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Blending the 2018 White Wines: Our First Look at the Strikingly Mineral 2018 Vintage

We spent most of last week around our conference table, making sense of the white wines from the recently concluded 2018 vintage. As usual, we started our blending week Tuesday morning by tasting, component by component, through each of the 32 lots we’d harvested this past year. Yeah, I know, tough life. Though, to be fair, these blending weeks are my favorites of the year. Not every week is this exciting.

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The first stage of blending is to look at the raw materials we have to work with, and decide whether that will constrain any of our choices. In 2018, it didn't seem like it would. Although quantities were down a bit from our near-record 2017 levels, they were still healthy:

Grape 2018 Yields (tons) 2017 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.2 18.9 -3.7%
Marsanne 11.8 13.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 43.6 46.4 -6.0%
Picpoul Blanc 9.1 9.7 -6.2%
Roussanne 32.6 41.7 -21.8%
Total Rhone Whites 115.3 130.5 -11.6%

Being down 10-ish percent still allowed us plenty of possibilities, with the reductions in crop more likely to constrain how much of our varietal wines we could make, rather than whether we would be able to make them at all. The once concern we had was Roussanne, which always forms the basis of Esprit Blanc, and which we've made as a varietal wine every year since 2001. Still, the first stage was as usual to go through the lots, variety by variety, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage:

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 ago). 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:

  • Viognier (5 lots): A really good year for Viognier, with 2 of the 5 lots getting 1's from me and the others strong 2’s, marked down only because they were so dominant I wasn’t convinced that they would shine in blends. Overall, concentrated, tropical and deep, with surprisingly good acids. Of course, there were a few lots that hadn’t concluded malolactic fermentation. Those lots will soften as that finishes, unless we decide that we like them how they are.
  • Picpoul Blanc (2 lots): Not my favorite Picpoul vintage, with our largest lot getting a 2 from me because it was showing a little oxidative character and a ton of acid as it’s still going through malo. Still, plenty of salty minerality, and that nice tropicality that we’ve come to expect from the Picpoul grape.
  • Roussanne (9 lots): The barrel program here dominated my impression of these, with two lots showing beautiful (but dominant) oak, two others that were raised in foudre showing brightness and pungency and tasting very young, and five others in mixed but neutral cooperage showing solid, dense, mature Roussanne character, though with a touch lower acidity than I’d like to have seen. My grades: five 1’s (though two of those got asterisks for being oaky enough that we needed to be careful in blending), three 2’s, and one that bordered between 2 and 3 because it was so low in acid.
  • Grenache Blanc (10 lots): A pretty heterogeneous mix here, with four lots still sweet and five lots still going through malolactic. Like with the Roussanne lots, two that were fermented in foudre were noteworthy: finished with their fermentations but still very young and showing a hint of reduction, which masks their richness. The lots that were done with fermentation and malo, and had spent some time in smaller cooperage, were outstanding, which bodes well for the collection overall. My scores: four 1’s, three 2’s, one 3, and two “incomplete” grades.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): A spot-on showing for this grape, with all three showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One lot added a gentle creaminess and surprisingly good (for Marsanne) acidity, and seemed a cinch to bottle on its own. The other two will be lovely Cotes de Tablas Blanc components. My grades: one 1, and two 2’s.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 240 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, but it was pretty: lovely salty minerality, and a little tropical lychee character. Plenty of acid, and still not done with malo. A 1 for me.
  • Picardan (1 lot): Newer for us than Clairette, but we have a few more rows in the ground, so the lot was larger (528 gallons). This was a tough wine for me to evaluate. There was still a touch of sugar left, and lots of malic acid, muting the nose and leaving a somewhat primary, candied sweet-tart impression on the palate. Another wine that for me got an “incomplete” grade.
  • Petit Manseng (1 lot): Not really relevant to the rest of the week’s work, since we don’t blend Petit Manseng into the other Rhone whites. Still, this was a good chance to check in on how it was doing, and decide whether we wanted to push it along fermentation to a drier profile, or to leave it with more residual sugar [If this question seems interesting to you, check out the blog from a few years back Wrapping Our Heads Around Petit Manseng]. At the roughly 70 g/L residual sugar, I thought this was lovely: luscious like key lime pie, with the same hints of pithiness and acidity that suggests.

Wednesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. We always want the Esprit Blanc’s blend to be dictated by the character of the Roussanne, and in some years, that makes the choice easy. Not this year. The 2018 vintage produced both good lushness and higher acids than we’d seen the few years before, so it wasn’t obvious that we should include higher quantities of the high-acid grapes like Picpoul and Grenache Blanc. Plus, Picpoul this year didn't seem so obviously outstanding as to dictate a high percentage in the Esprit Blanc. Adding to the complexity of the challenge, some of the Roussanne lots we’d liked best were quite oaky, and while we feel that a touch of wood is appropriate on the Esprit Blanc, we don’t want it dominated by that character. So, we decided to focus on blends with moderate (60%-70%) proportions of Roussanne, but to vary the amounts of the oakier lots, and also to try blends that replaced a portion of Picpoul with Picardan and Clairette (as we did last year) and also others that didn’t (as we’d done through 2016).

As is often the case when we have lots of viable options, the Esprit Blanc blending took a while. The first flight of four options saw the table fail to come to consensus, although we did decide that we liked the lots that included some Clairette and Picardan. A second round, controlling for that and varying the amount of new oak, surprised us with the realization that even with all the oaky lots in the blend, it didn’t taste particularly oak-dominant. (Though, given that those lots only made up about 10% of the wine, that might not be surprising.) After we’d mulled on that for a while, the blend fell into place on our third trial, at 66% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan, and 2% Clairette Blanche, with most but not all of the lots in the new barrels.

Once we'd decided on the Esprit Blanc blend Wednesday, the Cotes de Tablas Blanc came together quickly on Thursday. In this fairly scarce (and low-acid) Roussanne year, it was pretty clear that there wasn’t much need for it in the Cotes Blanc. And setting aside the Marsanne lot we loved for a varietal bottling meant we knew how much Marsanne we had for Cotes Blanc. So, that meant a blending trial mostly to determine the best relative proportions of Viognier and Grenache Blanc. As is often the case with a trial with only one variable, we all came to agreement on the first round: 40% Viognier, 35% Grenache Blanc, 20% Marsanne, and 5% Roussanne. That allowed the Viognier to show nicely (the Cotes Blanc is always designed to show off this most exuberant of our grapes) but with the Grenache Blanc giving it a nice acid backbone to play off. We talked for a while to see if we could think of anything to improve the blend, but couldn’t, so we all used the rest of the morning to clear some other work off our desks.

We had managed to make our two main blends without using up any of our grapes completely. So, the final step was to taste those two blends alongside the seven (yes, seven) varietal wines that this left us. Other than Grenache Blanc (1200 cases) and Roussanne (some 700 cases) we won’t have enough of these other varietal bottlings for a full wine club shipment, but it will still be a treat to have 400 cases each of Picpoul and Viognier, 275 of Marsanne, 125 of Picardan, and even 50 cases of Clairette Blanche. At this stage, the highlights for me were the Viognier, which was absolutely classic and luscious, the Marsanne, which showed the grape's signature honey and floral notes but also had great brightness, and Clairette, which had electric minerality and a lovely lemongrass character. If you’re fans of any of these, stay tuned to emails that announce their release as we get them into bottle later this spring and summer.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • I was struggling much of the week with a nasty head cold, and there was one day where I could barely taste. Thank goodness for a strong team, and a process which meant that things could move forward even without my full faculties. My head had cleared by the end of the week, and tasting the finished blends all together was a great chance to affirm the success of the week’s work.
  • The cold 2018-2019 winter has definitely had an impact on how far along things were in their fermentation. Normally by late March, most of the lots are done with sugar fermentation and largely done with malolactic. Not this year, despite the efforts of the cellar team in bringing barrels out into the sun, moving recalcitrant lots over the lees of those fermenting actively, and generally nudging things along as much as they could. Fermentation is a temperature-sensitive chemical reaction, and this year has been cold.
  • The vintage’s signature seems to be medium body with expressive aromatics, bright acids, and striking minerality. That’s a great combo. We can’t wait to share these wines with you!

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