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A Horizontal Retrospective Tasting of the 2014 Vintage at Age 10

One of the first things we do each year is take a comprehensive look at the wines we made ten years ago. One of the second things we do is share those highlights with our fans at a public tasting (which will this year be February 4th). Why a decade? It's enough time that all the wines have become something that they weren't upon release, without it being such a long horizon that we're worried many will be over the hill. It's also a reasonable enough amount of time that Tablas Creek fans are likely to still have some of this vintage of wines in their cellars. (A fun check on publicly available data is CellarTracker. According to a quick query there, 38% of the 2014 Tablas Creek wines ever entered into the platform are still in people's inventories.) Hopefully, our notes from this tasting will help people decide which wines they want to open, which they want to keep watching, and how they might want to think differently about what they lay down for aging in the first place. It also is an opportunity to revisit our vintage chart

So, it's always exciting for us to do this annual check-in. It was particularly exciting because 2014 was a vintage we all loved when it was young. In my Vintage Doppelgangers blog, here's how I described it:

Our third consecutive drought year plus a warm summer produced wines in the classic, juicy Californian style, with a bit less alcohol than those same wines we were making in the 2000s. We got good concentration with yields similar to 2013, though we needed to drop less fruit to get there. The wines are juicy and luscious, with enough structure to keep them balanced and pretty, high-toned red fruit flavors. Similar vintages: 2003, 2017.

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 website, if you'd like to see winemaking details, professional reviews, or our tasting notes at bottling. Because of its small production we never made a webpage for the Clairette Blanche, so if you have questions about that wine, 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, Kaitlyn Glynn, and Austin Collins) as well as by Tasting Room Manager John Morris. The lineup:

2014 Retrospective Wines

  • 2014 Vermentino (SC): We're often surprised with how well Vermentino -- a grape that most people drink young, and is all about freshness and vibrancy -- ages. This vintage was no exception. A nose of oyster shell, lemongrass, flint, and pineapple core. The palate was surprisingly luscious with flavors of lemon curd and key lime pie, a creamy texture playing off bright acids and a long finish with more pineapple and mineral notes.
  • 2014 Clairette Blanche (SC): Our first-ever Clairette Blanche release (we made Clairette in 2013 but decided it wasn't exciting enough to be the grape's first-ever American example) and it was still in a nice place. Aromas of grilled pineapple with a little plasticky note (perhaps from the screwcap?) that blew off with time. The mouth was savory with flavors of melon rind and citrus leaf and a waxy texture. The finish was my favorite part of the wine, with lively acids and lingering orange creamsicle and beeswax notes.
  • 2014 Picpoul Blanc (SC): A classic Picpoul nose of pink peppercorn and juniper over white grapefruit. The mouth was both herby and bright, with flavors of verbena, papaya, and a refreshing note that Amanda described as "fresh mountain air". The finish was richer, with a lingering piña colada character I get from Picpoul in riper vintages. I don't think anyone would intentionally have kept this wine this long, but if you discover one, you're not going to be disappointed.
  • 2014 Grenache Blanc (SC): A classic Grenache Blanc nose showing both richness and brightness: kiwi, brioche, and lemon tart, down to the richness of the crust. The mouth is lovely, like preserved lemon and shortbread, baked golden delicious apple and a lovely little herby rosemary note. A little salty minerality comes out on the finish. Fresh, vibrant, and lovely. A treat.
  • 2014 Marsanne (C): Our first cork-finished wine of the tasting, and it was interesting trying to pull out what difference that made. The nose was explosive and appealing with notes of honey, dried apricot, and caramel apple. The mouth was quieter than the nose, like white tea, vanilla custard, and a little saline mineral note. There was a sweet spice character that combined with the wine's essential creaminess to remind us of eggnog, but dry. The finish showed notes of cinnamon, honey, poached pear, and lemongrass. It's easy to be duped by Marsanne's subtlety into thinking that it doesn't have the stuffing to age, but every time we open one after 10 years we love it, and this was no exception.
  • 2014 Roussanne (C): A dramatic nose of lemongrass, honey, and new lumber that Chelsea described as "honeysuckle on a fresh fence". The mouth showed oak-influenced sweet spice notes of cardamom and crushed vanilla bean with rich texture and Roussanne's classic lanolin note. The finish moves back into the honey realm, kept in check by a sweet green herbal element like fresh-cut grass. 
  • 2014 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (SC; 49% Grenache Blanc, 31% Viognier, 12% Roussanne, 8% Marsanne): Quiet on the nose, perhaps in part because of the screwcap, with subtle notes of lychee, pea shoot, and white flowers. The mouth is similar, with flavors of pineapple core, guava, and orange blossom, plenty of acid, and a peppered citrus peel finish with a little almond-like nuttiness.
  • 2014 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 42% Viognier, 30% Grenache Blanc, 23% Marsanne, 5% Roussanne): A nose with notable plushness and power in its notes of honeydew, sea spray, and creamy minerality. The palate shows peach pit, melon, and sweet straw notes, with rich texture and a briny mineral note keeping order on the finish. The wine didn't particularly speak of Viognier, having become more textural than fruity, but it made for a fascinating experience.
  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (C; 72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A nose of apple pie -- both baked apple and the buttery crust -- and honey. The mouth is lively with flavors of clove, candied orange peel, baked apple, and sweet green herbs. And yet it was dry, with a more open texture and less oak than the varietal Roussanne. John called it "stately" which spoke to its essential elegance. The finish showed notes of walnut and new honey. A very pretty wine in the middle of what seemed to us like likely to be a long peak.
  • 2014 Patelin de Tablas Rosé (SC; 80% Grenache, 17% Mourvedre, 3% Counoise): Our third-ever Patelin Rosé, with the most Grenache we ever used, was still a beautiful fresh color. It was initially quiet on the nose -- that screwcap, again -- then showed notes of watermelon and wild strawberry, complete with the green leafiness of the foliage. The mouth was remarkably good with flavors of pink grapefruit and tarragon, nice richness, and great acids. If you lost one in your cellar, go ahead and open it. We think you'll be pleasantly surprised. 
  • 2014 Dianthus (SC; 46% Mourvedre, 41% Grenache, 13% Counoise): Despite that Mourvedre-based rosés are supposed to have longer lifespans than those based on Grenache, we haven't particularly loved decade-old Dianthus in past tastings. But this year's was outstanding. The nose showed a cherry, slightly medicinal note that we variously described as Campari, spicy pink peppercorn, and red Life Savers candy. The mouth is holding up remarkably well, with flavors of cherry, wild herbs, and lemon zest. The vibrant acids create an appealing tension with the rich texture, and the finish of strawberry coulis was lovely. Unexpected and fun. 
  • 2014 Full Circle (C): Our fifth Full Circle Pinot Noir, from the warmest vintage we'd had to date. That showed in a nose that leaned toward cherry cola, dried fig, and cocoa powder. The mouth showed a little welcome mintiness to the chocolate notes with additional flavors of potpourri and black cherry. The finish was still fairly tannic, with cherry and chocolate notes. It was less evocative of Pinot Noir than we would prefer (perhaps unsurprising from such a warm vintage) but still in a nice place.
  • 2014 Counoise (SC): The first bottle we opened was badly sherried, which is unusual under screwcap, and made us worried for the whole batch. But the second bottle was outstanding, with a nose of crunchy cranberry, raspberry tea, loam, and redwood forest. The mouth showed dusty, brambly raspberry fruit with a refreshing wintergreen note. A salty minerality played with the wild, spicy berry character on the finish. 
  • 2014 Terret Noir (C): Only our second-ever Terret Noir. An interesting nose of strawberry fruit leather, oregano, Maraschino cherry, and rose petals. The palate is vibrant: cherry Jolly Rancher, black tea, leafy herbs, dried flowers, and chaparral. The grape's signature tannins are still very much in evidence, making for a fascinating textural experience. Would be fun to show to someone who likes cocktails with aromatic bitters. 
  • 2014 Mourvedre (C): A nose of black licorice, cocoa powder, black currant, and new leather. The mouth showed black plum and chocolate powder notes and a lovely saline minerality. Gorgeous and still youthful. One of my favorite showings of our varietal Mourvedre, which is one of our most reliable bellwethers of our greatest vintages. 
  • 2014 Syrah (C): A classic savory Syrah nose of iron, blood, and pine forest. When I asked the table if they could pull out any fruit on the nose, Chelsea replied "olives are a fruit". On the palate, more generous, with flavors of black raspberry, chalky mineral, and a lovely mouth-coating texture. The finish was nicely salty, with more black olive and dark fruit. Impressive, still young, and quintessentially Syrah.
  • 2014 Tannat (C): A nose that we spent too much time discussing whether it was more reminiscent of pancetta, guanciale, or pig trotters (so, yes, pork fat) along with dark cherry and mint chocolate. The palate showed Tannat's characteristic lively acids, which turn the fruit tone more to red cherry, with plenty of tannin and a spicy finish of brown butter, Mexican hot chocolate, and more of that meaty richness.
  • 2014 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 graphite, juniper, and a sweet earthy note. The mouth showed blackcurrant and sweet tobacco flavors along with suede leather and a little kiss of sweet oak like toasted coconut. Unlike most California Cabernet, the limestone soils here give a translucency to the texture with nice acids that I really love, though it's a bit out of the mainstream. That said, if more California Cabernet had this approach, I'd probably drink it a lot more often.
  • 2014 Patelin de Tablas (SC; 55% Syrah, 29% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre, 6% Counoise): A nose of pork fat and blackberrry, with a little minty lift. The mouth was much juicier, with plum and dusty bramble notes. The finish was a little short, and this was likely at its peak a few years ago. Still, what a value for anyone who bought some of this at the $20/bottle this was on release. 
  • 2014 Cotes de Tablas (C; 44% Grenache, 36% Syrah, 12% Counoise, 8%Mourvedre): A nose of Worcerstershire sauce, plum compote, and spun sugar. In the mouth, like chocolate-dipped strawberries with nice chalky tannins and back to that Grenache-driven powdered sugar note on the finish. Seemingly right at its peak. 
  • 2014 En Gobelet (C; 34% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 21% Mourvedre, 15% Counoise, 5% Tannat): The nose is pretty, with dried cranberry and hibiscus notes over undertones of meaty richness and a clean earthiness Austin compared to walking through the forest when you're mushroom hunting. The mouth showed flavors of açai, chocolate truffle, and fresh coffee bean, with vibrant acids and a little appealing tannic grip. My favorite showing of En Gobelet at this stage that I can remember.
  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas (C; 40% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 5% Counoise): An absolutely classic Esprit nose of redcurrant and blueberry, new leather, meat drippings, and forest floor. Neil said "this smells like home". The mouth showed chocolate-covered cherry, more of that roasted meat drippings we found on the nose, sweet nutmeg spice, and a licorice note that seemed to bounce back and forth between red and black. Lovely, with a long life seemingly ahead of it.
  • 2014 Panoplie (C; 65% Mourvedre, 28% Grenache, 7% Syrah): A nose that to me evoked a plate set out with prosciutto, fresh figs, and a little drizzle of balsamic glaze, with a little sweet sarsaparilla note over the top. The mouth shows red currant and brown butter shortbread, chocolate-covered açai berry and a meaty appeal like herb-rubbed prime rib fresh out of the oven. Lovely.
  • 2014 Petit Manseng (C): A little nostalgic to taste as we've made the decision to discontinue our bottling of this classic southwest French grape known for maintaining great acids as it reaches high sugar levels. It showed a classic nose of pineapple, membrillo, graham cracker and lemongrass, along with something a little yeasty like buttermilk. The mouth showed flavors of sweet apricot and lychee, with great acids and a lovely crushed rock minerality. A nutty sunflower seed note played with the tropical fruit and mineral on the finish. Fun. 

A few concluding thoughts

In terms of vintage character, Chelsea's description of "plush but pure" seemed to sum it up pretty well. After a stretch between 2010 and 2013 where a combination of cool weather and our desire to move away from a style that we felt in the late 2000's had become too ripe and weighty had led to wines that leaned into a more open-knit, savory approach, 2014 was a bit of a course correction looking for both those savory elements and more fruit intensity. Looking at the progression from 2012 to 2013 to 2014, I can feel us coming to the approach we use today. That's exciting. 

At the time, we thought it was an outstanding red vintage and a good (maybe not great) white vintage. But I thought the whites really shined in the tasting, and the combination of increased intensity and vibrant acids made for a great balance. On the red side, both the fresher, generally early-drinking varieties (think Counoise, or Terret Noir) and the more traditionally ageworthy grapes (think Mourvedre or Syrah) were in appealing stages at age ten. That's a sign of an outstanding vintage overall.

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 five favorites, 14 different wines received at least one vote, with the Counoise and the Mourvedre leading the way with six votes each. We ended up picking nine wines to share at our public retrospective tasting on February 4th. If you'd like to join us, we'll be tasting Grenache Blanc, Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Dianthus, Counoise, Mourvedre, Syrah, En Gobelet, Esprit de Tablas, and Panoplie. There are still a few spots left at the tasting, and we'd love you to join us.

Winter means the best vineyard sunsets

It feels strange for this Vermont-raised kid to say, but I've become a fan of clouds. There are months that go by here in Paso Robles where you don't see any, and as nice as that probably sounds to those of you blanketed in snow and ice at the moment, it does get old, with the sun feeling like the eye of Sauron by late summer.

But with the advent of fall comes winter weather systems making their way through California. If that happens at the end of harvest, it can be nerve-wracking. But usually it's not a problem here and we're grateful for the moisture. Visually, the combination of shorter days and clouds in the sky means great sunsets. Over the last three months I've been trying to take a walk around the property at dusk each week so I could document the vineyard's transition from fall to winter. If you've been following our social media, you've likely seen several photos from these rambles. But I've also been storing up some sunset pictures that I've loved, and have put them together in this blog. I'll divide them up into three sections, in chronological sequence. First, some shots from the first rain of the year, in mid-November. The color palette is still that of fall, with the leaves still on the vines and the golden hue of dried grasses emphasized by the intense orange glow of the setting sun:

Fall sunset over Mourvedre ex-Chard

Another shot from later that same evening caught the sun reflected off our solar array:

Fall sunset over solar panels

Fast-forward a month to mid-December, and the rain we had received in the intervening month had changed the color settings from summer's gold to winter's green, except that it had been mild enough that there were still leaves on many of the hillside vineyard blocks. This is one of my favorite color combinations to catch, and it's so fleeting that many years -- when we get a hard freeze before it rains -- it doesn't happen at all:

Winter sunset over new green grass

In addition to catching the light, one of the other things that the clouds do is give depth to the layers of mountains to the west of us. In the summer, it's so dry here that it's hard to know whether the peaks of the Santa Lucias are a mile away, or five, or ten. But the moisture in the winter air brings their parade of peaks and valleys into clearer contrast:

Winter sunset over Mourvedre and Santa Lucia Mountains

While in December the tops of our hills still had leaves, the lower areas had seen a few freezes already. That made the grapevines in those blocks -- like this head-trained Counoise vine -- stand out in stark contrast to the green grass and theatrical sky:

Winter sunset over Counoise

Now, in January, the whole vineyard is dormant and the grass has had another month to grow. This scene won't change much for the next three months, except that the cover crop will have periodic trimmings as the flock of sheep move through, and the wild unruliness of last year's tangled canes gives way to orderly patterns as we come through to prune. This is a photo we shared over the weekend on our social media, taken about 20 minutes after sundown thanks to the iPhone's remarkable ability to render in low light. We're looking north, down between hillside Muscardin and Bourboulenc blocks, over head-trained Tannat and Cinsaut in the valley, and then back up over Grenache and Counoise. It's my favorite view of the property, though it's not one I think I've taken before this deep into dusk:

Winter rendering after dark
I'll leave you with one of my favorite shots from that same session, looking west instead of north. The last light of the western sky silhouettes the dormant Mourvedre canes, one of our owl boxes, and the incoming storm front that would eventually go on to drop an inch of rain on us. 

Winter sunset and dormant vines

Happy winter, everyone.

A welcome, gentle start to the Paso Robles rainy season

What a difference a year makes. This week last year we were in the middle of a three-week stretch where four separate atmospheric river storms slammed into the California Central Coast, totaling nearly 20 inches of rain. That was more than we'd received any of the three previous winters, and all that water overwhelmed the creeks, culverts, and drainage basins and produced flooding with visual images so dramatic that we found ourselves the subject of stories in Decanter, Wine Spectator, Fox Weather, the San Francisco Chronicle, and even the BBC.

Still, while last year was extreme, it's usually wet in December. This year's monthly total was 5.13", or 103% of normal for what is typically our second-wettest month. Even better, it's come gently, in three separate storms, each of which spread out across two days. After a November where we received about 80% of our expected precipitation, this year is trending curiously... normally. It's also been relatively warm; after eight below-freezing nights in later November and early December, we haven't frosted since December 13th. These last three warm, wet weeks have provided outstanding conditions for the cover crop to get established, and it's ahead of last year's growth even though we've only seen average (instead of well-above-average) rain:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Lush Cover Crop

It appears that January is continuing with more of the same pattern. Last night brought another half-inch of rain, and there are two more small storms in the 10-day forecast, though nothing that looks like it's going to really dump on us. As long as we get these periodic smaller storms, that's just fine. We do need it to stay wet in January (typically our wettest month of the year, at an average of 5.81" of rain) because it accounts for nearly a quarter of our annual total. Our core rainy season is just four months, with December through March accounting for 78% of our total rainfall since we installed our weather station in 1996. If we don't get our moisture then, it's hard to make it up later.

We are a long way from worrying about oversaturation; there's no water flowing yet in Las Tablas Creek, and while the larger creeks and rivers have had a little water in them in the immediate aftermath of the storms, they're a long way from the steady flows that we saw well into spring in 2023. That said, the soils are deep brown and wet down through the root zones of both grapevines and cover crop. And water-loving plants (and fungi) are having a field day:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Mushrooms

A priority for us at this time of year is doing everything we can to encourage the absorption of the rain that falls and discourage runoff. One of the techniques that we use is keyline plowing. This ancient technique prescribes digging deep furrows in alternate rows of our dry-farmed blocks, keeping roughly perpendicular to the slope. These furrows slow the downhill flow of water and encourage absorption instead of runoff. What's more, because these furrows cut through the layers but don't turn the soil over, the disruption that they provide to the soil networks is minimal. A photo of our Scruffy Hill block is a great example:

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Scruffy Hill

So if the soils are so nice and wet, why are we hoping for regarding additional rain? Well, there are two reasons. First, the calcareous soils here in west Paso Robles have a tremendous capacity to absorb, store, and transport water to deeper layers. Additional rain will help recharge the underground rivers and lakes (and everyone's wells). Second, wet soils have a greater capacity to stay cool compared to drier soils, and rising soil temperatures is one of the most important factors in determining the date of bud break. Rain well into March last year helped keep our vines dormant longer than we've seen in any of our drier seasons, and every week that the vines stay dormant through March and April measurably reduces our risk from spring frosts.

But that's a worry for the future. For now, we'll glory in the lovely green growth we're seeing everywhere, the blue skies overhead during this period between storm systems, and feel great about a season that has so far felt benign. After all the excitement of the last two years, we'd be happy with a little bit of boring.

Green Vineyard Jan 2023 - Long View