Last week, after three weeks of work, we finally got a chance to taste all 12 red wines we'll be making from the 2017 vintage. It was a treat. Esprit and Panoplie were rich, lush, and intense, but with good structure and no sense of heaviness. The Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah were each powerfully evocative of what we love about each grape: Mourvedre meaty and chocolaty, Grenache juicy and vibrant, and Syrah smoky and spicy. Counoise was ridiculously electric, with masses of purple fruit that in most vintages it only hints at. The En Gobelet and Le Complice each spoke clearly of the idea behind why we created the wines: En Gobelet loamy and pure, with a great expression of place, while Le Complice was both dark and bright, like Syrah with an extra application of translucency. Even the Patelin de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas were each, in their own way, remarkably expressive. And, equally important, thanks to the plentiful 2017 harvest, we'll be able to make solid amounts of all our wines. After five drought-impacted years, what a relief.
How did we get here? It was, as they say, a process. As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Thanks to the healthy crop levels that we saw in 2017, we had no choice but to separate our varietal tasting into two days: Counoise and Grenache (plus our few lots of Terret Noir and Pinot) on Monday, and Syrah, Mourvedre, and Tannat on Tuesday. Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending.
We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. My quick thoughts on each variety:
- Grenache (20 lots): A very good showing for Grenache, although there was more diversity here than in some of the other grapes. Eight of the lots received 1's from me, with three others getting provisional 1's (lots that I believe will become 1's with just a little cellar work). Only one 3. Pretty but powerful too, with excellent fruit and good acids that proved valuable in blending.
- Syrah (19 lots): Really good here too, though because the other varieties were so strong, it didn't stand out as much as it did, say, in 2016. Seven 1's, with seven others that I gave 1/2 grades (my intermediate grade that sits between a 1 and a 2). Lots of smaller lots here as we experiment with different amounts of stem inclusion, which made for some fun and diverse expressions of the grape, from dark, inky, and plush to ones more marked by herby spice.
- Counoise (7 lots): For the first time in years, multiple Counoise lots that seemed Esprit-weight. There were still some of the lighter pretty high-toned Gamay-style lots that lovers of our varietal Counoise bottling will recognize, but a greater quantity of rich, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise than I can ever remember.
- Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, with tons of spice and nice tannic bite. It was the one grape that didn't increase its yield between 2016 and 2017, and there's not that much (2 puncheons) but it's enough to make a nice impact on the Le Complice.
- Tannat (6 lots): Four of the six lots got 1 grades from me, and the others got 2's only because I thought they were so powerful they were a little one-dimensional. It's going to be a great Tannat year. Lots of black fruit, Tannat's signature tannic structure and acids, and a lovely little bit of violet floral lift.
- Pinot Noir (4 lots): All these lots come, of course, from my parents' small vineyard in the Templeton Gap, but we were experimenting with different amounts of stems and whole cluster. The mix of the four hit, for me, just the right note, with pretty cherry Pinot fruit given weight and complexity from the herbal elements by the roughly 50% whole clusters we used in the fermentation. A touch of oak was nice too. Should make for a delicious 2017 Full Circle Pinot.
We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the lack of evident weaknesses in the Mourvedre we weren't sure whether we wanted feature more Syrah, more Grenache, or a relatively equal amount of each in Panoplie and Esprit. And for the first time in several years, Counoise was powerful enough to include in the discussion for both wines. So, we went into blending determined to try a range of options. As always, we tasted these options blind, not knowing what was in each glass.
Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie. Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. We've only added Counoise once. We tried three blends and split pretty equally, with the only conclusion being that including Counoise sacrificed more in power than it gained in vibrancy. After a second round of trials, we settled on a blend with a fairly high amount of Mourvedre (69%) and a roughly equal amount of Grenache (17%) and Syrah (14%).
Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Here came our first real surprise. Given that the Mourvedre was so good, we decided to try two Mourvedre-heavy blends, one with more Syrah and the other with a roughly equal percentage of Grenache and Syrah, as well as something of a control wine: one that matched the percentages of our 2014 Esprit, with 40% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. To all of our surprise, we universally preferred the last blend, with the least Mourvedre and the most Grenache. After ten minutes of discussion where we tried to rationalize this determination and figure out if we could think of anything that would improve the blend, we decided to trust the process and go with what we all liked best. Sometimes the wines surprise you in the glass, which is why we do things this way. Looking back, I can see why this might have happened. Knowing how good the vintage was, and how short our last two crops were, we decided to make a relatively high quantity of Esprit: 4200 cases. That's a lot of wine: roughly one-third of what we harvested. Even at 40% Mourvedre, we were committing nearly half of the Mourvedre we harvested. As we increased that and approached 50%, we had exhausted our 1-rated lots and were having to start using some 2-rated lots. But we could get to a full 35% Grenache with only 1-rated lots. So, increasing from 40% Mourvedre to 50% Mourvedre and decreasing from 35% Grenache to 25% Grenache meant that we were swapping out 1-rated Grenache for 2-rated Mourvedre. And our blind tasting results (rightly) told us that was a mistake.
On Thursday morning, we tackled our two small-production wine club blends -- one in just its second vintage, and one we've been making for a decade.
Our Le Complice celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with Syrah, and particularly the Syrah lots fermented with stems or whole clusters. Both grapes share a peppery spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. Last year, when we first made this wine, we realized that the two wines benefit from some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. Given the limited amount of Terret from 2017, we knew that all of it would be going in this blend and account for about 13% of the 825 cases we were trying to make. So our trials were to find the right ratio between Syrah and Grenache, and the right percentage of the Syrah that was fermented using whole clusters. In the end, we picked the most dramatic example with the least Grenache (20%) and quite a high percentage of whole cluster Syrah (67%). It felt like a statement about what Syrah could be with a little added translucency: like a ray of sun shining through a deeply pigmented stained glass window.
For our En Gobelet, made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed lots, in early years we used a relatively high percentage of Tannat to give backbone to wines that were otherwise mostly Mourvedre and Grenache. In more recent years, as we got some head-trained Syrah in production, our Tannat percentage declined. Given how good the Tannat was, and how luscious the vintage was, we thought it might be an opportunity to build more Tannat into the blend. And that was the wine we chose in the blind trials: one with 11% Tannat to go along with 39% Mourvedre, 34% Grenache, 11% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. It's important to us that all our wines taste distinct from one another, and we felt like Tannat's dark spiciness would set this blend apart from the similarly Mourvedre-heavy Esprit. Club members are in for a treat, in a couple of years.
After this, Cesar had to drive back to San Francisco for his flight to France, and we tabled the plan for the week while we all set to work excavating what had landed on our desks while we were sitting around the blending table. The next Tuesday, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals. Unlike some scarce years where the Cotes falls into place pretty quickly because of a lack of blending options, this year we had to answer some fundamental questions about what we wanted the Cotes to show. More Grenache, or more power? How much Counoise-driven vibrancy, or is that really lively Counoise more valuable as a varietal? And how much Syrah is just enough? Typically, Grenache without enough Syrah comes across with a candied edge. You keep adding Syrah until it cuts that edge, but add too much and it takes over and the wine loses the freshness and purity Grenache brings. In this vintage, we tried a couple of blends with around 50% Grenache and varied the Syrah and Counoise percentages, then one with less Grenache and more Syrah, and one with more Grenache and not much of the others. This was the longest debate we had, and in the end picked something in the middle, with 53% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 10% Mourvedre. It's delicious, with just enough depth and structure to balance Grenache's graceful fruit.
Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated how much of the varietal wines we could make: no Terret Noir, but 450 cases of Syrah, 525 cases of Grenache, 550 cases of Counoise, 1100 cases (!) of Tannat, and a glorious 975 cases of the year's best grape, Mourvedre. What a pleasure to be able to show off varietal bottlings of all four of our main red grapes from such a terrific vintage (and for the first time since 2010). What's more, I'm convinced, after having tasted through everything this week, that it will be our best varietal Mourvedre (and best Counoise, and best Tannat) we've ever bottled.
A few concluding thoughts. First, although we're always looking for comparable vintages to the newest one we're wrapping our heads around, it's hard for me to make an easy vintage comp for 2017. 2005, which was also a plentiful vintage following an extended drought, and which made robust and appealing wines, seems to maybe be the best, but the vines were so much younger then, and the tannins more aggressive. 2014 had some similarities, but I think 2017 was across the board more expressive, and the Mourvedre was much better. Just a great year overall, and so nice that it's plentiful too.
Second, while it will be impossible to tease apart what contributed the vintage's noteworthy lushness and expressiveness, it's fascinating to speculate the role that our move to apply Biodynamic farming played. Sure, the 43 inches of rain made a huge difference. And we've been farming increasingly biodynamically for years. But just as we noted in 2010 and 2011 the quality of the lots from the 20-acre swath we'd started farming Biodynamically in 2010, I think there's good reason to believe that at least a part of the quality of 2017 comes from the fact that we had finally extended those practices across the entire vineyard, not least that the early and plentiful rain allowed our flock to graze every vineyard block twice. Will we see the same impact in a drier year like 2018? Time will tell.
Third, it was great to have Cesar Perrin here for the blending. In recent years, we've mostly seen Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin during our spring blending sessions. But Cesar, who spent a couple of harvests here during the string of internships that he took at great wineries around the world, has really come into his own. He is the Perrin family personified, with a reverence for tradition tempered by a love of experimentation. For me, one of the great advantages that we've always had with the Perrins' involvement is that they come with an outside perspective but also with generations of experience with these grapes. As they move from 4th to 5th generation, it's clearer than ever that Beaucastel is in good hands, and with it Tablas Creek.
Finally, this was the first red blending week without my dad in the room. I spent a lot of the week thinking about him, trying to think about what he would have thought about the wines in front of him as well as what I was experiencing. Every blending session, there was at least one moment where he approached a question from a different perspective than the rest of us, and even when we were convinced that our solution was right, the change in perspective took us in a direction that was worth exploring. It's a new world for us, doing this without him. But at least I'm convinced with this 2017 vintage -- which he did taste when he came into the winery in February -- we'll do his memory proud.