The holidays are a time of year when many of us reach back into our wine libraries to pick out a special vintage we've been saving for just the right moment. We keep our vintage chart updated for exactly these sorts of inquiries. But while there are some wines that we open fairly regularly, there are others that come across our tables more rarely. And so we try periodically to choose a wine and taste through every vintage of that wine, in order to assess how each wine is tasting now, should someone inquire, but just as much to track the arc of development of each vintage and to step back and take a big picture look at how our thinking about that particular wine has evolved.
So, with that in mind, I decided to get our cellar team together and open all the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and Esprit de Tablas Blanc wines we've made, from the debut vintage in 2001 to the 2016 that we just bottled last week and won't release for another 10 months. It made for quite a kickoff to the holidays:
Now many people don't think about aging their white wines. But Roussanne has a remarkable ability to maintain its freshness while also developing interesting secondary flavors, and the Chateau de Beaucastel white wines are some of the world's most ageworthy whites. The Esprit Blanc, modeled after the Beaucastel Blanc and predominantly Roussanne, is no different. Joining me for this tasting were Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, Cellar Master Brad Ely, Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg, and Assistant Tasting Room Manager Charlie Chester. My notes on the wines are below. If you want detailed technical information, professional reviews, or our tasting notes from when the wines were first released, I've linked each wine to its page on our Web site:
- 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (44% Roussanne, 22% Viognier, 18% Grenache Blanc, 16% Marsanne): As it has been the last several times I've opened this, just a revelation at age 16. On the nose, still so fresh: minty Bit-o-Honey, with richer flavors of pie crust but no apparent oxidation. On the palate, vibrant, with well integrated acidity, and flavors of honeydew melon deepening to marzipan on the finish. Craig commented, "for a 2001, this is just crazy". And Neil added "it's wines like this that are why, when people ask me how long a wine will age I have to answer that I have no idea. I never thought it would go this long." Just lovely.
- 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): The nose shows more age (or perhaps its higher Roussanne content) than the 2001, with aromas of almond brittle, candied orange peel, and brioche. On the palate, all our descriptors were sweet, though the wine is not: liquified cracker jacks, creme caramel, and vanilla custard. There is some noteworthy structure, almost a tannic feel, and chalky minerality that provides relief from the mouth-coating texture and rich flavors. The wine got fresher as it sat in the glass, and the finish of apple pie spices was my favorite part. Still, the wine's density and power were its defining characteristics.
- 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 27% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): On the nose, butterscotch, clove-studded orange, fennel, and a little cedary spice that I thought came from some well-integrated oak. The mouth is livelier than the nose suggested: toasted marshmallow, white tea, and salty minerality. Quite chalky, with a little pithy bite on the finish. A first bottle that we opened was more linear, with a matchsticky sharpness that seemed less appealing. A good reminder that even non-cork-tainted bottles can expect a fair degree of variation at age 14.
- 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): The first year that we included Picpoul in the blend (see my note at the end) and Neil immediately commented that "it smells like what we now do". There was a cool lychee minty savoriness on the nose, over beeswax and white flowers. On the palate, preserved lemon (from the Picpoul?), clementine orange, and a steely minerality that led to a precise finish of sea spray and spice. This made us all want food, and the table was debating between dover sole, halibut piccata, and soft-shell crab when I moved us along to the 2005.
- 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Powerfully Roussanne on the nose with burnt honey, green tea, mint julep, and some cedary oak. The mouth was quite ripe, with flavors of apricot tart set off by some pithy Grenache Blanc tannins and surprisingly bright acids that felt a touch out of keeping with the rest of the wine's personality. Tons of power, but maybe not 100% resolved into what it will be at maturity.
- 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A pretty, striking, youthful nose that reminded me of Chablis and Chelsea of Riesling: wet rocks, fresh pear, spruce forest and fresh herbs that Chelsea insisted were lemon thyme. The mouth was more youthful and more open than any of the vintages 2002-2005, with flavors of grilled pineapple, spun sugar, vanilla bean, and a lovely salty minerality that came out on the finish. Gorgeous and integrated. Pretty clearly our favorite of the older vintages.
- 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): The nose's tangy pungency reminded us of '02 or '05, with a little more age evident than the 2006: candied orange peel, cedar, a little mentholy lift, and a dense fruit, not altogether sweet, that Chelsea nailed as pineapple core. On the palate, very rich and round, but with nicely integrated acidity to pull it through and a salty beurre blanc character that came out on the finish. I thought the wine was begging for lobster: something unapologetically rich.
- 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Banc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A different wine on the nose than any we'd seen before, so fruity that a couple of people commented that they'd have called it Viognier in a blind tasting: peaches in syrup, with complicating flavors of tarragon, lemongrass, and Bartlett pear. The mouth is similar, though less exuberant, with flavors of apricot and key lime, medium body, and nice balance, with a briny salinity coming out on the finish.
- 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul Blanc): A dense nose on which cedary spice was the most dominant element, not particularly friendly, but impressive. On the palate, some surprisingly red fruit descriptors: red apple skin and strawberry, with spicy lacquer and maple sap elements, and a smoky acidity that reminded me of grilled lemon. More power than subtlety, at least right now. The last of a sequence of wines that had a similar character that went from '02 to '05 to '07 to '09, all our most powerful vintages of the 2000's.
- 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A nose that manages to be bright and luscious at the same time: maple candy, sea spray, juniper, lychee, and honeysuckle. The palate is soft and creamy, gentle compared to the 2009, like orange blossom honey with clementine notes. Pretty and less evident structure than most of the earlier vintages, but with all of the pieces in balance. Butterscotch comes out on the long finish. I thought it a crowd pleaser; Neil thought it a little low-acid for his taste.
- 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): A nose like the beach, with cocoa butter and sea spray. Brad compared it to Condrieu for its leanness yet its promise of power. On the palate, more savory than any other wine in the tasting, showing the effects of our coolest-ever vintage, with flavors of grilled lemon and flint and beeswax, yet with tons of texture and a finish of mineral and pear skin. Not an easy wine, but one we all kept coming back to.
- 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A nose like honeycomb, with additional aromas of baked apples, graham cracker, and a little sweet spearmint. The mouth is lush and creamy, youthful, with flavors of honeycrisp apple and just enough saline to keep it savory. Gorgeous, balanced, and pure. Chelsea commented that "if you don't want Champagne, this is your New Year's Eve wine."
- 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (71% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc): A sweet resiny character on the powerful nose that broadens into lychee, crystallized pineapple and vanilla bean, with savory notes of dried sage and alpine forest. The mouth is rich but savory, with flavors of salted caramel and preserved lemon, a cool, minty lift, and a finish that features sea salt, sweet herbs, and crystallized ginger. Gorgeous now, and a wine that we all thought would be fascinating to watch evolve. On the balance, and amidst strong competition, our favorite of the younger wines.
- 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): An explosively appealing nose with aromas of yellow peach, candied oranges, citrus blossom honey, vanilla custard, and pie spices. The mouth is structured but with an underlying note of sweet fruit, like orange creamsicle with a spearmint kick. The most floral of all the wines we tasted, with a beautiful jasmine note coming out on the long finish. A close second to the 2013 among the young wines.
- 2015 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (55% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 17% Picpoul Blanc): Neil's first comment was that he was "running out of honey descriptors". And yes, even in its youth, the 2015 showed a smoky honey character, as well as kiwi and passion fruit and newly split firewood. The mouth was less dramatic than the nose, pretty and savory and textural, some caramel and apple notes, and a drier finish of apple skin, beeswax, and briny minerality. Still deepening, and as pretty as it is right now, we all thought it would be better yet with another six months in bottle.
- 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 18% Grenache Blanc, 7% Picpoul Blanc): Just bottled last week, so our expectations were modest, but the wine already showed nicely, with a classically Roussanne nose of baklava, vanilla custard, Haribo peaches and sweet oak. Clean and tangy on the palate, with a little salted pineapple and a yeasty character that reminded me of rising bread. Still a baby, but should be lovely when it gets to its release in a little less than a year.
A few concluding thoughts:
- The overall quality of the wines was exceptionally high. I asked everyone around the table to pick three favorites, and the wines that got multiple votes were 2001 (2), 2006 (5), 2010 (2), 2012 (3), 2013 (4), and 2014 (2). But there wasn't a single wine here that we thought people would be disappointed by if they opened it right now. And I don't think, even with all of Roussanne's famous idiosyncrasy, that a single one of the vintages was is in a "closed" phase. Yes, the wines change and evolve, and it's possible that you will prefer the wines old to young, or vice versa. But they were all, we thought, showing well.
- We are often asked, if we love Roussanne so much, why our flagship white wine isn't a 100% Roussanne. The wines that we liked showed why, I think. The vintages that were the most densely characteristic of Roussanne (2002, 2005, 2007, 2009) didn't receive many votes, as we found them a little one-dimensional, for all their power. The lift that came from the Grenache Blanc and Picpoul were welcome counterpoints to the Roussanne power and density.
- I still remember vividly the tasting in our lab in 2004 where we made the decision to switch from getting a little floral lift with Viognier to getting the same lift -- plus a lemony saline focus -- from Picpoul. Tasting the blend, identical except for the 5% substitution of Picpoul for Viognier, was like cleaning your glasses when they are badly smudged. You didn't realize how much more in focus the world could be, until it was. And that lemony, briny thread that all the subsequent wines have is, I think, thanks to the addition of between 5% and 17% Picpoul. Its contribution has been remarkable.
- I very much like the direction the wines have moved in since 2010. Driven in part by what we learned in the cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, we have been picking our whites less ripe in recent years, and yet they show ample density and luscious textures. But they are less structure-bound, and also show more high notes, with a fresher fruit profile. More is not always better.
- Anyone opening one of these wines with a meal over the holidays is in for a treat. Happy drinking, everyone.