A Sigh of Relief from the Blending Table as the 2020 Whites Are Strong and Unaffected by Smoke
March 22, 2021
Last week, six of us spent most of the week around our blending table working to turn the 39 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2020 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. For the second year in a row, this was a reduced group compared to normal, with the challenges of international travel dictating that we sit down without a Perrin in attendance, and the Tablas Creek participants reduced to a core six (Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Austin, Amanda, and me) in the interest of maintaining distance around the table. It was further complicated by the fact that we had a couple of storm fronts blow through Paso Robles, chasing us indoors after the first day and (with all our open windows and doors) leading to papers blowing around and everyone breaking out their collection of padded coats and beanies. But at least we knew that fresh air was circulating!
This blending session was particularly interesting because it was our first time sitting down in a comprehensive way and evaluating what came out of the challenges of the 2020 vintage. When I wrote up my 2020 harvest recap, I felt pretty sure that we hadn't seen any smoke taint, or taken any serious harm from the twin heat spikes that broke records as the grapes were ripening. Still, there's only so much that you can tell in harvest's immediate aftermath, when the wines are still sweet and the cellar full of fermentation aromas. So, as we sat down together, we all felt that the stakes were higher than they might be in a more normal vintage. I'm pleased to report that after four days immersed in these wines, I feel confident that 2020 will take its place proudly in our recent string of strong vintages.
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, on Monday, 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 the lot has the richness, elegance, and balance to be worthy of consideration for Esprit Blanc. A "2" grade means we like it, but it doesn't seem like 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. A snapshot of my notes:
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. When we think a lot is right on the cusp between two grades, we can note that with a slash (1/2, or 2/3). As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. In rough harvest order:
- Viognier (6 lots): A really outstanding Viognier vintage, with classic luscious flavors and aromas and better-than usual acidity and minerality. 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. Two "1" lots, two 1/2 lots, and two 2's.
- Marsanne (3 lots): A strong Marsanne showing, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One "2", one "1/2", and our favorite lot (a "1" grade) with a little extra mouthfeel and tropicality that will be the core of our varietal Marsanne.
- Picardan (1 lot): Perhaps not at the level of the 2019 Picardan (my favorite in our short history) but still very nice: a tropical nose reminiscent of Viognier, but with a clean, pure palate expression and bright acids. The finish was a little short, so I gave it a 1/2.
- Bourboulenc (2 lots): The second harvest for our newest grape. Last year's was a crazy orange color when it came out of the press, and although it dropped clear and lightened up, it retained a golden tinge to it. So we experimented with a couple of different pick dates this year, and were rewarded by both of them being a more typical color. The two lots were different, with the earlier pick showing a lush nose but a lean, bright palate, while the later pick showed a quieter nose but a creamier, lusher palate. I gave both lots "2" grades, though (as you'll see) we ended up using some in Esprit Blanc.
- Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 180 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, and it was lovely: pretty green wheatgrass aromas and a vibrant lemony palate with salty minerality. I gave it a 1.
- Grenache Blanc (9 lots): OK, now we got to the wines that we had in quantity. Grenache Blanc is often tough to evaluate in this first tasting because it's always the last to finish fermentation. And this year we had a lot of it: over 7,000 gallons. I found the quality very high overall, but with more diversity than in most of the other grapes: four "1" grades with brightness, lushness, and minerality, a 1/2 that was classic but a little leaner, a "2" that was nicely saline but didn't show much fruit, two 2/3 lots, each promising but also worrying, both in the final stages of fermentation and showing a little weirdness, and an "incomplete" that was still sweet enough to be impossible for me to assign a grade. I think these last three lots will all turn into something good, but they weren't there yet. Patience.
- Picpoul Blanc (3 lots): Outstanding for Picpoul, with all three lots showing both power and brightness. Two 1's that I thought would be perfect for Esprit and a 1/2 that was beautifully fresh and lively and which will be the core of our varietal Picpoul this year.
- Roussanne (10 lots): These were the hardest for me to evaluate, perhaps because a squall blew through as we were tasting and forced us to run indoors as hail fell on our patio. I only found two lots that were clear "1" grades for me. But four lots got "1/2" grades. The reasons varied. One was lovely but still sweet. Another two had great texture but were (for me) a little worryingly low in acid. The fourth was oak-dominated, clearly too much on its own, but likely valuable in a blend. Then there were three "2" lots, all honeyed and lush, with pure Roussanne flavors, but soft and without the length or persistence we want for Esprit. Finally, there was one 2/3 lot that was atypical for Roussanne, pineapply and bright but relatively light in body. We decided to declassify that to Patelin Blanc, where it will fit in nicely.
We finished Monday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. The shortage of obvious Esprit-caliber Roussanne, and the relative softness of the lots in the next tier, suggested that we try some Esprit Blanc blends with less Roussanne and more of the higher-acid grapes than usual. But whether that should mean more Grenache Blanc, more Picpoul, or more of the obscure whites than usual we didn't know. That's what our blending trials are for!
Tuesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. One, which none of us preferred, hewed closer to our "traditional" blend, with none of the obscure grapes and a roughly 60/30/10 balance of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul. Better was a blend that decreased the Roussanne to make room for more Picpoul and some Clairette and Picardan. But the consensus favorite included our highest percentage of Picpoul Blanc (14%) since 2015 and made room for significant quantities of all three obscure whites. That means that the 2020 Esprit Blanc will for the first time contain all six approved white Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes. That's exciting! It also will have a quantity of Roussanne that ties for our lowest-ever, at just 45%. But still, the finished wine had texture, lushness, complexity, and minerality, and plenty enough acidity to keep everything lively. The final blend: 45% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 5% Bourboulenc, 4% Picardan, and 4% Clairette Blanche. A note to lovers of this wine: because of the relative scarcity of top Roussanne, we made a few hundred cases less of this than we have in recent years. Consider yourselves forewarned that it may go fast.
Next we tackled the 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 in the primary support role. 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 set them to roughly equal levels but added a little more Viognier. Tasting the wines, we settled on the blend heaviest in Grenache Blanc, which seemed to focus Viognier's aromatics while also providing a vibrant, fresh, juicy palate. Final blend: 38% Viognier, 32% Grenache Blanc, 22% Marsanne, and 8% Roussanne.
In making the quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we wanted, the only grape that we'd used all of was Clairette Blanche. Looking at the quantities of the varietals that this left us, everything seemed fine except that because of the generosity of the vintage and the smaller quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we made, we were on track to make about 1500 cases of our varietal Grenache Blanc. Given that this isn't a wine we sell much of in wholesale, to keep our supply reasonable we decided to declassify an additional 800 gallons into our 2020 Patelin Blanc. Combined with the relatively large Roussanne declassification, this means that our 2020 Patelin Blanc will be fully one-quarter Tablas Creek fruit. This works out well; we had been conservative in the tonnage of grapes we'd contracted for, worried that the pandemic-induced closures of restaurants would mean we'd end up long on supply. Thanks to a very nice score from Wine Spectator for the 2019 Patelin Blanc, that turned out not to be the case, and having some more of this wine will be good. Plus, those estate lots are only going to make the 2020 Patelin Blanc that much better.
With our blends decided, our final step was to taste them alongside the seven varietal wines that we'll be bottling from 2020. 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:
- 2020 Bourboulenc (180 cases): Medium gold. A nose of caramel apple and marzipan, lifted by a bright lemongrass note. On the palate, bright with preserved lemon and chamomile flavors and a little pithy note on the long finish.
- 2020 Picardan (70 cases): A tropical but lively nose of lychee and passionfruit. A similar palate with mango and sweet spice, cleaning up to a chalky mineral note on the finish.
- 2020 Picpoul Blanc (250 cases): A nose of fresh pineapple. That pineapple note continues onto the palate, with a richer texture than most picpouls. Long and creamy on the finish with a wet rock mineral note.
- 2020 Grenache Blanc (1040 cases): Super appealing on the nose: lemon meringue and butterscotch and sea spray. Sweet citrus fruit (lemon drop?) and cream soda on the finish. Still a bit more sugar to ferment but super promising.
- 2020 Viognier (660 cases): Classic young Viognier nose of Haribo peach. The mouth is leaner than the nose suggests: nectarine, white flowers, and a little pithy bite. Should be really appealing with a lift rare in the grape.
- 2020 Marsanne (350 cases): A nose of peppered melon rind and apricot pit, absolutely classic for young Marsanne. The mouth is clean and spare, gentle kiwi and sarsaparilla, with a chalky mineral finish.
- 2020 Roussanne (940 cases): Honeydew melon and jasmine on the nose. Mouth-filling and creamy on the palate, with flavors of beeswax and white tea. More textural than flavorful right now. We're going to put it back in some newer barrels for the next six months.
- 2020 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2500 cases): Nose of lemongrass, ginger, and green apple, with a little meaty charcuterie note adding depth. The palate starts with bright apricot and quince flavors, then softens into a sweeter peachy note. Serious and complex for Patelin Blanc, and a worthy successor to the 2019.
- 2020 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1230 cases): A nose of nectarine and mandarin, seemingly signed equally by Viognier and Grenache Blanc. A sweet/tart contrast on the palate, with lime and ripe peach. A little coconut-like creamy texture comes out on the finish.
- 2020 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (1960 cases): Despite its relatively low Roussanne component, very Roussanne on the nose: beeswax and honeysuckle, lemon bar and graham cracker. The mouth is luscious and textured, with citrus blossom honey and vanilla bean, then cleaning up on the finish to honeycrisp apple and saline mineral.
A few concluding thoughts:
- The power of blending really came through to me in this process. As I said above, I wasn't particularly convinced by the Roussanne lots, as a whole. But the Esprit Blanc turned out to be terrific. The luxury of being able to reduce the quantity of our lead grape and bolster the wine with the texture and acid of Grenache Blanc and Picpoul and the complexity of the three "minor" varieties allowed us to do something we could never have done just using Roussanne lots. There are times when adding other components actually make the wine taste more like the lead grape. This was one of those times.
- The 2020 vintage gave us lots of texture and flavor at very low alcohols. The overall potential alcohols of all the Rhone whites as a unit was just 12.52%. Grapes like Marsanne and Roussanne were even lower at 11.5% and 12.4% respectively. I think that this was one area where we saw an impact of the stressfulness of the vintage. Those late-summer heat spikes did a number on the acid levels of all the grapes. Those with normally higher acids (like Picpoul, or Grenache Blanc) had enough to withstand that. But Marsanne and Roussanne are naturally lower acid anyway, and we just couldn't leave them on the vines long enough to get to the sugar levels that we're used to without our acids falling to unacceptable levels. That said, I felt like the finished wines had plenty of texture, and enough acidity. The alcohol numbers on the labels, though, may be eye-openingly low.
- It's early to know what vintage 2020 will end up reminding us of. But in recent years, it seems like 2015 might provide a pretty good comparison. In that year too, stressful conditions (the peak of our 2012-2016 drought) led to Roussanne lots with low acids and low alcohols. Our solution was similar: reduce Roussanne in the Esprit Blanc to make room for more of the Grenache Blanc and (especially) Picpoul Blanc. Going back to read my notes from the 2015 white blending I see a lot of similar threads. If the wines turn out like that, I'll be excited... 2015 is one of my favorite recent vintages.
Of course, we've still got a ways to go. There are lots that need some time to finish fermenting, and everything needs to be racked, blended, and let settle and integrate. But as a first detailed look into a year that dropped a number of new hurdles in our way, it's incredibly encouraging. I now feel confident saying that the wines from 2020 will give us something we want to remember from a year most of us would prefer to forget.