I was amazed (and thrilled) to have a clipping from the San Francisco Chronicle sent to me. It's not editorial coverage, though we've been fortunate enough to get some good editorial coverage in the Chronicle in the last year. It was a Chronicle ad soliciting advertising for the Food&Wine section. In it Chronicle wine editor Jon Bonné holds a bottle of Esprit Blanc. I've been really impressed with what Jon has done to broaden the reach of the Chronicle's wine section beyond Napa and Sonoma in the few years since he took over, and his blog The Cellarist is one of the ones that I check out each week. But this, for sure, was unexpected.
The weather did indeed heat up. It has topped out around 102 most of this week, and is forecast to stay hot through the weekend (and then cool down). This heat wave has been a touch gentler than the forecasts were predicting, which is a good thing. And this late in the year (after the autumnal equinox) the nights are so long that we're guaranteed to get good cooling. Yesterday's low was 56.
But still, it seems like most of the vineyard is ripe. We've been harvesting Vermentino, Grenache Blanc and Syrah all week, are starting Roussanne and Grenache Noir, and should finish the Marsanne tomorrow. The ripening has been a bit more uniform than we'd feared, but the quantities a bit lower than we'd hoped. Overall, yields are looking similar to 2008.
I got the chance to get out in the vineyard this morning, and took some photos of where everything is at this stage. I've put a few of the most illustrative in this article, and the rest are in the Vineyard Photos - September 2009 photo album.
We spent this morning harvesting Roussanne. I love this photo of the Roussanne sitting in the picking bin, with the Roussanne vineyard block in the background:
The Roussanne on the vine shows the russet color for which the grape is named:
The reds are at various degrees of ripeness, with the Grenache and the Counoise particularly showing the delaying effects of the spring frosts. Some of these clusters are still finishing veraison. Not the Syrah, though, which is blue-black and ripe, and which we'll finish harvesting this week. We've never had a Syrah harvest so short: just 8 days from first cluster to last:
The Grenache vines that were not impacted by frost have beautiful fruit: purple and luscious. We're bringing in a first "cherry pick" of the ripest, darkest Grenache tomorrow.
At the same time, there are Grenache vines with clusters still mid-veraison:
The Counoise is similar to the Grenache. Some clusters are fairly ripe, others still mid-veraison. A good example of the uneven impact of the frost is the below vine, with clusters at every stage of ripeness:
The Mourvedre (which wasn't really out yet at frost time) is looking remarkably uniform. This is a surprise; it typically gives us some of our largest headaches at harvest time due to its tendency toward uneven ripening. But it is starting to show signs of stress, the first of which is an early change toward fall coloring. It's not unusual for us to pick Mourvedre from vines with very few leaves left.
I'll leave you with one last shot I thought was cool: a photo of the owl box that stands at the intersection of our Grenache, Mourvedre, and Counoise blocks: one of a dozen or so we have scattered around the property as a part of the ongoing war with gophers.
This essay, sent in from Vermont, is the next in an occasional series of articles by Robert Haas.
After a rainy Vermont summer (was that summer?), fall has arrived
with the leaves just beginning to turn color, apples ready to pick and the
garden mostly put away for the winter although the beans do not know it and are
continuing to bloom and produce.
The days are getting very fall-like with the slanting sunlight angles and the nights are getting jacket chilly. With the cooler nights the dinner menus are turning to more substantial fare with a good share of lamb and beef recipes designed for braising, stewing and oven roasting.
As the menus turn toward the fall so do the wine cellar choices. I still have quite a few 1978s in the cellar here and we have started to renew our acquaintances with them at the dinner table. In my opinion, 1978 was the best vintage of the otherwise difficult decade of the 1970s and the wines have stood up beautifully here in my below ground natural cellars.
The other night we enjoyed a delicious Provençal blanquette of lamb shoulder -- from Richard Olney’s gloriously illustrated Provence the Beautiful Cookbook -- with a 1978 Volnay Premier Crû Clos des Ducs from the domain of a late old good friend, the Marquis (Jacques) d’Angerville, and documented the event with the accompanying photo (right).
The wine was deliciously sturdy and fruited but mature with the character that only old Burgundy can impart to pinot noir. Its elegant power and delicate balance were perfectly matched with the delicately flavored dish.
The week before we enjoyed a more robustly flavored dish of braised gigot d'agneau (leg of lamb) with olives and salted anchovies and accompanied it with a surprisingly robust and flavorful 1978 Santenay from the Château de la Charrière (photo left). Vincent Girardin tells me that 1978 was the last vintage that his father vinified.
I’m trying to hold on to the recent vintages of my Tablas Creek wines for future drinking but occasionally (maybe more than occasionally) find myself digging into the fruity and luscious 2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard reds. They are tasting wonderfully right now, especially with Provençal cuisine.
A few years ago, when we moved into our California house in Templeton and installed the refrigerated cabinets necessary for good wine storage out here, we shipped fifty or so cases of my old wine stash going back to the 1960s vintages to California. I fully expected that they would taste quite a bit older out here than in their original resting place. But happily, they do not. It’s a good sign that one can ship carefully packed and shipped older wines across the country without damaging them. What is necessary, however, is to be patient before opening and drinking them. We waited six months before opening the first bottle.
I know that “fall like” is not exactly how one would describe this week’s weather in California. Quite the opposite. However, cooler days and nights will come, and hopefully, with some RAIN. So think of lamb, beef, pork, and game dishes in their winter incarnations and enjoy your red wines out of your cellar with them.
We've (finally!) started harvesting our reds. We are bringing in Syrah today, and expecting about 10 tons. The fruit looks tremendous: low pH (around 3.35), good sugars (around 25 Brix) and excellent flavors. It seems to me that the grapes have lots of texture and solids rather than lots of juice, which bodes very well for quality, though not so much for quantity. It's possible that our early estimates of a return to normal crop levels may have been wishful thinking.
September 17th is a little late for us to be bringing in our first reds, particularly for a year with smaller yields. Syrah always kicks off our red harvest, but the dates do vary. For the past few years, our first Syrah has come in on:
2008: September 9th
2007: September 6th
2006: September 26th
2005: September 29th
2004: September 3rd
2003: September 18th
It's worth noting the 2005 and 2006 were both very large crops, while 2007 and 2008 both very small. In general, the more fruit you have on a vine, the longer it takes to ripen that fruit. I was interested to see, though, that there doesn't appear to be a huge correlation between the dates of harvest and vintage quality (see the vintage grades I gave out last fall).
This first batch of Syrah is going into our two upright fermenters. It will ferment there for the next ten days or so and then be pressed into smaller barrels. We'll then re-use the uprights for Grenache and Mourvedre.
Earlier this week, we brought in some of our Grenache Blanc and about half our Marsanne. Both came in light in quantity, though the quality looks excellent. We've known, though, that the Grenache Blanc and Viognier were seriously impacted by the spring's frosts, so are reserving judgment before we project these results across the vineyard.
Some photos from the cellar track the progress of the bins of Syrah. First, a bin of fruit (a little over 1000 pounds worth):
Syrah's clusters are noteworthy for their small size, dark blue-black color and tight configuration. That's my hand for scale:
The bins are brought into the cellar via forklift:
And dumped onto the sorting table:
Winemaker Ryan Hebert and Cellar Assistant Chelsea Magnusson toss out any leaves or underripe clusters (there aren't many due to all the sorting that happens during the hand-harvest) and push the fruit gradually into the destemmer:
The berries and juice are pumped to the 1500-gallon upright fermenters in the next room:
...and up into the top of the tank. Note that this door can be opened for loading as well as pumpovers or punchdowns, or sealed up for aging:
And finally, a look at the uprights in position in the cellar. The slightly smaller 1200-gallon foudres are stacked in the background:
When we have writers come and visit us at the winery, we try when possible to look both at what is current and what is coming up. Some years, we don't have a lot of ability to look forward, because the blends aren't finished, or at least we aren't confident that they will remain as they are. And, although we typically blend our reds in early summer, there are some years when we keep our options open to blend in additional lots later in the year. The last thing we want to have happen is to show a wine to a writer and then decide we want to make a change.
So, it's only when we're totally happy with an unbottled wine that we will show it to a reviewer.
Although we'd been pleased by our spot tastings of the 2008 reds over the summer (we blended them in May) we weren't sure whether they were ready to show. Still, with an important reviewer coming on Friday, we lined them all up last Thursday to taste. We were all tremendously impressed. 2008 was a difficult vintage, with lots of reasons to be nervous. But, similar to what we saw with the whites, the reds have shined once we've assembled them into their finished wines. Overall, all the wines showed a distinctive elegance: really nice intensity but no sense of tannic youth. The flavors were primary but still with good complexity. And I think that, more than the 2007's, the wines will drink well young. To my taste, the vintage falls somewhere between the elegance and restraint of the 2006's and the lushness and power of the 2007's. I thought it would be interesting to give you my notes on where the wines are right now.
We just focused on the six principal wines: Cotes, Esprit and Panoplie, and Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. In the order in which we presented them:
- 2008 Cotes de Tablas (42% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 20% Counoise, 17% Mourvèdre): A juicy, vibrant, spicy nose with a little minty/menthol/juniper note. Respberry in the mouth; great acids with a clean finish with gently lingering tannins. A really pretty wine that is both ready to go now but still with some stuffing to it. To be bottled in December and released early in 2010.
- 2008 Grenache (100% Grenache): A really appealing nose of mint chocolate and cocoa, licorice vibrating between red and black. Very pretty in the mouth with more melted chocolate, strawberries, and a nice sweetness on the finish. To be bottled spring 2010 and released summer 2010.
- 2008 Mourvèdre (100% Mourvèdre): A darker nose than either of the two Grenache-based wines: soy, pepper and a little oak spice. Cherry and balsamic flavors overlay red plum and cassis; firm tannins are still tasting young. Will clearly benefit from the next year in foudre as it is still tight and showing more oak than usual. To be bottled summer 2010 and released fall 2010.
- 2008 Syrah (100% Syrah): Sweet oak and spice on the nose; blackberry and cassis in the mouth with great acids for Syrah and a very smooth, creamy texture until the tannins hit you on the finish. Tannins are a little dusty in the back, a good thing for a Syrah at this stage. To be bottled summer 2010 and released summer 2011.
- 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel (38% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 7% Counoise): Really lifted nose of rose petals and potpourri, raspberry and other brambly fruit. In the mouth more red fruit than black at this moment: sweet strawberry and cherry. Firms up on the finish and should darken in tone with a little more time in foudre. To be bottled summer 2010 and released fall 2010.
- 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Panoplie (54% Mourvèdre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah): Darker on the nose than the Esprit, more black raspberry than red. At the same time, intensely floral and rather grapey. In the mouth very rich milk chocolate, then plum. Long, long finish with big tannins cloaked by fruit. Still very young and primary, but with great potential. Neil thinks that this is the best Panoplie we've done. To be bottled summer 2010 and released spring 2011.
Overall, it's clear that 2008 is a terrific year for both Grenache and Syrah. Mourvedre is really good, but maybe less outstanding than it was in 2007 (when it was so good that none of it made it into the Cotes de Tablas). We used less Mourvedre, and more Grenache and Syrah, in both the Esprit and Panoplie in 2008 than we had in 2007.
And this is a great thing about working with blends as our signature wines. Our wines don't have to hew to any specific formula. We're freed to make the best wines that the vintage can make, and our fans are able to trust that we're going to do so rather than try to match what happened in previous years.
I wanted to leave you with one photo, taken after Friday's tasting, that I particularly liked. All the bottles are lined up on our tasting bar, with the early afternoon sun shining through them:
It's clear at this point that it's going to be a long harvest. We picked our first grapes early last week (September 1st): Viognier from the top of the tallest hill on the property -- typically the first part of the vineyard we harvest -- and Roussanne for our Bergeron program.
And then we waited.
We harvested a little more today, nine days later, with a another small Viognier block. So, we're approximately 2% done with harvest. It doesn't look like things are progressing very quickly, either. Grapes that are normally accumulating sugar rapidly (like Grenache, and Grenache Blanc) are sitting quietly around 21 or 22 Brix, and haven't moved much in the past week. But, acids on the Grenache Blanc, at least, are relatively low, and it may be that this vintage will feature ripeness at lower sugar levels than the past. We're planning to bring in our first Grenache Blanc early next week.
The grape that seems closest to coming in in significant quantities is Syrah. Its numbers are looking good (roughly 24 Brix, 3.45 pH) but the grapes just don't feel quite ready. The flavor development doesn't seem complete, and the grapes are a little too full still. Another few days and we figure that they'll just get better.
One thing that we have noticed is that there is enormous variability within vineyard blocks. I was out in the Grenache section today and saw clusters that were starting to deflate, looking totally ready to pick, on the same vine as clusters that still hadn't completed veraison. On one level this isn't surprising. Grenache -- like Roussanne -- always has major issues with uneven ripening. But we're seeing the same phenomenon throughout the vineyard. This isn't as big an issue for us as it is for many other producers; we always hand-harvest selectively, making multiple passes through each vineyard block, which protects us against uneven ripening. But it does suggest that just because we have started a particular varietal, or a particular vineyard block, it doesn't mean that we'll be completing that varietal or that vineyard block anytime soon. My guess is that we'll still be harvesting in mid-November, which is a little scary given predictions of an El Nino winter and a likely earlier onset of the rainy season than normal.
It's clear why we see this wide variation in ripeness. We had a cool spring with a series of late frosts that, as with all frosts, had an unpredictable impact. Some vines were affected while vines nearby were fine. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of vines had some sprouts frosted while others a few inches away were not. This unevenness persisted through a cool early summer, brief hot spell in mid-July, a cool late July and early August, and then a very hot three week period ending last weekend. We've been hearing anecdotal evidence of some vineyards locally showing impacts from vine dehydration during the heat wave, but between the good rainfall we saw last winter and some proactive irrigation in sensitive vineyard blocks early this summer, the vineyard looks healthier than it ever has before at this time of year.
Crop levels look a bit higher than the past few years, although it will vary depending on how much the varietal and the vineyard block were impacted by the frosts. Overall, I suspect we'll see higher yields on reds (most of which were not out during the frosts, or in the case of Grenache, were so vigorous that they resprouted and still hung a healthy crop) and similar yields on whites to 2008.
A few photos of the first day of harvest are below. First, Winemaker Ryan Hebert with the bins of Viognier:
The bins are dumped into our press:
And finally, the juice dripping out of the press: