As it has across America and around the world, the pandemic has disrupted our routines in ways large and small. The large ways I've talked about at some length here on the blog. But bigger questions like if and how we open safely, or what the market impacts of nation-wide closures will be are just a part of the story. Another, less dramatic part is that we don't have the same rhythm of events here at the winery. For example, each summer we look at a specific wine by opening every vintage we've made. We use this tasting to pick eight to ten of these vintages for a public retrospective tasting. These are some of our favorite events each year.
Enter 2020. We aren't able to host large gatherings here at the winery. So, no public summer retrospective tasting. But I realized that it's still important for us to continue to make regular explorations through our wine library, both so that we have the context to make the right winemaking decisions with our most recent vintage, and so that our fans who may be cellaring our bottles have some insight into how they're developing.
With that in the background, I decided to get our cellar team together and open all the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and Esprit de Tablas Blanc wines we've made, from the debut vintage in 2001 to the 2019 that we blended recently. It made for quite a morning:
I recognize that it may seem strange to some people to talk about the aging curve of white wines. And for many grapes, I wouldn't recommend it. But Rhone whites, and particularly Roussanne, have the structure and richness (and just enough acidity) to evolve in an interesting way for decades. Beaucastel's white wines, and particularly their Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, are renowned for lasting generations. Want a professional opinion? No less an authority than Jeb Dunnuck, who got his start writing the Rhone Report before covering the Rhone for Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and more recently setting out on his own, recently tweeted this:
Anywhere between 30 and 40+ years.— Jeb Dunnuck (@jebdunnuck) July 8, 2020
Joining me for this tasting were Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, and Cellar Assistant Amanda Weaver. My notes on the wines are below. I've linked each wine to its page on our Web site if you want detailed technical information, professional reviews, or our tasting notes from when the wines were first released.
- 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (44% Roussanne, 22% Viognier, 18% Grenache Blanc, 16% Marsanne): I thought this was a little less impressive than it has been the last few times I've opened it, with a nose of hazelnuts over crème caramel, with a little eucalyptus lift. Rich and butterscotchy on the palate, with lemon custard and a little pithy bite on the finish. Nice elegance, but more signs of age than I'm used to seeing in this wine. I'm not sure if it was just this bottle, or if after nearly 20 years it's starting its long decline, but we would never have thought that it would have gone this long.
- 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): The deeper golden color and the nose both show more age and ripeness than the 2001, with aromas of almond brittle, marzipan, and burnt sugar. There is a nice minty note that is particularly welcome given the density of the other aromas. On the palate, rich and lovely, with some age, but not over the hill: crème brulée, marmalade, and a lovely, long, clean finish with flavors of candied orange peel. I got a little alcoholic heat on the finish. A great showcase for the density and power of Roussanne.
- 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 27% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): Similarly golden as the 2002. On the nose, toasted hazelnuts, star anise, clove, graham cracker, and burnt sugar. The mouth showed the same caramel, nut, and baking spice flavors that the nose suggested but also livelier acids than the 2002. A little pithy bite on the finish provided nice lift too. Seemingly at the end of a long, lovely peak.
- 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): The first year that we included Picpoul in the blend, and while the color was similarly golden as the 2002 and 2003, the nose showed more lift: jasmine, lemon custard, and the first wine in the tasting to show the briny sea spray minerality on the nose that we've come to look for. On the palate, long and precise, with flavors of salted caramel, mango, candied ginger, and minty eucalyptus. The minerality carried through to the finish, with a crushed rock note lifting the beeswax impression.
- 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A less golden hue than 2002-2004. The nose is spicier and less rich/caramely too: like grilled rye bread, lemongrass, and aromatic bitters. The mouth was quite a contrast, with very rich texture and the impression of super-ripe almost vin de paille-like apricot and honey flavors, though no residual sugar. On the finish, lingering crème brulée and peach liqueur notes, with a little sweet green herby character for relief. A little disjointed for me: lots of interesting elements but not quite together.
- 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): The youthful pale gold color that we see in younger Esprit Blanc. On the nose, also the first one that reminded us all of what we're making now: new honey, baked pear, preserved lemon, and sweet spice that Chelsea nailed as cinnamon stick. The palate was lovely too, with flavors of brown sugar and lemon cake and a little pithy bite leading into a finish of honey, saline minerality, and a little cedary spice. Gorgeous and integrated. A clear favorite among the older vintages.
- 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): A spicy nose with menthol, charcuterie, sweet oak spice, and a little pungent character that I noted as aromatic bitters and Neil described better as charred orange peel. The mouth is rich, with great texture and flavors of Seville oranges. Clean and long, with salty, piney notes providing lift over richer honey and caramel notes on the finish. I haven't always loved this vintage of the Esprit Blanc because of its unrelenting richness, but this showing was outstanding.
- 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Banc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): After three more youthful vintages, this 2008 felt older again, with aromas of spun sugar, baked golden delicious apples, and new leather. The mouth is full, bordering on heavy, with flavors of orange creamsicle, preserved lemon, and charcuterie. It did improve with time in the glass, which suggests that it may be in a closed phase. Decant if you're drinking one now, or wait a year or two.
- 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul Blanc): Nice richness on the nose, honey and lacquered wood, nectarine and white flowers, with a sweet green note like newly cut grass. On the palate, both fruity and yeasty: imagine pineapple upside down cake, but dry. Tremendous texture. Lingering flavors of honeycomb and candied orange peel, enlivened by fresh green herbs on the long, focused finish. A great showing for this wine, which like the 2007 I often found in its youth so dense that it was easier to admire than love.
- 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): An immediately appealing nose of brioche, fresh pear, new honey, and sweet spice. The mouth is similarly lovely: fresh pineapple, crushed rock, and poached pear, with a rich, soft texture but lively acids cleaning things up. On the finish, candied grapefruit and beeswax. I've always loved this vintage, from our coolest-ever year, and this showing was no exception.
- 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): From a similarly cool vintage as 2010, but from a frost year that gave more density and a linear firmness to everything we made. Aromas of lemon, lemongrass, and minty juniper. On the palate, rich but notably dry: preserved lemon and savory custard, quince, and a little savory oak. There was also a whey-like character that we didn't find in any other wine in the sequence. Unique and distinctive, if a bit polarizing.
- 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A reticent nose, then like a quieter version of 2010, showing sea spray, honey, and Thai basil. The mouth is more generous and open, with vanilla custard, fresh honey, and caramel apple flavors. The finish showed a little pithy red apple skin bite, against a backdrop of tasted marshmallow and baked pear. This has been a favorite in most past vertical tastings, and it was less impressive this time. It's about the point at which it would enter a closed period, so I'd recommend people be patient and wait.
- 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (71% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc): An intensely Roussanne nose of jasmine and sarsaparilla, honeysuckle, key lime, and sweet resin. The mouth is rich but dry, with flavors of pineapple, honeycomb, and vanilla custard. There's plenty of structure, and a very long, savory finish. It seems like it's going to have a long, interesting life.
- 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Rich on the nose, with aromas of gingersnap, lacquered wood, yellow pear, and sweet green herbs. The palate is similarly exuberant, with rich texture and flavors of baked spiced pear and honey. A little pithy Grenache Blanc tannin kicked in on the finish, ushering in a briny minerality that was a welcome counterpoint to the wine's lushness.
- 2015 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (55% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 17% Picpoul Blanc): The vintage with our highest-ever percentage of Picpoul showed a notably different nose: more tropical, with aromas of papaya, passion fruit, and sweet spice. The mouth shows more delicacy than most of our other vintages, with flavors of nectarine, peppered citrus, lovely freshness, and a finish with lemon drop, beeswax, and salty minerality. I loved this, but it was a bit of an outlier stylistically.
- 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 18% Grenache Blanc, 7% Picpoul Blanc): Rich, dense, concentrated Roussanne character on the nose, a little like the 2013: lacquered wood, grilled lemon, maple syrup, and ripe pear. The palate was rich yet precise: honeydew melon, lemon meringue, and a little cedary oak. Gorgeous key lime acids come out on the finish, leaving a minty, tropical lift.
- 2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (68% Roussanne, 17% Grenache Blanc, 7% Picpoul Blanc, 4% Clairette Blanche, 4% Picardan). Our first vintage with the two new grapes included. A really pretty nose, somehow both deep and lively: honeysuckle, new leather, and sweet oak. The mouth is vibrant, with flavors of grilled pineapple, mandarin peel, lemon custard, and baked apple. The finish is lively and lovely, with honey and sweet spice. A consensus favorite among our newer vintages.
- 2018 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (66% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan, 2% Clairette Blanche). Bottled this past December and not yet released. A nose of yellow roses, fresh pear, yellow raspberries, and an orange leaf-like sharpness. On the palate, lovely and high-toned, with fragrant fresh honey and green herb character. Plenty of weight and texture, but the flavors are still deepening to match. Should be great to watch as we get toward its fall release.
- 2019 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (63% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan). Just blended, and currently sitting in large oak. A really bright nose of Meyer lemon, minty spice, and a little yeasty leesiness that seems like a relic from its recently-finished fermentation. A lovely rich texture but also tons of Keffir lime brightness, flavors of pineapple core, passion fruit, and white pepper. Still a baby, with lots of time both in barrel and bottle before its release in the fall of 2021, but there's nothing here that changes my mind that 2019 will go down as one of our greatest-ever vintages.
A few concluding thoughts:
- The overall quality of the wines was exceptionally high. I asked everyone around the table to pick four favorites, and the wines that got multiple votes were 2001 (3), 2006 (3), 2009 (3), 2013 (2), and 2017 (5). But there were wonderful vintages that didn't get "favorite" votes too. The wines do change and evolve, and you should do your best to explore if you prefer your Esprit Blancs older, younger, or somewhere in the middle. But across the board, we thought that they were great showcases for the texture, richness, structure, spice and minerality we think this property imbues in our white wines.
- We were happy with the direction we've taken in recent vintages. The last three years, which incorporate to varying degrees additions of Picardan and Clairette Blanche, all showed really well, the zesty acids seeming to highlight the Roussanne-driven richness without thinning the wines' texture. I also think we were all happy with the amount of oak that we were putting on these wines. There was a stretch where we felt they weren't showing quite enough of the spice and weight of the large French oak we love, and then it took us a vintage or two to get that dialed in.
- The wines do move around. The outstanding showings for vintages like 2007 and 2009, which weren't our favorites in many past tastings, and the fact that some vintages we loved last time out (most notably 2008 and 2012) seemed a little disjointed in this tasting, do point what an evolutionary roller coaster Roussanne can be. I dove more deeply into the phases of how Roussanne ages in a blog last year, if you're interested in a rough timeline of what to expect. Nothing in this tasting changed my conclusions from that blog that we'd been underestimating the duration of all Roussanne's evolutionary stages.
- Don't forget the vintage chart. We update this chart several times a year based on the results of tastings like these, wines we open in the normal course of life, and feedback we get from customers and fans. It's there whenever you want it.