Does a great vintage like 2019 make blending easier... or harder?
May 24, 2020
On Friday, after a full week of work, we finally got to sit down and taste the ten key red wines from the 2019 vintage we'd been blending since Monday. It drove home just how good the 2019 vintage is. Several of these wines will, I think, vie for the best examples we've ever made, including the Esprit de Tablas, rich and lush, with deep purple fruit and a creamy texture we only get in great years. Other standouts included Le Complice, dark, herb-laced, but with density and texture to match; Grenache, exuberantly juicy, with vibrant acids enlivening it and yet more plushness and density than we expect from this fruity grape; Syrah, the proverbial iron fist in a (black) velvet glove; and even Cotes de Tablas, spicy and fruity, mouth-filling and lush, with creamy texture and the structure to age. That's not to say that the other wines weren't also terrific, but those were the standouts to me. But for all that, it wasn't an easy blending week.
More about that in a bit. But first, let me take you through how the week played out.
Our blending process is one we've developed over the decades, built on how they work at Beaucastel. Of course, with Coronavirus mitigating against international travel, we had to make a few changes this year. But it's still the same process, of building consensus around a table of participants, starting from individual fermentation lots and moving through our hierarchy of wines.
As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Because it's too much to ask to keep your palate fresh to taste 59 separate lots of young red wines, we divided this stage up between two days. Monday saw us tackle Mourvedre, Syrah, and our one lot of Pinot Noir, while Tuesday we tasted Grenache, Counoise, Tannat, one co-fermented lot, and our oddballs: Terret Noir, Cabernet, and our two new red grapes, Vaccarese and Cinsaut. 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. Here's a quick tour of Tuesday's lineup:
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. This year we saw the most "1" grades and the fewest "3" grades I can remember. How I graded each variety, in the order in which we tasted them:
- Mourvedre (14 lots): Less Mourvedre (in both quantity and number of lots) than recent years, after a short Mourvedre crop in 2019. But amazingly powerful and representative of what we love about this, our most important grape. I gave seven lots a 1 grade, and three others intermediate 1/2 grades. Even the 2 grades I gave out were pure, juicy, and classic, and will make for a tremendous varietal Mourvedre. As for the blends that are based on Mourvedre, wow.
- Syrah (15 lots): If possible, even stronger than the Mourvedre. Of course, Syrah is the most consistent grape that we grow, but we loved the varietal purity that it showed, and its structure without any sense of hardness. Eight 1's, with five others that I gave 1/2 grades to. If you're doing the math, that leaves only two "2" lots, and no "3" lots. Great syrahs have a creamy, minerally texture equal to their black fruit and structure, and these did, in spades.
- Pinot Noir (1 lot): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad decided to plant outside my parents' house back in 2007, with a mix of different clones. This year they produced a Pinot that was on point for me, lighter in body than the Rhones we tasted that day, but with plenty of flavor, classic cherry and cola notes, and just a touch of oak. Should make for a very nice 2019 Full Circle Pinot.
- Grenache (14 lots): Typically, Grenache shows the most diversity at this stage, because it takes longest to ferment and many lots are still settling into final form. The couple of weeks that Coronavirus delayed our blending this year probably helped this more than any other. Four 1's from me, with six others getting 1/2 grades. Only four 2's and no 3's. Plenty of Grenache's signature fruit and spice, with great acids across the board. Less of the sometimes drying front-palate tannins than we sometimes see at this stage. A few lots that seemed high enough in alcohol that we needed to be careful.
- Counoise (6 lots): A nice range of Counoise styles, from the translucent, juicy lots that remind us of Gamay to the richer, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we look to use in Esprit. The acids here seemed likely to come in particularly useful in this vintage where Mourvedre and Syrah were so luscious. Two 1's, two 1/2 grades, one two, and my only 2/3 of all the lots (though even this found a good home in the Cotes de Tablas later in the week).
- Cinsaut (1 lot): Our first Cinsaut, and only two barrels. A nose of dusty grape candy, with a fresh, appealing, spicy purple-fruited palate. It didn't seem to have Esprit-level depth, but will introduce itself very nicely to the Tablas Creek audience as a varietal wine.
- Vaccarese (1 lot): A new experience for most of us around that table, as it's our first harvest of a grape with only about 30 planted acres worldwide. It showed a lovely deep purple color, with a nose of pine forest and minty juniper. The mouth was more Loire red than Rhone-like, to me, with notes of tobacco and spice, medium body, some tannic grip, and fruit flavors playing a secondary role. As we do with new grapes, we're planning to bottle it on its own so we can wrap our own heads around it and share it with all of you. Exciting!
- Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, but felt more polished than it has in recent years, with more floral character and less aggressive tannins than we've seen the last few years. Plenty pretty enough to bottle on its own, but since we'd reduced crop levels to try to tame the tannins and had seen a mildew outbreak further depress our harvest, we didn't think we'd have enough to use in Le Complice and bottle on its own. It turns out we will... more on that below!
- Tannat (4 lots): Massive, dense, spicy, dusty, and dark. Tannic but not overbearing. Three of the four lots showed some oak, and I preferred the one without for En Gobelet, but the remainder should make a powerful, ageworthy, chocolaty varietal Tannat.
- Cabernet (1 lot): Typically, the few rows of Cabernet in our old nursery block go into our Tannat, but in years where we get two barrels, and it's so powerfully expressive of Cabernet that we can't bear to blend it away, we contemplate putting it in bottle. It turns out that 2019 will be the first year since 2013 that we do. A tangy, green peppercorn and eucalyptus nose, with powerful black fruit and cigar box flavors, and a lurking minerality that I absolutely loved. I'm not a big fan of the low-acid, high-tannin style that most Napa Cabernets show (and most other Cabernet regions try to mimic). But this Cabernet, with its minerality and freshness... this, I'm looking forward to drinking.
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 apparent strengths of all three of our main red grapes it only made sense to kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie and Esprit with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned. We also noted that with our relatively small Mourvedre crop this year, we needed to set our expectations for quantity lower.
Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out the two blends, starting with the Panoplie. As always, we tasted our options blind, not knowing what was in each glass. 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. But in this vintage, we split between a blend with roughly equal Syrah and Grenache percentages and one that had 30% Syrah, which would have been our most ever. (A third option, which was closest to our "normal" Panoplie blend, with 26% Grenache and only 8% Syrah, was no one's favorite, seeming a bit thinner by comparison.) When we get an equal split around the table between two wines, our first approach is to try to hit the mid-point between the two wines, to see if we can get everything we all liked in a single blend. It doesn't always work, but it did for this wine, so we settled on a blend of 62% Mourvedre, 22% Syrah, and 16% Grenache.
Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Unlike with the Panoplie, we got nearly universal agreement on the first round, with a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, and 10% Counoise. The relatively high percentages of Grenache and Counoise seemed to polish the deeper flavors of Syrah and Mourvedre, producing something deep, spicy, and creamy, with warm spices and a lovely loamy earthy umami character. Just outstanding. I wouldn't have predicted the high Counoise number, but this is similar to what we often find in blending our whites: that in richer, more structured years, a little higher percentage of the brighter grapes makes for a more complete wine.
Thursday, we moved on to our two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice. Because of the high quality of the vintage overall, even with all the lots that we'd chosen for Esprit and Panoplie, we had quite a bit of choice on En Gobelet, made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks. And this turned out to be the most difficult decision of the week. All three of our first round options received at least one first place vote, and the two favorites were quite different, one with twice as much Grenache as Mourvedre, and the other with nearly equal parts of the two. Complicating things, neither favorite had much Tannat, and we were worried that the wine that got the most first place votes, with just 2% Tannat, might end up too similar to the Esprit. We decided to try another blend that replaced some of the Mourvedre in our favorite with enough Tannat to get to 10%. This ended up only muddying the waters, as that Tannat-heavy version got three first place votes, but also four last place votes from people who felt that the added darkness and tannin overwhelmed the terroir character that En Gobelet expresses at its best. And this time, splitting the difference didn't please anyone, as it felt less deep and dark, but still less terroir-driven than the starting point. In the end, we decided that we needed to taste the favorite from round one against Esprit to know whether we'd made the right decision.
It was a relief that, after that, Le Complice came together in one round. The wine 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. Because both grapes tend toward high tannin, we've realized that we also need some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. Last year, we didn't end up using all the Terret we produced, but with this year's small crop, we thought we would. Still, given how much we liked the Terret in the lot tasting, we were delighted when it was revealed that our universal favorite was 67% Syrah, 27% Grenache, and just 6% Terret... leaving half our Terret to make a varietal wine. The resulting wine was dark, smoky, and spicy, with just enough of that green peppercorn stem spice to balance the wine's ample black fruit and mineral. Just delicious, and should be fascinating to watch age.
Friday, we started early in the morning to tackle the Cotes de Tablas. Even though we'd already used about two-thirds of our lots with our higher-end wines, all three of our options were delicious. We knew we didn't have much Mourvedre left, and had some Counoise lots we knew we wanted to use as a varietal. That left us exploring options for the relative quantities of Grenache and Syrah. In the end, although we settled on a middle ground, rejecting the wine with 49% Grenache and only 26% Syrah as nice but a touch simple, while the wine with 40% Grenache and 35% Syrah was serious and structured, perhaps too much so for Cotes de Tablas. Our final blend was 44% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 17% Counoise, and 9% Mourvedre. We're making less Cotes de Tablas as we shift the focus of our middle tier (between Patelin and Esprit) in the national market toward varietal wines, but the roughly thousand cases we'll make this year will, I feel sure, be one of our best ever.
That afternoon, we sat down to taste the finalized blends alongside the four main varietal wines that we hadn't yet tried. It turned out that the En Gobelet differentiated itself from the Esprit with no trouble, showing more lift and translucency, and clearer expression of saline minerality, while the Esprit showed darker, plusher tones, and a creamier texture. So, issue solved. Sometimes all it takes is a little time, and perspective.
For our varietal wines, we identify lots during the first stage that express that grape's character the most clearly, and then try to avoid using them in the other wines. Of course, if one of our top blends needs a lot, it gets it, but there's usually enough leeway (and enough difference between what's great for Esprit and what would be great in, say, a varietal Mourvedre) that it works out. And in a year like this, it's a pleasure to see how clearly the character of both the grapes and the vintage shine through. My quick notes on the varietal wines:
- Grenache (400 cases): Exuberantly juicy on the nose. In the mouth, our most powerful Grenache in years, yet still vibrant. Quite dark. A baby.
- Syrah (725 cases): Nose is dark, with black olive, black pepper, blackberry, and smoke. The mouth is plush, with the iron fist of Syrah tannins cloaked in dark fruit. After no Syrah in 2018, will be a treat to send to club members.
- Mourvedre (300 cases): Nose of pure red fruits. The mouth is creamy, with Mourvedre's ability to walk the line between red and black raspberry fruit, a little loamy earth. Good acids and tannins. Classic.
- Counoise (325 cases): A brambly purple-fruited nose. The mouth is zesty with more cherry fruit, refreshing acidity and medium body. Should be a crowd pleaser.
In addition to these wines, we'll have 50 cases each of varietal Terret Noir, Cinsaut, and Cabernet, 175 cases of Vaccarese, 475 cases of Full Circle Pinot, and a glorious 1250 cases of Tannat. Lots of fun things to share, for sure.
A few concluding thoughts. First, in looking for a comparable vintage to 2019, the closest one would probably be 2017, but top to bottom, 2019 had a touch more concentration and polish (though lower quantity). In particular, Grenache was stronger than it was in 2017. Maybe a vintage like 2007, which was outstanding across the board, but we were picking riper then, and this 2019 shows, for me, more minerality and less of the super-ripe character that I get now when I drink a 2007. And I like the whites from 2019 a ton -- more than I did either 2007 or 2017. Still, given that we rank these vintages pretty universally as among our top ever gives a sense of how exciting we think 2019 is. It will be fun to get to know it over the coming months and years.
Second, a vintage this strong, with such terrific raw materials across the board, in some ways complicates the blending process, because we're having to make stylistic judgment calls in addition to quality rankings. In an average year, the limited volume of top-rated lots of our main grapes can constrain the percentage we use in Esprit. In a year like this, we could have chosen quite a bit more top-ranked Grenache, Syrah, or Mourvedre than we did, if we'd wanted. That means that we weren't just having to decide what our best lots were, and whether they fit together properly, but which stylistic direction we wanted to take the wines. And while there's almost always good agreement about what grade a lot should have, as you can tell from my description of the process, what people like best is a more sticky question. Still, in a year like this, we do have the reassuring thought (which came through as we got down to the Cotes de Tablas) that our third- and fourth-choice lots are still really, really good. So, we know that with such good raw materials it's unlikely we can go too far astray.
Finally, given that we weren't able to have a Perrin here, it's great that this vintage was so strong. We're used to having decades of experience tasting Beaucastel around our blending table. We didn't this year, although between Neil, me, Chelsea, Craig, Amanda, Austin, and Jordy, we did have more than 120 Tablas Creek blending sessions under our belts. I'm confident that when the Perrins do get to taste what we made, we will have done them proud.