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Just Add Water: Looking at the Record-Breaking 2022-23 Winter at Tablas Creek

Blending table report: we piece together a smaller lineup of white wines from the painfully scarce 2022 vintage

We spent four days last week around our blending table, working to turn the 30 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2022 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. The good news is that we were excited about the lots we tasted and what we made looks like it will be good. The bad news is unlikely to be a surprise if you've been following this blog. The 2022 vintage was painfully scarce, particularly on whites, whose yields were down 29.3% from 2021 and a heartbreaking 55% from 2020. That meant that we were faced with some difficult questions before we even sat down to blend. With Roussanne lots most affected of all (down 63% from the combined impacts of lingering drought and a May frost) would we be able to find enough lots we loved to make an Esprit de Tablas Blanc? If we did, what would it look like, and what would it leave us? Read on.

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 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. Then, we start from the top of our hierarchy (with the whites, that's the Esprit de Tablas Blanc) and brainstorm possible blends, taste those blind against one another, and come to consensus. Once we've determined the blend and quantity for the Esprit Blanc, we set aside the lots needed and look at what we have left for possible Cotes de Tablas Blanc and varietal bottlings. Finally, we taste everything we're going to make to be sure that each feels complete and individual. A snapshot of my notes:

Blending whites 2023 - notes

In a normal year it takes us two days to taste through all the white lots. Not this year; we finished in one day. My quick thoughts on each variety are below. 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. 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"). In rough harvest order:

  • Blending whites 2023 - BottlesViognier (6 lots): An above-average Viognier vintage, with classic flavors, good richness, and respectable acids. Since we don't use Viognier in Esprit Blanc, the best grade I was giving out was a "1/2". Three "1/2" lots, two "2" lots, and one "3" that ended up being more useful in blending than I expected.
  • Marsanne (4 lots): An outstanding Marsanne vintage, with all four lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeyed charm, creamy textures, and mineral-laced finish. I gave all four lots "1/2" grades, and we included Marsanne in our blending trials for Esprit Blanc for the first time since 2001 (!).
  • Picardan (3 lots): A strong representation of what we find appealing about Picardan: peppered citrus notes, good minerality, and solid acids. I gave two lots "1/2" grades and one (a single barrel of our heavy-press component, which was darker in color and lower in acid) a "2/3".
  • Bourboulenc (3 lots): The most challenging of the varieties we tasted, at least for me, the three lots were all quite different from one another. One four-barrel lot showed the combination of honeyed aromatics, rich, nutty texture, and bright acids we've come to expect from this grape. Another, which was fermented in concrete egg, was higher toned and less expressive, with some reductive notes. And a third two-puncheon lot from our heavy-press component had the deep orange color we saw back in 2019, a lacquer-like savory note, and very bright acids. I gave the first lot a "1", the second a "2/3", and the third a "3".
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We nearly doubled last year's production and it was outstanding: citrusy and minerally, with lemon curd notes and great finishing brightness. I gave it a "1".
  • Grenache Blanc (4 lots): Our fewest Grenache Blanc lots in my memory. But what there was was outstanding: citrus and brine on the nose, lovely peach and grapefruit pith on the palate, and the combination of brightness and texture that we look for. I gave three lots "1" grades and even the fourth, which I gave a "2", was appealing: just softer and less vibrant.
  • Picpoul Blanc (3 lots): Only three small lots totaling just 648 gallons. Luckily all were strong: pithy pineapple and salty minerality, still just a touch sweet. I gave two lots "1" grades and the third, which had a little more texture but a little less brightness, a "1/2".
  • Roussanne (6 lots): All the best options for making Esprit Blanc involved using all or almost all of the Roussanne we had. So it was a relief that the quality of the six Roussanne lots was so high. I gave four of them "1" grades for their classic, rich, honeyed pear noses, the kiss of sweet oak emphasizing their rich texture, and their long finishes. One other, to which I gave a "1/2", was less rich but brighter, while the last, which I gave a "2" sat at the other end of the spectrum: darker in color, rich and nutty, but a touch low in acid.

We finished by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. Our minimum amount of Esprit Blanc that can cover the different needs we have for it with our wine club, tasting room, wholesale and export is about 1700 cases. Given the scarcity of Roussanne, using all of it only made up about 36% of a possible Esprit Blanc blend at that minimum quantity. Given that our least-ever Roussanne in the Esprit Blanc was 45%, and it's more typically around 65%, we first needed to make sure that what we could make would feel at home in the history of Esprit Blanc bottlings. Knowing that we wanted to keep our Grenache Blanc percentage below the Roussanne percentage, again to preserve the link with our established tradition, limited our options further.

We ended up deciding to make up three different potential Esprit Blancs. One would use all the Roussanne, Picpoul, and Clairette, the best Grenache Blanc lots, and the top lots of Bourboulenc and Picardan, at our minimum total quantity. In my mind, this was the baseline Esprit Blanc, closest to what we'd done in the past. The second would make about 100 more cases of wine by increasing the Grenache Blanc to the maximum we could use while keeping just below the Roussanne percentage, and adding the rest of our Picardan. And a third modified the baseline blend by replacing the least-strong Roussanne lots with Marsanne. If we'd chosen this, it would have been the first time since 2003 that we'd have used a grape outside of the six white grapes legal for use in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. So even the decision to try a blend that included Marsanne caused a certain amount of hesitation. But given the strength of the Marsanne this vintage and the scarcity of Roussanne we thought if there were ever a year to break with tradition this would be it.

Wednesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. To my surprise, our least favorite was the first glass (which upon revealing, was the one I'd been thinking of as our baseline Esprit Blanc). While it was pretty, with good texture and weight, it just wasn't as exciting as the other two. We split pretty evenly between the other two options, with some preferring the elegance and openness of the second glass and others the extra texture and brighter acids of the third glass. When we revealed what was in the two glasses, and realized that the third option was the one that eschewed Marsanne for extra Grenache Blanc and Picardan, and made us 100 more cases of the Esprit Blanc, we had our winner. The final blend was 33% Roussanne,  32% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 8% Picardan., 8% Clairette Blanche, and 5% Bourboulenc. Our rule is always that the Esprit wines get first dibs on whatever lots they need to be great. This year, that means it got all of the Roussanne, Picpoul, Picardan, and Clairette. It will hurt not having any of those for a varietal bottling, but at least we have an Esprit Blanc that we love.

Looking at what we had left after setting aside the Esprit Blanc lots made it clear that if we made a Cotes Blanc in anything like our normal 1,000 case quantity, that would use most of what was left and mean essentially no varietal bottlings for the year. That didn't seem to be a great choice, and would likely leave us short of wines to send out to our wine club. So we decided that the next step was to try varietal bottlings of what was left (Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Bourboulenc) and get down into the barrel-by-barrel decisions of what felt varietally appropriate and what we wanted to instead declassify into Patelin.

All four lots of the Marsanne were strong, and a blend of the four was expressive, classic, and lovely. Perfect. The remaining Grenache Blanc lots fit together beautifully, with the softer, richer lot providing depth and counterpoint to the citrusy brightness of the base. Done, and done. For Viognier, it was really a question of how much of the lot that I gave a "3" to we wanted to use. It had deep gold color, rich texture, and very bright acids. We tried a blend using both barrels, with neither barrel, and with one barrel and ended up deciding like Goldilocks that the one-barrel addition was just right. The other will become a useful part of the Patelin Blanc. Finally, with the Bourboulenc, we all decided that we preferred it as a varietal bottling without the two heavy-press puncheons. That finished off our varietal decision-making. 

On Thursday we got together to taste the wines we'd decided on and make sure that the Viognier and Bourboulenc lots that we hoped to declassify into the Patelin Blanc fit stylistically. We also tried for the first time a new 100% Grenache Blanc we're calling "Lignée de Tablas" about which I'll be sharing details a little later in the spring. The Patelin Blanc absorbed the declassified lots seamlessly, which was great, giving us a blend of 49% Grenache Blanc, 22% Viognier, 10% Marsanne, 10% Vermentino, 4% Roussanne, 3% Picpoul Blanc, and 2% Bourboulenc. That left us with seven white wines from 2022, and a feeling of relief around the table:

Blending whites 2023 - table cropped

My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:

  • 2022 Bourboulenc (275 cases): Medium gold. A nose of orange bitters, lacquer, and nuts. On the palate, the orange note continues, with rich texture, bright acids, and a long finish.
  • 2022 Grenache Blanc (350 cases): A pretty nose of peaches and cream, crushed rock, and lemongrass. The mouth has Grenache Blanc's signature mouth-filling texture and white grapefruit flavors, bright acids, chalky minerality and a little pithy bite of green apple skin tannin on the finish.
  • 2022 Marsanne (475 cases): Quite polished already, with a nose of honeydew melon, sweetgrass, and briny minerality. The mouth has gentle but persistent flavors of lemon curd and cantaloupe, nice texture without any sense of weight, and a creamy mineral note that comes out on the long, clean finish. Lovely.
  • 2022 Viognier (700 cases): A charming nose of honeysuckle and Haribo peach. The palate is long, pure, and textured, with more stone fruit and a tarragon-like note of sweet green herbs. Rich texture is balanced by some structural weight and unusually good acids for Viognier. Should make a great wine club shipment wine.
  • 2022 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (4080 cases, plus some wine for boxes and kegs): A nose more driven by Grenache Blanc than Viognier right now: white grapefruit and petrichor, pepper spice and a little nutty depth. On the palate, flavors of stone fruit and lemon custard, persistent chalky minerality, fairly rich texture and vibrant acids. Exciting that we have a solid supply of this!
  • 2022 Lignée de Tablas Grenache Blanc (825 cases): A pretty lifted nose nose of white pepper and citrus pith. On the palate, more citrus, with a green citrus leaf element adding complexity. With solid texture, good acids, and a little sweet spice on the finish, this should be a nice addition to the lineup!
  • 2022 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (1850 cases): Despite its comparatively low percentage, a nose clearly expressive of Roussanne in its notes of beeswax, jasmine, and sweet spice. On the palate, good weight and texture, with flavors of peach pit, lanolin, a little kiss of oak, and a clean minerality that got described as rainwater and river stone. This will have another several months in oak, and should develop additional caramel notes and nutty depth before bottling.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • Given that we've never had so few options in our blending, it was a relief that the puzzle pieces fit together. All sorts of options were potentially on the table. Would we maybe not make an Esprit Blanc? It was possible. Would we have lots that didn't fit into the estate wines but also didn't work in the Patelin Blanc? Also possible. In the end, sacrificing the Cotes Blanc made the other puzzle pieces fit. With all the lovely rain we've been getting this winter, I hope we'll have a very different picture next year. Fingers crossed, please, that we dodge frost.
  • 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 the vintage that this reminded me of most was 2015, at the nadir of our previous drought cycle. Like 2022, 2015 produced uneven results across different varieties, and that unevenness keeps me from thinking of it as a truly great vintage. But I love the 2015 Esprit Blanc, which reduced our quantity of Roussanne and used all our Picpoul and a healthy amount of Grenache Blanc. I think that the solution that we came to for the Esprit Blanc this year, with less Roussanne and more of the higher-acid, earlier-ripening varieties, will end up resembling the 2015 stylistically. If you like your Esprit Blancs on the fresher, more minerally side, while still carrying the essential honey and mineral flavors of Roussanne, this should be one you'll love.
  • For all that, I'm not sure we yet have a great handle on what the character is of the 2022 vintage. Each variety seemed to handle the year in its own way. That's a good thing, I think, and suggests we were able to keep up with the terrible heat wave that hit us in the beginning of September. Talking to some friends and neighbors, it seems not everyone was as lucky and that there were vineyards without the monitoring and labor capacity to get all their grapes off when they wanted. I don't think that the wines we tasted felt like they came from a hot vintage. No raisiny heaviness. No volatility. I hope to have a clearer sense of how to describe the year after we dive into the reds next month. 

Now that the blending decisions have been made, we can move forward in getting the wines racked, blended, and given time to settle and integrate. The Patelin Blanc and Lignée de Tablas will be the first to go into bottle, in May. The varietal wines will be next, in June. And the Esprit Blanc will go into foudre and have another 9 months to evolve before its scheduled December bottling.

But in a year where all sorts of difficult options were on the table, I'm not sure our first blending week could have gone much better. We look forward to sharing these 2022 whites with you, and apologize that many of them will go very fast because of their scarcity. When they come out, don't blink.