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Assembling Our 2011 Vintage Blends: Done. And Wow!

By Robert Haas

Thursday of last week we completed our decision-making process for the blending of our estate red wines: Panoplie, Esprit, En Gobelet, and Côtes de Tablas. This vintage we’ll also be making a varietal Mourvèdre.  We also found time to make the final decision on the Esprit Blanc, which had given us trouble in our white blending trials in March. Now that the proportions and lots have been selected, the wines will be assembled and the reds put into our 1200-gallon oak foudres for ageing until bottling in 2013.   The Esprit Blanc will go back into foudre as well until it is bottled before harvest.

Neil, Ryan, Chelsea, Jason and I form the core of the selection jury.  We like also to include a visiting Perrin, and when he’s in town, National Sales Manager Tommy Oldre as well.  Our general practice is to taste all the varietal lots first, blind, so we don’t know which vineyard block or which cellar lot each comes from: just what the variety is.  We give each lot a grade.  It’s not a complex grading system; the grades are 1, 2 and 3.  1 identifies wines with richness, elegance and balance, typically lots destined for, or at least of a quality suitable for, the Esprits.  Lots with a 2 rating are ones that we like, but which seem less balanced or less intense than those with a 1 rating.  These typically form the Côtes de Tablas and our varietal wines.  3’s are lots that are showing less well.  If the problem, such as oxidation or reduction, is correctable in the cellar, or incomplete fermentation, we revisit the tasting later in the cycle.  The  “3” grade serves as a flag for the cellar crew that something needs some attention, and typically, over time, the 3’s resolve themselves into 1’s or 2’s. The components:


The next stage is selecting for lots that we feel should be declassified out of our estate wines into our Patelin de Tablas and Patelin de Tablas Blanc.  These lots tend to be friendly and pretty, but less intense and showing less character of place than we like to see in our estate bottling.  This year it was very difficult to “select out” any of the varietal lots, and the 2011 Patelin wines reflect this: each has less than 5% Tablas Creek fruit in its final blend.

After this process (which we completed last month) we work from the top down, starting with the Panoplie.  In our tastings of the different lots, we discuss the character of the best lots, trying to identify those that seem somehow “above and beyond” the high quality we choose for the Esprits.  Then we taste a handful of possible blends for the Panoplie, reflecting different percentages of the different varieties of a suitable quality.  We taste these blends blind, not knowing which blend has which percentages, so that we’re free from our own biases.  Knowing only that a blend is one of 4 possible Panoplie blends keeps us all honest. 

We don’t move on until we reach consensus.  These trials are not a democracy, where if 4 of the 6 people around the table prefer one blend, but the other 2 believe a different one is the best, the 4 win by default.  We talk it out, coming back to the blends with new ideas until we reach agreement.  This process can take several days, and in fact with the Esprit Blanc we decided that the wines themselves needed a little more time in barrel before we felt comfortable making the right choices, so we kicked the final decision down the road in March (when we blended most of the whites). We finalized the wine last week.

In the end, we chose what for us is a classic Panoplie blend: 60% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, and 10% Syrah.  Then we moved on to the Esprit, leaving out the lots that were now destined for Panoplie.  So each round went, eliminating from each succeeding round the wines that had been chosen for the higher tiers.  When we had decided on the Esprit (40% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Counoise) and En Gobelet (33% Mourvèdre, 31% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 16% Tannat) we took stock of what we had left and realized that due to the low crop levels, particularly on Grenache and Syrah, we weren’t going to be able to produce varietal red wines other than Mourvèdre.  This made the blending of the Côtes de Tablas fairly straightforward: we knew the rest of the Grenache, Syrah and Counoise were going in, and needed to decide just on the right amount of Mourvèdre.  We tasted three different potential Côtes de Tablas blends, with differing Mourvèdre quantities, and settled on a blend of 49% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 15% Mourvèdre, and 8% Counoise. That left us 800 cases of a varietal Mourvèdre.

All this was done in three days, Tuesday-Thursday.  This is the first time I can remember that we reached consensus on each of the red blends on our first time around.  The quality was uniformly high, even as we reached the third and fourth tiers down, which made it easier: we just had to focus on what profile we liked best for each wine.

It was not obvious last fall that 2011 would be such a high quality year.  Much of the west coast suffered from unusually cold, foggy weather, and there were some early rains that began in late September.  This all on top of April frosts.  But we’d had a good sense since early December, when François Perrin visited.  Having heard of all the challenges of the 2011 vintage in California, he was anxious to taste through the vintage in the cellar.  It was early to taste.  We had just finished the harvest on November 9th.  Many of the wines were not even through their primary (sugar) fermentations, not to mention the malolactic fermentations, which often occur later in the cycle.

However, we plowed ahead, starting with the whites.  And with each lot that we tasted François became more excited.  “This is going to be a truly great white vintage,” he commented.  “Even this early I can see that the wines have great structure, fine aromatics, good intensity, saline minerality, individual personality, and lush fruit.  Can the reds be as good?”

Reds are less “tasteable” than whites in the early stages of their development, but experienced tasters can get a good idea of their overall style and quality even six or seven weeks after the harvest, as was the case here.  And with each lot we tasted, François expressed optimism for the 2011 reds.  They were showing concentration, richness, intensity and elegance.  As our blending sessions showed, the optimism was justified.  The wines are uniformly terrific.

What accounts for the extraordinary wines of 2011?  Several things combined to make it an exceptional vintage:

  • We started out with good moisture in the ground after two years of wet winters, so the vines were healthy and we did not need to irrigate.
  • The frosts we suffered on April 8th and 9th reduced our yields to a miniscule 2.15 tons per acre.  But the damage was not uniform; while our Viognier and Grenache and much of our Syrah was decimated, Mourvèdre and Roussanne (our two most important varieties) were largely spared damage.  These low yields provided excellent concentration.
  • We had a very cool growing season, so that all of the grape varieties had a longer than usual hang time even though the vines were carrying a smaller crop.  The result was balanced wines with excellent acidities, particularly important and unusual in a year with such great concentration.
  • Although it was cold, Paso Robles’ geography spared us from the persistent fog that plagued many California wine regions more open to the Pacific.  We avoided the issues with mildew and rot that many other regions saw.
  • The harvest rains turned out to be less than had been forecast, and significantly less than in many North Coast regions, which allowed us to wait for ripeness in this cool year without suffering through bunch rot, and a week of good weather in early November brought in several high quality lots we’d effectively written off two weeks earlier.

What next?  The wines will be blended and put to rest in the foudres you can see from the tasting room.  They’ll sit there ageing quietly through the coming harvest, and then be bottled next summer before the 2013 harvest.  We hope that 2012 will provide equally great raw materials as 2011.

Budbreak Photos from around the Vineyard

Budbreak may be late this year, but now that it's started, it's happening in a hurry.  After last week's cool, wet weather, it's turned warm and sunny, with the last two days in the 70s and even warmer temperatures forecast for later in the week.  As is usually the case, if the vineyard is delayed and then receives a dose of warmth, it feels like the new growth is exploding out of the vines.

To get a sense of where we are, I spent an hour or so yesterday walking around the vineyard surveying budbreak among the different red Rhone varieties.  As I would have expected, Grenache was furthest out, followed by Syrah, Mourvedre and Counoise (in that order).  I took some photos of each to give you a sense of how things look.  First, the Grenache, leaves and tiny clusters already visible:


Next, the Syrah, nearly as advanced (though, to be fair, this was taken toward the top of our Syrah hill and there were lower Syrah blocks that were less advanced; the photo at the end of the blog piece shows some less-advanced Syrah):


The Mourvedre was very even, with the top and the bottom of the vineyard blocks at similar stages:


The Counoise was still dormant in the cooler spots; I had to trek to the top of our Counoise knoll in order to find even the buds I did find:


It's sad that it's the exception rather than the rule, but several of us have noted how wonderful it is seeing the vines sprouting from buds that we intended rather than secondary buds activated due to frost damage on the primary buds.  If the weather forecast holds (and there are few words that are more beautiful than those we saw on this morning's agricultural forecast: "no frost threat for the foreseeable future") we're looking at just our second full crop since 2006, with the vines putting forth extra vigor because of last year's low yields.

The vineyard looks vibrantly healthy, with the cover crop and wildflowers exuberant and lush.  The late rain that we received means that visitors to Paso Robles in the busy April and May festival season will see a different landscape than they're used to, one full of greens, purples and oranges rather than yellows and browns.  It's a different sort of beauty here in the winter and spring, softer and more accessible.  I'll leave you with one photo that tries to do justice to the landscape's beauty.  It shows one of the wild lupines that bloom each April, with the cover crop's tall grasses and the Syrah block's rolling contours behind.


A welcome dose of late spring rain

It has been a dry winter.  After record low rainfall in December, we saw a brief break when one wet weekend in January dumped nearly 5 inches of rain on us.  Then we returned to a weather pattern dominated by high pressure over the eastern Pacific, and the next two months saw only one other moderate rainfall event, where a storm on March 17th (Zinfandel Festival weekend, of course) provided another 2 inches of rain.  So, entering late March, we were stuck around 12 inches of rain for the year.  But things changed about three weeks ago.  Between March 24th and today, we've received measurable rainfall ten of the twenty possible days.  Of course, most of those days were light, totaling just 2.42 inches in the three-week period through yesterday.  We were ready to call it a season and move on.

Enter last night.  Paso Robles was awakened by a massive thunderstorm just after midnight, and the rain poured down for the next several hours.  Other weather stations out near us reported between 2 and 2.5 inches between midnight and 8 a.m.  It was so wet that the conduit that contains the power and phone hookups to the weather station on our property was flooded and shorted out.  Our patio, this morning:

Rainy Patio

While we won't ever know that exact totals, we're now around 17 inches for the year, out of the drought zone and into a livable area one might term "moderately dry".  Given the two wet winters we saw in 2009-2010 and 2010-2011, we're comfortable going into this growing season without any worries about needing to supplement with irrigation.

Even better, the clear, cool, dry weather in early and mid March meant that at least a couple of nights each week dropped below freezing.  Those freezes, combined with the cool daytime highs of recent weeks, delayed budbreak a full three weeks compared to last year.  Last April, I posted about the crazy hail and snow we received, three weeks after budbreak.  As the year went on, it was clear that the freezing weather had cost us something like 30% of our production.

The frosty March and the wet April are ideal.  We even have the benefit of this rain being followed by a warming trend, which is forecast to keep the nighttime lows above freezing through the end of April.  The new growth like that in the chardonnay vine pictured below should be able to proceed without too much danger.

Budbreak in Chardonnay

And after two bad frosts in the last three years, a frost-free spring is just what the doctor ordered.

The powerful impact of our grazing herd in the vineyard

As we get to know our grazing herd out at Tablas Creek, we're becoming increasingly convinced of its effectiveness.  A photo will illustrate the impact.  It shows the border between two vineyard blocks, on the right one that had the animals in residence for the previous five days, and on the left the new, bushy block where we'd moved them that morning:


We've been amazed how fast they can turn under a cover crop.  That browsed area is about an acre and a half, and they cleared it out in less than a week.  Walking through you can see their manure spread throughout the area.  And the divots that their hooves have made breaks up the surface.  When we got rain, the areas that had been grazed soaked that rain right up, helped surely by the uneven surface.

The impact of the added fertility brought by the manure is still to be felt, but it's spread thickly enough that it's sure to have an effect.  We'll be paying attention to how the grazed vineyard blocks fare this summer compared to those where the cover crop was mowed and to where it was disked or spaded into the soil.

Four more photos of our fuzzy workers, so you can get to know them along with us.  First, two of our Dorper sheep, in a little shelter we move along with the mobile fence:


Next, one of the Alpacas, who we've named "Boo":


And Fiona, our ever-vigilant guard donkey:


And finally the two lambs who were born last month, already grown a lot:


The animals' time in the vineyard is coming to an end for this year, as with budbreak we're going to have to move them to the pasture we've been preparing.  We've already noticed some of the alpacas browsing on the bark of the dormant grapevines.  The sap must be flowing!

A farewell treat: Cesar Perrin presents a Chateau de Beaucastel vertical

We've had the pleasure of hosting Cesar Perrin here at Tablas Creek for the last year.  Cesar is Francois Perrin's youngest son, a few years out of enology school in France, and proceeding through a series of apprenticeships at notable wineries around the world while being groomed to eventually take the reins at Beaucastel.  During his stay he has helped in the cellar during harvest, in the vineyards during our integration of our grazing herd, and at events around the country.

Last week was his last full week here, and he took the opportunity to say thank you by leading the cellar and management teams here through a vertical tasting of eight different vintages of Beaucastel.  The vintages selected were a combination of wines that the winery had available and those that members of the team had managed to accumulate over the years, so there are some notable vintages like 1998 and 2001 that weren't available.  But this is not necessarily a bad thing.  The list focused on the wines in the roughly 20-25 year old range, which is historically a sweet spot for these famously long-lived wines.  There were also two young examples (2005 and 2007) from great recent vintages, still showing the power and polish of youth.  The one wine in what might be termed middle age (the 1999) was from a vintage that was a bit overlooked in the great Chateauneuf-du-Pape run between 1998 and 2001, and showed better than we were expecting, with some of the younger, fruitier characteristics balanced by welcome secondary balsamic and mushroom characters.

Overall, the tasting was a treat, showcasing the remarkable personality and ageworthiness of the estate's wines.  The lineup, lined up and ready to go:


My tasting notes, starting with the youngest wine:

  • 2007 Beaucastel: A very rich, minty and herby nose, with aromas of rosemary and roasted meat.  The mouth is rich and dense but not yet very giving, with power more than nuance right now.  I found this less expressive than I did when I tasted it last, where a powerful undercurrent of iron-like minerality framed the lush fruit in a way not evident at this tasting.  Stock this away for a long while yet.
  • 2005 Beaucastel: A nose less dense than the '07, more spicy, though overall on the same continuum, with juniper and chocolate/cherry and a slightly foresty wildness.  The mouth was rich and nicely tannic, with red apple skin, licorice and menthol flavors and a little noticeable oak.  There was a nice coolness and balance on the finish, with granular tannins and cherry skin acidity.  I found this more drinkable now than the '07, with a wonderful future ahead of it.
  • 1999 Beaucastel: From a vintage, according to Cesar, with an unusually high percentage of Mourvedre.  On the nose rare steak and pepper, bright, with a note reminiscent of aged balsamic.  In the mouth clean and long, fruity and spicy with good acids coming out on the finish.  There was an appealing forest floor character that Neil called "mushroomy... in a good way".
  • 1993 Beaucastel: From a cold vintage where much of the later-ripening Mourvedre and Grenache didn't get ripe, so a notably high percentage of Syrah for Beaucastel.  A perceptibly older nose of leather, thyme and juniper.  The nose is so dry that the little burst of sweet fruit on the palate is both surprising and welcome.  Cesar declared that he's a big fan of this "lesser" vintage for drinking now.
  • 1992 Beaucastel: Another cold vintage, with some rain during harvest.  The nose is a little denser and showing younger than the '93, with cedar, cocoa and leather predominant.  The mouth is nicely constructed, with flavors of pencil shavings and cherry skin.  There is a little nice saltiness on the finish.  Not sure if I'd have identified this as Chateauneuf tasting it blind... very Burgundian.
  • 1990 Beaucastel: The nose is rich, with plum and some game meat, juniper, allspice and clove.  Wow.  The flavors are still intense, like marinating meat, with a distinctive Worcestershire Sauce flavor that was unlike any other wine in the tasting.  Spicy red fruit and cocoa powder on the finish.  According to Cesar, this was another vintage with an unusually high percentage of Mourvedre, and it showed in the red fruit/chocolate/meat character.
  • 1989 Beaucastel: Rich, mature and spicy, but smells higher-toned than the 1990, a little fresher and more open.  Aromas are cola and herbs and meat and balsamic, with a nutty almond-like character I kept coming back to.  The mouth was just spectacular, rich, with nice cola and spice high tones, pure, clear and notably mineral in the mid-palate, and then herby with sweet spices on the finish.  A great Grenache vintage, according to Cesar, and my favorite wine of the tasting.  An outstanding vintage of a superb wine, at its peak.  Just a treat.
  • 1988 Beaucastel: A classic year, according to Cesar, overlooked in the excitement for 1989 and 1990, but very good in its own right.  The nose shows a little older, with charcoal, pepper and caramel notes.  The palate is sweeter than the nose suggests, with cola and tart cherry flavors.  Still quite powerful, with tannins that could even use another few years.

Two more photos from the tasting, on the left Cesar pouring for my dad, and on the right the 1990 and 1989, two of the tasting's highlights:

Beaucastel_vertical_0002 Beaucastel_vertical_0001
A few concluding notes.  First, the quality of even the lesser vintages is a testament to the work that Francois Perrin and the rest of the Beaucastel team do.  I think that this is the best measure of the quality of a winemaker: not what he or she does with the great vintages, but his or her results from the vintages that present challenges.  I know how great a winemaker Francois is, and I still came away impressed.

I also came away reconfirming my conviction in the value of blending.  Each vintage can then reflect what was great that year, without having to incorporate elements that were less impressive.  And each vintage also shows more individual personality.  That recognition of personality -- that each wine expressed something unique about its vintage -- was my most lasting impression from what was a truly wonderful tasting.