those buds were grafted onto rootstocks that we planted last year, with the other 200 grafted onto a few surplus rows of 20-year-old Grenache Blanc. We expect to get production off of this block perhaps as soon as 2020.

We don't know that much about how Muscardin will do in our vineyard, but we do have some reports from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. There is a great quote from Baron Le Roi of Chateau Fortia that John Livingstone-Learmonth recounts in his 1992 book The Wines of the Rhone: "You know, we would be better off here if we replaced the Cinsault with the Muscardin. The Muscardin doesn't produce a lot, makes wine of low degree and spreads out over the soil, preventing tractors from passing freely between the vines, all of which combine to put people off it. But I believe that it gives a freshness on the palate and helps the wine to achieve elegance."4

As with any new grape, our initial picking decisions are educated guesses, but Muscardin is supposed to both emerge from dormancy and ripen early, more or less in sync with Syrah. This suggests we will need to be ready to protect it from frost. It is known for ripening at low alcohols and relatively high acids. The freshness and floral character it is supposed to bring to the table suggest that ultimately it will become a part of our blends, and serve perhaps a similar role to Counoise. That said, we plan to bottle the first few vintages on their own, so that we can wrap our heads around them and so we can show them to other people and get their feedback.

Flavors and Aromas
At Beaucastel, because it is so scarce, Muscardin is rarely vinified on its own and I was not able to taste it on either of my last two visits. I did taste a tank where they co-fermented it with two other pale, floral grapes, Vaccarese and Terret Noir. It was delicious, rose petals and fresh acids, spicy with yellow plum and strawberry fruit. I suspect from our own experiences here that the tannic bite I remember came from the Terret; neither Vaccarese nor Muscardin are supposed to be particularly tannic. But we will know more soon. As for aging, Muscardin is reputed to be prone to oxidation, like Counoise, so it may well be something best drunk young, and I suspect we will choose to bottle it under screwcap. We look forward to finding out, and sharing our discoveries with you!

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012, p 678.
  2. John Livingstone-Learmonth, The Wines of the Rhone, Faber & Faber 1992, p 326.
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009, p 78.
  4. Livingstone-Learmonth, p 326.

Why flowering 2019 indicates a later-than-normal but robust, high quality harvest

There are five viticultural markers that we use each year as markers: notable reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years.  These are, in order:

  • Budbreak (typically late March or early April)
  • Flowering (typically May sometime)
  • Veraison (typically late July or early August)
  • First Harvest (typically late August or early September)
  • Last Harvest (typically late October)

Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were on at least a somewhat later track.  Flowering, which we began mid-May but which is still widespread as we get into mid-June, is confirmation that we're looking at a growing season more like last year's than what we got used to the rest of the decade. An example, from one of our Grenache blocks on June 3rd:

Flowering 2019 grenache

If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming.  It's not a showy process.  Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries.  From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within. As with all parts of the vineyard annual cycle, there are grapes that enter (and exit) flowering earlier and later, with the early grapes being Viognier, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. They are followed shortly by Marsanne and Syrah, and finally, as much as a month after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear.

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain.  Cold or wet weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields.  Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so.  This year, the cool spring conditions seem to have delayed flowering long enough that even our late rain in mid-May seems to have rolled through before the flowers were open enough to be susceptible to much damage, and conditions have been ideal ever since. We are cautiously optimistic that shatter won't be a major issue. (It's also worth remembering that overall, conditions in Paso Robles are pretty benign compared to what grapevines face in most parts of the world.)

I always think it's interesting to compare our current year to a range of recent ones. A quick line graph may help give you a sense. I've put the line for 2019 in red, to help it stand out:

Average Temps by Month 2010-2019

You'll likely notice a couple of things. First, May was actually cooler than April, for the first time this decade. And it felt like that too. April felt benign, with less than 0.1" of rain, no frosts, and an average high temperature of 73.4F. May was another story. The Paso Robles Wine Festival, which often coincides with our first hot weekend of the year, took place under conditions that felt more like February: low 60s, with rain threatening. We got seven days with measurable precipitation, totaling 1.44" (triple the 0.44" we average in a normal May). The average high temperature was 70.7F, and eighteen days failed to make it into the 70s. Five days failed to make it even into the 60s.

Second, you'll likely notice the rapid recovery of average temperatures in June. This trend actually began the last week of May, which was (fortunately) right when we first saw flowering. But even that warm-up has been modest, as we've yet to have the temperature here break 100. The next week looks like it's supposed to be in the 80s every day. That's pretty much ideal.

Looking for a comp is premature, as so much depends on what comes next, but it's starting off like 2015, where we ricocheted between significantly warmer-than-normal months and significantly cooler-than-normal months.  But it's also not that different from 2018, when a cool early season built to a scorching July before settling back down to a cooler harvest. But whatever the future holds, we do have a not-insignificant portion of the growing season behind us, and at this point we're 6.3% below our average number of degree days through June 16th, and 25.8% below our maximum to date (2014).  That cool weather, combined with a fairly late budbreak, suggests we're a couple of weeks behind most of our recent years, and unlikely to begin harvest before September.  I'll keep updating you throughout the summer, as there's a long way to go.

At this point, we're happy to be most of the way through flowering in good shape, with the vines healthy from the winter rain we received and the lack (so far) of heat spikes, at the roughly one-third point of the growing season.  It's not just the grapevines that are flowering away. We've got blooms all over our olive trees:

Olive flowering 2019

And the California poppies are still putting on a show, at a time of year when they're often past their primes:

CA poppies June 2019

But the main event is, as always, the grapevines. We're thrilled with what we've seen so far. Fingers crossed for more of the same. And if you visit a vineyard in the next few weeks, take a sniff... the scent can be intoxicating.

Flowering Grenache 2019


Thirsty for a bit of history: The Wine of the Popes

[Editor's Note: With this blog, we're launching a the new blog series "Stories from the Tasting Room", written by the talented Evelyne Fodor. Evelyne was born and raised in Lyon, France, holds a PhD in French and Francophone Studies from UCLA, and still teaches for UCLA online. She has been one the leaders in the Tablas Creek tasting room since 2014.]

By Evelyne Fodor

The other day a young couple stopped at the winery for a tasting.  Timothy and Cassandra, as they introduced themselves, were from Silver Lake, a hidden Los Angeles neighborhood that attracts creative people and foodies. My guests fell in both categories. “Timothy is a TV writer and I am a private chef” Cassandra told me.  Timothy had an unusual request. “I am reading this book about a troubled gentleman, confined in a hotel, who found solace in drinking the “Wine of the Pope.” The allusion to the New York Times bestseller, A Gentleman in Moscow, did not escape me. The main character, Count Roskov, a wine connoisseur, was a big fan of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines.  “How is Tablas Creek related to Châteauneuf-du-Pape?” he asked.   Of all the things that makes our story so compelling, our connection with an ancient village in Southern Rhône is the one that excites me.  The name transports you not only to another time and place, it also evokes a turbulent time in the Catholic Church history, the birth a wine dynasty family, an iconic bottle, and the inspiration for our flagship wine Esprit de Tablas.

CNP blog PIC ClementChâteauneuf-du-Pape means “Pope’s new castle,” I told Timothy. In the 14th century, I continued, just before the Great Schism the newly elected Pope was a Frenchman from Bordeaux by the name of Clément V (pictured left).  As historians told us, Pope Clément chose to not move to Rome for security reasons. Instead he brought the Papal court to the walled city of Avignon, at the time a property of the Roman Church.  Clément V, it is also said, was an avid wine drinker who preferred to stay close to his estate which he personally managed.  The estate was a few kilometers north of Avignon in an ancient village known for its soil, Châteauneuf-Calcernier, named after a nearby limestone quarry.

I started the tasting with our 2016 Grenache Blanc, a perfect wine for a day like today, when Timothy interrupted me. “It’s a lovely wine, great acidity! Tell me more about the Castle.” Clearly Timothy was enjoying the unexpected history tasting so I continued. The next Pope, by the name of Jean XXII, also French, also a wine lover, built a home among the vineyards of Châteauneuf-Calcernier, as a summer residence to escape the heat of Avignon.  Then six successive French Popes kept their residence in Avignon, spending time in the vineyards of Pope Clément, expanding the home started by Jean XXII.  The Papacy remained in Avignon until the last French Pope, Gregory XI, decided to return to Rome. It came to a bad end for the last Pope, but the legend of the “Vin du Pape”, as it became known, had begun.

CNP blog PIC villageI was now pouring the 2016 Cotes de Tablas, boasting the characteristics of my favorite grape, Grenache, when Timothy signaled again, he was ready for a bit more of history. “So how did the Beaucastel family became involved with the Wine Pope?” It came later I answered. The Popes had already returned to Rome when Pierre de Beaucastel, a Huguenot living in a village nearby, bought a barn with a plot of land. In those days, if a Protestant agreed to convert to Catholicism, in return King Louis XIV would give him the right to collect taxes from the local people.  It is with this money that Pierre built his house.  In recognition of his status and conversion to Catholicism after the revocation of the Edict de Nantes, he was appointed “Captain of the town” by the King and became known as Noble Pierre de Beaucastel.  The Beaucastel family went on to become one of the most prestigious families in Châteauneuf-du-Pape region, and their estate has now been owned and run by the Perrin family for five generations.  

CNP blog PIC bottle“There is a scene in A Gentleman in Moscow, where Count Rosko is in the cellar of the Metropol Hotel where thousands of bottles of wines had their labels removed” Timothy said, “but Count Rosko was able to single out a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. How was that possible?” Clearly, Timothy had never seen a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. "If you remember the scene," I told him, "Count Rosko was lingering his fingers on the bottles." In our seating room we have a picture of a vintage bottle of Château de Beaucastel. "Here it is," I told Timothy. You can see and feel the inscription "Châteauneuf-du-Pape contrôlé" embossed in Gothic letters. The Coat of Arms symbolizes a Papal tiara placed above the keys of St. Peter, or as Francois Perrin, our French partner from Beaucastel once told me “the keys to Paradise”.

I could tell Timothy’s excitement when I finally introduced him to our flagship blend 2016 Esprit de Tablas. “So, this is the Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine?” he asked, starring at our own embossed logo, a nod to Châteauneuf-du-Pape Coat of Arms.  "It’s as close as you can get in this part of the world," I told him.  "But as Jason Haas made it clear in his blog, Esprit de Tablas is 'an inspiration, not a copy.' Esprit means 'Spirit' after the Châteauneuf-du-Pape of Beaucastel.”

When the tasting was completed, Timothy joined our VINsider Collector’s Edition, “to get as many older Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Tablas vintages I can put my hands on.” And with that, Cassandra had one final question: “What should I pair the wine with?” Timothy winked at me. We both knew the answer. “A bouillabaisse, bien sûr”, as per Count Roskov’s recommendation. 


Is there a future for half-bottles?

It was pretty early on in my time out selling Tablas Creek, before, I think, I'd even moved out to Paso Robles. I went to a terrific restaurant in Washington, DC, and got into a conversation with the owner and wine buyer. We were talking about what her favorite bottles were to recommend on her list, and she said that if people were open to it, her favorite bottle wasn't a single bottle... it was two different half-bottles, one of which (I remember) was the Coudoulet de Beaucastel. This, she said, gave her guests the chance to pair different wines with first and main courses, and offered more diversity and value than wines by the glass. I've always remembered that conversation, and we've bottled our Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc in half-bottles since before they were called Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.

Half bottles

At the same time, half-bottles aren't easy. I had a Twitter exchange last week with Amber LeBeau, whose SpitBucket Blog is becoming a must-read piece of the conversation on wine, at least for me. She was suggesting that half-bottles should be well positioned to take advantage of the consumer's growing interest in moderation, and wondered how much more it cost wineries to make them.  Click on through to Twitter to see the whole thread:

I feel like 280 characters (OK, times two) was enough to lay out the main challenges for us with half-bottles. They are expensive, because the bottle, capsule, cork, and label cost just as much as a full bottle would, and the consumer (with reason) doesn't want to pay more than half as much for half the wine in a full bottle. In the cellar, you have to stop and recalibrate your bottling line, which slows you down, and you have to source smaller lots of everything, which is expensive.  And like any alternate-size formats -- we see the same issue with magnums and kegs -- there's always the challenge of moving on to the next vintage at the right time. It's a nuisance to everyone to have sold out of your 750ml bottles but still have a few orphaned cases of half-bottles in distributor stock, because the reps are unlikely to want to sample a vintage of a wine that's only available in half-bottles, while purchasing managers won't usually bring in the new vintage of half-bottles until the old one is gone. 

Still, we keep on making half-bottles for two reasons. I do feel that it's an incredibly customer-friendly way to offer wine, particularly if you subsidize the price, as we do, so it ends up at more or less half the price of full bottles. And second, I have always felt that because there are many fewer half-bottles made than there are full bottles, the half-bottle list is a place where we can stand out. Even on big wine lists with hundreds of bottles, the half-bottle selection is likely a single page of maybe a dozen options.  I've always liked our odds in that short list.

But with the growth of by-the-glass programs, and particularly the high-end glass pours enabled by the widespread use of the Coravin, I wonder if the days of the half-bottle are numbered. I know that we've revised downward the number of cases of half-bottles that we've bottled steadily over the last decade, to keep them in balance with the demand we've seen. At our apex in the late 2000's we were bottling 450 cases each of our Esprit and Esprit Blanc in half-bottles. By the early 2010's we were down to 250 cases of each. Then 200, then 150. Last year we bottled just 125 cases of each. This year, it will be only 75. Sure, we can bring back the unsold stock at the end of the release and make a special price for our club members, but ultimately, if people aren't that interested in buying wine in the half-bottle format, we'd be silly to continue to make it.

So, a question to you all. Do you like wine in half-bottles? Do you buy it? If so, where? For home consumption, or out at restaurants? And are there specific kinds of wines you order in half-bottles? I'm curious. Because if you're a lover of these smaller formats, as I am, it seems like our days of being able to find them may be numbered.

Half Bottle Array


Tasting Every Vintage of our Flagship Red, 1997 Rouge to 2017 Esprit de Tablas

As regular readers of the blog have probably gathered, we're spending much of this year looking back as we celebrate our 30th anniversary. As a part of this celebration, in advance of the 30th Anniversary Party we hosted here a few weeks back, we decided to open every vintage of our flagship red wines, from our very first Tablas Creek Rouge in 1997 to the 2017 Esprit de Tablas that is still sitting in foudre waiting to be bottled later this summer. While we're opening older vintages of Esprit fairly regularly, we only go through a systematic tasting every couple of years1. So, it would have been a special occasion for us anyway. But because we had Jean-Pierre Perrin in town, we thought it would be great to invite some other local regional Rhone Rangers winemakers to join us. In the end, about 18 of us, evenly split between Tablas folks and those we'd invited to join, sat down on a Friday afternoon to taste 21 different wines. The tasting mat tells the story:

Rretrospective Tasting Mat

I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I was spending a lot of time coordinating the discussion, so some of my notes are a bit telegraphic, but I hope that you will still get a sense of the differences. I have also linked each vintage to that wine's page on our Web site, if you'd like to see production details or what the tasting notes were at bottling.

  • 1997 Rouge: A nose that is minty and spicy, still quite fresh. On the palate, bright acids, earth, and still some solid tannins. I'd never have guessed that this wine was 20 years old, or made from grapevines that were just three to five years old. 
  • 1998 Rouge: Older and quieter on the nose than the 1997. The mouth has a cool elegance and nice leathery earth. A little simple perhaps, but still totally viable. From one of our coolest-ever vintages, where we didn't start harvesting until October.
  • 1999 Reserve Cuvee: Dramatic on the nose, dark mocha and meat drippings. On the palate, still quite intense, with coffee, red berry fruit, and big tannins. A long finish. Still vibrant and youthful. I remember selling this wine when it was young, and it was a bit of a tannic monster. Those tannins have served it well in the intervening two decades.
  • 2000 Esprit de Beaucastel: A lovely meaty nose with eucalyptus, licorice, red currant and chocolate. Similar flavors on the palate, with a velvety texture and a long finish. Right at its peak, we thought. We've consistently underestimated this wine's aging potential, and each time we open a bottle we like it more.
  • 2001 Founders Reserve: From lots we'd set aside for Esprit and Panoplie that we blended for the wine club after deciding not to make either wine in the frost-depleted 2001 vintage. On the nose, more savory than fruity, dark eucalyptus and black pepper. A touch of alcohol showed. The mouth is vibrant, with great acids, mid-weight texture, and a long finish. A little rustic compared to the wines around it, but intense and fun to taste.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel: Dark and chocolaty on the nose, with black fruit and balsamic notes. The mouth is similar, with cocoa powder, black cherry, luscious texture, and a long finish. My favorite of the older vintages.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel: Round on the nose and lightly meaty, with a sweet cola character that I've always loved in this wine. On the palate, lively, with milk chocolate and tangy currant fruit. Really nice but I thought a touch less outstanding than we thought in our last tasting in 2017. Drink up.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel: A spicy balsamic nose nicely balanced between fruity and savory elements. On the palate too I found it right on point, with no element sticking out, but less dramatic than the vintages before and after. Still fresh. 
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel: Leaps out of the glass with a meaty, smoky nose, deep and inviting. On the palate, spruce forest and meat drippings, black licorice and dark red fruit. Dramatic and long on the finish. A consensus favorite, and right in the middle of what looks likely to be a long peak.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel: A lovely wine that paled a little after the 2005, with a nose that is lightly meaty, with both black and red currant notes. On the palate, it feels fully mature and resolved, with a nice sweet clove/cumin spice notes, and nice freshness on the finish.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel: A dense, inky animal nose, with iodine and cherry skin coming out with time. On the palate, luscious and densely tannic, with a creamy texture and a dark cherry cola note vying with the tannins on the finish. Still young and on its way up, and definitely helped by time in the glass. Decant if you're drinking now, or hold.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel: Very different from the previous vintage, much more marked by Grenache's openness and red fruit. A high toned red berry nose, with a palate that is open and lifted and medium-bodied. This had a lovely translucency and freshness that made it a favorite for many of us of the 10-15 year old range.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel: Sort of split the difference between the two previous vintages, with a dense eucalyptus and cola nose, with pepper spice notes. Plush but still tannic on the palate, with red raspberry fruit and some dusty tannins that are a reminder of its youth. Lots there, and still fleshing out.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel: A pretty nose, with leather and spicy boysenberry. On the palate, nicely mid-weight on entry, but good tangy purple fruit and these nice tannins with the texture of powdered sugar. In a good place, and reminiscent of the 1998, from a similarly cool vintage.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas: Like the 2010, with the volume turned up slightly. A creamy cherry candy nose, with Syrah's dark foresty character a bit toward the forefront. Savory and textured on the palate, with black cherry coming out on the finish. More open than my last tasting of this wine, which suggests it's on its way out of its closed phase.
  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas: A high toned nose, almost all red fruit at this stage. Candied strawberry on the nose, then red plum on the palate, with a tangy marinade note that I've always found in the 2012. Medium weight. Still fleshing out and deepening; I'm very interested to see where this goes during and after its closed phase.
  • 2013 Esprit de Tablas: A darker nose than 2012, with a spicy Mexican chocolate character. The mouth is savory with black raspberry and black cherry fruit, new leather, soy marinade, and some youthful tannins. Seems more on a black fruit 2010/2011 trajectory than a red fruit 2008/2009/2012 one.
  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas: I wrote pure multiple times on this one: a nose like "pure wild strawberry" and the "mouth too, with crystalline purity". Nice texture, generously red fruited. We've been thinking of the 2014 vintage as something like 2007, but tasting this wine it was instead more like 2009.
  • 2015 Esprit de Tablas: A nose of spiced red fruit, like pomegranate molasses. The mouth is pure and deep, purple fruit and spicy herbs, a little leathery soy note provides savory counterpoint. Long and expressive. My favorite of our recent vintages.
  • 2016 Esprit de Tablas: A dense, savory nose, bigger and denser than the 2015, yet still expressive. Blackberry or black plum, pepper spice, chewy tannins, and a long finish. A hint of meatiness like a rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb. Should be incredible to watch evolve. A consensus favorite of our younger wines. 
  • 2017 Esprit de Tablas: A nose like black cherry and smoke, with a concentrated juiciness that despite its power doesn't come across as sweet. Elderberry and new leather. Long. I am excited to show off this wine, which seems to me too be the closest thing we've blended to the 2005 in the years since.

I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and 14 of the 21 wines got at least one vote. Those with four or more included the 2000, 2005, 2008, 2009, 2011, 2014, and 2016, with the 2005 and the 2016 sharing the top total. 

A few concluding thoughts:

  • What a pleasure to taste with the combined hundreds of vintages of experience in that room. A few (including Jean-Pierre Perrin, and Jordan Fiorentini of Epoch Estate Wines) had to leave before we thought of taking the photograph, but what a room of winemaking talent to share the experience with:
Rretrospective Tasting Guests
From left: John Alban, Alban Vineyards; John Munch, Le Cuvier Winery; Jason Haas; Kirk Gafill, Nepenthe; Aengus Wagner, Nepenthe; Steve Edmunds, Edmunds St. John; Steve Beckmen, Beckmen Vineyards; Neil Collins
  • I was really pleased that the favorite wines stretched from the beginning of the sequence to the end, and included warm years and cool, low-production years and plentiful ones, and blends that included unusually high percentages of Mourvedre (2005, 2015), of Grenache (2008, 2014), and of Syrah (2009, 2016). I thought that the older wines showed great staying power, while the younger wines were open and felt already well mannered. John Munch from Le Cuvier commented, in his typically pithy style, "the older wines didn't taste old, and the younger wines didn't taste young".
  • The longevity of the wines from even our very early vintages gives me a ton of optimism about how our current wines will age. Look at a wine like the 2000: for a decade, we've been commenting at every tasting that it's the best showing we've seen yet. Our oldest vines then were 8 years old, with the majority of the vineyard between 3 and 5. This long aging curve wouldn't be a surprise for Mourvedre-heavy Chateauneuf, but I think we've consistently underestimated how well our own wines age. Hopefully, events like this help recast our expectations.
  • It is always fascinating the extent to which the wines are alive, and do move around over time. Last time we held a tasting like this, in 2017, our favorites included 2000, 2003, 2006, 2010, and 2015. All of those showed well at this tasting, but only the 2000 was among our top-5 vote-getters this time. 
  • At the same time, the tasting supported by contention that the run we're on now is the best we've ever seen. If you tally the votes in 3-year increments, the top range was 2014-2016 (15 votes), followed closely by 2008-2010 (13 votes) and 2003-2005 (11 votes). If I had to make a gross generalization, in our early years (say, up until 2007), we were making wines that had robust power but were a little rustic and needed age to come into balance. And they mostly have. In our middle years (say, 2008-2013) we were working to build elegance into the wines, trusting that they would deepen with time in bottle. And they mostly have. What we're getting now, with its combination of power and purity, is what we've been aiming at all along, and I think that watching them age will be fascinating.

Flagship red vertical

Footnote

  1. We update a vintage chart at least quarterly with the results of these tastings.

Red blending shows that 2018 is every bit as good as the rest of the 2014-2017 run

Last week, after two full weeks of work, we finally got a chance to taste all 11 red wines we'll be making from the 2018 vintage.  It was impressive.  Esprit and Panoplie were rich and lush, with plenty of ripe tannin but also freshness provided by vibrant acids. The En Gobelet and Le Complice each spoke clearly of the idea behind why we created the wines: En Gobelet earthy, with plenty of concentrated red fruit, while Le Complice was dark, herby, and spicy, like Syrah and yet not quite. The MourvedreGrenache, and Counoise were intensely characteristic of each grape: Mourvedre meaty and chocolaty, Grenache fruity but also powerfully structured, and Counoise juicy and electric, translucent and fresh. Even the Patelin de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas were each, in their own way, remarkably expressive.  And, equally important, thanks to the relatively plentiful 2018 harvest, we'll be able to make solid amounts of most of our wines.  With our 2012-2016 drought still in our recent memory, that was a relief.

Blending components - 2018 reds

How did we get here? It was the result of a process we've developed over the decades, where we spend a week or more sitting around our conference table, schedules cleared so we can focus just on this. Around that table this year joining Neil and me was the rest of our cellar team (Chelsea, Craig, Amanda, and Austin), Claude Gouan (Beaucastel's long-time oenologist, recently retired) and, once he arrived mid-week for our 30th Anniversary celebration, Jean-Pierre Perrin. As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. As we typically do in years where we have decent crop levels, we split our varietal tasting into two days: Counoise and Grenache (plus our few lots of Terret Noir and Pinot) on Monday, and Syrah, Mourvedre, and Tannat on Tuesday. Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending.

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade.  As you'll see, lots of good grades this year.  My quick thoughts on each variety:

  • Grenache (19 lots): The most powerful Grenache we've seen in years, although with the power came some lots that were tannic enough that we felt we had to be careful how we applied them in blending. Nine of the lots received 1's from me, with two others getting 1/2 grades (my intermediate grade that sits between a 1 and a 2). Only one 3. A combination of excellent fruit, good acids, and tannic structure.
  • Red Blending Notes May 2019
    The Syrah and Mourvedre portions of my notes. That's a lot of "1" grades!
    Mourvedre (17 lots): A really nice showing for Mourvedre.  I gave eight lots a 1 grade, there was only one lot I even thought about giving a 3 (I ended up giving it a 2/3, because while it was lighter, it was still pretty).  Lovely and classic, leaning more toward the loamy chocolaty Mourvedre side than the meaty, though there were a few of those sorts of lots too. Nice ripe tannins. A great core for the many wines we make that are based on Mourvedre.
  • Syrah (15 lots): Really outstanding, reminiscent in many ways of what we saw in 2016. Eight 1's, with three others that I gave 1/2 grades to. Dense, dark, creamy and mineral. And, like what we saw in 2016, we ended up liking the syrah's contribution in the blends so much that we didn't have any left over for a varietal. Sometimes, that's how it works.
  • Counoise (7 lots): A nice range of Counoise styles, from the translucent, juicy lots that remind us of Gamay to the rich, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we love to use in Esprit. Three 1's of the seven, on my sheet.
  • Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, but felt less focused and concentrated than it had in past years, and while it will make a nice contribution to Le Complice, we didn't feel it was worthy of bottling on its own. The portion that didn't make it into Le Complice will get declassified into Patelin, which is also fun to contemplate.
  • Tannat (3 lots): Massive, dense, and dark, and powerfully tannic. Chocolaty. Should be a Tannat-lover's dream vintage.
  • Cabernet (1 lot): Beautiful, classic Cabernet, but with only one barrel (from our old nursery block) not enough to bottle on its own. It will go into the Tannat, as it does most years.
  • Pinot Noir (7 lots): All these lots come from the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad planted outside my parents' house back in 2007, with different clones and levels of stem inclusion providing several small (in many cases, one-barrel) lots. The mix of the seven hit, for me, just the right note, with pretty cherry Pinot fruit given weight and complexity from the stems. A nice touch of oak. Should make for a delicious 2018 Full Circle Pinot.

We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the apparent strengths of all three of our main red grapes it only made sense to kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie and Esprit with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned. 

Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie. As always, we tasted our options blind, not knowing what was in each glass. Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. But in this vintage, we all agreed on the blend with the higher percentage of Syrah, which we felt offered great lushness and structure. After a brief discussion, we settled on a blend with 64% Mourvedre, 24% Syrah, and 12% Grenache.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit.  The first trial helped us narrow things down, as none of us picked the wine with the highest percentage of Mourvedre (50%). This was likely true for the same reason we saw last year: because although the Mourvedre was outstanding, we'd used all the lots that got near-universal 1 grades to get to 40% Mourvedre. Increasing that to roughly 50% forced us to include Mourvedre lots to which several of us gave 2 grades at the expense of 1-rated Grenache and Syrah, and our blind tasting confirmed that this was a mistake. That said, we split roughly evenly between camps favoring more Grenache (which produced wines with vibrancy and lift, nice saltiness and firm tannins) and those favoring more Syrah (which produced wines with more density and dark lushness) and decided to try some blends that split the difference.

The next day was a big one. We tasted the day before's Syrah-heavy Esprit against one with equal parts Syrah and Grenache, and again split pretty evenly between the two. In the end, we decided that yet another in-between blend was best, and ended up with an Esprit at 40% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 23% Grenache, and 10% Counoise. 

We next moved on to our two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice. Given the head-trained lots that we'd chosen for Esprit and Panoplie, we didn't have a ton of choice on En Gobelet, which is made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks. And given the relatively high tannins across the vintage, and particularly among the Grenache lots, we were leery of including too much Tannat in the blend. So, it was with some relief that we loved the blend that resulted: 36% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 6% Counoise, and 3% Tannat. It made for an En Gobelet that was juicy yet structured, with beautiful red-fruited power and the tannins to age.

Le Complice celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with Syrah, and particularly the Syrah lots fermented with stems or whole clusters. Both grapes share a peppery spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. Because both grapes tend toward high tannin, we've realized the past two years that we also need some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. That said, because we felt the Terret on its own was weaker than 2016 or 2017, we decided to try some blends with lower percentages of the grape and more Syrah and Grenache. But it was interesting to me that we still all coalesced around the blend with the highest percentage of Terret (15%), along with 60% Syrah and 25% Grenache, as the most characterful and balanced. It was a good reminder that grapes that might be lacking on their own that can be just what a particular blend needs.

After this, we had to break for our 30th Anniversary party, and Claude and his wife left for a driving tour of the desert southwest. So, the next Monday, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals. The main question this year with the Cotes was, given the relatively high tannins of the Grenache lots, what was the right blend (and the right choice of Grenache lots) to show off the grape's charm. We ended up spending more time on this question than I can ever remember, added a relatively high percentage of Counoise and swapped in some of the Grenache lots we'd originally liked less because their simple juiciness was just what the more tannic lots needed. In the end, we chose a blend of 45% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 10% Mourvedre. Even with our adjustments, it will be a serious Cotes de Tablas, with significant aging potential.

Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated how much of the varietal wines we could make: no Syrah, and not much Counoise (125 cases), but a nice quantity (680 cases) of Mourvedre, 1250 cases (our most-ever) of Tannat, and a glorious 1100 cases of what should be an amazing varietal Grenache. Although we'll miss having the Syrah, we should have plenty of great stuff to share with fans and club members over the next couple of years. And coming on the heels of bottling all four of our main red grapes from the terrific 2017 vintage I feel better about the selection of red wines we have in the pipeline than I can remember.

A few concluding thoughts.  First, although we're always looking for comparable vintages to the newest one we're wrapping our heads around, it's hard for me to make an easy vintage comp for 2018.  Maybe 2002, which was also a dark, serious, structured year, outstanding for Syrah, and the first dry year after a very wet one, but the vines were so much younger then. Or 1999, with the same big tannins around expressive fruit, but without the concentration we see now. The fact that I'm having to reach so far back into our history suggests that it was a year with its own unique character. It will be fun to get to know it over the coming months. 

Second, we saw more day-to-day variation in how the wines tasted this year than I can remember since at least 2011. The same wines would taste lusher and rounder one day and more powerfully tannic the next. This was a good reminder that it's important to leave yourselves the flexibility to come back and re-taste things a second or third time. Whether that's a function of what was going on with the weather (it still hasn't settled into our summer pattern, and we had a few rainstorms pass through while we were tasting), or the stages of the wines, or even (as much as I cringe to mention it) the Biodynamic calendar, it's a fact that wines do taste different on different days. Making decisions over the course of two weeks helps reduce the likelihood that those decisions will be based on a tasting day that is an outlier.

Finally, it was such a treat to have both Claude and Jean-Pierre around that blending table. It's pretty mind-blowing to think of the number of vintages, and arguments, and discoveries, they have made at Beaucastel sitting around blending tables like this, in the 40-plus years they've worked together. To have that accumulated experience on display will be my lasting memory of this year's blending.

Blending Table with Claude and Jean-Pierre