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March 2006
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May 2006

Vertical Tasting of 1997-2004 Signature Red Wines

The following article appeared in our February 2006 newsletter, and received so many comments that I thought it would be useful to put up online.  We've always thought our red Rhone blends would age well, but hadn't done a formal vertical tasting in a while.

Before Christmas, Neil Collins, Ryan Hebert, my dad and I opened up a vertical of our top red wines, from our first vintage in 1997 to the newly blended 2004. We wanted to see where the wines were in their evolution, as well as to decide if there was a consistent sense of place. We found some results that we expected (a consistency of style) and others that we didn't (even the oldest wines were tasting young and vibrant).

It was remarkable to us how well even the oldest wines had aged. We had expected the 1997 Rouge, made from three and four-year old vines, to be over the hill. Due to the very hot summer and the early harvest in 1997, the grapes had a short ripening cycle and generally fast fermentations. This led to wines that were early maturing and relatively low in complexity. The intervening years, however, had darkened the wine's flavors and softened its bright fruit. The tannins and acids had held up relatively well, and the wine, while still not complex, was balanced and pleasurable. It probably peaked a couple of years ago, but it is still drinking surprisingly well.

The 1998 vintage year was as different as possible from 1997. We had lots of rain that winter, followed by a cool summer. Harvest started later than ever before (or since) and produced comparatively subtle wines with purple fruit, soft texture, relatively low alcohol, and moderate tannins. The 1998 Rouge then shut down about a year after bottling, and stayed closed for 18 months. Although it is more in the style of our Côtes de Tablas wines than the Esprit de Beaucastels of recent vintages, it is still tasting great. What's more, with its balance and elegance, it has at least a couple of years ahead of it.

There were two noticeable jumps in concentration and overall quality: one between 1998 and 1999, and another between 2001 and 2002. At our December tasting, we found the 1999 Reserve Cuveé to be still quite young and muscular, showing a Syrah-like minerality, red fruit, lots of spice, and a healthy dose of tannin. Although it has reopened after a closed period, it is still a few years from its peak. We'd suggest drinking it between 2007 and 2010.

The 2000 Esprit de Beaucastel is just coming out of its closed period, and was still tight. It was showing very dark: black fruit, earth and funk, and some metal character. We also found a slight spritz on the tongue from trapped CO2; we knew that we had bottled the 2000 reds with relatively high levels of dissolved carbon dioxide. We would recommend, if you are drinking the 2000 Esprit over the next couple of years, that you splash decant it at least an hour before drinking to open up the flavors and release any CO2 present. Otherwise, it should be terrific from 2008-2015.

The 2001 Côtes de Tablas (which we included in the vertical tasting because we did not make an Esprit de Beaucastel in 2001) was for many of us the revelation of the tasting. It is drinking marvelously right now, with ripe purple fruits, lots of spices (allspice and pepper predominant) a silky texture, good acidity, and a long finish. The tannins have evolved beautifully. Drink this now and for the next three or four years.

The jump in concentration between 2001 and 2002 was noteworthy, driven by our increasingly rigorous declassification of lots into the Côtes de Tablas. The resulting 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel (from a warm, consistent vintage) was, when it was released, big, dark, and brooding, with lots of spice, red and black fruit, and full body. The wine appears to be beginning to shut down, with a slight shortness on the finish that was not there six months ago. If you open this now, definitely decant it first. Better yet, let it sit for a few years and expect it to open up starting in 2008 and drink well for a decade.

The newly released 2003 Esprit shows the sunny character we have found in the vintage ever since it came into the cellar. Although it has terrific concentration, its character is dominated by the friendly side of Mourvèdre: cherry and plum fruit, some chocolate, a nice mineral note, and good acidity. The wine's complexity does come out on the finish, and also as the wine has a chance to breathe. It's drinking beautifully now, and we expect it to continue to do so over the next year or 18 months, then to shut down, though perhaps not as long or as hard as the 2002.

Finally, the 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel currently aging in foudre split the difference between the 2002 and the 2003: big, rich, and concentrated, showing both the red fruit component of Mourvèdre and the black fruit component of Syrah. Its tannins are noticeable, although they're buried in fruit. It's clear that this will be a terrific vintage, marrying both power and clarity of flavors.

Cover Crops in the Vineyard

Each winter, we plant our vineyard with a cover crop.  This mix of peas, oats and vetch keeps erosion to a minimum, provides a habitat for beneficial insects, and contributes nutrients to the organic vineyard.  In the winter, this cover crop is mostly green, dominated by the oats and vetch.  As the spring days lengthen, the wildflowers burst into bloom, starting with the yellow mustard (obvious in all these photos) and later moving to California poppies and other more varied flowers.  We got out into the vineyard at the end of last week during a brief sunny respite in our overall very wet spring.
A little later in the spring, we will make the decision (parcel by parcel) of whether to till the cover crop into the soil (which returns the maximum nutrients to the soil) or whether to just mow it and leave the roots in the ground.

One of the easiest ways to tell if a vineyard is organic is to look in the winter when it has rained recently.  If the vineyard is uniformly green and lush, it it organic.  If there are neat rows of bare dirt under the vines, those areas have been sprayed with herbicides.  During the summer, it is possible (as we do) to weed among the vine rows with our tractors, to keep the weeds from interfering with the grapes on the vine.  But, during the winter it is too wet to get tractors into the vineyard, and anyway the weeds aren't doing any harm at this time of year.  Far from it!  They are holding the soil in place and are providing habitat for the insects who winter over in the vineyard.  Two more photos taken by my dad on Friday:

Congratulations to Lane Forsythe

Congratulations to Lane Forsythe of Arlington, VA, who won the first-ever Tablas Creek VINsider NCAA Tournament pool.  In this crazy year where no #1 seed made the final four, Lane correctly picked two of the four final four participants (UCLA and Florida) and ended up in the 94.7th percentile nationally.  You can view the final VINsider pool results on the ESPN Web site.

Overall, the level of choices was high... the median percentile for all the VINsiders who entered was the 59th.  Congratulations to everyone.