Looking back with a decade's perspective on 2013: a "Goldilocks" vintage at a transitional moment for Tablas Creek
I'm not sure we've ever had consecutive years with as many similarities as 2012 and 2013. Both were warm, reliably sunny vintages with about 70% of normal rainfall. Both featured benign spring weather without frost damage. And both saw us produce wines that had early appeal and showed more red than black fruit character. The major differences were twofold. First, by 2013 we were two years into what would become a five-year drought, which somewhat reduced the vines' vigor and productivity. Second, we felt we'd been caught by surprise in 2012 by high yields in some blocks, which we thought had resulted in some lots and wines with less concentration and paler colors than we wanted. This experience made us more proactive in 2013 in thinning the crop to give us what we felt the vines and the vintage could handle. These two factors combined to reduce our yields from around 3.7 tons per acre in 2012 to around 2.8 in 2013.
The relatively dry second half of the 2012-13 winter (we received just two and a half inches of rain after January 1st) meant that the 2013 growing season got off to an early start, about 10 days ahead of our average to that point. The summer proceeded without any extended heat spikes (just eight days topped 100F) or cool-downs, and we began harvest roughly that same week-and-a-half earlier than normal, on August 25th. The weather the next six weeks turned consistently warm (lots of upper 80s and low-to-mid 90s) though never hot enough to force us to stop picking or to engage the grapevines' defense mechanism of shutting down photosynthesis, so we raced through harvest in just 44 days, nearly two full weeks shorter than the year before. Our October 7th finish stood alone as our earliest-ever completion of harvest until we tied it this past year.
When we got to blending we were excited to see that we'd achieved what we'd hoped: we'd captured the freshness and brightness we liked from the 2013 vintage while layering in more depth and tannic structure. We blended the wines that we always make and made several varietal wines, including our first-ever examples of two new grapes, Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche. And the 2013 wines have often been favorites over the last decade when we've included them in horizontal tastings. So it was with interest that I approached the opportunity to taste through the entire lineup of wines that we made in 2013 this past week.
This horizontal retrospective tasting is something we do each year, looking at the complete array of wines that we made a decade earlier. It offers us several opportunities. First, it's a chance to take stock on how the wines are evolving, share those notes with our fans who may have them in their cellars, and keep our vintage chart up to date. There are wines (like the Esprits, and Panoplie) that we open fairly regularly, but others that we may not have tasted in six or seven years. Second, it's a chance to evaluate the decisions we made that year, see how they look in hindsight, and use that lens to see if there are any lessons to apply to what we're doing now. Third, it's a chance to put the vintage in perspective. Often, in the immediate aftermath of a harvest and even at blending, we're so close to this most recently completed year that it can be difficult to assess its character impartially. Plus, the full character of a vintage doesn't show itself until the wines have a chance to age a bit. Finally, it's when we choose the wines that will represent the vintage in a public retrospective tasting, which this year we'll be holding Sunday, February 5th. The lineup:
My notes on the wines are below. I've noted their closures (SC=screwcap; C=cork) and, for the blends, their varietal breakdown. Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see winemaking details, professional reviews, or our tasting notes at bottling. Because of their scarcity we never made a webpage for the Clairette Blanche or Terret Noir, so if you have questions about that leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer. I was joined for the tasting by our cellar team (Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Craig Hamm, Amanda Weaver, and Austin Collins) as well as by Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg, Regenerative Specialist Erin Mason, Biodynamicist Gustavo Prieto and Director of Marketing Ian Consoli.
- 2013 Vermentino (SC): A great start to the day, with a nose of peppered citrus pith, wet rocks, and a slight petrol note showing the only real hint at the wine's decade of age. The mouth was vibrant, the same citrus and mineral notes that the nose hinted at except with more richness, like preserved lemon and oyster shell. The wine retained the electric acids it had at bottling, and would be a great discovery for anyone who finds a bottle in their stash.
- 2013 Picpoul Blanc (SC): A nose of dried pineapple, mandarin orange, and sweet green herbs like lemongrass. The palate shows more pineapple, but with a smoky grilled note, and creamy texture. Picpoul doing its best piña colada impression, even after a decade. The finish showed more green herbs, passion fruit, and sea spray minerality, with lively acids and lingering richness. A treat.
- 2013 Grenache Blanc (SC): A classic aged Grenache Blanc nose of petrol, green apple, potpourri, and crushed rock. The palate is both lush and electric with sweet spice that reminded me of crystallized ginger and cinnamon, kaffir lime and ripe apple, with creamy texture and a nice pithy bite cleaning up the long finish.
- 2013 Viognier (SC): The nose was Viognier's classic jasmine florality and peaches and cream, cut by a lemongrass herbiness and a petrichor minerality. The palate was a little less exciting than the nose, at least to me, with flavors of fresh pear and kneaded butter, rainwater and soft texture. I think we were all missing the vibrant acids of the three previous wines; Erin called it "a mist of a flavor". I've always been an advocate of drinking Viognier young, and this did nothing to change my mind.
- 2013 Marsanne (SC): Just our third-ever Marsanne, after we took 2012 off because we didn't think it showed enough focus. Outstanding on the nose, with grilled lemon, honeycomb, quince, and the distinctive sweet straw note I look for in the grape. The palate is also exciting, with salted honeydew and papaya flavors, and a fresh-ground cornmeal note, complex but fresh. The long finish showed notes of honeysuckle, grilled bread, creme brulee, and cardamom. A gorgeous wine in a gorgeous stage.
- 2013 Clairette Blanche (C): We only made one barrel from our first-ever Clairette Blanche harvest, and when we got ready to release it we found it a little thin and unexciting, not compelling enough to introduce a new grape to our audience. So we stashed it hoping it would become something more interesting. It never did. In this tasting, we found a nose showing some oxidation: scotch tape, hazelnut and bruised apple. The palate was better, like a fino sherry: salted nuts, strawberry, and red apple. The wine thinned back out on the finish, with more of that bruised apple character. In future years we'd bottle it under screwcap, which I think was a good idea, but we were hoping that the cork would enrich the wine. It didn't, or at least not enough. In retrospect, we should have included it in a blend rather than bottling it on its own.
- 2013 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (SC; 54% Grenache Blanc, 25% Viognier, 13% Roussanne, 8% Marsanne): Pretty on the nose, with gooseberry, fresh sage, chalky mineral, and newly-cut grass aromas. The palate was fresh, with sweet mango and fresh apricot flavors, gingersnap and candied orange peel depth, and a long, soft finish with sweet spices and fresh herbs. This was meant to be opened and drunk young, but if anyone has any around, it's still going strong.
- 2013 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 39% Viognier, 29% Grenache Blanc, 20% Marsanne, 12% Roussanne): A very appealing nose of oyster shell, fresh mandarin, meyer lemon, honeysuckle, and white pepper. A slight hint of petrol is the only sign of its age. The palate is round and luscious, like baked honeycrisp apple and lemon drop. Outstanding length, balance, and tenacity on the palate. A treat at this age.
- 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (C; 71% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc): A nose of toasted marshmallow, graham cracker, coconut, golden delicious apple, and lacquered wood. The mouth is luscious, with flavors of pears in syrup, butterscotch, toasted almond, and white pepper. The finish is long with flavors of marzipan and poached pear cut by fresh herbs and butter mint. But for all these sweet descriptors, the wine is dry and precise. Seemingly right at its peak.
- 2013 Roussanne (C): A nose of warm honey and crushed shells, and lots of intriguing herbal notes: chamomile, pine resin, and gin botanicals. On the palate, deep and soft with flavors of creme brulee and salted caramel, but finishing dry with citrus pith and nice tannic pithy bite. Delicious.
- 2013 Patelin de Tablas Rosé (SC; 73% Grenache, 22% Mourvedre, 5% Counoise): Our second-ever Patelin Rosé was still a beautiful pale color. A little plasticky screwcap-influenced nose at first blew off to show salter watermelon and wild strawberry aromas. The palate was in outstanding shape: strawberry preserves, rhubarb compote, green herbs and a sour cherry finish. No one would have intentionally kept this wine this long, but it was showing better than any 10-year-old rosé could reasonably expect.
- 2013 Dianthus (SC; 57% Mourvedre, 28% Grenache, 15% Counoise): A little rustiness in the color. The nose showed Campari, dried rose petal, and orange bitters aromas. The mouth continued our cocktail-like descriptors: a note of singed citrus peel over gardenia flower and a salty umami note. It didn't speak much of a rosé at this stage, but could be a cool gastronomic wine with something like grilled quail or rabbit.
- 2013 Full Circle (C): Our fourth Full Circle Pinot Noir from my dad's property in the Templeton Gap, and the first vintage that I thought really was showing well at a decade. The nose had notes of bay, new leather, black cherry, baker's chocolate, and sweet clove. On the palate, black plum, sarsaparilla, and a little sweet oak with cooling notes of juniper and sandalwood. Seemingly right at its peak, complex yet fresh.
- 2013 Terret Noir (C): Only slightly darker than the Dianthus. The nose showed a hard candy note over molasses and wet leaves. The palate was a little medicinal with cherry cough syrup notes over tree bark, then a short finish. The wine has lost the minty, herby notes that made it fascinating when it was young, without replacing them with anything similarly rewarding. I feel good about our recent decision to put Terret Noir under screwcap and think it should probably be drunk within 5 years of vintage, despite its tannic grip.
- 2013 Grenache (C): A nose of sugarplum, black licorice, coffee grounds and cherry fruit leather. The mouth is pretty, fully mature, soft and luscious like a flourless chocolate cake with raspberry reduction poured over it. The finish shows a little oxidation, with flavors of hoisin and stewed strawberry and a little tannic bite. Time to drink up if you have any; it feels like this is about to start on the downslope.
- 2013 Mourvedre (C): A nose of cassis, mocha, dry-aged meat and iron. The palate is chocolate and cherry with a little minty spice and a grilled portobello earthiness. The finish was classic Mourvedre: loam and plum skin and salty dark chocolate. In a nice place, if without the mouth-filling intensity of our best Mourvedre vintages.
- 2013 Syrah (C): A dark, spicy nose of graphite, black licorice, blackberry and crushed rock. The palate is similar, youthful black fruit and dense texture, lots of dark tannin and chalky mineral. The finish showed luxardo cherry and persistent crushed rock minerality. Syrah at its essence, in a good place but with plenty left in the tank.
- 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon (C): From the two rows of Cabernet vines we have in our nursery, which most years gets tossed into our Tannat. An immediately recognizable Cabernet nose of eucalyptus, blackberry, black olive, and pencil shavings. The mouth was outstanding: blackcurrant and new leather, salty dark chocolate and firm tannic bite. A cedary oak note came out on the finish. Absolutely on point for the grape, and fun to taste since we make it so rarely.
- 2013 Tannat (C): A gamey nose of pork fat and plum skin, wood smoke and brambly fruit. The palate is juicy with blackcurrant and cola flavors and full body. The finish is lushly tannic with notes of teriyaki, blackberry, venison jerky and salted caramel. I've always liked how the 2013 vintage treated Tannat, giving it some needed elegance, and this showing confirmed that it's one of my favorite Tannat's we've ever done.
- 2013 Patelin de Tablas (SC; 45% Syrah, 29% Grenache, 22% Mourvedre, 4% Counoise): Surprisingly, as the only screwcap-finished red in the tasting, the nose on this was on point as soon as it was poured: spicy and meaty like soppresata, chaparral, black raspberry and dried herbs. The palate showed muddled blackberry flavors and nicely resolved tannins with black licorice and herbes de Provence accents. Soft, pretty, and what a value for anyone who bought and stashed a case at the $20/bottle this was on release.
- 2013 Cotes de Tablas (C; 55% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Counoise, 5%Mourvedre): The nose was lovely: dried roses, kirsch, sugarplum, and a little gamey umami lurking underneath. The mouth is lively and light on its feet, with flavors of strawberry preserves, sweet star anise spice, and a little tannic powdered sugar bite. Thankfully, after a 2012 rendition that was starting to tire at age 10, this felt right at peak.
- 2013 En Gobelet (C; 34% Grenache, 31% Mourvedre, 19% Syrah, 11% Counoise, 5% Tannat): A nose of creamy red raspberry fruit, coffee grounds, leather, and candied violets. The mouth is like salty raspberry preserves, with sweet/spicy notes of Mexican hot chocolate, butter pastry, and Spanish chorizo. There's a nice tannic bite on the finish. Seemingly right at peak too.
- 2013 Esprit de Tablas (C; 40% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 22% Grenache, 10% Counoise): The nose was showing more age than we were expecting, with aromas of soy sauce, dried meat, pomegranate reduction, and bread pudding. The mouth had flavors of chocolate-covered cherry, with a chorizo-like meatiness and a nice salty note coming out on the richly tannic finish. When a wine shows a disconnect like this between the nose and the palate, I often take it as a phase that it's going through. I tend to think that's the case here and will look forward to checking back in a few times over the next year. Meanwhile, build in time to give this a bit of a decant if you're drinking in the short term.
- 2013 Panoplie (C; 75% Mourvedre, 15% Grenache, 10% Syrah): An exuberant nose of cassis and new leather, an alpine foresty spice, dark chocolate, and crushed rock. The palate is lovely, poised between red and black currant, black tea, white pepper, and candied violet. A little cedary oak and more dark chocolate come out on the long finish. In an outstanding place.
- 2013 Petit Manseng (C): Our fourth bottling of this classic southwest French grape known for maintaining great acids as it reaches high (and occasionally extremely high) sugar levels, which we make each year in an off-dry style. After making this both drier (in 2011) and sweeter (in 2012) we triangulated to a style that I think was just right in 2013. It showed a nose of grilled pineapple (or pineapple upside-down cake, if you prefer), golden raisin and cumquat. The palate is sweet and lush but with electric acids, showing flavors of pistachio and lychee, smoky and wild with a lively lemon-drop finish. A great way to reawaken the palate at the end of the tasting.
A few concluding thoughts
In terms of vintage character, there were a lot of non-fruit descriptors that transcended red, white, and even rosé categories. These included saline/mineral notes like oyster shell, sea spray, flint, or crushed rock, and woodland descriptors like sandalwood, cedar, and juniper. This was not a vintage for people who wanted (or want) maximum fruit concentration, but instead one where fruit elements were in balance with more savory elements. After a series of vintages in the late-2000s where we got outstanding fruit intensity but in retrospect felt that we'd let the ripeness pendulum swing too far toward jam, and three years starting in 2010 where a combination of weather and a hands-off approach to our vineyard gave us wines that (again, in retrospect) had good savory elements but tended to be a bit shy in concentrated fruit, 2013 was our opportunity to set a middle course. I felt like I saw a clearer path between the wines from the 2013 vintage to those we're making today than I'd been able to in any of our previous horizontal tastings. That's exciting.
I was hoping that the balance that the 2013s have had all their lives would mean that they'd hold up well in bottle, and generally, they did. There were only a couple of wines that were tasting like they were past their prime, and the wines that are usually peaking at around a decade (like Grenache, or Cotes de Tablas) felt squarely in their sweet spots. But unlike with some earlier tastings, we didn't find any wines that weren't yet ready to go. Even the wines that I suspect will be the longest-lived, like Syrah, Tannat, and Panoplie, all seemed to offer outstanding drinking right now.
The whites were across the board excellent. From the high-acid screwcapped wines that we suggested people drink in the first few years to the richer Roussanne- and Marsanne-based wines, every one but the Clairette was pretty and vibrant. It's worth noting that nearly all of the screwcapped wines improved in the glass, and I thought that most of them would have benefited from a quick decant. A lot of people don't think of decanting older whites, but I think it's often a good idea, and for any wine that has been under screwcap for more than a few years. There's a clipped character that most older screwcapped wines have that dissipates with a few minutes of air. It happens anyway in the glass, but a decant speeds the process.
When I asked everyone around the table to pick their three favorites, 14 different wines received at least one vote, with the Roussanne and Cotes de Tablas red leading the way with five votes each. That diversity is a testament to the quality of the vintage. The very strong showing of the Cotes de Tablas wines (both received more favorite votes than the Esprits did in this showing) was interesting. I felt like it spoke to our process, which gives each of our blends a different lead grape and helps us identify lots in blending that are right for each wine, not just a simple hierarchy of good-better-best. It also means that you shouldn't sleep on our "lesser" red blends if you want to lay down some bottles, and maybe that we should stop thinking of them as "lesser" at all. After all, even the Patelin red was outstanding in this tasting.
We're very much looking forward to sharing the vintage's highlights with guests at our public retrospective tasting on February 5th. If you'd like to join us, we'll be tasting the following ten wines: Marsanne, Roussanne, Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Syrah, Tannat, Patelin de Tablas, Cotes de Tablas, Esprit de Tablas, Panoplie, and Petit Manseng. I can't wait. For more information, or to join us, click here.