2022 Red Blending: The Big Three Grapes Shine and the Vintage Surprises with Its Combination of Structure and Vibrancy
On Tuesday we finally got to sit down and taste the sixteen (!) red wines from the 2022 vintage we'd built around the blending table over the past two weeks. The tasting showed all the promise that we'd hoped in assembling the wines. From the vibrant sweet spice and brambly cherry flavors of the Counoise to the salty minerality, loamy earth, and pure raspberry of Mourvedre, the dark soy and blackcurrant depth of the Le Complice, and the reverberating red and black fruit and licorice of the Esprit, each wine was both deep and focused, expressive and pleasurable. And what a relief. 2022 was one of our most challenging vintages, with the cumulative impacts of a three-year drought, two spring frosts, two punishing heat waves, unexpected rain, and a compressed harvest season. The white blending that we finished a month ago was so constrained by low yields that there were several wines we couldn't make, and the Roussanne so scarce that we had to blend an Esprit Blanc unlike any other we've done before. While I think the white wines we made will be excellent overall, I don't think it's a great white vintage. But on the red side? I think this will go down with some of the best vintages in our history.
For the first time in a decade, we had the pleasure of having both Cesar and Francois Perrin join us around the blending table. Together, they bring five decades worth of vintages at Beaucastel, and dozens of weeks spent evaluating lots and making blends here. And their perspective is always valuable, bringing deep experience with these grapes and outside opinion unbiased by previous knowledge of the year. But while their voices are always heard and their opinions noted, these are not "flying winemakers" coming in to make pronouncements on our direction and then leave us to execute their wishes. Instead, like the Perrins' own system at Beaucastel, we take the blending process in steps and build consensus rather than relying on one or two lead voices to determine the wines' final profiles. After all, 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. And the discussions around the lunch table after each day's critical tasting are wonderful:
We began the first two days by tasting the 62 different red lots. On Monday we tackled Grenache, Counoise, Cinsaut, Tannat, and our trace varieties: Terret Noir, Vaccarese, Muscardin, and our tiny Cabernet lot. Tuesday we dove into the more tannin-rich grapes: Mourvedre, Syrah, and Pinot Noir. 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 fit best in. After all, a Mourvedre lot could potentially go into any of six wines: Panoplie, Esprit, En Gobelet, Cotes, Patelin, or the varietal Mourvedre. So our goal at this first stage of blending is 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.
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. As you can see from my notes, 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:
- Cinsaut (3 lots): Our third vintage of Cinsaut, and the largest quantity to date, nearly double what we got in 2021. Overall pretty and medium-bodied, with nice fruit and vibrant acids. I gave two of the lots "2" grades and one with more fruit and density a "1".
- Counoise (7 lots): Many of these lots were notably pale, with lifted red fruit character, good acids, and nice salty minerality. But there weren't any obviously Esprit-level lots with the darker blueberry fruit and richer texture. Plenty of the pretty spicy Gamay-style juiciness that our varietal Counoise bottling typically reflects. The lack of lots with greater density made it a challenge to identify top lots, but I gave out two "1" grades to the lots with the most intense fruit, four "2" grades, and one "3" that came across a touch medicinal.
- Grenache (15 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 this was a strong showing, with plenty of richly fruited, spicy lots with the density to carry that fruit. I gave nearly half the lots (seven in total) "1" grades, with two others getting "1/2" and my hopes that they would form the core of our varietal Grenache. Two "2" lots, two "2/3" lots, and one "3" (which I felt a little guilty giving out, since even it felt like it was going through a stage) rounded a strong Grenache showing.
- Muscardin (1 lot): It was exciting that we finally had a barrel of Muscardin to blend, but I wasn't a huge fan of the wine. Last year's was pale but carried a minty/herby/juniper note that reminded us of Terret Noir along with great acids and salty minerality. This year's was just as pale but didn't have the same vibrancy, with gentle watermelon flavors and a short finish. I gave it a "2/3" and we agreed it wasn't distinguished enough to release as our first-ever varietal bottling. It will end up, like last year, in Le Complice.
- Terret Noir (2 lots): Like the Muscardin, we felt we wanted more from Terret this year. Typically it's been pale but had high-toned wild strawberry fruit, herby lift, and grippy tannins. Not for everyone, but distinctive and interesting. This year's felt tamer, missing the herbiness and tannic grip from past years. I gave both lots "2/3" grades, flagging one lot with more structure as likely ideal for Le Complice.
- Vaccarese (1 lot): Compared to the ethereal nature of the previous two wines, the darker color and powerful aromatics of the Vaccarese stood out like a rocket. This tasting served as a reminder of why we're so excited about this grape, and I felt fortunate that we had enough to both include in Esprit and make into a varietal bottling. I gave it a "1".
- Tannat (3 lots): Dense, yet with the vibrant 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 feel is the right addition to En Gobelet. I gave two lots "1" grades and another, in which I found a little oxidation, 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 it showed such well-defined Cabernet character that we couldn't bear to blend it away. In 2022 we only had one barrel, so even though we loved its classic flavors and dusty minerality we didn't have enough for a solo bottling. It will go into Tannat and be happy.
This marked the end of day one. If I'd had to give a grade at this point, it would have been a B/B+. We saw some very nice Grenache lots, but also some weaker ones. Tannat was strong, but it's always like that. Cinsaut and Counoise came across as pretty but not particularly serious. The trace varieties were a mixed bag. But then came day two:
- Mourvedre (12 lots): Given the mixed results from the day before and the comparatively pale colors, I wasn't prepared to be blown away by Mourvedre. Typically, in lighter-weight vintages, it's Syrah that shines. But the Mourvedre lots went from strength to strength, and at one point I gave five lots in a row "1" grades. Overall the wines had intense varietal character, with deep red fruit, lovely leathery, loamy notes, and good structure. Six lots got "1"s from me, with three others getting "1/2", three "2"s and nothing lower than that. The best Mourvedre showing I can ever remember at this stage.
- Syrah (12 lots): Syrah at this stage is easy to appreciate, with its plush dark fruit, spice, and powerful structure. Given that consistency, our main goals are to evaluate the different winemaking choices we made (too much or not enough stems? too much or not enough new oak?) and decide which lots feel like they can play well enough in Mourvedre- or Grenache-based wines to be blending partners. 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), and just two "2" lots that in another year could have been graded higher.
- Pinot Noir (5 lots): 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 we ferment each clone separately most years, they all always end up in the Full Circle Pinot Noir. So in this tasting we're just making sure there aren't lots that might cause issues in the blend, and evaluating the percentage of stems and whole-cluster. All five felt on point, and the total of about one-quarter whole cluster provided nice herbal lift. It should make a compelling 2022 Full Circle.
So while day one was a mixed bag, we all were ecstatic about day two. We finished the day with our normal round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the next day's blending of Panoplie and Esprit and came to the conclusion that it probably wasn't a year to lean heavily into the more minor grapes and that we should start the blending trials with three test blends, each one leaning a little heavier into one of the big three of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah, and see where that took us. In terms of quantity, while yields on reds had recovered a bit from the punishingly low 2021 vintage, we were still constrained by supply, and if we wanted enough different varietal wines to send out to the wine club we needed to cap our Esprit production around 3000 cases and our Cotes production around 1200.
Wednesday morning we reconvened to work out our two top 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 (29%) being no one's favorite, the one with the most Grenache (31%) the consensus second choice, and the glass with the most Mourvedre (67%) and roughly equal parts Grenache (18%) and Syrah (15%) receiving every first place vote but one. As sometimes happens when we have such overwhelming consensus in an early wine, we spent a while discussing around the table whether there was anything we could do to make the wine better, but couldn't come up with anything more compelling than that first blend. Done, and done.
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, instead of near-universal agreement around the table, we were able to eliminate one Esprit option (the one with the most Grenache, which was pretty but didn't carry the density of the other two options) but split between the other two. After talking through what we liked in each, and encouraged by the Perrins who both chose it as their clear favorite, we ended up deciding on the blend that leaned into Mourvedre (40%) with Grenache (28%) and Syrah (22%) playing roughly equal roles, and smaller amounts of Vaccarese (4%), Counoise (3%), and Cinsaut (3%). That choice was less overtly powerful than the option with less Mourvedre and Grenache but 31% Syrah, but also more expressive, with a lithe energy that we thought would broaden into lovely depth and richness over the next year-plus in foudre.
On Thursday we tackled our remaining wine club blends, starting with En Gobelet. It seems we often don't have a ton of options with this wine. In the early years, we just didn't have many head-trained, dry-farmed lots to choose from. Now, we have more, but we also used some of our favorite head-trained lots in Esprit and Panoplie, leaving only a few options for Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah. So the big question was how much Tannat and Counoise we wanted to add to the core made by our "big three" Rhone reds. We ended up settling on the least Counoise (6%) and the middle amount of Tannat (also 6%) as the right complements to the expressiveness of the Grenache (43%), Mourvedre (27%) and Syrah (18%). Too much Tannat and it started to stick out, and too much Counoise thinned the wine down too much.
For Le Complice, which celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with whole cluster Syrah, we needed to decide how much Terret Noir we wanted in this relatively simple Terret year, how much Syrah we felt we could put in without it just tasting like Syrah, and how heavily we wanted to lean into the stemmy character we get from whole cluster fermentation. Like with the Panoplie, there was near-total consensus around the table around an option that included our most Syrah (67%) and least Terret (5%) along with 25% Grenache and 3% Muscardin. That wine felt the longest and most structured, but still had a pretty herbal lift that differentiated it from the straight Syrah lots we'd tasted. I think it's the best Le Complice we've ever made, and it should be a pleasure to watch evolve in the cellar.
At this point, with the Perrins headed back to France, we took a couple of days off to catch up on other work. But on Monday we reconvened to build the Cotes de Tablas and check back in on some of our previous week impressions. As is usually the case at this stage in the blending, we were down to a handful of Counoise and Mourvedre lots, making the central question on Cotes de Tablas blending the ratio of Grenache and Syrah. We generally prefer the blends that have more Syrah to those that have less, but there's also a tipping point where the wine stops tasting like Cotes de Tablas and starts tasting like Syrah. This year, that point came whenever we increased the blend to more than one-third Syrah. Final blend: 44% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 19% Counoise, and 4% Mourvedre.
The final choice that we had to make was on the lots we'd flagged for possible declassification into Patelin. One two-barrel Terret Noir lot was an easy choice, but we were uncertain as to the rest of the Terret that didn't go into Le Complice, and on a two-barrel Counoise lot to which most of us gave a "3" grade. Tasting the Terret again gave us confidence that it would do well as a 75-case varietal bottling, and tasting the two Counoise barrels revealed that one was pretty and could go into our varietal Counoise, while the other would be declassified. Those decisions made, all that was left was to taste the varietal wines from the lots we hadn't blended, and to taste the blends against them to make sure everything slotted where we wanted. We don't want, for example, a Grenache-dominated wine like Cotes de Tablas to taste too much like our varietal Grenache, or the Esprit and Panoplie, both of which are based on Mourvedre, to feel too close to each other or our varietal Mourvedre. That was Tuesday's work. The wines:
My quick notes on each of the sixteen wines we made, and their rough quantities:
- Counoise (380 cases): Vibrant with sweet spice and plum skin on the nose. Clean, pure, and bright on the palate with flavors of cherry juice, white pepper, more sweet spice, and a little brambly wildness on the finish. Fresh and appealing, like a glass of springtime.
- Cinsaut (150 cases): A nose of fruitcake, new leather and olallieberry, plush and spicy. The mouth is more lifted than the nose suggests, with flavors of elderberry and red plum, a sprinkling of dusty tannins, and a spicy blueberry note on the finish.
- Terret Noir (70 cases): A nose of watermelon and mint, sweet green herbs and a little menthol spiciness. The mouth is similarly lifted, like all the parts of a wild strawberry (fruit, flower, leaves), a little fresh oregano herbiness, and a clean finish with notes of sagebrush and cranberry and a little tannic bite. A tamer version of Terret than in the past, but clean, pretty, and fun.
- Full Circle (285 cases): A serious, obviously Pinot nose of cherry cola, leather, eucalyptus and a little sweet oak. The mouth shows cherry skin, bittersweet chocolate, and sweet cola. The finish is long, with some noteworthy tannic grip. Maybe the most impressive and (I think) ageworthy Full Circle we've made.
- Mourvedre (330 cases): Medium color, with a nose that leaps from the glass with redcurrant, new leather, black plum and mocha notes. The mouth is lovely: salty minerals, black raspberry, loamy earth, and cocoa powder. The finish is long, and I expect this to continue to gain depth with time in barrel.
- Syrah (630 cases): A nose with all black and mostly savory elements: iron, soy, blackberry, and pepper steak. The mouth is juicier than the nose first suggests, with flavors of blackberry and minty spice, more of the iron-like mineral note, and some serious tannins at the end. Very young, but with tons of potential.
- Vaccarese (165 cases): Notes on the nose of licorice, grape candy, soy marinade, and tobacco leaf. The mouth is vibrant with flavors of blackberry and sweet butter, good acids, plenty of tannin, and a finish full of brambly spice. After using all our Vaccarese in the 2021 Esprit, it will be great to have this as a varietal bottling again.
- Tannat (720 cases): A generous nose of black cherry and blueberry, sweet thyme and cocoa powder. The mouth shows more dark berries and a rich, earthy mocha note. The finish shows Tannat's characteristic good acids, grippy tannins, and a lingering rose petal floral note.
- Grenache (890 cases): A high-toned nose of cherry candy, tarragon, and strawberry shortcake, from the fruit to the buttery biscuits to the whipped cream. The mouth is pretty and medium-bodied, with sweet flavors of strawberry jam and meringue, vibrant acids that reminded me of blood orange, and lots of chalky minerality on the finish.
- Lignee de Tablas Grenache Hahn Vineyard (1300 cases): Dark for Grenache. Initially a bit reduced on the nose (after all, this hasn't had to be blended and was pulled straight out of tank) but that opened up to savory notes of meat drippings, ripe plum, and potpourri. The mouth is generous with flavors of black pepper and licorice, purple olallieberry fruit, and some tannic grip. A smoky, floral note like rose hips comes out on the finish. Very different than our estate Grenache, which was fun. More on this wine soon.
- Patelin de Tablas (4500 cases): A somewhat quiet nose right now, savory with notes of black olive, dried strawberry, white pepper, and leather. The mouth seems evenly balanced between Grenache's red plum and Syrah's blackberry fruit. There's nice mouth-filling texture and a finish showing some youthful tannic grip and lingering savory notes of soy, iodine, and black raspberry. It's exciting that we were able to make this much of this wine. The blend ended up 54% Syrah, 29% Grenache, 13% Mourvedre, 3% Counoise, and 1% Terret Noir.
- Cotes de Tablas (1160 cases): An impressive nose, both juicy and spicy, with a little minty lift over notes of strawberry hard candy and sweet leather. The mouth shows tangy salty raspberry fruit, red licorice, and milk chocolate. The finish brings out a nice bite of tannin reminiscent of plum skin and more sweet, minty spice.
- Le Complice (790 cases): A nose both dark and inviting, with notes of leather, soy, blackcurrant liqueur and black licorice. The palate is a blockbuster, with lovely black fruit, a little sweet oak, and a clean mineral note like wet stone. The long finish shows both sweet and savory herbs, and significant tannic grip cloaked in waves of black fruit. Memorable and impressive.
- En Gobelet (800 cases): A pretty Mourvedre-inflected nose of redcurrant, new leather, loamy earth and wild herbs. The mouth is generous, with raspberry and plum fruit, sweet spices, chalky minerals, and a Grenache-like combination of strawberry compote and red licorice on the finish. Elegant and expressive.
- Esprit de Tablas (3050 cases): A deep nose poised between red (redcurrant and red licorice) and black (black plum and cracked black peppercorn) with an additional loamy earth element that felt very Tablas Creek. The palate is mouth-filling with flavors of sugarplum and black raspberry, cocoa powder and newly-turned earth. The long, youthfully tannic finish with a hint of sweet oak suggests there's more to come both in barrel and in bottle. A serious, delicious Esprit.
- Panoplie (800 cases): A dense nose of plum compote and baker's chocolate, forest floor and juniper spice. The mouth is more open and higher toned, featuring flavors of red plum and chalky minerality, with notes of mocha and sweet spice. Good vibrancy on the palate and Mourvedre's characteristic chewy tannins complete the picture. This should be a great Panoplie to lay down, though it may be so tasty that it will be hard to keep away from it in its youth.
A few concluding thoughts.
- What a treat to have both Cesar and Francois around the blending table, and to see their excitement with what we were tasting. That's one of the benefits of having them participate: their combination of outside observer and experienced partner gives us a great check on our own reactions. Although we taste each flight blind, we still come into the blending week with preconceptions about what we think the vintage is like. The Perrins haven't mostly been here to develop those biases, and so their reactions are uninfluenced by things like knowledge of the vintage's weather or how tired we were in mid-October. It's not that they always agree with each other (they don't, both because each has his own preferences and because blind tasting is inherently difficult) but seeing their excitement as the vintage comes together, and getting their feedback on things we think we know is so welcome, and so valuable.
- It's amazing how one day can chance your feeling about an entire vintage. I think it's fair to say that after our experience of the white blending and our first day where some of the less-structured grapes were a mixed bag, we thought we had the narrative on 2022. Then we tasted some of the best Mourvedre and Syrah ever to come off the Tablas Creek property, and maybe the best Pinot Noir ever to come off the Haas Vineyard, and we were suddenly in a different place. I guess this is a positive "don't count your chickens before they hatch" moment, and a good reminder to wait until we have the full picture before coming to conclusions.
- If there's a defining character of the vintage, it's the combination of intense structure, ample fruit, and powerful spice and mineral notes. Some vintages bring two or three of those, but having all four is rare. 2021 did. So did 2019, 2016, 2009, 2007, and 2005. There are other vintages that came close (I felt bad leaving out 2017 and 2003) but it's a great sign. I think this will be a vintage that will produce wines that will have great early appeal, but will really shine with time. At least I feel that with wines that are based on Mourvedre and Syrah. It's probably a slightly less strong Grenache vintage, and mixed on the trace varieties. But for those grapes that we rely on to make cellar-worthy wines, and the wines that are based around them, this will be a vintage to seek out.
- Last year I wrote a blog post diving into vintage comps. I didn't include 2022 because we hadn't tasted the wines yet, but I speculated that what we were seeing reminded me of 2009, the last year we were impacted by both frost and drought. Then, as we blended the whites, I was leaning more toward 2015. Now, with the reds, I'm back to 2009. 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 intense structure and concentrated fruit of 2022 is reminiscent of the 2009 vintage. I'm hoping (and expecting) that the evolution in our own approach will make wines that I will be able to enjoy earlier than I did the 2009s. But if structured, intense wines with powerful aromatics and spice notes are your thing, 2022 should make you happy.
I'll let Chelsea have the last word, as I thought she summed up the experience we had during blending perfectly: "They're just so intensely structured, but honestly the balance is surprising given it was such a hot, weird year. They're wonderful. And I don't mean to sound so surprised, but it's been a pleasant surprise."