We've been enjoying one of our periodic visits from Cesar Perrin this week. Monday, we looked at our present by tasting through the cellar to get a first look at the 2018 vintage, and tasting a selection of the wines we've bottled this year to evaluate how the 2016s and 2017s are shaping up. Tuesday, we looked at our future, spending the day with our managers talking about what we want Tablas Creek to be working towards over the next five-plus years, and setting ourselves goals. This morning, we looked at our past by opening up every vintage of our Cotes de Tablas, from the first vintage (then called Petite Cuvee) in 1999 to the 2017 that's sitting in foudre and will be bottled in February.
The tasting was fascinating. We hadn't looked at all our Cotes de Tablas wines since 2011, and a lot has changed since then. We've integrated the Patelin de Tablas into our mix. Our varietals have assumed more of a focus, as our sales continue their gradual move away from a focus on the wholesale market and toward our tasting room and wine club. And we've seen the end of a wet, cool cycle and the full arc of our five-year drought that began in 2012.
I'll dive into the take-home lessons we feel we learned today at the end of the tasting notes, but one thing was clear from the very first wine: we've consistently underestimated (and perhaps, undersold) the sophistication and ageworthiness of these wines. Although it shows well young, even our first examples were still fresh and vibrant as they reach voting age. And these were not wines made consciously to cellar. Toss in that in the early years the Cotes de Tablas retailed between $20 and $25 (it's still only $35) and I think that the quality that they offer at their price is pretty hard to beat. Kudos to any of you who saved any of these older vintages in your cellars.
I've linked each wine to its page on our Web site, if you want to look at production notes or tasting notes from when the wine was newly bottled. The notes:
- 1999 Petite Cuvee (65% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre): This was the precursor to the Cotes de Tablas, and we made just a few hundred cases in 1999 of lots that we thought weren't up to the standards of the 1999 Reserve Cuvee (itself the predecessor to the Esprit de Beaucastel), mostly Grenache that we thought too tannic for its weight. The wine was sold only in our tasting room, and we never thought it would go this long, but it's showing admirably, with the nose pungent and fresh, with a piney, licoricey note. The palate shows strawberry and dried cherry fruit, lots of peppercorn, and a chocolaty note, with still those Grenache tannins that we worried about in the wine's youth now offering lovely counterpoint. A little heat on the finish (the wine is 15.2% alcohol) is the only sign of age to me.
- 2000 Cotes de Tablas (84% Grenache, 16% Syrah): Our first Cotes de Tablas, from about 600 cases worth of lots we thought pretty but not sufficiently intense to go into the 2000 Esprit, that to our surprise got a 92-point rating from Robert Parker and sold out in less than a month. There are times when an outside perspective helps you realize the quality of something you've been overlooking each day, and this was one example. This is gorgeous now, with a meaty, gamy baking spice nose sitting over dark red fruit, and red licorice, plummy and a little pruney with age. The mouth is still richly fruity, meaty, with chocolate and cinnamon warmth, and still some good tannins. It's mature and lovely, and you really can't tell it's 15.6% alcohol. I can't imagine this getting any better from here, but drink up.
- 2001 Cotes de Tablas (38% Mourvedre, 34% Syrah, 24% Grenache, 4% Counoise): An anomaly for the tasting, as in 2001 we decided that the spring frost had scrambled up the vintage sufficiently that we weren't going to make an Esprit de Beaucastel, and declassified nearly the entire vintage into the Cotes. So, the only vintage where Grenache was not the #1 grape in the Cotes de Tablas. The nose was spicy, not as opulent as the 2000, but with some nice savory umami meatiness. It was fresh and still reasonably tannic on the palate, less fruit-driven and showing more of the savory tobacco note I get from aged Syrah. There are still some drying tannins on the finish. It was less of a statement than the wines around it, but felt familiar to us since it's a profile we make wines in nowadays.
- 2002 Cotes de Tablas (45% Grenache, 22% Syrah, 21% Mourvedre, 12% Counoise): Our first Cotes de Tablas blended primarily as a wine in its own right rather than as a consequence of lots we didn't want in the Esprit. Whether because of the blend or the vintage (which was a low-acid year that made brooding wines) it tasted older to me than the preceding wines, the first that I would put in "late maturity" on our vintage chart. A deep nose of leather, dark chocolate, and soy marinade. The mouth shows sweet fruit, still fairly tannic, then a dried teriyaki beef jerky character that showed (to me at least) it was likely on the downslope. I preferred the renditions with a bit more acidity and lift.
- 2003 Cotes de Tablas (60% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre, 4% Counoise): The first wine that to me smelled like a "modern" Cotes de Tablas, with that translucent cranberry Grenache character that I associate with the Cotes now. The palate showed nice openness, freshness, and medium weight, although there were some drying cherry skin tannins that came out on the finish. Good acids. Chelsea called it "affable". I'm not sure there's the stuffing here to age much longer, so drink up while it's at its peak.
- 2004 Cotes de Tablas (64% Grenache, 16% Syrah, 13% Counoise, 7% Mourvedre): Neil said "here is the Cotes of today". The wine showed a lovely cool nose of minty eucalyptus, pie cherry, fresh tobacco, green peppercorn and baking spices. The mouth showed sweet fruit, but had a nice tanginess that kept it from ever being sappy. The finish showed a bright berry compote character with great tannins with the texture of powdered sugar. The wine of the tasting for many of us.
[Between 2005 and 2007 we bottled the Cotes de Tablas in both cork and screwcap versions. We hadn't checked in on them in a while, so we tasted both. They weren't tasted blind, which of course influences our perceptions of them, but since some of us are screwcap proponents and others tend to favor corks, we were pleased that our impressions of the wines' relative merits were pretty consistent. I've included notes from both versions.]
- 2005 Cotes de Tablas (43% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre, 18% Syrah, 15% Counoise)
- Cork: a nose deep with soy, baker's chocolate, and meat drippings. The mouth showed some of the depth and weight of the 2002, more sweet earth and dark chocolate and tobacco, and a slightly medicinal cherry cough syrup note that felt to some of us like it was a touch overripe (or a touch past its prime).
- Screwcap: the nose was a little more closed, but broadly similar, more savory than fruity. The mouth was higher toned, with more freshness but less complexity and richness. It still felt a little disjointed, and we would like to have decanted it an hour or so before we tasted it. The group split pretty much 50/50 as to which closure we preferred.
- 2006 Cotes de Tablas (72% Grenache, 11% Syrah, 9% Mourvedre, 8% Counoise)
- Cork: a really nice nose, spicy and lifted cranberry, baking spice, and eucalyptus. Smells cool and fresh. The palate showed flavors of mint chocolate, red cherry, and nicely resolved tannins. Really pretty and delicious.
- Screwcap: the nose is a little less open and expressive, perhaps a touch medicinal. The palate is very nice, but with a touch of reduction that seemed to make it express as less fruity and maybe because of that a bit more evolved. That also made the tannins a little more evident. Almost all of us preferred the cork on this one. Of course, the first bottle we opened was corked, which drove home the risk of cork finish. That one definitely wasn't better.
- 2007 Cotes de Tablas (50% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 25% Counoise)
- Cork: a deep, meaty, gamy nose, with sweet baking spices. Quite massive on the palate, still powerfully tannic, and a little on the heavy side right now. More power than nuance, we thought.
- Screwcap: the nose is cleaner and more straightforward: spice and roasted meat and dark red jam. The mouth was really pretty: powerful, but fresher than the cork version. Like the 2000 in some ways: opulent but not overweight. All of us preferred the screwcap version.
- 2008 Cotes de Tablas (42% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 20% Counoise, 17% Mourvedre): Only bottled in screwcap. A beautiful nose, clean and lifted, with spicy notes of dried strawberry, juniper, cherry skin, new leather, and pepper. The mouth is generous but with the tanginess that we loved in the 2004, making the wine both fresh and refreshing. Nice sweetness on the finish, with an underlying chalkiness that keeps it pure. In a very pretty place, and another wine of the tasting for us.
- 2009 Cotes de Tablas (43% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 18% Counoise, 15% Mourvedre): Only bottled in cork (as were all subsequent vintages). The first bottle we opened was oxidized and dead (perhaps a cork flaw?) but the second was pristine: powerful on the nose, with an iron-like minerality that was more dominant than the fruit or meat that lurked underneath. The mouth was nice, but big, with a grapey Grenache character, powerful tannins, and a little alcohol coming out on the finish. From a very powerful, extracted vintage that saw yields reduced by both spring frosts and the third year of drought. More about complexity and power than charm, for me, this was the only Cotes de Tablas to ever appear in the Wine Spectator's "Top 100" list. Definitely enough stuffing to lay down for a while longer.
- 2010 Cotes de Tablas (46% Grenache, 39% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, 5% Counoise): Smells like Syrah to me: iron and blackberry and loam. The mouth shows more open than the nose suggests, really nice, with black cherry, some tanginess, and good integrated tannins, with lots of black licorice on the finish. A serious wine from a very cool, slow-ripening vintage, still probably not quite at peak. Cesar commented "you feel a lot of potential".
- 2011 Cotes de Tablas (49% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre, 8% Counoise): More open on the nose than the 2010: blackberry and spice and rich dark earth, though the coolness of the vintage (the back-to-back vintages of 2010 and 2011 were the coolest in our history) still means that the fruit tones are more black than red. The mouth is velvety, with nice acids and elegant tannins. Not quite the fruit density of the 2010, but that may be a stage. This feels to me like it's emerging from a closed period, will be better in another six months, and drink well for another decade.
- 2012 Cotes de Tablas (60% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 10% Counoise, 5% Mourvedre): Charmingly Grenache on the nose: red cherry and red licorice, loam, and sweet spices. The mouth shows cherry-chocolate, more red licorice, and a nice tanginess on the finish. It's a little light on the mid-palate compared to a great vintage, but it's easy and charming. Chelsea called it "joyous".
- 2013 Cotes de Tablas (55% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Counoise, 5% Mourvedre): Darker and more powerful on the nose than the 2012, almost 2011-like, with iron, soy marinade, baking spices, and figs. Inviting. The mouth is really nice: licorice, raspberry and blackberry, with appealing earthiness and a nice tannic bite coming out on the finish. My favorite of the relatively young vintages.
- 2014 Cotes de Tablas (44% Grenache, 36% Syrah, 12% Counoise, 8% Mourvedre): Seems older on the nose than the 2013, jammier and less vibrant. Still, nice strawberry jam, sweet earth, and baking spice character. The mouth shows great tanginess, sweet fruit, good tannins, a bit primary right now with some grapiness and a little baked fruit. Maybe on a track similar to a wine like 2002 or 2005, and that's not surprising: we thought that 2014 was in many ways a throwback vintage that reminded us of the mid-2000s.
- 2015 Cotes de Tablas (39% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 16% Counoise, 10% Mourvedre): So focused and precise on the nose, like (to me) all our 2015 reds: spicy cranberry, young, fresh, and playful. The mouth to me is on point, with both precision and intensity, and vibrant acids. A little less rich on the mid-palate than the 2014 -- not surprising given the cooler vintage -- but for me more than made up for that with the focus.
- 2016 Cotes de Tablas (55% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 13% Mourvedre, 7% Counoise): Still young and less focused on the nose than the 2015, pungent and spicy with a cherry cola character and (I thought) a little touch of sweet oak. On the palate, like strawberry puree with tangy acids but a nice creamy, chalky mineral backbone to play off. Strawberries and cream on the finish, fun and expressive.
- 2017 Cotes de Tablas (53% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise, 10% Mourvedre): Out of foudre; will be bottled in February and go out to wine club members in the spring. A rich but lifted nose of spicy strawberry, iron, and vibrant freshness on the nose. In the mouth, red fruit and licorice, complicated by a garrigue-like herbiness and with youthful tannins that come out with black cherry and fresh fig flavors on the finish. A baby, but should be outstanding.
A few concluding thoughts. First, on corks vs. screwcaps. This was the least conclusive tasting that we've done on these three vintages; with one vintage seeming better in cork, another in screw cap, and the third a split decision. But I left feeling like the decision to put the wine in cork starting in 2009 was a good one, as most people who are drinking the wines are doing it in the wine's first decade, and there's plenty of freshness to carry the wines to that age, while the added depth from the aging under cork seemed a benefit. If you are opening wines like this under screwcap, a decant is highly recommended.
Of course, the one disappointing wine was the corked 2006. If you'd waited a decade and opened that, what a bummer. It's a dilemma.
Second, while the Cotes de Tablas wines are a less important piece of our production now than they were a decade ago -- when they represented about 40% of our production instead of the less than 15% they do now -- we all agreed that they're still a lovely, flexible wine that can be a pleasure to open young yet still offer an incredible drinking experience if you choose to let them age out a decade or so. And what a bargain. We choose to price this less than our other wines because we want to be able to offer wines at different prices, and we usually aren't including our most intense lots in this blend. But it's still 100% estate fruit off the organic (and now biodynamic) vineyard, fermented and aged in the same way as our Esprit, and it has consistently exceeded our expectations for ageworthiness. I'm going to start tossing a case of each vintage in the back of my cellar, and try to keep my hands off.
Third, although (or perhaps because) the style changed over the years and from vintage to vintage, there was something for everyone in the lineup. I asked everyone to vote for their favorites at the end, and fourteen of the nineteen vintages got at least one vote. The Cotes de Tablas that got the most votes (five of the eight of us) was the 2008. Tied for second with four votes were the 2001 and 2004. Two wines (the 1999 and 2010) got three votes. And the 2006, 2011, 2013, and 2017 all got two votes. So there were favorites young and old, from bigger vintages and from more elegant vintages, with mostly Grenache and with Grenache levels around 40%.
Finally, it was great to have Cesar's perspective around the table. One of the things I'm most grateful for in our collaboration with the Perrins is that they manage to bring the best qualities of being both insiders and outsiders at the same time. Insiders, because they've worked with these grapes for generations, all over the south of France, and they've been cutting edge in experimenting with new ways to grow and vinify Rhone varieties since the time of Jacques Perrin in the 1950s. Plus, they've been deeply involved with Tablas Creek since the beginning and are regular visitors several times a year. Cesar spent the 2011 harvest working at Tablas Creek, and has been back most years since. So it's not like we have to bring them up to speed on the vision or the decisions that were made previously. But at the same time, this is not the world that they're immersed in on a day to day basis, and their mindset is in what they do in the Rhone. So, when they come, they come with fresh -- but informed -- eyes. And that's a remarkably valuable perspective, for which I am grateful.