Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Bourboulenc

It's been an exciting couple of years for us getting to discover new grapes. Ten days ago, Muscardin became the fourteenth and final grape in the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape collection to make it into the cellar at Tablas Creek. I wrote about it on the occasion of its grafting into the vineyard last June, and we're hoping to ferment maybe 10 gallons this year. I've written this summer about two red grapes that we harvested for the first time in 2019: Vaccarèse and Cinsaut. These are both sitting quietly in the cellar, awaiting bottling next year. But somehow I haven't yet written about Bourboulenc, which we've already put into bottle and even sent out to the members of our white wine VINsider club this fall. It's particularly egregious that I haven't taken up Bourboulenc given that it was the grape my dad was the most excited about when we decided to import seven obscure Chateauneuf du Pape grapes in 2003. So, let's dive in.

Bourboulenc lithoBourboulenc's History
The grape Bourboulenc first appears in the historical record in 1515 in a description of a vineyard near Cavaillon, an ancient village about ten miles south-east of Avignon.1 It appears to have been named after another vineyard near Avignon that was known as Barbolenquiera. Never very widely planted or exceptionally rare, Bourboulenc has seen a gradual decline in acreage since 1970, when it peaked at some 3,000 acres. Its decline is likely due to a fashion for richer white wines in the 1980s and 1990s and a shift in focus across the south of France from white to rosé in more recent years. 

Today, Bourboulenc is the fourth-most planted white grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (after Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Roussanne) at nearly 85 acres2, making it roughly 1% of total plantings and 15% of white acreage. As of 2016, there were about 1,230 acres planted worldwide, all of it in France3 except the handful of acres that were planted from our clones here in California. It appears never to have gone far from where it originated, and today can be found in the regions surrounding Avignon, including Costières de Nîmes, Tavel, Cassis, Bandol, Languedoc, Corbières, Minervois, and (of course) Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Bourboulenc is pronounced boor-boo-lenk. Like nearly all French words, the syllables are emphasized equally.

Bourboulenc at Tablas Creek
In our first round of grape imports, which we brought into quarantine in 1989 and were released in 1992, we focused on the main grapes at Beaucastel: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier. Shortly after, we brought in Picpoul Blanc.

By 2003, we were sufficiently convinced that the more obscure Rhone grapes could shine here that we decided to import the complete Beaucastel collection, which meant another seven grapes. Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche were the first two to be released to us, in 2009. Picardan was next in 2012. Cinsaut, Bourboulenc, and Vaccarese were released in 2015, propagated, and then planted at Tablas in 2017. Muscardin, the seventh and final of those grapes, was released to us in 2017.

We chose a small (0.66 acre) block with a west-facing slope at the far western edge of Tablas Creek for Bourboulenc, and harvested our first small crop in 2019.

Bourboulenc juiceBourboulenc in the Vineyard and Cellar
Bourboulenc vines are fairly vigorous, the berries relatively large, and the clusters loose, which makes it resistant to rot. In France, it is known as drought-tolerant and prized for its ability to retain good acids while still achieving above-average body, but can be a risk because it is late-ripening. We haven't found that to be true here. In 2019 (our first harvest) we picked 2.15 tons of Bourboulenc at 20° Brix (roughly 12.4% potential alcohol), and a pH of 3.38. In 2020 we harvested 3.05 tons at 19° Brix and a pH of 3.38. Both years we picked in September, at roughly the one-third mark of harvest. That puts the grape in synch with Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. The sugars were among the lower levels that we picked, and the acids toward the lower pH (higher acid) end.

In 2019, and to a lesser extent in 2020, we noticed a distinctive orange color in the Bourboulenc juice as it came out of the press. Much of that color dropped out during fermentation, but it remained a darker gold than most of our white wines. This is not mentioned in the literature anywhere that we've been able to find, nor is it a phenomenon that the Perrins have seen at Beaucastel. We're working on the tentative hypothesis that perhaps because the vines were young the clusters were exposed to too much sun, and worked in 2020 to leave more canopy to shade the clusters better.

In the cellar we have fermented  Bourboulenc in a small stainless steel tank each of the last two years and then moved it to neutral barrels to complete its malolactic fermentation.

In the long run, we're excited to have Bourboulenc become a part of our blends. But we always prefer to bottle new grapes on their own the first few years so we can wrap our own heads around their character and share it with our guests and fans. So, it was exciting that it showed well in our blending trials this spring. We bottled some 145 cases of our 2019 Bourboulenc. 80 of those cases we set aside to go out to the members of our White Wine-Only VINsider Club this fall. We sold out of the other 65 in less than six weeks, as it quickly became a favorite among both our team and our guests.

Flavors and Aromas
Our experience with Bourboulenc here is only one vintage long, but that debut vintage showed a nose of lychee and wet rocks, lightly floral, with an unusual and appealing fresh almond note. On the palate, it was richly textured and softly mineral, with pineapple and Seville orange fruit and a little mintiness, pretty and delicate and lovely. We have no idea how this will age, but given its slightly oxidative note even in its youth I'm guessing it might be best suited to drinking younger rather than older. We will know more in coming years.

Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins, 2012
  2. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
  3. Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen, Which Wine Grapes Are Grown Where, University of Adelaida Press, 2020

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Vaccarèse

There's not much that's more fun for us here at Tablas Creek than getting to explore new, rare, and little-known grapes. So last year, when we harvested three grapes for the first time ever, was a bonanza for us. Two of these grapes (Bourboulenc and Cinsaut) are fairly well known in France, with Cinsaut even achieving enough success to have been brought to regions as diverse as Spain, South Africa, Australia and California. But much less is known about the last of the three new grapes, Vaccarèse. One of the rarest grapes in Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation at just over 10 acres1, Vaccarèse accounts for just 0.3% of the appellation's acreage. There is little more outside Chateauneuf, with just 28 acres recorded in France as of 2016 and none, until we brought in ours, elsewhere in the world2. We've now picked two vintages of this grape, and while we don't know a ton yet, we're excited enough that I thought it would be fun to take a deep dive into what we have learned.

VACCARESE LithographEarly History
The grape Vaccarèse appears to have been named after the village of Vaccarès, in the Camargue region just south-west of Avignon. As Vaccarèse, it has a long history in the Rhone, with its first historical mention coming in 1538 as a grape planted in a village outside Avignon (coincidentally, in a document with one of the earliest-ever mentions of Bourboulenc too)3. As you would expect of a grape at least five centuries old, it's known by a few other names, with Camarèse (apparently named after another southern French village, Camarès) and Brun Argenté (which translates to "brown silvered" for its dark bark and silvery look of the underside of its leaves) being the two most common. Despite this long history, it does not appear to have ever been planted far from the Rhone Valley, or been a dominant grape even in its homeland.

Vaccarèse is pronounced vɒk-ɜ-rɛz. (vock-uh-rez). Even though it looks like an Italian word, the final "e" is silent. Like nearly all French words, the syllables are emphasized equally.

Vaccarèse at Tablas Creek
In our first round of grape imports, which we brought into quarantine in 1989 and were released in 1992, we focused on the main grapes at Beaucastel: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier. Shortly after, we brought in Picpoul Blanc.

By 2003, we'd been sufficiently convinced that the more obscure Rhone grapes could shine here that we decided to import the complete Beaucastel collection, which meant another seven grapes. Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche were the first two to be released to us, in 2009. Picardan was next in 2012. Cinsaut, Bourboulenc, and Vaccarese were released in 2015, propagated, and then planted at Tablas in 2017. (Muscardin, the seventh and final of those grapes, was released to us in 2018 and grafted into the vineyard last year.)

We chose a small (0.66 acre) block with a west-facing slope at the far western edge of Tablas Creek for Vaccarèse, and harvested our first small crop in 2019.

Vaccarèse in the Vineyard and Cellar
There's not a ton of literature on Vaccarèse because of its scarcity, but in look and growth it seems similar to Counoise and Cinsaut, with large berries and large clusters, except that the colors of the berries are darker, more blue-black than the translucent purple of the others. It is reputed to be highly susceptible to bunch rot, which is not a problem in Paso Robles but may explain its scarcity in the Rhone.

In 2019 (our first harvest) we picked 2.61 tons of Vaccarèse at 22.4° Brix (roughly 13.8% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.50, and total acids of 4.76. The sugars were very near the median for our red grapes in 2019, while the pH was one of the lower (higher acid) readings we saw.

Vaccarese Cluster Square

In the cellar we were limited in our choices because we harvested so little, but we fermented it in a small stainless steel variable-capacity tank and then moved it to neutral barrels to complete its malolactic fermentation.

Although in the long run we're expecting Vaccarèse to become a part of our blends most years, we try to bottle new grapes on their own, so we can wrap our own heads around them and share them with our colleagues and fans. So it was exciting that in our blending trials this spring we were excited enough about the Vaccarèse that we think it will stand on its own proudly. We produced seven barrels, enough to bottle about 175 cases. The initial vintage will go into bottle late spring of 2021 and be released to wine club members later that year.

Flavors and Aromas
In his seminal Ampelographie, Pierre Galet praises Vaccarèse for "an indisputable aromatic floral originality, a very fresh and very elegant flavor, particularly interesting for moderating the alcoholic character of Grenache in the rosés of Chusclan and the red wines of Chateauneuf du Pape."4

My experience with Vaccarèse is limited to a single vintage, but that initial vintage reminded me more of a Loire-style Cabernet Franc than it did anything from the Rhone. It was a lovely deep purple color, with a nose of pine forest and minty juniper. The mouth showed notes of tobacco and spice, medium body, some tannic grip, and fruit flavors playing a secondary role. It seems like its dark color, solid acidity and its spice and herbal notes will be useful counterpoints to fruitier, paler, lower-tannin Rhone grapes like Grenache, Counoise, or Cinsaut, but we will see. As for the wine's ageworthiness? We have no idea. Stay tuned!

Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)

  1. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
  2. Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen, Which Wine Grapes Are Grown Where, University of Adelaida Press, 2020
  3. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins, 2012
  4. Pierre Galet, Cepages et Vignobles de France, Imprimerie Charles Dehan, 1990

Syrah's Wild Ride in California, from Darling to Pariah... and Back

1971 California Grape Acreage Report CoverOne of the most interesting publicly-available resources on wine trends is the California Grape Acreage Report, prepared and released annually by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service California Field Office. In it, you can find a complete data set by grape and by county going back to 1971 with what grapes were in production or newly planted, and where. It's really an amazing collection, and I've used it to write some of my favorite blogs, including all of the Grapes of the Rhone Valley series and maybe my favorite blog ever, A Tale of Two Grenaches, which uses this information to show how Grenache can be reaching new highs in quality and visibility even as overall Grenache acres have declined to a level one-fifth of what they were at their peak in 1974. (Here's what happened: about 2,000 acres of new high quality Grenache plantings went into coastal and mountain AVAs at the same time as roughy 18,000 of the 20,000 acres of bulk Grenache, no longer needed for jug wines, have been pulled out of the Central Valley.)

Syrah's story is similar, in that there are multiple trends going on at the same time, each affecting the grape's narrative. Let's take a look first at, overall, what's happened to Syrah since 1970. Essentially, there have been five eras.

1970-1988: Planting the First Few Seeds

Despite growing interest in the wines of the Rhone Valley, there really wasn't much going on with Syrah planting in California. From a base of four pre-1970 acres in the initial acreage report, there were some years where no Syrah was planted, others where a little was planted: an average of about 10 acres a year. The 24 acres planted in 1975 was the first significant addition to the state's total, planted by Gary Eberle at Estrella River Winery. This is the source of the famous Estrella Clone of Syrah, purportedly from Chapoutier cuttings, whose descendants populate most of the state's Syrah vineyards today. But by 1988 there were still just 167 acres of Syrah in total.

1989-1994: The Wave Builds

WineSpectatorRhoneRangerCoverIn the April 15th, 1989 issue of the Wine Spectator, Bonny Doon's Randall Grahm posed in Lone Ranger gear next to a horse to accompany a cover article on "The Rhone Ranger," and a category title was born. That year, California vineyard owners planted 72 acres of Syrah, more than double the largest previous yearly total. In 1990 that total jumped to 278, more than doubling the state's total to date. And the grape was off. The next five years saw an average of 213 acres of Syrah per year planted, bringing the state's total to 1308 by 1994. That put it on the map, but it was still a tiny percentage, 30th in that year's acreage report, its total eclipsed by grapes including Burger, French Colombard, Carnelian, and Alicante Bouschet. But this was the era in which Rhone wines started to get the press's attention. And it was the era where the importation of new clones (first, but not only, by us) began to open up options for the state's winemakers.

1995-2002: Explosion

Fast forward just eight years from 1994 and Syrah leapt from 30th in the state's plantings to 7th, trailing only the "big 5" grapes of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel, plus the declining but still plentiful French Colombard. Plantings averaged 2,210 acres per year, peaking at 3,515 acres in 1997. It went in everywhere, with 100+ acres in 19 different California counties. Eight counties had more than a thousand acres. Those counties could be found all over the state, and included Sonoma, all three Central Coast counties (Monterey, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara), and four Central Valley counties (Fresno, Sacramento, San Joaquin, and Madera). Napa and Mendocino just missed, with 995 and 674 acres respectively. What do those counties have in common? Not much, other than that grapes are grown in all of them. And that, plus the sheer math of the number of grapes hitting the marketplace, sowed the seeds for a problem.

2003-2013: Recognition Comes, but Not Mass Market Sales

Unlike the earlier periods, it's hard to put firm dates on the beginning and end of this category, and some aspects of it remain in play today. But this period saw Syrah gain a reputation for being very hard to sell at the same time as the category got unprecedented praise from wine writers and saw the rise of the "cult" Rhone producer, many located in Paso Robles.

I feel like this era of recognition started with Robert Parker's first article on "California's Rhone Rangers", in February of 2002. In his introduction, he writes:

The noble Syrah grape has done so well so quickly in California that it is surely going to find a permanent place among California wine lovers. Remarkably adaptable, it has shown positive results in the cool hillside climates of the Sonoma Coast, the western hillsides of Paso Robles, and in exceptionally hot areas such as the valley floors of Napa, Sonoma, and Paso Robles. In both Santa Barbara and even the cooler satellite district of Santa Ynez, it has also done exceptionally well provided crop levels are modest. Syrah is capable of producing anything from a Beaujolais-like, bubble gum, fruity style of wine with light tannin, low acidity, and obvious pleasure and appeal, to more formidably concentrated, massive wines with high tannin, great intensity, and potential longevity.

Stories followed in other publications. The Wine Spectator began doing an annual review of California Rhones. More producers, and better wines, meant more high scores. Through the 2000 vintage, the Wine Spectator had given 143 California Syrahs 90+ ratings, and only one (the amazing 2000 Alban Pandora) hit 95 points. In the next decade, 1064 California Syrahs got 90+ ratings, and 69 were 95 or higher. A number of Rhone specialist wineries, most notably Alban, Saxum, and Sine Qua Non, used this recognition to build allocation-only mailing lists with long waiting lists, and dozens of other wineries, many of them our neighbors, followed the style and business model. 

But the sheer volumes of Syrah were never all going to be absorbed by a few (or even a few dozen) cult winemakers and their mailing lists. And by 2003, there was 2,360% more acreage in production than there had been a decade earlier. That increase was even more staggering in volume. In 1993 there were 1,905 tons of Syrah harvested in California. That's enough to produce about 120,000 cases of wine. In 2003, that total had grown to 110,249 tons, an increase of 5,687%. That tonnage, if all vinified into varietal bottlings, would produce nearly seven million cases of wine.

Did you notice something else interesting about that math? The tonnage grew faster than the acreage. In 1993, figuring that vineyards planted in 1991 and earlier would be in production, those 708 acres averaged 2.69 tons of fruit per acre. In 2003, and again figuring that any acreage planted 2001 or earlier would be producing, growers harvested an average of 6.60 tons of Syrah off of 16,694 acres.  

And Syrah's reputation took a hit. Inventories built up. Steve Heimoff, the Wine Enthusiast's California specialist at the time, asked What's the Problem with Syrah in 2009, where he reported hearing that selling it in the wholesale market was "like trench warfare". James Laube published a Wine Spectator article Why Isn't Syrah More Popular in 2010. Eric Asimov wrote that same year in the New York Times Is there still hope for Syrah? with the opening line: "There's a joke going around West Coast wine circles: What’s the difference between a case of syrah and a case of pneumonia? You can get rid of the pneumonia." The Rhone Rangers, doing their best to make lemons out of lemonade, turned the punch line into benefit tastings for global pneumonia prevention in New York and San Francisco, called Pneumonia's Last Syrah.

So, what caused this glut? There wasn't much new Syrah planting in this era, averaging just 250 cases per year statewide. And because some vineyards started to be pulled out or grafted over, there were only about 1,000 more Syrah acres in California vineyards in 2013 than there were a decade before. Sure, there were the challenges that Syrah is a flexible, adaptable grape and tastes different depending on where it's grown and the winemaker's preference. The entry into the American marketplace in this era of lots of cheap Australian Shiraz probably didn't help. And because it was so widely planted, it didn't have a signature region whose name was synonymous with the grape the way that Napa is with Cabernet. But those explanations all feel incomplete to me, not least because you can make many of the same critiques about a range of other successful grapes.

No, I think it came down to a simple question of math. There was so much more wine in a decade that the American Syrah market would have to have grown 50% per year, every year, compounded, to absorb all the extra production. Not even the dry rosé market, the success story of the last decade, has done that. The grape also suffered a little bad luck, in that right as Syrah seemed poised to take off in the fall of 2004, the movie Sideways came out, launching Pinot Noir sales into the stratosphere. Merlot is often mentioned as the main casualty of Pinot Noir's rise, but I think Syrah was equally a victim, as Pinot sucked all the promotional air out of the room.

The net result was that although Syrah sales rose rapidly through the 2000's, they had an impossible task to keep up with production, and inventory built up. How impossible a task? Look at the exponential math. If Syrah sales had grown by 30% per year, compounded over a decade, they would have ended up just under fourteen times what they were at the beginning of that decade. That would have absorbed just one quarter of the growth in production coming from all those new Syrah acres. Plus, it's not like there was this massive global production of Syrah that this American production could displace or be absorbed into. In 1990, there were only about 80,000 acres of Syrah worldwide, compared to 700,000 acres of Grenache, 300,000 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, or 380,000 acres of Merlot. The increases in Syrah were always going to be harder to find homes for. Really, it was never going to be possible.

California Syrah plantings and acreage by year 1970-2019

2014-2019: An Under-the-Radar Renaissance

The last half-decade or so has seen California acreage of Syrah decline by about 20%, as growers who planted it in the Syrah wave move on to the next popular grape. But Syrah is still being planted. Over the last six years, California has averaged 716 acres of Syrah pulled out, and just under 100 new acres planted, per year. As of 2019, there are 15,458 acres of Syrah in the state. Last year, those acres produced 82,846 tons of fruit. That's 5.36 tons per acre, a meaningful decline of about 20% from that 6.60 tons/acre at the tail end of the planting boom.

What is happening now is complex, and still evolving, but it appears to me that the Syrah is coming out of places it probably shouldn't be anyway. There are about 1,300 fewer acres of Syrah in the Central Valley than there were in 2013. That's almost all low quality, high production acreage. And while this evidence is mostly anecdotal, in coastal and mountain appellations, it has mostly been pulled out of the vineyards of generalists rather than Rhone specialists. The producers that we speak to who are growing their own Syrah for their own programs aren't pulling vines out. It's vineyards that are producing grapes for the open market. Are there some negative implications for less inexpensive Syrah up for grabs in the state? Sure. But I think the positives outweigh them.

I also think that the state of California Syrah has never been stronger. And who doesn't love a good comeback story? Eric Asimov wrote about A New Chapter for California Syrah last year. Matt Kettmann, who has taken over reviewing the wines of the Central Coast for Wine Enthusiast in recent years, has been at the forefront, not least because he tastes so many great Syrahs. I'll let him have the last word, from a podcast interview he recorded in 2018, which more or less mirrors my own thoughts.

The one thing I will say, though, is that Syrah, and especially cool climate Syrah is kind of a favorite wine for many winemakers, for many sommeliers, for many wine professionals. People can’t get enough of it. So as the American wine customer gets more and more educated over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if you see them shift in that direction too.

We're not yet at "Syrah is back!" phase. But with it increasingly being planted in the right places, by people who are Rhone specialists or at least Rhone lovers, with most of the vines now getting to 20+ years old, making some of California's most highly-rated and most sought-after wines, and with some of the pressure being released by 20% less acreage in production and another decade for the market to develop, I feel like Syrah can finally get past its reputation as a failed "California's next big thing" and go back to doing what it's always done best: appealing to those of us who want meat, and spice, and wildness in our wines just as much as we want fruit and tannin. That may not be a mainstream flavor profile, but at 3.2% of the state's total acreage, that's OK. It doesn't need to be.

Harvest Syrah 2015


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Cinsaut (aka Cinsault)

Last year, we harvested three grapes for the first time ever. The one white among them (Bourboulenc) has already been bottled and released to our wine club members. The two reds (Cinsaut and Vaccarese) are sitting quietly in the cellar after our decision this spring to bottle this first vintage on its own. But as we get ready to pick the 2020 Cinsaut, I thought it was time to take a deep dive into what we know about it. 

CINSAUTEarly History
The precise origin of Cinsaut (often spelled Cinsault) is unknown, but it likely evolved in the south of France. It is distantly related to Picpoul, and has been planted widely enough to be known by different names in Spain (Sinsó), Italy (Grecaù and Ottavianello), South Africa (Hermitage), Australia (Black Prince), and California (Black Malvoisie). As Cinsaut, it also plays significant roles in Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey.1

Cinsaut is pronounced sæ-soʊ. The first syllable is like the "San" in San Francisco if you just stop just before the lingual "n". The second syllable is very close to the English "so". The syllables are emphasized equally.

The roughly 51,000 acres of Cinsaut in France make it the ninth-most-planted grape there, but that is just a fraction of the more than 120,000 acres there at its peak in the 1970s. Now, while much of the production is still used in red blends, an increasingly large share of this acreage goes into the region's many rosés.

Cinsaut is the fourth-most planted red grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (a distant fourth, after Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre) at 205 acres, 2.6% of total acreage.2

There is a long history of Cinsaut in California, though it has never been particularly widely planted here. As early as 1867, it was listed as "deserving of planting" in Thomas Hyatt's viticulture handbook.3 In 1990, there were 90 acres in California (it was called "Black Malvoisie" in the Grape Acreage Report), all but 3 planted 1980 or earlier and all but 10 in the Central Valley. By 2019, there were 99 acres in California, split roughly equally between the Central Valley, Central Coast, North Coast, and Sierra Foothills regions.

Cinsaut at Tablas Creek
Although French grapegrowers have generally preferred Cinsaut over Counoise (to which it is often compared, because they play similar roles in Rhone blends) because it ripens earlier, the Perrins have long preferred the extra depth and brighter acids that Counoise contributes. Given our confidence that we could wait as long as we needed to ripen Counoise in Paso Robles, we chose to focus on Counoise in our original imports, back in 1989. But we always planned on eventually working with Cinsaut as well.

We included Cinsaut in our second wave of imports in 2003. It spent 9 years in quarantine at UC Davis before being released in 2012, along with Bourboulenc and Vaccarese. It took four years of propagation before we were able to plant our first quarter-acre block in 2017. The 2019 harvest was our first.

We added a second roughly half-acre head-trained block in 2019. The 0.82 acres we have accounts for 1% of California's 82 acres as of 2018.

Cinsaut in the Vineyard and Cellar
In the vineyard, Cinsaut is vigorous and productive, with large clusters of large, dark-skinned berries. It thrives in drought conditions, and ripens roughly one-third of the way through the harvest cycle. In 2019 (our first vintage) we harvested on September 26th, at 22 Brix and a pH of 3.64, both near the median for our red grapes last year.

We only have limited experience with Cinsaut in the cellar, but it is known to be prone to oxidation, so we are treating it like Counoise and fermenting it in closed stainless steel fermenters.

We made the decision to bottle our small 2019 production (two barrels, or roughly 50 cases) on its own. In the long run, we think it could be a useful contributor to many of our red blends, and a lovely addition to our rosés.

Cinsaut 1

Flavors and Aromas
Cinsaut produces wines with medium red color, spicy raspberry, violet, and black tea aromas, and flavors of tart cherry, redcurrant, and new leather. They tend to be relatively low in alcohol, with moderate to slightly above-average acidity and moderate to slightly below-average tannins. The wine's juicy acidity and low alcohol point to its appeal in blends, where it can help moderate the lower-acid, higher-alcohol, and more tannic Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.

We are very much looking forward to experimenting with Cinsaut as a rosé grape as well. Stay tuned!

Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009, p 78
  3. Patrick Comiskey, American Rhone, UC Press, 2016, p 26

Harvest 2020 Begins Slowly, After a Record-Short Interval from Veraison

Last week, we brought in our first two lots of Viognier and our first lot of Syrah. It wasn't a furious start to harvest, but it was still a beginning. The cellar smells like honeysuckle and nectarines from the Viognier, there's the energy that always comes from the beginning of the harvest season, and the harvest chalkboard is no longer a literal clean slate:

Harvest Chalkboard August 2020

[Editor's note, congratulations to Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and her husband Trevor on the arrival of their little girl Bohdi on our second day of harvest!!!]

We typically mark the beginning of harvest as the day the first fruit comes off the estate. So, in 2020 that meant the August 25th arrival of grapes from our oldest Viognier block. In my verasion post last month, I predicted a start time sometime between August 26th and September 5th. These dates are calculated by adding 36 to 48 days from our veraison date (the range we've seen over the last 15 years between first veraison and first harvest). 2020 produced an interval of just 35 days. If you've been following weather reports from California, you can probably guess why. After a moderate summer that had produced just three 100 degree days as of late July, the last month has seen ten days top the century mark and another ten top 90. Nighttime temperatures were warm too. In late July we hadn't had a single day all summer not drop into at least the 50s. Between August 15th and August 24th, we had nine of the ten nights get down only into the 60s.

Happily, the heat wave broke just as harvest was approaching, and since August 22nd we've seen an average high of 90 (with nothing higher than 95) and an average low of 55. The wildfire smoke we saw between August 19th and 22nd has cleared. And the picks we've done so far have been in ideal conditions. I love the photos that Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg took during that night pick, beginning 3am on August 25th. Here are two; you can see the rest on our Instagram feed:

Night Harvest 1 Night Harvest 2

Although we've started harvesting, it's important to remember that most of the vineyard is still some time off. The family of Rhone grapes is diverse enough that we typically figure a two-month stretch for harvest. In fact, there are some grapes that are still only in the middle of veraison (like this Counoise, below) as others are being picked:

Counoise pre-harvest 2020

Looking through our other red grapes shows the range of ripeness levels. Counoise is farthest out, likely six weeks or more, but others still have a ways to go. This Mourvedre is mostly red, but still likely won't be picked for more than a month:

Mourvedre pre-harvest 2020

Grenache is still as much pink as red, with the range of colors and jewel tones characteristic of this, our most beautiful grape. It too is at least a month out.

Grenache pre-harvest 2020

There are grapes that are getting close, most notably Syrah, already dark and starting to soften, and showing its classic conical cluster shape:

Syrah pre-harvest 2020

The other grape that is getting fairly close is Cinsaut. We're only on our second harvest, but one of the reasons why it is more planted than Counoise in France (despite that Counoise is more intense, and they serve similar roles in most blends) is that it ripens a month earlier, before or with Grenache instead of after:

Cinsaut pre-harvest 2020

Finally, Terret Noir, which looks fairly dark at this point but is still quite acidic, and on which we will wait another month or so:

Terret pre-harvest 2020

On the white side, Viognier is obviously first in line. But there are others like Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc (pictured below) that are getting close. Vermentino might come as soon as the end of this week, and the other two should arrive sometime in the first half of September.

Grenache Blanc pre-harvest 2020

The weather is supposed to warm up again as we get to the end of this week, but seems unlikely to reach the heights of two weeks ago. That's fine. We're ready. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the new sights and smells of the cellar as fermentations get going. This lone upright tank (filled with our first Syrah, picked Friday) will soon have plenty of new company.

Syrah in wooden upright Aug 2020


After decades in the wine wilderness, the higher-acid Rhone white grapes are ready for their spotlight

2019 was a watershed year for us, in a number of ways. We celebrated our 30th anniversary. Our long-time Winemaker Neil Collins was named Paso Robles Wine Industry Person of the Year. We were invited to be the pilot vineyard in the new Regenerative Organic Certification that we think will become sustainable farming's gold standard. We were honored by our first-ever feature article in the Robert Parker Wine Advocate. But for me the most significant achievements were grape-related. First, we completed our collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes with the grafting of Muscardin into the vineyard. And second, we got our first-ever harvest from three new grapes: Cinsaut, Vaccarese, and Bourboulenc.

Bourboulenc's arrival had particular significance because it meant that we finally had all the approved Chateauneuf-du-Pape white grapes in the cellar, joining Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan. (As well as Viognier and Marsanne, which are allowed in Cotes du Rhone though not Chateauneuf du Pape.)

Rhone whites are generally thought of as settling on the richer, more textural, lower-acid side of the white wine spectrum. And that's definitely one face of what the Rhone offers. But it's far from the only face of the family. It includes rich, low-acid wines (like Viognier). Rich, mid-acid wines (like Roussanne). Rich, high-acid wines (like Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc). Medium-weight, low-acid wines (like Marsanne). Medium-weight, high-acid wines (like Picpoul and Picardan). And light-weight, high-acid wines (like Clairette Blanche). The fact that the wines that were preferred by growers beginning particularly in the 1970s tended toward the richer, lower-acid part of the spectrum (think the rise of Roussanne, Marsanne, and, most dramatically, Viognier, of which just 35 acres were planted in total in the late-1960s) was a function of the marketplace's preferences toward powerful, aromatic wines, and of what worked in that comparatively chilly decades that preceded the 1990's.

Starting with the 1990s we've seen three decades each warmer than the last, and each the warmest on record world-wide. With the climate warming around the world, all grapes achieve ripeness more reliably than before. I remember my dad commenting five or six years ago that the warming climate had basically eliminated bad vintages in France (typically characterized by thin, acidic wines from cold, rainy years). Of course, those warmer years also produce wines with less acid and more sugar (and therefore more alcohol and body). That reduces the risk of growing the grapes on the higher-acid, lower-body edge of the spectrum, because they're likely to get to full ripeness and have enough body. It also makes the lower-acid grapes more at risk of being heavy or out-of-balance. For this reason, Clairette Blanche is currently seeing a resurgence of interest in Chateauneuf-du-Pape for its ability to bring freshness and elegance to the ever-weightier Roussanne and Grenache Blanc. 

2019 white varietal wines

Enter the forgotten Rhone varieties: Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, and Picardan. All four have high acids at harvest. All four saw years of decline in the Rhone, and because international markets tend to follow what is in demand in a grape's homeland, all four were late to arrive in California. None pre-dated our arrival. And even as we brought in Roussanne and Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier, we decided to wait to focus on these less-planted white varieties. It wasn't until we saw what a revelation Grenache Blanc turned out to be here in Paso Robles that we dipped our toes into the water, importing Picpoul Blanc in 1997, planting it in 2000, and getting our first small crop in 2003. All it did was force its way into (and displace Viognier out of) our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc in 2004, just its second harvest. 

Our next round of imports began in 2003, but because these grapes were so rare that we had to take field cuttings, all our imports had virus and had to be cleaned up by UC Davis. The grapes trickled out of quarantine, Clairette Blanche in 2009 (we planted it in 2010) and Picardan in 2012 (we planted it in 2013). Bourboulenc didn't make it until 2015 (we planted it in 2016). But both Clairette and Picardan showed Picpoul's precocity, finding their way into Esprit Blanc in 2017, their fifth and second vintage, respectively, at Tablas Creek.

It probably shouldn't have surprised us. We're convinced that grapes like Picpoul and (to a lesser extent, Grenache Blanc) are victims of a vicious circle in France. Because they're not much respected and don't command a high price on the market, they tend to be only viable economically if they're cropped heavily. So, they're usually overcropped and then earmarked for quick fermentations and inexpensive bottles, which reinforces that they're of low value. Here in California, we crop them modestly, give them the same attention in the cellar as our other grapes, and then allow them to find their place in the blends and varietal bottlings through the blind tastings that kick off our blending trials each year.

For the first time, in 2019, we have all four as varietal bottlings to share with you. They were bottled the week of June 8th, and I opened these four high-acid wines this past week in order to write tasting notes for our Web site. I thought it would be fun to share them with you now. I've linked all the wines (except the Bourboulenc, for which we're still waiting for a bottle photo) to its page on our Web site if you want detailed production notes.

  • 2019 Clairette Blanche: a clean mineral nose of lemongrass, lychee, and honeydew melon. The palate is bright and yet mouth-filling, with flavors of fresh apricot, lemon, chalky minerality, and a little sweet anise-tinged spice. The finish is clean, long, and mouth-watering, with a lingering citrus note.
  • 2019 Picardan: clean but rich aromas of nectarine, yellow raspberry, and sun-dried hay. On the palate, quite rich texture balanced by yellow plum flavors and a preserved lemon pithy bite. The finish is long and peachy, with a lingering note of saline minerality.
  • 2019 Picpoul Blanc: an immensely appealing nose of yellow roses, fresh pineapple, sea spray, and sweet green herbs. The palate is mouth-watering, with flavors of salted pineapple, yellow raspberry, and briny minerality. Tropical and saline notes come back out on the long, vibrant finish. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • 2019 Bourboulenc: a rich golden color. On the nose, aromas of marmalade, caramel, and a briny sea spray minerality. The palate is richly textured yet bright, with flavors of mandarin and nectarine, and a little Meyer lemon pithy bite coming out on the long, minerally finish.

We didn't make much of any of these wines: just 70 cases of Clairette Blanche, 80 cases of Picardan, 145 cases of Bourboulenc, and 280 cases of Picpoul. And because we have so many whites from 2019 -- not just these, but Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and our blends -- we've decided to space out their releases. We'll be announcing the release of the first two (Clairette and Picardan) to club members this week. Picpoul will follow next month, and Bourboulenc will go out to members of our VINsider "white-only" club in September.

After my tasting of these four wines, I just can't imagine that these grapes will remain obscure for long. Although each had its own personality, every one had texture and richness, vibrant fruit and refreshing acids, and all showed the saline minerality we attribute to our calcareous soils. We can't wait to share them with you.


We welcome Cinsaut (new to Tablas Creek), Bourboulenc (new to Paso Robles) and Vaccarese (new to America) all in one week!

It's been a momentous last week for us here at Tablas Creek. In three days, we added three grapes to our pantheon, bringing our total of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes to 13 and our total of Rhone varieties to 15. See if you can spot the new ones:

New Grapes on Chalkboard

These three grapes are numbers four, five, and six of the seven new varieties that we imported in 2003. All of them took twelve years to be released from quarantine, and we planted them in the vineyard in 2016. This is the first year we've gotten a harvestable crop. As they're all just starting to ferment, we can't say much about what they'll ultimately be like, but I thought it would be interesting to summarize what we know about them so far, and speculate a little on what we expect. Here goes. Historical and planting information are summarized from Jancis Robinson's authoritative "Wine Grapes" (HarperCollins, 2012) and Harry Karis's "The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book" (Kavino, 2009) so planting information may be a few years out of date.

Bourboulenc
The fourth-most planted white grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (after Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Roussanne) at nearly 85 acres, making it roughly 1% of total plantings and 15% of white acreage. It's also found elsewhere in the south of France; Chateauneuf-du-Pape makes up just over 5% of the 1,537 acres reported in France in 2008. Bourboulenc is an ancient grape, first mentioned in the literature in the early 16th century, and from its earliest times identified with the south of France, particularly the area around Avignon. The vines are fairly vigorous, the berries relatively large, and the clusters loose, which makes it resistant to rot. It is known in France to make wines with citrus aromatics and a distinctive smoky character, with fairly good acids and relatively low alcohol.

We picked 2.15 tons of Bourboulenc at 20° Brix (roughly 12.4% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.38, and total acids of 3.53. Unfortunately, it was a night pick and went into the press before anyone remembered to take a photo, but it had a remarkable orange color coming out of the press:

Bourboulenc in beaker

Cinsaut (or Cinsault)
Cinsaut is the fourth-most planted red grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (after Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre) at 205 acres, making it 2.6% of total acreage and 2.8% of reds. Cinsaut (officially spelled without the "l" in American literature, and typically used interchangeably) is grown around the Mediterranean, with more than 51,000 acres in France, and significant plantings in Italy, Spain, Morocco, and South Africa. There are also 82 acres of mostly old vines in California as of 2018. Similar in many ways to Counoise, with large berries and large clusters, producing medium-to-light-bodied wines with floral and spice notes. Although Cinsaut has generally been preferred over Counoise in France because it ripens earlier, the Perrins have long preferred the extra depth and brighter acids that Counoise contributes, which is why in our more reliable climate we chose to focus on Counoise in our original imports, back in 1989.

We picked our Cinsaut (all 0.55 tons of it) at 22° Brix (roughly 13.6% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.64, and total acids of 4.23. You can see the distinctive large berries clearly:

Cinsaut cluster and bin

Vaccarèse
One of the rarest grapes in Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation at just over 10 acres, Vaccarèse accounts for just 0.3% of both total and red acreage. There is little more outside Chateauneuf, with just 30 acres recorded in France and none elsewhere in the world. Also known as Brun Argenté (which translates to "brown silvered") for its dark bark and silvery look of the underside of its leaves. In look and growth it seems similar to Counoise and Cinsaut, with large berries and large clusters. As it's generally not fermented on its own even at Beaucastel, we don't have a ton to go on here.

We picked 2.61 tons of Vaccarèse at 22.4° Brix (roughly 13.8% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.50, and total acids of 4.76. We knew, given that this had never been harvested before in California (or America, or the New World) that we needed to document the milestone, so we got better photos of this than the first two:

Vaccarese Cluster in Bin

Vaccarese Cluster in Hand

So, what next for these new grapes? First, we'll get them through fermentation. There's going to be enough to make roughly five barrels (125 cases) of Bourboulenc and six barrels (150 cases) of Vaccarèse, so our tentative plan is to bottle these both as varietal wines. We prefer to do this, as long as we like them, in early years, so that we can begin the process of wrapping our heads around what the wines are like, and so we can share them with other interested customers and winemakers. With less than two barrels worth of Cinsaut, I'm not sure we'll have enough to keep separate, but we'll see.

In France, these three grapes are all typically blended. In the long run, that might make sense here. But the first step is to guide them through fermentation and get to the point where we can taste and evaluate what we've got. They are well on their way!

Three new grapes


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Muscardin

We have some big news. With last week's grafting of some 250 Muscardin buds into the vineyard at Tablas Creek, we've achieved our goal of having all the Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes in the ground here at Tablas Creek. This is the culmination of a 30-year project, and meaningful for me in part because it's the realization of one of my dad's dreams.

But what, you ask, is Muscardin like? That's a difficult question. I've been answering it by saying, "well, it's red, but not very" and making a joke that that's all I know. But it's only sort of a joke, because there is so much we don't know yet. Muscardin is barely planted even in its Rhone Valley homeland, and there has been none that I've been able to find that ever made its way outside of the Rhone. But still, I've done what I can to pull together everything we know about it here.

MuscardinHistory
Muscardin is rare nowadays, and it appears never to have been very common, or found anywhere outside the Rhone. Its first mention in the historical record from 1895 talks about it being one of the "old southern grape varieties", along with Grenache, Piquepoul, Tinto, Terret noir, gris and blanc, Counoise, Vaccarese, Clairette, and Picardan.1  Its combination of relatively low vigor, pale color, and sprawling growth appears to have been three strikes against it in the period after Phylloxera2, and in 2009 there were just 11 hectares (27 acres) in Chateauneuf du Pape, and less than that in the rest of France.3 Nevertheless, it is recognized in the official Chateauneuf-du-Pape regulations as a distinct grape, and the Perrins have been one of its advocates, valuing the wine for its freshness and floral lift. When we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties in 2003, our Muscardin cutting came from the Beaucastel estate.

The origin of Muscardin's name is obscure, but the one thing that practically everyone agrees with is that it has nothing to do with Muscat or Muscadet. And the grape's scarcity (it doesn't even appear in Viala & Vermorel's seminal 1905 Ampelographie) means that there is just not that much literature out there on this rare grape.  So, we really are breaking new ground here.

The grape did not have an easy time getting into California either. We took cuttings from Beaucastel in 2003 along with Picardan, Terret Noir, Cinsaut, Vaccarese, Bourboulenc, and Clairette Blanche, and all entered quarantine at U.C. Davis at the same time. But while the other grapes were released to us after one, two, or three rounds of virus cleanup, Muscardin took four separate rounds and wasn't released to NovaVine until last year. They have been working on producing buds ever since.

Muscardin in the Vineyard and Cellar
In order to speed up our production of this last grape, we made the decision to graft the 250 buds we were able to secure onto existing vine stock. About 50 of those buds were grafted onto rootstocks that we planted last year, with the other 200 grafted onto a few surplus rows of 20-year-old Grenache Blanc. We expect to get production off of this block perhaps as soon as 2020.

We don't know that much about how Muscardin will do in our vineyard, but we do have some reports from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. There is a great quote from Baron Le Roi of Chateau Fortia that John Livingstone-Learmonth recounts in his 1992 book The Wines of the Rhone: "You know, we would be better off here if we replaced the Cinsault with the Muscardin. The Muscardin doesn't produce a lot, makes wine of low degree and spreads out over the soil, preventing tractors from passing freely between the vines, all of which combine to put people off it. But I believe that it gives a freshness on the palate and helps the wine to achieve elegance."4

As with any new grape, our initial picking decisions are educated guesses, but Muscardin is supposed to both emerge from dormancy and ripen early, more or less in sync with Syrah. This suggests we will need to be ready to protect it from frost. It is known for ripening at low alcohols and relatively high acids. The freshness and floral character it is supposed to bring to the table suggest that ultimately it will become a part of our blends, and serve perhaps a similar role to Counoise. That said, we plan to bottle the first few vintages on their own, so that we can wrap our heads around them and so we can show them to other people and get their feedback.

Flavors and Aromas
At Beaucastel, because it is so scarce, Muscardin is rarely vinified on its own and I was not able to taste it on either of my last two visits. I did taste a tank where they co-fermented it with two other pale, floral grapes, Vaccarese and Terret Noir. It was delicious, rose petals and fresh acids, spicy with yellow plum and strawberry fruit. I suspect from our own experiences here that the tannic bite I remember came from the Terret; neither Vaccarese nor Muscardin are supposed to be particularly tannic. But we will know more soon. As for aging, Muscardin is reputed to be prone to oxidation, like Counoise, so it may well be something best drunk young, and I suspect we will choose to bottle it under screwcap. We look forward to finding out, and sharing our discoveries with you!

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012, p 678.
  2. John Livingstone-Learmonth, The Wines of the Rhone, Faber & Faber 1992, p 326.
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009, p 78.
  4. Livingstone-Learmonth, p 326.

Petit Manseng: A Royal French Heritage and a New Life in the New World

Mostly, we grow grapes from the Rhone Valley.  But there are exceptions.  Vermentino, although found in areas near the Rhone (think Cotes de Provence, or Languedoc-Roussillon) isn't allowed in Cotes du Rhone or Chateauneuf du Pape, but has done great here at Tablas Creek.  So too has Tannat, whose home in the French province of Pyrénées-Atlantiques can't even claim a border with the Rhone.  In fact, it was Tannat's success here that sparked my dad's interest, nearly two decades ago, in the other grapes from southwest France.  One of the most interesting of these was Petit Manseng, a grape which was, in its day, so admired that it made the only wine used to baptize a king of France.

Petit Manseng LithographPetit Manseng in the Old World
Petit Manseng's ancestral home is in Jurancon, in the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques.  This a mountainous region includes a small stretch of the rocky Atlantic coast and a larger stretch of the Spanish border, and most of it is high in the Pyrenees mountains.  Culturally, it is a part of the Gascon community of Bearn, and borders the Basque-speaking region of Pays Basque that shares many cultural and historical ties to the Basque communities on the Spanish side of the border. Madiran, the main French home for Tannat, is just to the north-east.

There are three permitted grapes in Jurancon (Corbu and Gros Manseng are the others) but it is generally agreed that Petit Manseng is the finest of the three, and the most suitable for making the sweet wines that made the region famous.  This character was so valued that Petit Manseng is noted as the only wine used to baptize a king of France: Henry IV, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty, in his native Navarre.

After several decades of disfavor, the sweet wines of Jurancon have returned to fashion since about 1970, and the acreage of Petit Manseng has increased correspondingly, from less than 90 hectares in 1968 (90 hectares was the combined plantings of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng) to 1019 hectares in 2009.1

SudOuest_FranceA map of the vineyards of South-West France, from Les Vins de Sud-Ouest's press kit

In addition to its ancestral home in Jurancon and the neighboring Pacherenc, Petit Manseng can be found in small amounts in Languedoc, Uruguay (brought by Basque settlers), Spain, and Australia.  That said, its second-largest footprint worldwide is in Virginia, where its resistance to rot and tendency to achieve high sugars and retain acidity is valuable in the hot, often humid climate.

Petit Manseng at Tablas Creek
In the early years of Tablas Creek, we were looking for a method to make dessert wines. The success we'd had with Tannat, another French Basque grape, piqued my dad's curiosity, and he made a visit to the Jurancon in 2003 to speak with producers and see if one of the grapes they use for their renowned sweet wines might be a good fit.  He was struck by both the wines and the landscape, and arranged for Petit Manseng to be brought into USDA quarantine later that year.  We received the vines in 2006, spent the next year propagating cuttings, and planted our first small vineyard block in 2007.

Jurancon vineyardOne of the Jurancon vineyards my parents visited in 2003

We were sufficiently intrigued by Petit Manseng's success in the early years that we planted another small block in 2011, although together they make up just 0.78 acres. Even in a productive vintage this light-yielding variety struggles to get to three tons per acre; the 2.18 tons we harvested in 2017 was our most-ever.

Petit Manseng in the Vineyard and Cellar
Petit Manseng is so named for its small berries (Gros Manseng has larger berries).  In the vineyard, it shows moderate to low vigor, with upright growth, and produces small clusters of small, loose, thick-skinned berries. Its superpowers are its capacity to achieve high natural sugar content without the benefit of botrytis while still retaining remarkable acidity, and its resistance to rot. Although the second ability isn't particularly useful here, in France -- where Petit Manseng is often left on the vine until December to achieve its high sugars -- and in Virginia -- where thunderstorms are a regular summer occurrence -- it's invaluable.  In Paso Robles, where fall moisture and rot are rare and heat and sun are givens, its ability to maintain almost inconceivably high acidity even after months of hot, sunny days is more relevant.  As an example, our first tiny harvest of Petit Manseng came in 2009.  We had forgotten about the small block and when we rediscovered it in early November and measured the grapes -- three weeks after a 10-inch rainstorm rolled through -- they tipped the scale at an incredible 37° Brix (roughly 50% higher than our average sugar concentration at harvest) and a normal harvest pH of 3.3.   We only had a few buckets worth of grapes, and didn't make that juice into wine that year.

The harvest numbers in 2009 would be ideal for making a sweet wine, but by the time we got our Petit Manseng into production, we had mastered the vin de paille technique for dessert wines, and instead decided to experiment with using Petit Manseng to make off-dry (semi-sweet) wines, which it's also used for in the Jurancon.  To that end, in more recent years, we have picked our Petit Manseng at higher sugars than we would for a normal white (in the 26°-28° Brix range) while the wine still had very high acids (pH of around 3.0). We ferment it until it has about 50 grams/liter of sugar left, typically with an alcohol around 13.5%.  Although that sounds like a lot of sugar, the very high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest, and the wines taste balanced.  If you're interested in the ebbs and flows of how our thinking on this grape have evolved, check out the blog post Wrapping our heads around Petit Manseng, from last year.

2016 Petit MansengAromas and Flavors
The flavors of Petit Manseng wines are rich but tangy, perfumed and tropical.  It's possible to identify key lime, pineapple, mango, lychee and honey, as well as white flowers and green herbs.  Due to its residual sugar and high acidity, Petit Manseng wines have tremendous ability to age.  For food pairings, the literature nearly always suggests foie gras, which makes sense to me.  Foie gras is hard on dry wines due to its richness, but unless the chef makes some very sweet accompaniment the sweet wines it's typically paired with can be overpowering.  A semi-sweet wine with excellent freshness like Petit Manseng is a natural fit. We've also very much enjoyed it with salty cheeses and fruit desserts.

We are just releasing the 2016 Petit Manseng, if you'd like to try it for yourself.  We only made 125 cases, not enough to send out to our club members, so you'll need to order it or ask the next time you're in our tasting room.  If you do open a bottle (or have of a recent vintage), please share what you think.

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012

Photos of each Rhone grape as harvest nears, and an updated harvest assessment

I've spent a lot of time the last week or two out in the vineyard. Some of that is because I was gone for a chunk of July and wanted to make sure that I understood what had happened in my absence. Some of that is because we've had several visitors who wanted to get their shoes dusty and see where things really come from. And part of it is that we're close to (maybe just a day or two away from) launching a beautiful new mobile-responsive Web site, and I've been looking for great images to populate the site with.

One of the results has been an ongoing Twitter thread where, each evening, I've posted one close-up cluster photo, working through all the grapes we have growing in the vineyard. That's been fun, but now that I have them all, I thought it would be fun to share them all here on the blog. We have a larger portfolio to work with than we did the last time I did this (in 2014). This year, our three newest grapes, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan, are ready for their photo ops. So, without further ado, in the order we expect to pick:

Viognier

We expect to get our first estate Viognier into the cellar this week.  It's looking ready, berries are softening, and it's sweet. And the vines themselves look bursting with health, with some canes ten feet long. Off we go!

Viognier

Vermentino

Vermentino, with its distinctive coloration and citrusy aromas, typically vies with Viognier for first into the cellar. This year, it seems a little behind, but we should still see it the first week of September.

Vermentino

Syrah

We expect to get our first Syrah in a couple of weeks. This cluster (whose photo I took two weeks ago) still shows a couple of green berries, but in my walk this morning I didn't see any green in Syrah, and the berries were starting to soften. With this week's hot weather, we're not far out. 

Syrah

Marsanne

We're looking forward to better yields off our Marsanne, which have been punishingly low the past two years. This year's crop looks better, and the honeydew melon flavors that come through in the wines already in evidence in the berries. We're likely to see this mid-September:

Marsanne

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc will likely take a while to pick, given that we have it planted in a number of different places and that how advanced it is seemed pretty variable to me as I walked around the vineyard.  We'll likely start in early September, but might not see it all in until the end of the month:

Grenache Blanc

Clairette Blanche

Clairette ripens typically in the middle of the cycle, and we'll expect it in late September sometime. But it already looks good, with the acidity that makes it so valuable as a blending component in evidence: 

Clairette

Grenache

Grenache is always surprisingly late to go through veraison, and even now, a week after I took the photo below, it's not hard to find pink berries in the Grenache blocks. At the same time, they've already accumulated a fair amount of sugar, and Grenache seems to take less time than most grapes between full veraison and harvest. We should see our first Grenache lots in mid- to late-September, but our last lots not until mid-October. 

Grenache

Picardan

I'm guessing a bit here, given that we've only harvested Picardan once.  But it came in fairly late last year, and we expect to bring it in right at the September/October cusp most years. 

Picardan

Tannat

Tannat is easy, in lots of ways. It is relatively late to sprout (protecting it from our spring frosts), it's sturdy and rugged in the vineyard, it ripens evenly, and it harvests right in the middle of the cycle, typically in early October.

Tannat

Terret Noir

We're still learning about Terret, but given that it tends to be high in both acid and tannin, and low in sugar, we try to wait it out. We should be getting it in in early October.

Terret

Picpoul

Picpoul, which gets its name from the root word for "to sting" is renowned for its ability to retain acidity. And our climate and soils here in Paso Robles exaggerate this tendency. So, as nice as it looks in this photo, we're a long way from when we expect pick it in early- to mid-October.

Picpoul

Roussanne

Roussanne is a little like Grenache Blanc, in that we'll likely pick it over a month or more.  I expect that we'll see our first "cherry pick" lots of the ripest clusters before the end of September, but might not see the last lots until late October.

Roussanne

Counoise

The cluster below is unusually advanced for the vineyard; our average Counoise cluster is only about 50% through with veraison.  And it doesn't hurry even after it's done; we expect to wait until mid-October to pick.

Counoise

Mourvedre

We have a lot of Mourvedre out there, in various stages of ripening.  Some, like the photo below, are mostly through veraison.  Others are still half green. And even once it's through veraison, Mourvedre takes longer than any of our other grapes to get to ripeness, so we probably won't see the first picks until early October, and the last until late October or early November.

Mourvedre

A quick note about this week's hot weather and an updated vintage assessment

Although we've brought in a little fruit for our Patelin de Tablas program (well, only Viognier for the Patelin Blanc so far), we haven't yet picked anything off the estate.  But given that it's forecast to reach 105 every day this week, things are going to move fast.  It's not ideal to have this blast of hot weather during harvest, but we think the vineyard is as well prepared for it as it could be, given the health of the vines and the vigor from last winter's generous rainfall.

Even with the speedup spurred by the heat, we're still looking at our latest onset of harvest since 2012, and nearly two weeks later than our earliest-ever start, last year.  My assessment that we were going to start about a week earlier than our 15-year average (September 4th) seems right on target.