A Report from the Blending Table: the 2021 Whites May Be Scarce, But They're Exciting
March 25, 2022
We've spent the last four days around our blending table, working to turn the 36 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2021 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. With the ongoing challenges of international travel, we again convened without a Perrin in attendance, though Cesar will be visiting for red blending next month and we'll have a chance to get his thoughts before anything goes into bottle. After four days immersed in these wines, I feel confident that he'll love what he tastes. And that's great! After the painfully short 2021 harvest (white grapes down 36.5% overall) we knew our options might be constrained. But the reward in scarce vintages is typically noteworthy intensity. That (spoiler alert) definitely holds true with 2021.
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 and Tuesday, 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, the Roussanne in particular got a ton of good grades this year. In rough harvest order:
- Viognier (4 lots): A really strong Viognier vintage, with good richness but also better-than usual acidity. 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" lot, two "1/2" lots, and one "2".
- Marsanne (3 lots): If possible, an even stronger Marsanne showing than Viognier, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One lot was still unfinished and got a "1/2" from me. The other two I gave "1"s to. With yields off more than 40% I was worried that despite how good it would surely be we wouldn't be able to showcase this with a varietal Marsanne, but as it turned out, we will, and it should be terrific.
- Picardan (2 lots): Neither lot was quite finished fermenting, which made it difficult. Both had nice herbiness and good acids, but neither had as much richness as we've found in our favorite Picardan lots. One "2" and one "2/3". While there won't be Picardan in the Esprit Blanc this year, we have good confidence it will finish up and make a delicious varietal bottling.
- Bourboulenc (3 lots): After our issues in 2019 with our debut vintage of Bourboulenc having a crazy orange color when it came out of the press the cellar team separated out the press fraction this year. That lot, while it had interesting aromatics, was low in acid and had an almost amber color. I gave it a 2/3 and it got declassified into Patelin. The other two lots had lots of good texture with solid acids. I gave them both "1/2" grades.
- Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 192 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, and it was spicy and tropical, with lots of texture. I gave it a "1/2".
- Grenache Blanc (8 lots): Grenache Blanc is often tough to evaluate in this first tasting because it's always the last to finish fermentation, and this year was no exception. I gave out two "1" grades to lots with brightness, richness, and the grape's characteristic pithy bite, two "1/2" grades to lots with classic flavors but a little leaner, two "2" grades to lots that were in the final stages of fermentation and showing some oxidation but seemed promising, a "2/3" to a heavy press lot with an amber color and some bitterness, and a "3" to a lot with dark color and notable oxidation. I have confidence that even these last two lots will become something good with a little cellar attention, but they weren't there yet.
- Picpoul Blanc (2 lots): One 708-gallon "1" lot that we all loved, with sweet tropical fruit and bright citrusy acidity, and a 120-gallon "2" lot that we thought would end up just as good, but was still a bit sweet and showing a little oxidation.
- Roussanne (13 lots): Although there were plenty of strong lots among the other grapes, there was also unevenness. So it was a relief to have our strongest collection of Roussanne lots I can remember. I gave seven lots "1" grades, which would gave us plenty of Roussanne options for Esprit Blanc. Three others got "1/2" grades due to their oak, which we liked but thought had the potential to be too dominant in Esprit Blanc. Three "2" grades to pretty, classic Roussanne lots without quite the level of texture and richness our top lots got. And nothing lower than that.
We finished Tuesday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. With plenty of Esprit-caliber Roussanne, good acids across the board, and the relative unevenness of Grenache Blanc, we thought this might be a good year to lean into Roussanne and Picpoul. But which of the higher-acid whites should be included, and just how much we would reduce Grenache Blanc from the roughly 25% we have most years, we didn't know. That's what our blending trials are for! Complicating matters was the overall scarcity of the vintage, which meant that we knew we would struggle to make enough lots big enough (600+ cases) to send out to our VINsider wine club members. We needed four whites from this vintage in quantity and quality to send out, and that meant at least one varietal bottling, plus the three blends, or two varietal bottlings plus Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc. To give us enough options, we made the decision to make somewhat less Esprit Blanc than usual, something more like 1,600 cases than our usual 2,200 cases. That's 600 cases of top-quality fruit available to other wines.
Wednesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. Our least-favorite had the most Grenache Blanc (18%) while our favorite had the least (12%) and instead got lovely tropicality from 16% Picpoul. But even our favorite felt like it could lean heavier into Roussanne than the 64% that it contained, and had plenty enough acid that we could swap that in for portions of the brighter Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Bourboulenc lots that it contained. The cost would be making less Roussanne and not having enough for a full club shipment, and having to use the Patelin de Tablas Blanc instead, which we would prefer to avoid since wines that don't make it into distribution feel more special to include to club members. But our rule is that the Esprit wines always get first dibs on what they need to be great, so in a second round we tasted that wine against a new one which upped the Roussanne percentage to 70% and added the rest of the top Picpoul lot (17%), with 10% Grenache Blanc, 2% Bourboulenc, and 1% Clairette. That gave the wine a deeper, more honeyed profile, with exceptional richness and length. It should be impressive young, but feels to us like it's got a long life ahead of it. Consider yourselves forewarned that because of its scarcity it may go fast.
That afternoon 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. As sometimes happens, there was a clear favorite, which to our surprise was the one with the most Grenache Blanc. That at first was surprising, but given that we used so little Grenache Blanc in Esprit Blanc we had some truly outstanding lots available for Cotes Blanc, which produced a wine that we loved: luscious but structured, persistent and appealing. As a bonus, it also gave us the chance to make a varietal Marsanne, which I'd almost given up hope of doing. Final blend: 44% Viognier, 32% Grenache Blanc, 14% Marsanne, and 10% Roussanne.
In making the quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we wanted, we hadn't used all any of our grapes. Even after declassifying one Bourboulenc lot and two Grenache Blanc lots into Patelin Blanc, we'll still have a great range of options from 2021. And that's how we finished up the blending week: tasting the three blends alongside the eight varietal wines that we'll be bottling from 2021. 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:
- 2021 Bourboulenc (200 cases): Medium gold. A nose of orange bitters, green herbs, and citrus blossom. On the palate, the citrus note continues with Seville oranges, sweetgrass and chamomile, with nice texture and a long finish.
- 2021 Picardan (175 cases): A complex, savory nose of lime, peppery citrus leaf, and briny oyster shell. Super bright on the palate with lemon and fresh green herbs, zippy acids, and a mineral finish.
- 2021 Clairette Blanche (50 cases): Scarce, because we just don't have much Clairette in the ground. But after not making one at all in 2020 I'm happy to have even 50 cases. A high-toned nose of wintergreen, preserved lemon, and limestone. A hint of sweetness on the palate (this isn't quite done fermenting) then turning creamy with a lemon drop zippiness and little lemon pith bite that emphasizes the grape's signature minerality.
- 2021 Picpoul Blanc (50 cases): Scarce, because we used so much Picpoul in Esprit Blanc. A pretty nose of ripe apple, with a hint of oxidation from the fact that this Picpoul lot hasn't finished fermenting yet. That's clear on the palate too with some remaining sweetness and notes of crystallized pineapple, lemon drop, and wet rocks. Should be outstanding by the time it's done.
- 2021 Grenache Blanc (750 cases): A classic Grenache Blanc nose, pithy, briny, and vibrant. A great combination of acids and richness on the palate, with a long finish where that pithy note comes back to the fore. Should be a great wine club shipment wine.
- 2021 Viognier (190 cases): A high-toned nose of peaches and white flowers with a little bit of tarragon-like sweet herbiness. Nicely fruity on the palate, with nectarine and mineral character and solid acids. Medium-bodied, which I loved, given that Viognier can have a tendency toward heaviness. Not this one.
- 2021 Marsanne (230 cases): Quite polished already, with a nose of honey, petrichor, and white flowers. The mouth is clean and spare, with gentle flavors of white tea, honeydew melon, and chalky minerality. Lovely.
- 2021 Roussanne (480 cases): A notably rich nose with flavors of beeswax, lemongrass, and cedary oak. Similar on the mouth, with the honey flavors given lift by a nice lemony brightness. We're going to put this in neutral barrels and have high hopes for something amazing as the oak integrates.
- 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2900 cases): A lovely floral, fruity, buttery nose, orange blossom and white peach, seemingly dominated more by Viognier than Grenache Blanc right now even though there's twice as much of the latter than the former. Good balance on the mouth, with flavors of pineapple and preserved lemon (there's the Grenache Blanc!) and good acids coming out on the peachy finish. Charming already, and exciting that we were able to make this in good quantity.
- 2021 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1215 cases): A nose of caramel and brioche, with a little minty lift. The palate is lovely, with good richness held in check by good acids. The ripe peach and lime flavors seem equally balanced between the Viognier and Grenache Blanc components. A creamy texture emphasizes the stone fruit flavors on the finish.
- 2021 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (1610 cases): The nose is very Roussanne, with poached pear, crystallized pineapple, honeysuckle and sweet oak. The mouth is luscious and textured, with honey, green apple, and graham cracker flavors, solid acidity, and the little dancing mango-like tropicality that I think comes from the Picpoul. This, like the Roussanne, will go back into foudre to let the oak integrate.
A few concluding thoughts:
- The vintage's character, if I had to distill it down to one word, would be power. Not alcoholic power; the average Brix reading of our whites was just 20.35, which translates to a potential alcohol of around 12.6%. And I don't mean heavy; the wines all had good acids. But the textures were rich. The flavors were deep and intense. I don't think at this stage one would describe the wines as playful, though that often comes out with a little time. But I have confidence that these will be wines with well-defined character and intense flavors. Given that our yields were so low, that's what we'd have expected, though (see 2015) it doesn't always work out that way.
- The impact of blind tasting was on full display. It's tempting to write the story of a vintage early, and decide what's going to fit together best as a part of that narrative. But as is demonstrated to us every year, the reality of tasting blends is that you don't know what's going to fit best together until you try it. As evidence, the Cotes de Tablas Blanc and its high percentage of Grenache Blanc, in a year when at the component stage we thought we preferred Marsanne. But it turned out that Marsanne wasn't what Viognier needed this year to show its best self. I am proud of the process that we use, which guarantees that the wines we make reflect the specifics of each vintage.
- The scarcity of 2021 is going to have impacts across our business. Even though we managed to make enough different wines in enough quantities, there in many cases won't be much left over after we send them out to club members. If there are wines that you know you love, I would pay attention to the release announcements and plan to get them at release. The days of having a wine like Grenache Blanc, or Picpoul, or Viognier available for several months are likely a thing of the past. We do have more vines in the ground from last year's planting, but that help is still a few years away.
- This is the stage where I often try to reach for what vintage(s) in our history might be good comps for what we've been tasting. And yes, it's early to make these sorts of judgments. But in recent years, it seems like 2016 might provide a pretty good comparison. At the end of our five-year drought, 2016 produced powerful components and seemed particularly strong for Roussanne. In the Cotes Blanc we came to a similar conclusion, using more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne to better play of Viognier's richness. The solution we came to for the 2016 Esprit Blanc tied for our highest-ever percentage of Roussanne at 75%. That's similar to this year, though we've never before had more Picpoul than Grenache Blanc. But it's at least a starting point. We will see in coming months if I'm right.
It's important to note that while we've decided on blends, it's not like the wines will go into bottle next week. There are lots that need some time to finish fermenting, and everything needs to be racked, blended, and let settle and integrate. The Roussanne and the Esprit Blanc will go into foudre and have another 9 months to evolve. And even the varietal wines are three months from seeing a bottle. But still, this is our first comprehensive look at our most recent vintage. So far, so good.