Tablas Creek 101: Why (and How) We Use So Many Grapes
August 08, 2011
By Robert Haas
Last night a long-time friend and wine lover asked why we planted and utilized so many different varieties of Rhône grapes in our Tablas Creek wines and what their individual contributions are to our six different blends, or assemblages as they are known in France.
Well, there are multiple reasons that there are multiple grapes.
First, and probably foremost, since we were confident of California’s ability to produce fine Rhône style wines, and we were partnering with the Perrins, we selected the varieties they favored: the traditional grapes of Châteuneuf-du-Pape and the Rhône Valley. The appellation of Châteauneuf–du-Pape permits thirteen different varieties: Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Cinsault, Counoise, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picardin, Vaccarèse, Terret Noir, and Muscardin. The Beaucastel poster below shows all thirteen, all of which they use though the last four only in trace quantities. If you count Grenache noir and blanc – both very much planted – the number actually comes to fourteen.
We decided to import the bud wood from France of nine varieties we thought would best perform in our chalky clay soils and our hot-in-the-day, cold-in-the-night climate: Mourvèdre, Grenache (Noir), Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, and two traditional Côtes du Rhone white varieties that are not allowed in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation: Viognier and Marsanne.
There is tradition but there is also practicality. A second reason for the different varieties is the viticultural usefulness of varieties that bud and mature in different calendar periods. This spring, for example, we suffered extreme frosts on two consecutive early April mornings. The early budders Viognier, Grenache Noir and Blanc, Marsanne sustained near 100% damage while the later-budding Roussanne, Mourvèdre, Counoise, Picpoul and Syrah were not yet out and were relatively undamaged.
Another viticultural plus is that with different ripening cycles we enjoy a longer harvest. Our harvest is typically spread across 10 weeks, from early September to early November, which allows us to make more efficient use of our cellar and our winemaking team. Of course, we won’t enjoy this benefit this year: the frosted vines that re-sprouted will be delayed in ripening and everything will be coming in late and together. We will be heap plenty scrambling this October.
Probably most important in our choices, however, is the different roles that the different varieties play in the makeup of our Rhône style blends. Just as different ingredients in a dish can complement or highlight specific flavors, so can the diverse flavors of different varieties create a blended wine that is more than the sum of its parts. The Rhone blending tradition developed over thousands of years because blending these varieties consistently produces more complex, more elegant and more intriguing wines than any of the varieties vinified alone.
Red wines are the most associated with Rhône varieties so let’s start with our red assemblages. First, a review of the characteristics that each of the four principal red Rhone grapes brings to a blend:
- Mourvèdre is our most planted grape, dark purple-black in color, providing structure, backbone, and aging potential. It tastes of ripe plum and strawberry fruit, with animal flavors of red meat and mushrooms when young, and leather and truffles as it ages.
- Grenache provides lush fruit and bright acidity. It tastes of currant, cherry, and raisin, with aromatic spice of black pepper, menthol, and licorice, and is a brilliant ruby red color.
- Syrah gives a deep blue-black color and provides aromatics, firm structure and ageability to blends, with characteristic aromas of smoke, bacon fat, and mineral, flavors of blackberry and black raspberry fruit, firm back-palate tannins.
- Counoise is a medium purple-red color, with brambly flavors of blueberry and raspberry fruit, spice notes of cinnamon and nutmeg, and bright acidity that enlivens a blend.
These four grapes combine in each of our three red Rhone blends to make very different wines.
The Esprit de Beaucastel is our flagship blend of the best lots in our cellar, and based on the structure, firm, ripe tannins, red fruit, full body and the ageability of Mourvèdre. Syrah firms up the back palate and brings savory spice, dark color and minerality, while Grenache contributes ripe dark chocolate and cherry flavors and lush fruit. A touch of Counoise unifies and brightens the blend with its brambly spice.
Our Côtes de Tablas celebrates the lush fruitiness, dark chocolate, chalky tannins and licorice of Grenache. Syrah balances Grenache’s lushness with minerality and pepper spice, while Mourvèdre’s structure and plum flavor should come out with age. Counoise, at its highest percentage in any of our wines, gives raspberry brightness and opens the wine for near- to mid-term consumption.
Our Patelin de Tablas is a blend focused on Syrah’s dark color, peppery spice and minerality. We add a significant percentage of Grenache for its generous red fruit and roundness of flavor, some Mourvèdre for backbone and ageability, and just a touch of Counoise for brightness and spiciness.
Although the Rhone Valley, like Paso Robles, is better known for reds than whites, there are nearly a dozen white grapes traditional there, and we’ve imported five of them. These have thrived in Paso Robles – so much so that from our original plan to plant 20% whites we’ve increased our white plantings to roughly 35% of our production. Let’s again review the characteristics of each of the five:
- Roussanne is our most planted white grape variety. It has rose petal, white tea and honeysuckle aromatics, a deep golden color, and flavors of honey and ripe pear. It provides excellent aging potential with a rich glycerin mouth feel and moderate acidity.
- Grenache Blanc has firm acidity, green apple and citrus flavors, and white flower aromatics. It is the 4th most widely planted white grape in France, and its crisp acids complement many of the lower-acid white Rhône varietals.
- Marsanne tastes of melon and minerals, and has a golden straw color. It is a flexible and adaptable grape found throughout the Rhone valley. Its quiet elegance provides a valuable counterpoint to more exuberant varieties like Viognier and Roussanne.
- Viognier is highly aromatic, with aromas of peach, apricot, and violets. It typically is quite lush with flavors of stone fruits and low to moderate acidity and is usually best consumed young.
- Picpoul produces wines noteworthy for their bright acidity, minerality, and clean lemony flavor. In California it adds a tropical lushness reminiscent of Piña Colada that is delicious on its own but also makes for an excellent blending component.
As with the reds, these grapes combine to make three very different white wines.
Our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc is the flagship of our white wine fleet, modeled consciously after Beaucastel’s renowned white. Roussanne provides the core richness, minerality, and flavors of honey and spice, while Grenache Blanc adds green apple and anise flavors, lush mouth feel and bright acids. Picpoul Blanc completes the blend, bringing out a saline minerality present in Roussanne but latent without Picpoul’s characteristic acidity.
The Côtes de Tablas Blanc showcases the lushness of Viognier, but with Viognier’s tendency toward softness and heaviness mitigated by its blending partners. Grenache Blanc provides crisp acids while Roussanne adds structure and Marsanne minerality. As the wine ages, a transformation occurs as what was once an overtly floral, fruity wine – clearly marked by Viognier – becomes more mineral as Marsanne takes the lead.
Our Patelin de Tablas Blanc focuses on the crisp acids and minerality of Grenache Blanc. We add Viognier for lush, tropical fruit, and Roussanne and Marsanne for structure and complexity, but the balance is intentionally different from the Côtes Blanc. We’ve chosen brighter Grenache Blanc lots for the Patelin Blanc, so that it is the lemon and mineral side of the grape that shows at the fore, with its richness and Viognier’s lush fruit playing secondary roles.
So, the utilization of these multiple Rhône varieties in different proportions and from different cellar lots allows us to create a broad palette of six wines that fit different occasions and different foods, ranging in the whites from the crisp bright acidity of the Patelin Blanc through the power of the Côtes Blanc to the full-bodied elegance and ageability of the Esprit Blanc. The reds go from the firm, spicy character of the Patelin through the powerful and luscious Côtes to the structured, full-bodied richness and elegance (and ageability) of the Esprit.