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Tablas Esprit and Beaucastel Châteauneuf: Takes Two to Tango

By Darren Delmore

As the National Sales Manager for Tablas Creek vineyard, my travels keep leading me to circumstances where I’m asked to compare Esprit de Beaucastel to Chateâu de Beaucastel. “So which wine is better?” I’ve heard many times over, as if there’s a clear right or wrong answer to such an open-ended question. I’ve narrowed down the climate-soil-varietal-diurnal-historical pontification to the simplest response of “It’s all in the timing.” What you want out of the wine you want to drink and, most importantly when, are the real questions here.

A few recent examples follow. In Anacortes, Washington at a Tablas Creek tasting at Compass Wines, their best customer arrived on crutches wielding a bottle of 2006 Chateâu de Beaucastel and plopped it right down on the counter before he even introduced himself.

Compass Wines' legend and his 2006 Beaucastel offering.

At a Tablas Creek dinner at 32 East in Delray Beach, Florida that I hosted with Vineyard Brands’ south Florida manager Taylor Case, the owner paired off Tablas Creek and Chateâu de Beaucastel in a consumable course-by-course tango - blanc to blanc and rouge to rouge.

The show in Delray Beach at 32 East.

Some attendees of the collector persuasion snuck in some older vintages of the Beaucastel Chateâuneuf and were passing them around beneath the tabletops. Tablas Creek, as it always does in my experience, held its own very well, thank you very much, though we didn’t have any older Tablas Creek to put up against the surprise Beaucastel library wines. The 2010 Cotes de Tablas Blanc was the talk of the tables, accentuated by a great wild mushroom crostini pairing. The contrasts between the estates’ top two red 2010’s, served side-by-side with the braised short rib and polenta main course, was fascinating. Taylor and I were blown away by this flight: the wines smelled nearly identical. Further swirling revealed just a touch more open fruitiness in the Tablas Creek, but not much. Onto the taste and the identities became clear. For me, what differentiated this young vintage of Chateâu de Beaucastel from Esprit de Beaucastel (and to a degree, differentiates Chateâuneuf-du-Pape from American Rhone blends) is a mid-palate gravelly richness that attaches to the sides of your mouth as if a soil-glazed galet was tossed onto your tongue. I could taste why so many collect this wine and normally keep it out of sight for 5 to 10 years before it softens up enough for stellar drinking. It was my first opportunity to taste each, and having read that the vintage brought eerily similar growing conditions to both the southern Rhône and Paso Robles, it was wholly fulfilling. Though both Tablas and Beaucastel benefit from time in the cellar, the brighter fruit and higher acidity of the Esprit gave it an accessibility that led patrons, that night, to attack it like white, touristy ankles by an angry mob of Biscayne bull sharks. And the bottles of the amazing 1994 Beaucastel Rouge that were secretly making the rounds were a convincing testament to the rewards of patience.

 The lineup in Florida.

One of my favorite comparisons of the two estates occurred last week in Santa Fe, New Mexico at the awesome wine bar and restaurant Arroyo Vino. At the end of a day visiting restaurant accounts in Taos, I brought the remainder of the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel bottle to Arroyo Vino’s owner Brian Bargsten. I’d first met Brian last fall at the Santa Fe Wine and Chile festival when his business was simply a high-end wine store at the foot of a luxury community just outside of town. Brian has since expanded Arroyo Vino with a beautiful, modern dining room and bar and hired chef Mark Connell, whose resume boasts stints at Salt (in Cambridge, MA) and the French Laundry (in Yountville, CA) to oversee the kitchen. After eyeballing the impressive collection of bottles for sale in the retail area, I found a seat at the bar next to a lone diner mid-way through a bottle of Bethel Heights Pinot Noir. The dining room was packed for a Wednesday night. I spoke with Brian for a bit and pulled out the Esprit. He introduced me to Larry – the man beside me – and told him the story of Tablas Creek and the Perrin family.

“They picked Paso Robles?” Larry protested, surprised that one of his favorite southern Rhône producers had set up shop in what he had always assumed to be a hot area known for “high alcohol, jammy Zinfandel.” This fired Brian up to talk about limestone-rich west-side vineyard sites, say “Larry, want to compare the two?” and disappear to fetch a 2010 Chateâu de Beaucastel off the rack. A couple other servers hovered around the bar as Brian returned, cutting off the foil swiftly and talking about Chateâuneuf-du-Pape when I noticed it was in fact the Côtes du Rhône 2010 Coudoulet de Beaucastel that he was driving the corkscrew into. “That’s the Coudoulet, Brian,” I said, seconds too late.

“What, that’s not the one?” Larry asked.

“No but it’s good,” I added. “The Coudoulet is their vineyard just outside of the AOC of Chateâuneuf-du-Pape.”

“Oh,” Brian paused mid-twist. “Well, guess we’ll do a flight of all three.” Sure enough he went over and grabbed the correct bottle and asked one of the servers to line up three glasses for each of us. Brian poured the wines in order: Coudoulet de Beaucastel, Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel, and Chateâu de Beaucastel.

Perrin Flight
Left to right: 2010 Coudoulet, 2010 Esprit, and 2010 Chateâu Beaucastel.

Larry pointed out that aside from Oregon Pinot Noir, he only drank and collected European wine. He was one of Brian’s biggest customers, a bona fide Burgundy lover and buyer of first-growth Bordeaux allocations, and familiar with only a couple of producers in the Rhône. It was as much a moment for Brian as it was for Larry to see how close California could get to real Chateâuneuf-du-Pape.

The Coudoulet was in amazing shape, with a juicy unison of savory herbs and reddish fruit, and a refreshing, snappy palate and long finish. The Tablas Creek was showing a warmer, more lifted aromatic profile of Mourvédre, with black olives, raspberries, baking spices, and foresty notes and a finish filled with graceful, plush tannins. The Chateâu de Beaucastel was the biggest wine of the flight, with a brooding nose of black licorice, roasted meats and rain soaked city streets, before a powerful sip unfolded into a gravelly, mineral-rich, thick dark wave of density that required a bit of my rabbit agnolotti dish to soak up some of its youth. I was more of a wine fan than a wine salesman at that counter, mesmerized by the diversity of these three related wines from two continents, and it wasn’t until much later when Brian leaned over and asked me, “are you selling this tonight?” that I came back around to reality.

“That Esprit is good, man,” he added. 

We welcome a new grape to California: Picardan

Today we make history as we plant 1000 vines of Picardan in a rugged block we've reserved for new grape varieties at the extreme western edge of our property. 

Overview with vines

This is the culmination of a nearly decade-long process.  We decided in late 2003 that we wanted to have all thirteen of the traditional Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes and imported Beaucastel field cuttings of the remaining seven obscure grapes we hadn't yet procured [see the press release dated 2/2/04 when the vines arrived at U.C. Davis for quarantine]. These included Cinsaut, Clairette, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Bourboulenc, and Picardan.

In our press release we were optimistic about their prospects for rapid release to us; because of California's favorable climate, it only takes two years to do the mandated virus testing instead of the three years our earliest imports required in Geneva, New York.  But the U.C. Davis scientists found viruses in the plants, and the vines had to go through maristem cultivation: a high-tech program where they grow the vines in a hyper-rich growing medium and take a tiny slice of the newest growth from the tip of a shoot. This new growth can have outgrown any viruses that the plant came with, and can then be grown into full-size plants and be retested.  Unfortunately, the first round only cleared up some of the viruses, and they had to undergo a second round and were only declared virus-free and released to us in late 2010.  At that point, we sent the vines to NovaVine for propagation.  They produced our first grafted vines last year, and we received them last week:

Picardan vines in pots

We estimate that the 1000 vines we received, enough to plant a little more than a half-acre, will increase the total world-wide acreage of Picardan by about 50%.  According to Jancis Robinson's authoritative guide Wine Grapes, there is just over an acre planted in all of France, and it has never before been used in America. She specifically mentions Beaucastel's use of "small amounts of Picardan in their red Chateauneuf" as one of two documented estates using the grape.

What do we expect from Picardan?  We're not sure.  It's reputed to have good acidity, supported by the fact that like Picpoul its name is purportedly derived from piquer ("to sting" in French).  It is supposed to be mid-ripening, and well suited to "hot, dry, low-fertility sites".  That sounds like us.  If it's as successful as Picpoul has been in showing California's lush fruit while maintaining terrific acidity, we'll be thrilled.

The site we chose for our new varieties is a steep, hilly one, and exceptionally calcareous even by our standards, with bits of limestone everywhere and a predictable challenge even making the holes into which we're putting the baby vines.  This photo will give you a sense:


Once we've dug the holes (using a post-hole digger, below left) we place a vine in each hole (below, right):

Post hole digger Vine in pot in hole
The next thing we have to do is to free each vine out of its pot, place it in the hole, replace the soil around it and then tamp it down lightly.  Vineyard Manager David Maduena demonstrates:

David with vine in hand David with vine under foot
We'll give the new plantings eight or so hours of irrigation this evening, and then monitor them to make sure they stay healthy through the heat of the summer. They'll go into dormancy with the rest of the vineyard this winter, and hopefully come out with the vineyard in the spring.  Some vigorous vines might try to set a crop, but we'll prune this off.  The next summer, if the vines seem healthy, we might allow them to hang a small crop.  Then, we'll start to have a sense of what Picardan will bring.

Announcing the wines in the 2013 VINsider Collector's Edition shipment

One of my highlights each June is the tasting where we get to choose which library vintage of the Esprit and Esprit Blanc we will include in the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment in September.  For those of you unfamiliar with the Collector's Edition, we created it in 2009 to give members a chance to acquire our flagship wines with some age on them, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.  We will be adding people on our waiting list to the Collector's Edition next week, and also opening reigstration for a short time, subject to available space.  If you are currently a VINsider member you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online.  If you are not currently a member, you can indicate that you would like to join the Collector's Edition when you join the VINsider wine club.

We have been keeping older vintages of the Esprit and Esprit Blanc since the 2003 and 2005 vintages, respectively.  So this week, I tasted through our library vintages to decide which wines we wanted to include this fall.  It's an interesting challenge, because we want the wines to have had enough time in the cellar to show signs of maturity, but still catch them at (ideally the beginning of) their peak.

In the tasting, for the second year in a row we chose wines from the same vintage.  This drives home what we see regularly, that Roussanne acts in many ways -- including aging in bottle -- like a red wine.  The vintage of choice was 2006:

Collectors Edition Bottles 2013

My tasting notes:

2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: A clear, vibrant light gold color.  The nose is bright and floral, showing jasmine, honeysuckle, melon and pear, as well as more savory notes of aloe and lanolin. The mouth shows the wonderful acids that I remember from the 2006 vintage, then flowing into richness: honeyed pear, marmalade and grilled pineapple, with a nuttiness from the seven years of age. The acids reassert themselves on the finish, emphasizing the wine's minerality and leaving a lingering impression of fresh honeycomb.  This seems to me to be at the beginning of a peak that will last for some time.

2006 Esprit de Beaucastel: Shows a deep, earthy nose of soy, dusty red fruit, licorice, black olive and mocha.  The mouth is lusher than the nose initially suggests, with rich flavors of plum, leather, anise and sweet spice, all underpinned by a brambly wildness I found totally captivating.  The tannins have softened but still provide a welcome counterpoint to the palate's richness, and a chewy texture that lingers on the finish, framed by the acidity I noticed in the white.  While this is beautiful now, I have the sense it can age for easily another decade in the cellar and likely more.

The Pleasure of Discovered Bottles

By Robert Haas

Over the last 59 years I have been buying, selling, and putting wines in my cellar, first in Vermont, and then in California as well.  And, of course, there is the house cellar and the storage cellar in each place.  So I have an excuse for occasionally (actually all too often) losing track of what is in the cellar and discovering bottles that I had forgotten that I owned. 

Sometimes those bottles are well over the hill and gone, but not too often, thankfully.  Good well-made wines are remarkably sturdy and generously long-lived when well stored.  Just the other night I discovered some Château La Tour Haut Vignoble 1970, a St. Estèphe crû bourgeois (now Château Tour Haut Vignoble) in our house cellar in Vermont that could have passed for the well-known grand premier crû Château Latour itself.

Sometimes even forgotten bottles of white wines turn out to be a revelation.  Such was the case at a gathering with friends Mel and Ynez Kaplan at their house in Charlotte, VT last Saturday.  Mel brought out a couple of bottles of Tablas Creek Clos Blanc 2000.  He asked whether I thought that it would still be good.  Mel has an underground cellar there so I said,  “Let’s give it a try.”  Clos Blanc was the name we attached to our reserve white blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier before we introduced the Esprit de Beaucastel name in the 2001 vintage.

Clos Blanc

The wine was still remarkably youthful in character after 11 years in bottle: pale green-gold in color, with aromas of white flowers, honeysuckle and almonds.  The palate was lively, rich and mouth-filling with citrusy, honey, nutty and saline flavors: a wine to match the best and a testament to the ageworthiness of Roussanne -- even from young vines -- and our terroir here at Tablas Creek.  What a happy discovery!

Stepping out of Beaucastel's Shadow

It is time.  After a decade of Esprit de Beaucastel, our flagship wines will bear a new name.  Please welcome Esprit de Tablas, to debut this fall with the release of the 2011 vintage.

Esprit de Tablas bottles

In early 2002, when we made the decision to put the Beaucastel name on our reserve-level bottling of the 2000 red and 2001 white, our business environment was very different.  The California Rhone community was far less robust.  The natural wine movement and its focus on wines of balance and place (and on organic and biodynamic farming) was restricted to the fringes.  Blends were genuinely unusual and hard to sell.  Paso Robles, for all its growth, still had fewer than 100 wineries and hadn't been "discovered" by the mainstream media; Robert Parker's first reviews of the area were published that February. I would routinely explain to customers that we were from Paso Robles and get the question “what part of Napa is that in?"

Tablas Creek was at a different stage, too, with only four vintages under our belt and little marketing presence. We hadn't yet opened a tasting room (coming in September of 2002) or started our wine club (first shipment, August 2002). We'd just started going out to represent the wines at public festivals and working with our distributors and the Vineyard Brands team that represented us nationally.  I remember visiting wine shops with our distributors in 2001 and 2002 and seeing dusty bottles of Tablas Creek on the bottom shelf of the "other" section of the store.  It was hardly surprising; very few people knew who we were, and we hadn’t yet had much time to spread the word.

From the beginning we had talked with the Perrins about the possibility of putting Beaucastel on the label of Tablas Creek, but their opinion was that the vineyard really needed a decade or more under its belt before they'd consider it.  They are, after all, rightly protective of the name that they've made for their estate in their five generations there.  When they decided that the wines were ready -- in the fourth vintage of red and fifth vintage of white -- it was a powerful endorsement of the vineyard's status, and it really did help in the market.  For consumers who had vaguely heard of Tablas Creek but couldn't remember why, the Beaucastel name placed the wine into context, and it started selling off of lists and shelves. And to the distributor, retail and restaurant partners who had followed and liked the wines from the beginning, the name gave them confidence that they would be able to sell it.  Since 2002, the sales of our Esprit de Beaucastel (red and white combined) have grown steadily from around 3000 cases a year to some 5000 cases last year, even with the growth in the number and complexity of our other offerings.

Over time, as we've gotten more established, and as more people have come to know Tablas Creek for Tablas Creek rather than for our association with Beaucastel, having the Esprit de Beaucastel name on our flagship wine naturally places us in Esprits 2002 2006 and 2010Beaucastel’s shadow.  It's a compelling and comforting shadow, to be sure.  But we have known that ultimately, for us to achieve what we want for Tablas Creek, Tablas (rather than Beaucastel) must be the focus of our identity. We’ve been reducing the prominence of Beaucastel on our Esprit labels gradually over time (see right) and we and the Perrins agree that it's time for us to step out of that shadow and focus on our Tablas Creek brand.

The upcoming change isn't an indication of any reduction in the Perrins' involvement.  Cesar Perrin recently finished a year here, and we've already had four Perrin visits this year, as well as a week with Claude Gouan, Beaucastel's cellar master since the 1970's.  The Perrins are excited to begin developing the new parcel we purchased a couple of years ago.  Nor does it signify a change in the way we're making our wines.  The Esprits will continue to be our flagship wines, and will be consciously modeled after the Beaucastel red and white: blends based on Mourvedre and Roussanne, made in a classic style with native yeasts, aged in neutral foudres, showcasing our terroir, just as they have done since the beginning.

The Beaucastel name will not disappear from our marketing. We'll continue to talk about our Beaucastel connections, past and present, on the back label, on our Web site and in person.  We're proud of the connection.  But Beaucastel will resume its place as a part of our story, not a part of our brand.

And for all Beaucastel's significance, the key name on this label for us is, and has always been "Esprit". Its literal translation from French is "spirit" but it has a greater connotation than this.  Webster's defines it as "liveliness of mind and expression".  I think of it more as inspiration.  For us, Beaucastel has been our inspiration for our Esprit wines, which is subtly different from them being our model.  We're not interested in making a carbon copy, and because we’re in a unique place we couldn't even if we wanted to.  But putting the Tablas brand front and center is in its own way inspired by Beaucastel’s example.  Beaucastel has always been celebrated for its focus on its terroir.  In stepping out with Esprit de Tablas we’re doing exactly that.