Paso Robles Wine Festival 2009
Early impressions of the cool 2009 early summer

Why bother with single-varietal wines if blends are better?

I got a great question recently from Tablas Creek VINsider Wine Club member and blogger Steven Stumpf, whose blog is one of my must-reads each week.  He asked, in essence (and much more diplomatically than I'm rephrasing it) why we make single varietal wines if we believe that blends are the best expressions of Tablas Creek.  I thought that the question was excellent and my response worth expanding and sharing with everyone on the blog.

Before I start, it's worth noting that 80% of what we make, including our flagship red and white wines, are blends.  And we start our blending process by first selecting the lots for the Esprit de Beaucastel wines, which means that they get the best lots in the cellar.  We are convinced that blending the different Rhone varieties allows us to make the best wines we can each vintage, and also (by diminishing the signature of any one varietal on the finished wines) better allows us to express the terroir of the site, which all the varieties share.

Still, each year we make between four and seven single varietal wines.  If we're such committed blenders, why do we bother?  There are four main reasons.

  1. There are often lots of some of the more intense varietals (particularly Syrah and Roussanne) that are so powerfully characteristic of the varietals that we don't feel they integrate well into blends.  Other years, we worry that if we were to blend all the super-intense gallonage of a particular varietal into the blends that varietal would dominate to a degree that we're not comfortable with. In both of these cases, it also seems to us a shame to blend these tremendously characteristic lots away. These are the lots we typically choose to make into single-varietal wines.
  2. The single-varietal wines are great educational tools. They help show the trade and public why we bother with relatively unknown grapes like Mourvedre, Roussanne, or Grenache Blanc. We also think that having top-notch examples of these single-varietal wines helps us educate the public about why they should care about them better than just having them in a blend does. In a blend, it's always possible to say, "well, it's a great blending varietal" with the implication that it's not a great varietal in its own right.  We feel that a part of our marketing the world of Rhone varieties is proselytizing for the varieties we think are worthy of such attention.
  3. There are people out there who are still convinced that the best wines are single varietals.  We can thank Robert Mondavi for this lingering side-effect of his efforts to separate his Napa Valley wines from the field-blended jug wines for which California was known up through the 1960's. We happen not to agree that single varietals are usually better, but having some excellent examples of single varietals is a way for us to increase our potential customer base.  We're confident that if we can get someone to try one of our single varieties, we have a good chance of later getting them to try one of our flagship blends, and eventually to bring them into the world of Tablas Creek.
  4. It allows us to do some cool stuff for our wine club. Most of the single varietal wines we make are produced in small lots: anywhere from 150 to 750 cases.  Many of these wines never make it into distribution.  We think it's a safe assumption that members of our wine club are interested in these unusual varietals, and if we can make for them a Counoise (as we've done in 2002, 2005 and 2006) or a Picpoul Blanc (as we've done in 2003, 2005 and 2008) our club members will get a kick out of getting to try something that rarely if ever exists elsewhere.  This doesn't mean that we don't send our blends to our club members; they get the first look anywhere at our Esprit de Beaucastels each year, they are the only recipients of our Panoplie, and we do occasionally make unusual blends for them (like the En Gobelet wine I wrote about a few months back). But rather than send several bottles of any one wine, we feel that our club members will appreciate getting to try a wider range of ideas and can then buy more of whatever they're most excited about.

It's also worth noting that many of our single varietal wines (like very many others in California) are in fact blends.  For example, our 2006 Syrah is 90% Syrah and 10% Grenache.  Our 2006 Mourvedre is 90% Mourvedre and 10% Syrah.  And our 2006 Grenache is 90% Grenache and 10% Syrah.  Still, the variety listed on the label is typically how it's displayed and marketed, and we we feel we get the benefits of blending on the wine itself while retaining the advantages listed above.

I'm assuming that most of you who read this blog regularly are fans of Tablas Creek.  What do you think of the single varietal wines vis a vis the blends?  Please share.