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April 2022

Frost damage and recovery... and damage and recovery

Paso Robles has many natural climatic advantages. We don't have to worry about hailstorms in the summer, or rain during harvest. Our humidity is low so mildew isn't usually a big challenge. The chilly summer nights mean that our grapes maintain good acids and get extended hang-times even despite our 320 days of sun each year and our typically hot summer days. But the one natural risk that we deal with each year is spring frosts. And after a decade of avoiding them, 2022 marks their unwelcome return.

During dormancy, frosts are not harmful and in fact usually beneficial. But after budbreak, which began this year in mid-March, any new growth is susceptible to frost damage. Our tools to deal with frosts are limited. We have micro-sprinklers that do a great job, but only enough water to protect our most frost-prone ten acres. We use big fans, which work by mixing the cold air at the surface with the warmer air aloft, to protect our next-most-vulnerable 30 acres. These fans work if there is a defined inversion layer, where above-freezing air is within 10 feet or so of the surface. That happens with a surprisingly large percentage of our spring frosts here, but it's not as reliable as water. As for our other 80 acres of grapevines, on hilltops and steep slopes, they have to fend for themselves. Usually they're OK. 

This year, we first saw some post-budbreak frost nights in mid-April, when several nights saw lows just below freezing and on April 13th temperatures dropped briefly into the upper-20s. Those frosts singed the new growth in several blocks, including some higher blocks that are rarely affected, but they didn't wipe anything out, and it appeared that the frost fans really helped. I would estimate that those frost events cumulatively impacted less than 5% of the property's producing vines, and I was feeling fortunate, on the whole.

Fast-forward to last week. Sometime between 5am and 6am last Wednesday, May 11th, the weather station in the center of Tablas Creek Vineyard registered 30.6°F. That's cold, particularly for this late in the year. And it did some damage in that area, singeing the growth of some of the Tannat, Cinsaut, Counoise, and Syrah. Fortunately, it was below freezing for less than an hour, and it looks like the fan we have set up there kept things from getting too bad. The Cinsaut vine below is on the more-damaged side, and even it isn't a complete loss:

May 2022 Frost - Cinsaut

You can see from the above photo that frost manifests itself, at least after a couple of days, in crispy, brown leaves that look burned. Often it's just part of a vine that gets frozen, with areas of damage as you see at the top and other leaves, shoots, and clusters that are fine. It can feel arbitrary or even capricious, and it's not hard if you walk around the vineyard to find vines with one frozen shoot among a dozen green ones, or one surviving shoot among a dozen frozen ones, as in this Syrah vine:

May 2022 Frost - Syrah

In this central section of the vineyard, which is about 10 acres, I'd estimate damage for our mature sections in the 15% range. That's painful but not crippling. I'm more worried about the two new vineyard blocks in that area, whose young vines got frozen and who don't have the same reserves that older vines do to regrow. I think it's likely that we'll see some vine mortality, but it's too early to know how much.

Unfortunately, a different section of the vineyard got hit much harder. That block, which we call Nipple Flat and whose 11 acres includes blocks of Roussanne, Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino, is at the southern end of the property, closest to Las Tablas Creek. Because it's the property's lowest point, and cold air flows downhill, last Wednesday night was colder, and it stayed cold longer, dropping below 32°F at 3am and bottoming out at 28.1°F at 6:15am. We have a fan there too, but evidently the cold air pooled deep enough that it was blowing below-freezing air around. You can see from the below photo that the swale in the background is all brown, in contrast to the not-quite-as-low section in the foreground that is still green. That lower area (which accounts in my estimate for about 60% of this block) will likely not produce any fruit this year:

May 2022 Frost - Nipple Flat

This isn't the first time we've seen damaging spring frosts. We lost half our crop due to April frosts in 2001, 2009, and 2011 (I even wrote about our 2011 frost on the blog). Those were a little different, earlier in the year (so the vines were less far out) but more widespread, where our frost fans didn't do any good since even at the tops of the hills the temperatures were below freezing. That meant that everything had to re-sprout, and the damage to our production was roughly relative to how far out they were, with the earliest grapes taking the biggest hit.

Because of our experience in those past years, we know pretty well what happens after April frosts. The frozen shoots die back, but the grapevines have enough vigor to sprout secondary buds, and those buds typically carry half the fruit load of the primary buds. You can see a good example from our April frost, in our Grenache. The frost-damaged shoot was still there this week, almost hidden in the canopy of new growth:

April 2022 Frost - Grenache

What happens next with the extensively damaged sections of the vineyard is uncharted waters for us, because of how late this frost event was and how far out the vines were. We assume that they will re-sprout and produce new canes and leaves. Evolutionarily, the vines need to photosynthesize carbohydrates and store up that energy to survive the winter and have a go at making fruit in 2023. Will they set clusters? Maybe a few, but I'm not expecting much, because they've spent a lot of their winter reserves in growth that is now damaged. Any crop they do set is going to be a month at least behind, and we'll have to worry about whether it will be able to ripen before (hopefully) rain and (eventually) frost this November.

In terms of impacts to our 2022 harvest, our biggest worry is Roussanne, where the eight acres on Nipple Flat account for roughly three-quarters of our producing acreage. That will have real impacts on how much Esprit de Tablas Blanc we can make and what its blend will be, and likely will preclude a varietal Roussanne. Our bigger picture, though, is not as dire. The badly-affected blocks represent something like 10% of our producing acreage. When you add in the more minor damage in other blocks between our April and May frost events, we're probably looking at something between a 15% and 20% reduction on the crops that we would have had if we'd avoided frosts. That's not nothing: probably 3,000 or 4,000 lost cases of wine that we'd otherwise be making in 2022.

But it could have been worse. 


With Cesar Perrin back, we welcome Muscardin to the blending table and build a 2021 red vintage that looks outstanding

On Wednesday we finally got to sit down and taste the thirteen red wines from the 2021 vintage we'd built over the past two weeks around the blending table. It was one highlight after another. From the tangy watermelon and blood orange flavors of the Terret Noir to leather, teriyaki, and redcurrant of Mourvedre, the warm spices and elegant minerality of the En Gobelet, and the intense black licorice and olallieberry of the Panoplie, each wine was somehow both supremely itself and clearly reflective of the low-yielding, intensely flavored 2021 vintage. Sure, we wished there were more of many of the wines. And there were some wines we just couldn't make in this scarce vintage. But as we thought after our white blending last month, what there is will be exceptional. 

After a two-year absence, it was great to have Cesar Perrin join us at the table. But while his voice was welcome, our process isn't dependent on any particular participant. Instead, like the Perrins' own system at Beaucastel, we take the blending process in steps and build consensus rather than relying on one lead voice to determine the wines' final profiles. When you have nine family members involved in a multi-generational business, as they do at Beaucastel, it's a good policy and good family relations to make sure everyone is on the same page before you go forward. The same is true with a partnership like Tablas Creek where both founding families have equal ownership. More importantly, we're also convinced it makes better wines.

With the welcome return of Hospice du Rhone in the middle of Cesar's visit, we spread out our tastings more than we often do, beginning by splitting the tasting of the 59 different red lots between the Friday of Hospice and the Monday after. On Friday we tackled Grenache, Counoise, and Pinot Noir. Monday we dove into the more tannin-rich grapes: Mourvedre, Syrah, Tannat, Terret Noir, Vaccarese, Muscardin, Cinsaut and our tiny Cabernet lot. We keep our different harvest lots separate until they've finished fermentation so we can assess their quality and character before we have to decide which wines they make the most sense in. And that's our goal at this first stage of blending: to give each lot a grade that's reflective of its overall quality, and to start to flag lots that we think might be particularly suited to one wine or another. This component tasting is also an opportunity for us to get a sense of which varieties particularly shined or struggled, which helps provide direction as we start to brainstorm about blends. Here's some of the lineup of components:

2022 red blending components in lab

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with "1" 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 three or four "1" grades, five or six "2" grades and one "3" grade. This year we saw a lot of "1" grades and very few "3" grades. How I graded each variety, in the order in which we tasted them:

  • Grenache (16 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. But it was a highlight in 2021, with the generous fruit and spice we always expect from the grape, and several lots that also had the density and plushness that we get in our best vintages. I gave more than half the lots (nine in total) "1" grades, with one other getting a "1/2". Four "2" lots and two "2/3" lots rounded out the best Grenache showing I can ever remember at this stage. 
  • Counoise (6 lots): A solid showing for Counoise, with all the lots having the lively, spicy Gamay-style juiciness that our varietal Counoise bottling typically reflects. One lot also added the richer, more structured Counoise that we look to use in Esprit. Grades: one "1", two "1/2" grades, two "2"s, and one "2/3".
  • Pinot Noir (1 lot): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad planted outside the house he and my mom built in 2007, where we live now. It's planted to a mix of different Pinot Noir clones, and while in some years we have fermented each clone separately, they all always end up in the Full Circle Pinot Noir. In 2021 we fermented them together, and had just one lot to taste, which balanced Pinot's classic dark cherry and cola flavors with just a little oak. There weren't many choices to make here, but it will be a compelling 2021 Full Circle.
  • Mourvedre (15 lots): Mourvedre was strong as well in 2021, with more powerful structure than we often see, and the meatiness and red fruit that it contributes to our flagship blends on full display. Six lots got "1"s from me, with three others getting "1/2". Only five "2"s and one "3" that will get declassified into Patelin.
  • Cinsaut (1 lot): Our third vintage of Cinsaut, and the largest quantity (and strongest showing) to date. Richer and more structured than the Counoise, with enough grip to think it could contribute to some of the wines we intend for people to lay down. I gave it a "1/2".
  • Syrah (12 lots): Syrah at this stage is easy to appreciate, with its plush dark fruit, spice, and powerful structure. The main question we have, beyond identifying the extraordinary lots from the merely good ones, is in evaluating the different winemaking choices we made and deciding where to best deploy the lots with noteworthy oak or stemmy herbiness. I gave out five "1"s, five "1/2" grades (these included most of those lots with notable stem or oak character, as I felt they weren't necessarily slam dunks for Esprit or Panoplie), just two "2" lots and nothing lower than that.
  • Vaccarese (1 lot): Maybe the surprise of the tasting for most of us, with dark, rich fruit, solid tannic structure, a little floral lift, and a lovely salty minerality on the finish. Less plush and more vibrant than Syrah, but similarly dark. We all found it plenty good enough for consideration for Esprit. I gave it a "1".
  • Terret Noir (2 lots): I felt like Terret is coming into its own, with the high-toned wild strawberry balance of fruitiness and herbiness that we've come to expect, but a little more plushness and better-integrated tannins than we've seen in the past. I gave the denser, more structured lot (which seemed a natural for Le Complice) a "1/2" and the other fresher, prettier lot (which felt on point for a varietal bottling) a "2". 
  • Muscardin (1 lot): 2021 marked the first year we've had enough of our newest grape to include in our blending trials. Exciting! Even better, we liked the wine a lot: spicy and red-fruited, with a minty/herby/juniper note, good acids, and nice saltiness on the finish. Reminiscent of a more refined Terret Noir. I gave it a "2" and we all thought it would be a nice addition to the Le Complice. Just 30 gallons in one half-barrel, so not enough to bottle on its own. Next year, we hope.
  • Tannat (3 lots): Plush, tannic, 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 oak we wanted in the blend and how much Tannat we feel is the right addition to En Gobelet. I gave two lots "1" grades and another, whose oak felt a little dominant, a "2".
  • 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 to bottle it on its own when we had enough to make that viable and such well-defined Cabernet character that we couldn't bear to blend it away. In 2021 we only had one barrel, so even though we loved it we didn't have enough for a solo bottling. It will go into Tannat and be happy. 

We finished Monday with our normal round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days. Complicating the decision was the overall scarcity of the crop. With the reds down 18% off a relatively small base we realized if we made our preferred quantity of Esprit and Cotes (3500 cases and 1500 cases, respectively) we wouldn't have much left over, and critically wouldn't have enough different wines to send out to our wine club. So we made the decision to cut back to the absolute minimum we need, 2800 cases of Esprit and 1200 cases of Cotes. It's painful to do that in such a strong vintage, but we didn't feel we had any choice. As for the composition of the flagship blends, the strengths of all three of our main red grapes suggested we kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie and Esprit with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varieties, and see what we learned. We also loved the minor varieties this year, and decided to try adding some Vaccarese and Cinsaut (along with Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, and Counoise) to Esprit to see if we liked their contributions.  

Tuesday morning we convened 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 around 60%) and typically more Grenache than Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often threatens to overwhelm the Mourvedre. This dynamic held true in our first three-wine trial, with the Panoplie with the most Syrah (28%) being no one's favorite, while we split between a high-Grenache/low-Syrah (31%/11%) option and one that held them both in the low 20% range. In a second round, we tried splitting the difference between those two wines while adding some Counoise, as well as a blend where we used more Syrah, displacing Mourvedre. Each had their advocates, with the Counoise blend showing elevated fruit and vibrancy (but a little less density) and the higher-Syrah, lower-Mourvedre blend showing remarkable density but somehow losing a little of the elegance that Mourvedre brings even to powerful wines. In the end we came back around the option in our first flight that got the most first-place votes: 54% Mourvedre, 24% Grenache, and 22% Syrah. It showed both powerful fruit and serious richness, but still felt appropriately elegant for Panoplie.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Like the Panoplie, we started off with a high-Grenache/low-Syrah option, a high-Syrah/low-Grenache option, and one that had them in roughly equal proportions. Unlike with the Panoplie, we had near-universal agreement around the table on the first round, coalescing on the third option, which was a wine with both powerful fruit and noteworthy lift, structured but fresh. When the numbers were revealed, we also learned that this blend had the year's full production of both Cinsaut and Vaccarese in it: 35% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 23% Syrah, 7% Vaccarese, 5% Cinsaut, and 4% Counoise. That means we won't have those two grapes as varietal bottlings this year, but that's OK. Our rule is that if the Esprit needs something, it gets it. Just a heads up to anyone who loves (or is just curious about) those two new grapes. If you want to try one, snag some 2020 before they're gone. It also cemented our decision to plant more of both Vaccarese and Cinsaut this year!

Wednesday, we tackled our remaining wine club blends, starting with En Gobelet. Because we used a relatively high number of head-trained lots in Esprit and Panoplie, we didn't have much wiggle room on Syrah or Counoise, and our blending decisions came down to what the right proportions were of Grenache and Mourvedre, and how much Tannat we wanted. In the end, there was clear consensus in the first round, and we ended up with a blend of 39% Grenache, 29% Mourvedre, 16% Syrah, 11% Counoise, and 5% Tannat. The wine was complex, with red-to-purple fruit and good structure alongside the signature elegance we see from our head-trained blocks.

For Le Complice, we had a more fundamental question. 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, sage-like green spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. In order to make the wine more friendly, particularly in the mid-palate, we've always added about 20% Grenache. Our question for ourselves was how much of that spicy, herby character makes the best wine. Being distinctive and intriguing are important and valuable, but so is drinking pleasure. And with those thoughts in mind, our favorite blend in the first round was one that de-emphasized the stemmy character for something a little lusher, with a greater contribution from Grenache. But it seemed a little too far from what we'd done in previous vintages of Le Complice. So we decided to try a fourth option, leaving the percentages the same but swapping in a two-barrel 100% whole-cluster Syrah lot that we'd initially held out because we thought it might be too dominant for one of the more traditional Syrah lots. And we all loved that final wine, with both richness and lift, meatiness and herbiness. It should be a stunner when it's released. Plus, this will be the home for our 30 gallons of Muscardin! It may only make up 1% of the wine, but it seems happy there. Final blend: 59% Syrah, 32% Grenache, 8% Terret Noir, and 1% Muscardin. 

At this point, after a prowl through the wines aging in the cellar, Cesar had to head back to France, but we soldiered on the next morning, building the Cotes de Tablas. Because we'd held down the quantity of Esprit, and because the solutions we'd come to in most of our blends had leaned into Grenache (our most plentiful grape) we had more options than we often do. The Cotes is always led by Grenache, but that total has been anywhere from 35% to 60% in recent years. In our first round, we eliminated one blend that leaned a little heavier into Mourvedre as lacking in the vibrancy we love in Cotes, but split between a juicy, lively option that had 56% Grenache and 25% Syrah, and a more structured, tannic wine that with 42% Grenache and 30% Syrah. After some table blending, we decided that essentially splitting the difference between the two made everyone happy: 47% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 15% Counoise, and 8% Mourvedre.

We took another break to prep for this week's bottling, but on Wednesday we reconvened to taste the finalized blends alongside all the varietal wines that we ended up making. We won't have quite the lineup that we had last year, but it's still a substantial one. Even better, we were thrilled by what we tasted.

Around the blending table 2022

My quick notes on each of the fifteen wines we made, and their rough quantities: 

  • Full Circle (305 cases): A very Pinot nose of dark cherry, green herbs, and sweet cola. The mouth is vibrant, with flavors of cranberry and baker's chocolate, sweet earth and a little hint of sweet oak. 
  • Terret Noir (70 cases): A watermelon and blood orange nose, with a buttery pie crust note offering surprising richness. On the palate, peppered citrus and baked red apple, lovely lift, a little of Terret's signature grip but in beautiful balance with the fruit. Pretty, lively, and fun.
  • Counoise (265 cases): A juicy bramble patch nose, raspberry and leafy herbs. The mouth is exuberantly juicy, with plum and earth and vibrant acids. Fresh and refreshing, like a glass of springtime.
  • Mourvedre (515 cases): A more serious nose than the three previous wines, with leather, teriyaki, and redcurrant notes. The mouth shows lovely loamy earth, dark red berries, and a little hint of chocolate. It promises to continue to deepen and gain texture with its time in barrel.
  • Grenache (975 cases): An amazing vibrant nose of red licorice and grape, deepened with peppery spice. The mouth is exuberant, with sweet red fruit held in check with vibrant acids and some serious tannins. The finish shows sweet spice and more licorice. My favorite varietal Grenache we've made in a long time. 
  • Syrah (425 cases): A dark nose, not very giving right now: black licorice, iron, and molasses. The mouth is friendlier than the nose suggests, with blackberry and a little sweet oak, a return of that iron-like minerality, and substantial tannins. The classic "iron fist in a velvet glove" of young Syrah.
  • Patelin de Tablas (3900 cases): Dark chocolate and soy on the nose, with additional potpourri, black raspberry and white pepper notes. The mouth is in a nice place, seemingly evenly balanced between Syrah and Grenache with black and purple fruit, nice grip, and a lingering brambliness that reminded us of a walk in our local oak woodlands. The blend ended up 43% Syrah, 28% Grenache, 23% Mourvedre and 6% Counoise.
  • Cotes de Tablas (1100 cases): A nose poised between red (Luxardo cherry) and black (blackcurrant), with noteworthy sweet spice. On the palate, Grenache comes to the fore, with flavors of elderberry and licorice, and a little tannic grip keeping control at the end.
  • En Gobelet (885 cases): A nose of warm spices, dark cherries, and chocolate. The palate is gentle after the exuberance of the other wines we tasted, with vibrant plum skin and cocoa powder notes, chalky minerality, and dusty tannins at the end. As we hope the En Gobelet will be, more about elegance and terroir than density or power.
  • Le Complice (870 cases): A nose of menthol and dark chocolate, chaparral and soy marinade. The mouth shows flavors of iron and black plum, lots of chalky minerals and sage-like herbs. Then a little sweet oak wraps around the finish like a warm blanket. Intriguing and memorable.
  • Esprit de Tablas (2820 cases): The nose is on point for Esprit: sweet dark redcurrant fruit, loamy earth and anise, all classic expressions of Mourvedre here. On the palate, currant and plum fruit, new leather and anise, with good structure and finishing tannin. Already delicious, with lots more time to continue to flesh out. 
  • Panoplie (865 cases): A powerful nose, olallieberry and black licorice, minty coolness and spicy herbs. The mouth is plush and powerful, rich in fruit and tannin, deep loamy earth and baker's chocolate. Long and opulent but with lovely minty lift.  
  • Tannat (720 cases): Dark on the nose but somehow chalky and mineral as well, with a little mint chocolate note. The mouth is a different beast, like a dark berry pie with firm tannins and a little sweet oak. All this gets cleaned up on the finish by Tannat's signature acids and violet florality. 

A few concluding thoughts. 

  • What a pleasure having Cesar around the table again. His ability to step in after being gone so long, to offer context from his decade of experience at Beaucastel yet understand the uniqueness of Tablas Creek, makes him an amazing addition to the blending team. Yes, I feel great about our process, and am proud of the wines that we made in the two pandemic years when a Perrin visit wasn't possible. But it was great to have him back, and to see his excitement about what we were tasting.
  • I came out of that blending session really excited at the degree to which the strength and character of the vintage showed through in these many wildly different grapes. You wouldn't think that the same things that early grapes like Syrah and Cinsaut need would be great for late grapes like Mourvedre and Terret Noir. You can't assume that the conditions in which a vigorous grape like Grenache and a low-vigor grape like Counoise each would thrive would be the same. And yet all were good, and many were outstanding. That's the sign of a truly great vintage.  
  • In looking for a comparable vintage to 2021, I continue to think that 2007 was as close as we've seen. The wines we're making now are a bit different in style than they were then, a little less ripe, a little more elegant. But the conditions that produced the blockbuster 2007 vintage were pretty close to what we saw in 2021: intensity, from a very dry, cold winter that didn't reduce the cluster counts much but gave us smaller clusters of smaller berries. Freshness, from the relatively moderate harvest season, each hot stretch relieved by a cooldown immediately after. The yields, right around 2.5 tons per acre, were also similar in both vintages. Given that those 2007's were some of the best, longest-lived wines we've made, if I still think the same in another year I'll be very happy.

I'll let Neil have the last word, as I thought a comment he made in our final tasting summed it up nicely: "All these wines have a lovely force behind them. Not big, not heavy, but intense in personality."

Cellar Team tasting with Cesar