On Friday, after a full week of work, we finally got to sit down and taste the fifteen red wines from the 2020 vintage we'd created in a week of blending. We loved them. The Panoplie was plush, dark, and dense, a true blockbuster. The Esprit was somehow both elegant and meaty, with chocolate and spicy purple fruit. Several varietal bottlings were the best I can remember from recent years, including a deep, spicy, blackcurrant and leather-laced Mourvedre and a juicy redcurrant and cocoa powder Cinsaut that provided validation for our decision to include it in the Esprit for the first time. Even the Patelin de Tablas, normally the base of our pyramid, was dense, chewy and tangy, with blackberry fruit and plenty of structure. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Our blending process is one we've developed over the decades, built on how they work at Beaucastel. Of course, for the second straight year we were around the blending table without a Perrin, as Covid continues to make (particularly international) travel more difficult. But we feel great about the process we use, descended from the Perrins' own system, which takes the blending process in steps and builds consensus rather than relying on one lead voice to determine the wines' final profiles.
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 66 separate lots of young red wines in one day, we divided this stage up between two days. Monday saw us tackle Grenache, Counoise, Cinsaut, and Pinot Noir. Tuesday we dove into the more tannin-rich grapes: Mourvedre, Syrah, Tannat, Terret Noir, Vaccarese, and our tiny Cabernet lot. 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 some of the lineup of components:
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). We also give ourselves the liberty to give intermediate 1/2 or 2/3 grades for lots that are right on the cusp. 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:
- Grenache (18 lots): Grenache is often a challenge in this first tasting, as it is slow to finish fermentation and some lots are just rounding into form. Plus, we had a plentiful Grenache crop, which led to our most lots ever. But the quality was consistently good: Seven 1's from me, with four others getting 1/2 grades. Only five 2's and one 2/3. Plenty of Grenache's zesty fruit and spice. A solid number of lots that added to that the chocolatey richness and good structure we look for in our Esprit-tier lots. Plenty of good pieces to work with for all the wines, and the makings of a great varietal Grenache.
- Counoise (6 lots): A good-but-not-great showing for Counoise. Although all six lots were juicy and lively, in the Gamay style that most of you who enjoy our varietal Counoise bottling are familiar with, there was only one lot that showed the richer, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we look to use in Esprit. Grades: one 1, two 1/2 grades, and three 2's.
- Cinsaut (1 lot): Our second Cinsaut, and five barrels this year instead of last vintage's two. A lovely spicecake nose, medium-weight (though richer than the Counoise), zesty tannins, and a nice dusting of cocoa that suggested it might find a place in Esprit for the first time. I gave it a 1/2.
- Pinot Noir (6 lots): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap, outside my parents' house, that my dad decided to plant to a mix of different Pinot Noir clones back in 2007. We fermented each clone separately this year, to get a sense of how they differed, but they will all be blended together. Overall a good Pinot year, although we decided to hold out a few of the new barrels that we thought were making the wine too oak-dominant. Should make for a very nice 2019 Full Circle Pinot.
- Mourvedre (13 lots): As I mentioned in my 2020 harvest recap blog, Mourvedre yields suffered in 2020, battered by the heat spikes and the dry winter. But the quality of what we got was superb, deep and rich, leathery and meaty, with a lovely luscious texture. I gave seven lots a 1 grade, and five others intermediate 1/2 grades. Only one 2. I'm sure that's a first. The limited quantity would prove a challenge, as we use Mourvedre as the lead for so many key wines. But if such an important grape is going to be short, it was a saving grace that it was so strong, top to bottom.
- Syrah (13 lots): Syrah at this stage is often the easiest to love, with its plush dark fruit and spice already well-formed. This year was no exception, although the variety of cooperage that we had it in did give us more variation than we saw in Mourvedre. Seven 1's, with two others to which I gave 1/2 grades. Three 2 lots, and one 2/3 that was showing some oxidation but which should be strong once it's cleaned up.
- Vaccarese (1 lot): Even better, I thought, than our 2019 debut which anyone who follows our social media knows I really dig. Dark, herby and savory, blackberry and chalk, rose hips and leather. Medium-weight or a little above, but less plush than a grape like Syrah. Really fun, different from all the other Rhones, and plenty good enough for consideration for Esprit. I gave it a 1.
- Terret Noir (2 lots): Terret felt more refined but also somehow less dramatic than it has the past few years. Pale, pretty, zesty and bright, with salted watermelon and sweet spice notes. Notably floral. One lot (which I gave a 2) felt on point for a varietal bottling, while the other (which I gave a 1/2) was more structured and grippy, and seemed a natural for Le Complice.
- Tannat (3 lots): Dense, chewy, and chocolatey, yet with the acids that always surprise me in such a powerful grape. Not a lot of decisions to be made here, except for how much Tannat we want to put into En Gobelet, and how much we're willing to bottle and sell (the crop was big). But quality and personality are never concerns.
- Cabernet (1 lot): Typically, the few rows of Cabernet in our old nursery block go into our Tannat, but we always taste it and have a few times decided we couldn't bear to blend it away. Not 2020. It was fine, dark cherry flavors but not particularly evocative of Cabernet. It will go into Tannat and be happy.
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 Panoplie with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned. For the Esprit there was a different concern. With our small Mourvedre crop, we didn't really have the option of a Mourvedre-heavy Esprit unless we wanted to drastically reduce our production. Even with a normal Mourvedre percentage, we were looking at a production level closer to 3,000 cases than the 4,000 that we normally make. So, we decided to try a blend higher in Grenache than Syrah, a blend higher in Syrah than Grenache, and a third blend where we increased them both to almost the same amount as Mourvedre.
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 more Grenache than Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. But in this vintage, the Mourvedre was so luscious that we felt it was able to handle a larger-than-usual Syrah component without losing its essential Panoplie-ness, and we settled on our first try on a blend of 59% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, and 13% Grenache. This is the most excited I've been for a Panoplie since maybe 2007.
Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Unlike with the Panoplie, the first round saw a split around the table, with the overall favorite having our highest Grenache component, our least Syrah, and small additions of Counoise, Vaccarese, and Cinsaut. But the higher-Syrah option and the high-Syrah-high-Grenache-low-Mourvedre blend got some votes too. It took us 3 rounds before everyone came around to a consensus: 40% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 5% Counoise, 3% Vaccarese, and 1% Cinsaut. It's interesting to me, looking at that solution, how close it is to what we decided in 2019. That provides some support to my overall feeling that the two vintages will end up having related blockbuster characters. The one difference: this year, we get to add two new grapes to the blend. With six grapes in the 2020 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, that means that 12 of the 14 Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes will have graduated into the Esprit in 2020!
Thursday, we tackled our remaining blends: the two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice, and our Cotes de Tablas. Because of the scarcity of Mourvedre, we didn't have a ton of options for En Gobelet. We used all the remaining head-trained Mourvedre, Counoise, and Syrah lots and were basically deciding on the relative quantities of Grenache and Tannat. But there was clear consensus in the first round, and we ended up with a blend 37% Grenache, 25% Mourvedre, 22% Syrah, 11% Counoise, and 5% Tannat. The wine was complex, with red-to-purple fruit, still primary but with the signature elegance we see from our head-trained blocks and tons of potential.
For Le Complice, we had a bit of a different challenge than in recent years. 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. But this year Terret was friendlier, with less of the grippy tannin and herby stem character that we've seen each year since our first harvest back in 2013. So, it was really a question of how much lift we wanted from Terret (and Grenache) vs. how much density and plushness we wanted from Syrah. In the end, we all loved the solution with the most Syrah, more than we've ever used before. But oh, what a wine: dense and lush yet with tension and spice. Final blend: 77% Syrah, 15% Grenache, 8% Terret Noir. This had the added benefit of leaving us enough Terret to bottle as a varietal wine!
Because the En Gobelet and Le Complice don't really compete with the Cotes de Tablas for lots, we were able to knock out a third blend that day. We knew the amount of Counoise (substantial) and Mourvedre (hardly any) which we had available for Cotes, and so as usual the blending decision on this wine came down to the relative ratios of Grenache and Syrah. And, as might not be surprising given the results of our trials so far (Esprit the notable exception) we chose the highest Syrah percentage. The wine still leads with the spicy, minerally purple fruit of Grenache, but that iron and smoke backbone that Syrah brought was welcome. Our final blend was 43% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 20% Counoise, and 4% Mourvedre.
On Friday, we reconvened to taste the finalized blends alongside all the varietal wines that we ended up making. And for the second year in a row, we'll have a wide lineup. My quick notes on each of the fifteen wines we made, and their rough quantities:
- Terret Noir (70 cases): A spicy, high-toned floral nose like aromatic bitters and watermelon rind. The mouth is salty and tangy, with an herby sweetgrass note and spice coming out on the finish.
- Counoise (230 cases): A nose of cran-apple, orange peel, and brambly raspberry. The mouth is simple but clean and juicy, with good acids: sour cherry and yellow plum skin. Thirst-quenching and fun.
- Cinsaut (90 cases): A nose of chocolate-cherry and redcurrant. On the palate, melted popsicle, cola, and cocoa powder, with good dusty tannins and length.
- Full Circle (390 cases): A very Pinot nose of bing cherry, leather, and sweet oak spice, with a little stemmy wildness lurking behind. The mouth shows nice fruit and structure, a little oak but not too much, with lingering flavors of sarsaparilla, cherry skin, and pork fat.
- Patelin de Tablas (2060 cases): A dark nose, dense and rich with black fruit and wood smoke. In the mouth, tangy blackberry, substantial texture, tannins rising on the finish but in good balance with acids and fruit. Because of the amount of Tannat we produced in 2020, we included a little (it should end up around 7%) in the Patelin for the first time.
- Grenache (1230 cases): Pure and juicy (cranberry and cherry) on the nose, with some pepper spice providing depth. The mouth is juicy and mid-weight, strawberry and red cherry fruit, good acid and brightness.
- Cotes de Tablas (1130 cases): A nose with both darkness and lift, black cherry, soy marinade, and a savory black olive note. On the palate, both red and black fruit, deepened by licorice and chaparral notes. A creamy texture, and very long.
- Mourvedre (140 cases): A deep spicy nose of spicy, leathery blackcurrant and meat drippings. The mouth is chewy sugarplum, more leather, and sweet baking spices. Lots of texture, tangy and long. A testament to what Mourvedre is capable of here at Tablas Creek. A pity there's not more of it, though I should be happy. At the beginning of blending I was worried there wouldn't be any at all.
- Vaccarese (120 cases): A savory almost Nordic nose of juniper, iodine, and blackberry. In the mouth, tangy black plum, graphite and mineral, salty, structured, and long.
- Syrah (470 cases): A dense nose with notes of fig reduction and melted licorice, with wild herbs and pepper. On the palate, plush and long, with black raspberry fruit and a little sweet oak spice.
- Le Complice (880 cases): A nose like wild, dark spruce forest, bacon fat, and green peppercorn. In the mouth, a beautiful balance between structure and density, with leather, cedar, black fruit and tangy green herbs. Along with Panoplie, the wine of the day, for me.
- En Gobelet (850 cases): Very red on the nose: plums and redcurrant and dark cherry and red licorice. The mouth is structured and chewy, more restrained than the nose, still very primary but with these lovely tannins with the texture of powdered sugar. Patience.
- Esprit de Tablas (3400 cases): A nose of spicy purple elderberry, pepper spice, roasted meats, and sagebrush. The palate was generous, with gorgeous purple fruit and Mourvedre's signature rose petal florality, deepened by flavors of meat drippings and milk chocolate. Plenty of tannin, but plenty of lift too.
- Panoplie (840 cases): A blockbuster nose, leather and black licorice, deep loamy earth and baker's chocolate. The mouth was more of the same, black cherry and leather and cocoa powder and chalky tannins. Long and opulent.
- Tannat (970 cases): A cool tanginess to the nose, candied orange peel and black cherry and minty spice. On the palate, fun and zesty, with lifted blackberry fruit, a little sweet oak spice, and Tannat's unexpected but welcome violet florality.
A few concluding thoughts.
First, this felt like an "easy" blending week. We didn't have any serious disagreements, or any wines that just wouldn't come together. Many of the wines were decided in the first round of tasting. Some of that comes from the vintage's scarcity (reducing our options) and strength (meaning we couldn't go too far wrong). But it's also a reflection of the fact that this was a veteran crew around the blending table, with everyone having done this at least four times before, and the core of Neil, Chelsea, Craig and me all with at least ten vintages under our belts.
Second, I came out of that blending session really excited that all these wildly different grapes and blends, each with a well-defined personality, can have come out of the same cellar. That's a testament to the diversity of the Rhone pantheon of grapes, but even more so to our winemaking team's willingness to let each grape be itself, rather than imposing a set of winemaking techniques on them all. I can't wait to start sharing these with people.
Finally, in looking for a comparable vintage to 2020, I don't think that you have to go any farther back than 2019. Although the 2020 vintage was more challenging because of the heat spikes and fires (not to mention the pandemic) the overall harvest dates and degree days were similar. Beyond that, the distribution of the heat, with a cool first half of the summer and a hot (often very hot) second half was reminiscent. And given that 2019 is proving to be a great vintage across both reds and whites, if 2020 can come through all its tribulations and match that, this collection of wines will indeed give us a reason to want to remember the year most of us would prefer to forget.