You may not be aging your Rhone whites. But if you do, here's what to expect.
March 01, 2019
As regular readers of the blog know, we keep a library of all the wines we've made. We use this for the tastings we conduct in-house and for the public, like our 10-year retrospective every spring and our mid-summer vertical tastings. We use it to supply our Collector's Edition wine club and the Collector's Vertical Tasting we offer by reservation. And it gives us the opportunity to feature aged wines at the occasional special dinner or event out in the market.
You may not know that one of the things for which we use our library is to help restaurants who want to build a collection of back vintages of Esprit de Tablas (or Esprit de Beaucastel). We do this by offering mixed-vintage vertical packs, that include three bottles each of four different vintages. The red vertical pack is our more popular, and for the last couple of years has included the 2006, 2008, 2009, and 2010 vintages. But we also do a white vertical pack, which for the right restaurant can be even more fun, since so few customers have experience aging white wines.
Our current white vertical pack includes three bottles each of the 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2011 vintages. I decided to open one of each of them today to check in and see how they're showing, and thought that readers of the blog might appreciate the inside look. The lineup:
My notes from the tasting are below. I have linked each wine to its page on our Web site, if you'd like to see tasting notes from when it was bottled, or any of the details of its production:
- 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Powerfully Roussanne on the nose with creme brulee, mint, beeswax, and a slightly dusty candied character that reminded me of Necco wafers. The mouth was fresh and lovely, rich but with a little pithy Seville orange marmalade bite, with flavors of cream sherry and marzipan, and a lovely preserved lemon acidity that came out on the finish and left a clean, lively impression.
- 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): A little more age evident than the 2005, with cedar, hay, and dried herbs on top of the dried pineapple and beeswax that the wine has had since its youth. More generous on the palate, with flavors of burnt sugar, fennel, and candied orange peel. There was a little resiny spice and a licorice/menthol lift on the finish. Weighty and serious, this is a wine crying out for rich food like lobster.
- 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Similar on the nose to the 2007, with spicy bitter oranges, lemongrass, and spun sugar. The mouth is beautifully mid-weight, with flavors of marzipan and candied lemon peel, lovely briny minerality, and a long, clean finish. That said, it showed quite a bit differently than the last time we tasted it in 2017 (when we all commented on how fruity it was). I'm not 100% sure what conclusion to draw from this, except that these wines are all alive and can change dramatically even after several years in bottle.
- 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): Very different than the first three wines on the nose, with aromas of juniper and hops and rising dough and lemongrass, in many ways more like a sour beer than a wine. The mouth is clean and mineral-driven, with flavors of green apple and lemon and honeysuckle. The finish was my favorite part, with lingering impressions of cream soda and wet rocks, and a saline minerality. From our coolest-ever vintage, and shows it.
One conclusion: from this tasting, as well as previous vertical tastings, I think that the windows of time that we've been attributing to aging Roussanne's life stages have been too short. I also think that the normal description of the phases we've been using ("youthful", "mature", "closed", etc) don't really do these wines justice. They change and move around, showing different characters at different stages. If I had to identify these stages and the time frames in which you can expect them, they would be:
- Youth (roughly 2-6 years after vintage, or right now, our 2013-2016 Esprit Blanc): Roussanne-based whites in this stage are rich, unctuous, primary, floral, and honeyed. Citrus blossom, pear, new honey, and a little salty minerality on the finish. This is an immensely appealing stage, and I understand why so many get drunk young.
- Early maturity (roughly 7-10 years after vintage, or right now, our 2010-2012): In this phase, the wines are starting to lose some of their baby fat and picking up more savory, herby, mineral-driven character. The acids appear more prominent, and the brininess that in younger wines only shows on the finish becomes more prominent.
- Middle age (roughly 11-14 years after vintage, or right now, our 2006-2009): Wines in this phase tend to deepen and see their tones darken, with honey character caramelizing, more butterscotch or burnt sugar notes, and the citrus blossom deepening to a candied orange peel. The wines show some oxidative notes, which can for some consumers be off-putting. But they're not oxidized (see next phase).
- Maturity (roughly 15-20+ years after vintage, or right now, our 2001-2005): The oxidative character that these wines showed earlier drops away, and the wine becomes more medium-bodied and paler in color. The floral character re-emerges, combining with caramel and nutty notes and the wines' persistent minerality to make something magical.
If this feels daunting, I don't blame you. You can't go wrong drinking these wines young. But late last year, I shared that one of my recent wine resolutions was to buy fewer wines, but more of the ones I loved, so I could follow their evolution. And I don't think there's a better choice for a resolution like that than a Roussanne-based white like the Esprit Blanc. Of course, you have to be up for a bit of a roller-coaster ride, but following these wines is always fascinating, and you'll learn a lot.
And finally, one take-home message. If you get one that's tasting heavy and feels on the verge of being too old, I would suggest that the right response isn't to quickly open and drink all the other bottles you've saved because their time might be nearly over. Instead, I would think that the thing to do is to write yourself a reminder to check back in another few years, and see if instead the wine is just about to take another turn on its road to whatever destination it has chosen.