Making the most of time in the market
Paso Robles Big Sky

The importance of hang time

This past weekend was Hospice du Rhone.  It's always one of my favorite events of the year, where hundreds of people (maybe pushing 1000, all told) who are enthusiastic supporters of Rhone varietals get together for a weekend of seriously lighthearted consideration of all things Rhone.  You get comments at these tastings that you don't anywhere else (like "oh, I've been so looking forward to tasting all the grenache blancs") and a very informed level of questions.

One question I got at Saturday's tasting I thought deserved a fuller treatment here.  It came after I'd tasted the questioner through all our red single-varietals wines from 2006 (Counoise, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre) and was explaining why we thought that Mourvedre was the best of the bunch, at least for us.  The assertion, in a room where 90% of the tables focus on Syrah, is one that invites a challenge, and the questioner asked me why we thought so much of Mourvedre.

The answer (like so much else in wine) hinges on the appropriateness of the grape variety for its site.  Syrah is clearly a great grape, dark and lush, with terrific minerality and excellent structure.  But while it reaches monumental heights in the northern Rhone, it's a relatively minor player in the southern Rhone.  In non-Rhone examples, a grape like Sauvignon Blanc, which makes some of the world's greatest white wines in the Loire Valley, is used as a blending grape in Bordeaux, and Pinot Noir, which makes some of the world's great wines in Burgundy, makes largely boring wines in the Languedoc.

Why is this?  Grapes can clearly ripen in a climate warmer than might be ideal for them.  And, in a warmer climate, you can harvest more reliably, as you're less likely to run into end-of-harvest hazards like rain or frost.  What you don't get is hang-time.  Hang-time measures the length of time between flowering and harvest.  The cooler the temperatures, the more slowly grapes ripen.  At Tablas Creek, because of the exceptionally cold nights in Paso Robles, we tend to get long hang-times, between 4 and 6 months depending on the season and the varietal.  This is usually about 2 weeks longer than the same varieties have at Beaucastel.

In the family of Rhone varieties, at Tablas Creek, the harvest usually sequences itself something like this:

Early September: Viognier
Mid-September: Syrah, Marsanne
Late September: Grenache Blanc
Early October: Grenache
Mid-October: Roussanne, Picpoul, Counoise
Late-October: Mourvedre

Of course, the above list is an approximation.  The spread of earliest to latest harvest of any given varietal can span close to a month (or more in the case of Roussanne, which as I've written about before seems particularly prone to uneven ripening).  Still, it gives you an idea of how long the hang time is on each varietal.  [It's worth noting that there is some spread in flowering time, with Grenache and Grenache Blanc joining Syrah and Viognier as early flowerers.  Still, the roughly three week spread of earliest to latest flowering is a lot less than the two month spread of harvest.]

It is intuitive that the longer a grape cluster can spend on the vine without going out of balance, all other things being equal, the more interesting it should be.  Each day that the cluster is in contact with the roots, the vine's roots can transmit a little more character of place to the clusters.  Each day that the vine is in the sun, the skins should get a little thicker and the color a little more intense.  This would help explain why the most interesting examples of a given varietal should be made in the coolest climate in which the grape will ripen.  It also helps explain why, in regions where multiple varieties are planted, the ones that come in latest tend to be the most renowned.

Of course, there are risks involved with late-ripening varieties.  There have been a few years (most recently in 2004) that some of our Mourvedre didn't come in, as it didn't get ripe before the onset of the rainy season.  And in Chateauneuf du Pape, it has long been considered too risky to plant more than a token acreage to Mourvedre.  One of Jacques Perrin's innovations at Beauacstel was to devote a significant percentage of his acreage to Mourvedre at a time when nearly the entire appellation was planted to Grenache. Beaucastel takes the risk of having to toss out a higher percentage of their crop than their neighbors in a year when Mourvedre doesn't come in.  But, in the years it does get ripe, they can make wines that no one else in their appellation can match.  It's a gamble that has paid off well for them.

In Paso Robles, it's not so risky to choose late-ripening varieties as it is in France, as the climate is more reliable later in the fall.  And, overall, due to its cool nights, most varieties hang for a long time before they come in.

So, long answer to the question: I credit the exceptionally long hang-time of our latest-ripening red (Mourvedre) and white (Roussanne) varietals for giving them the character that they have, and with why we choose them to make up the core of our flagship wines.