Report from the distanced blending table: 2019 is a vintage of remarkable power and texture
April 05, 2020
Last week, six of us emerged after two weeks at home to put together the white wines from the 2019 vintage. This was a smaller group than normal, a blending with no Perrin in attendance and the Tablas Creek participants reduced to a core six (Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Austin, Jordy, and me) in the interest of maintaining social distance. Still, it was a relief for all of us to have some social contact and I know it felt great for me to get out of crisis management mode and immerse myself in the familiar intellectual challenge of taking the 37 different white lots we had at the end of the 2019 harvest and turning them into Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and a collection of varietal wines.
If you're unfamiliar with how we do our blending, you might find it interesting to read this blog by Chelsea that she wrote a few years ago.
Our first step, as it always is, was to taste each variety in flights, give each lot a grade, and start assessing the character of the year. Our grading system is simple; a "1" grade means it's got the richness, elegance, and balance to be worth of consideration for Esprit Blanc. A "2" grade means we like it, but it's not right for Esprit, for whatever reason. It may be pretty, but without the concentration for a reserve-level wine. It might be so powerful we feel it won't blend well. Or it might just be out of the style we want for the Esprit, such as with too much new oak. A "3" grade means the lot has issues that need attention. It might be oxidized or reduced. It might still be fermenting and in a place that makes it hard to evaluate confidently. Or it might just not have the substance for us to be confident we'll want to use it. Most "3" lots resolve into 2's or 1's with some attention. If they don't, they end up getting sold off and they don't see the inside of a Tablas Creek bottle.
My quick thoughts on each variety are below. 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.
- Roussanne (12 lots): Some of the best Roussanne lots I can remember in my 18 years doing this. Overall, powerful and concentrated, but not overripe or alcoholic, with better-than-usual acids. Oodles of Roussanne character, across a range of different barrel treatments and vineyard blocks. My grades: five 1’s, a 1/2 that I loved but thought might be too oaky for Esprit, three 2’s, two 2/3 lots that in a weaker year probably would have been solid 2's, and one 3 that will be declassified.
- Grenache Blanc (7 lots): Some really nice Grenache Blanc, but a little out of the Grenache Blanc mainstream, tending more toward power than brightness. A lot of intermediate grades from me, as I wasn't sure that these powerful, textured Grenache Blanc lots would be needed in Esprit Blanc this year, with Roussanne so powerful and textured on its own. My scores: two 1’s, three 1/2 grades, one 2, and one 2/3.
- Viognier (7 lots): Like the first two grapes, plenty of power. Since we don't use Viognier in Esprit Blanc, a "1" grade just means that it's as good and expressive as Viognier gets, with freshness to balance its plentiful fruit and body. One "1", two 1/2 lots, three 2's, and one 3 that will be declassified.
- Picpoul Blanc (4 lots): A great Picpoul vintage, with every lot showing both power and brightness. Two 1's that I thought would be perfect for Esprit, a 1/2 that I wasn't sure whether would be best on its own or in a blend, and one beautifully fresh and lively 2 that was maybe my favorite to drink on its own and which will be the core of our varietal Picpoul this year.
- Marsanne (3 lots): A terrific showing for this grape, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm, a little extra concentration beyond what we're used to seeing in this famously restrained grape, and better acids that usual too. One 1, one 1/2, and one 2. This will be a great Cotes Blanc component, and plenty worthy as a varietal wine too.
- Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 180 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, but it was pretty: lovely salty minerality, with lemon pith and citrus leaf flavors. Clearly capable of contributing to the Esprit Blanc, but also excellent on its own. I gave it a 1/2. See below for how this played out.
- Picardan (1 lot): Not quite as scarce as Clairette, at 384 gallons, and for me the best Picardan we've had to work with in the four years we've had it in production. Pure, spicy, and rich, with great acids. A "1" for me.
- Bourboulenc (1 lot): The first harvest for our newest grape. It's been a crazy orange color since it came out of the press, and even as it dropped clear, it's still got that caramel tinge to it. The nose too was a little caramely, with orange pith and a textured, phenolic character. I gave it a "2" because it didn't seem like Esprit Blanc material, but it will be a fun varietal wine that we're excited to introduce to you later in 2020.
- 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 roughly 100 g/L residual sugar, it felt closer to Vin de Paille than the off-dry profile we prefer, masking the electric acids that make Petit Manseng so fascinating. We decided to let it continue to ferment, until it gets to our 50-60 g/L target.
We finished Wednesday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc. The relative shortage of higher-toned Grenache Blanc suggested that we try some Esprit blends with more Picpoul and less Grenache Blanc than usual. As for Cotes Blanc, Viognier always takes the lead, but we weren't sure whether we wanted Marsanne's elegance or Grenache Blanc's density and acid to play second fiddle. So, we decided to try one blend with more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne, one with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc, and one where we increased both to nearly as much as we had Viognier.
Thursday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. In our first round, the consensus favorite was a blend with 60% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc (on the low side for us), 14% Picpoul Blanc (on the high side for us), and 3% each of Picardan and Clairette Blanche. A blend with 25% Grenache Blanc and just 10% Picpoul felt too monolithic, a little heavy, which I suspected would happen given the Grenache Blanc lots we had to add to get to 25%. And the blend where we increased the Roussanne percentage to 75% felt flat, which in retrospect shouldn't have been surprising as to get to that quantity we'd exhausted the consensus "1" Roussanne lots and had to start pulling from lots that received more "2" grades.
We were happy with the result, but not quite done with Esprit Blanc. Given the small Clairette harvest, if we used 3% in Esprit Blanc that would mean we wouldn't have any left over for a varietal bottling. Before we made that determination, we wanted to make sure that the addition of the Clairette made for a meaningful improvement in the Esprit Blanc. If it did, great. That's our primary goal: make the best Esprit we can, and why it gets first dibs on everything. But we wanted to see. So, we decided to taste our favorite against a similar wine that removed the Clairette in favor of more Roussanne. Lo and behold, we all preferred the wine without the Clairette as a little longer, a little more intense, and beautifully pure. Even better! We get a great Esprit Blanc, and a small Clairette Blanche bottling. Final blend: 63% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan.
Next we tackled the Cotes Blanc. Tasting the wines, it was clear that the solution with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc was superior to the others, and we were blown away with how much we liked the resulting wine. It's got the power of a Roussanne-heavy Cotes Blanc vintage like 2011 or 2015, but with more Viognier generosity and sweeter fruit. Just a beautiful wine, and one we're excited to share with you all. Final blend: 44% Viognier, 29% Marsanne, 19% Grenache Blanc, and 8% Roussanne.
We had managed to make our two estate blends without using up any of our grapes completely. So, the final step was to taste those two blends alongside the Patelin Blanc and the eight (yes, eight) varietal wines that this left us. Our principal concerns here are to make sure that the varietal wines are differentiated from the blends that lead with the same grape (so, our Esprit Blanc is different from Roussanne, our Cotes Blanc different from the Viognier, etc) and to make sure that the blends fall into the appropriate places in our hierarchy. My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:
- 2019 Picpoul Blanc (250 cases): A nose of pineapple upside-down cake. Lovely in the mouth with flavors of fresh pineapple and green herbs. Saline. Long. Great texture.
- 2019 Grenache Blanc (900 cases): Color is gold, darker than usual for Grenache Blanc. Nose is burnt sugar and citrus peel. The mouth shows lots of texture, preserved lemon flavors, and great acids. Salty. Long.
- 2019 Marsanne (325 cases): Pretty honeysuckle nose. Mouth is soft, mineral, peaches and cream, with a little honeydew. Nice acidity (for Marsanne) on the finish.
- 2019 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2200 cases): Nose of Haribo peaches and lemongrass, nice. The mouth is softish for Patelin Blanc, more Viognier than Grenache Blanc right now, medium weight with apricots and gentle acids on finish.
- 2019 Viognier (400 cases): Intensely peach on the nose, freshened with mint and a sweet almond brittle note. The mouth shows rich texture, more peaches, creamsicle, and marmalade. Good acids and length, with a welcome pithy bite providing balance on the finish.
- 2019 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1500 cases): Straw, dried apricot, and lemon zest on the nose. The mouth is terrific, balanced between a fruitier peaches & cream note and a yeastier shortbread note. Nice acids and length on the finish.
- 2019 Roussanne (1300 cases): Honeycomb and cedar on the nose. Mouth is very Roussanne: honey and bay and Indian spices, lots of texture, dry and long on the finish.
- 2019 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (2200 cases): A sweeter tone to the nose than the Roussanne, sweet oak and jasmine. The palate is lovely: refined green pear fruit, creamy texture, and long, long, long.
- 2019 Bourboulenc (125 cases): Orange in color and flavors. The nose is shy, a little cola sweetness. The mouth is zesty with a little pithy bite and flavors of orange peel and Seville oranges. Bright acids on the long finish.
- 2019 Clairette Blanche (75 cases): A nose of clean mineral, sea spray, and lemongrass. The mouth is similar, but with more texture than the nose promises, flavors of watermelon rind, white gummy bear, and a clean finish.
- 2019 Picardan (75 cases): A richer nose than Clairette, spicy, minty sarsaparilla. The mouth is gorgeous, both bright and rich with flavors of quince, yellow apple, and sweet spice. A little citrus flower note comes out on the yeasty finish. Chelsea described it as "like a really good Champagne you've let go flat".
A few concluding thoughts:
- The 2019 vintage seems to have a well defined character already. The 2018 vintage was a terrific year for white wines because of its brightness. Whites like Patelin Blanc, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc were all electric. 2019, by contrast, seems great for the denser, more powerful whites, and particularly good for Roussanne. It will be fascinating to see these wines as they get cleaned up and prepped for bottling. This process tends to brighten up wines, and I'm hopeful that they'll keep their texture and richness while getting a little more translucency. If that happens, I think we'll have 2019 in the conversation for the best whites we've ever made.
- Of all the varieties, I was least convinced by Grenache Blanc. We felt like we had overcropped Grenache Blanc a little in 2018, and so reduced its yield by around a third in 2019. Tasting these wines, I'm not sure that the decision was a good one. We got more texture and power than I can remember tasting in our Grenache Blancs, but I'm not sure that this was a positive tradeoff for less vibrancy. To what extent was it vintage, and to what extent yields? I don't think we know. But we're going to try to figure this out.
- The process of working together while still maintaining distancing was educational. With six people spaced around our big conference table, we all had plenty of space. We all pulled and washed our own glasses and dump buckets. The sample bottles were wiped down before they were poured, and only one person picked up and poured each bottle. We kept doors and windows open so there was air moving in the room. We'd all been quarantining at home the previous two weeks, and everyone was healthy. Even though wineries are agricultural businesses and therefore considered essential, that doesn't mean we're operating as though the business environment were normal. And as we start physically blending the wines over the coming weeks, we'll be limiting our cellar team to two people at a time, and making sure they're able to maintain their distance. It will mean a slower process, but we'll get it done.
This week, most of us will go back to sheltering at home. But we'll do so knowing that we've hit one of the milestones of the winemaking year. And that the wines we make have the potential to be memorable. That will be one of the positive memories I'll have of Quarantine 2020.