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.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Picardan

Wednesday morning, we bottled our tiny (70 case) production of Picardan.  What's the big deal?  Well, this grape is one of the rarest in the world, with a total footprint of only a couple of acres.  And this bottling is likely the first 100% Picardan -- made anywhere -- in a century or more, given its general application as a blending grape.  It's so rare that we're working really without a road map; even our Perrin partners don't vinify it on its own. If that's not enough to get a Rhone geek like me excited, I don't know what is.

PICARDANHistory
Picardan is rare nowadays, but its first mention in the historical record from 1715 talks about it being "very common", with "greenish, sweet and soft berries".1  It was cultivated under various names, including Araignan Blanc, Oeillade Blanche, and Gallet, in much of the south of France.  The twin 19th Century plagues of powdery mildew and phylloxera appear to have dealt it a blow from which it never recovered2, and as of 2008 there was just over an acre reported in all of France. In fact, there is some debate as to whether it has survived a separate grape at all, as many of the samples that were selected for testing turned out to be either Clairette or Bourboulenc.3  Nevertheless, it is recognized in the official Chateauneuf-du-Pape regulations as a distinct grape, and the Perrins had enough confidence in its distinctiveness to supply us with a cutting when in 2003 we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties.

Picardan's name comes, apparently, from the same root as Picpoul: the French verb piquer ("to sting"). That said, it is not the same as Pacardin (note the different spelling), a white blend of Clairette Blanche and Picpoul Blanc that was widely exported from the Languedoc in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Nor does it have anything to do with the French region of Picardy, a district north-east of Paris (including the Somme) that saw some of the most famous battles of World War I. Confused yet? Because of the confusion with the name, and the grape's scarcity, even the small amount of literature that's out there on this rare grape is suspect.  So, we really are breaking new ground here.

We have Picardan not because of any particular expectations for it, but because we wanted to complete set of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes to evaluate. We took cuttings from Beaucastel in 2003, brought it into quarantine at UC Davis, and it spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in late 2010, propagated, and in 2013 planted into a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first production of Picardan off of these vines came in 2016.

Picardan in the Vineyard and Cellar

Picardan buds out in the middle of the spring cycle, making it somewhat less prone to damage in our spring frosts than early budding grapes like Viognier and Grenache Blanc. Its vines show moderate vigor, although they tend to hang a heavy crop, which we've had to thin the last two years.  The vines seem to struggle in areas where there is relatively little topsoil and the limestone layers are right at the surface.  Now this is true of all vines to some extent, but Picardan's reactions seem more pronounced to us, with significant variations in vigor between the lower down areas where the topsoil is deeper and the higher vines forced to contend with calcareous soils just a few inches below the surface.  We're not sure yet whether the vines will overcome this with more age, or not, but we'll be keeping an eye on it.

The canes are relatively thin, and the clusters small to medium sized and fairly loose. Berries are also medium sized and have an oblong shape. Although it is head-trained in Chateauneuf du Pape, the thin canes suggest that it might struggle in the wind, and we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens just past the middle of the harvest season, after grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Syrah, typically right as we're starting Grenache Noir.

As with any new grape, our initial picking decisions are educated guesses, and in 2016 we experimented picked our Picardan on September 22nd at 22° Brix and a pH of 3.6, all numbers pretty close to our targets for whites. We will experiment this year with a slightly earlier picking, to capture a bit more acid, but think we got a nice balance of richness and freshness.

Ultimately, we expect Picardan to join our blends. That said, we always bottle new grapes on their own the first few vintages, so that we can wrap our heads around them and so we can show them to other people and get their feedback.  So, it was with no small excitement that we bottled California's first-ever Picardan last week:

Picardan in bottle

We'd like to give the wine a couple of months to recover from its recent bottling, but look forward to releasing it this fall. If you're in our wine club, keep an eye on your monthly emails. 

Flavors and Aromas
Picardan is on the nose reminiscent in many ways of a softer take on Picpoul; in our newly-bottled 2016 I found aromas of chamomile, mint, and a little chalky minerality. On the palate, soft, rich, and peachy, with a sweet/tangy crystallized pineapple note. The finish was the brightest part of the experience, with flavors of Meyer lemon zest and key lime pie leavening the richness.  We have absolutely no idea how the wine will age, but are looking forward to finding out.

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. P. Viala & V. Vermorel, Ampelographie, Vol VI, Jeanne Lafitte 1991 Reproduction of 1905 Edition 
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Clairette Blanche

Terret Noir isn't the only new grape that we're getting to explore right now. In that same batch of imports, we brought in a white that is fairly widely planted in the Rhone Valley but new to California.  Clairette Blanche (pronounced Kleh-RHEHT BLAHNSH) is a grape that was once one of the most widely planted white grapes in the south of France, and while acreage has declined, is still used in a variety of ways, including as a component of the Rhone's best-known sparkling wine.

Clairette lithoHistory
Clairette is an ancient grape, first mentioned in the historical record in 1575 and famous as a component (along with Picpoul Blanc) of the renowned Picardin white wine that was widely exported from the Languedoc in the 17th and 18th centuries.1  Then, as now, it was valued for its adaptation to hot, dry climates; it can be picked early to show freshness and minerality, or can be left on the vine for a richer, more alcoholic result. As recently as the late 1950s there were more than 34,000 acres planted in the south of France, and while acreage has declined to some 6,000 acres now, it is still a major component of the white wines in the Rhone, the Gard, the Var, and the Drome.  In Chateauneuf du Pape, it is the second-most-planted white variety after Grenache Blanc, with about 175 acres planted2 and is actually enjoying a bit of a moment right now, with a growing number of Chateauneuf-du-Pape producers turning to it to produce wines with more freshness and minerality.

Although it is rarely acknowledged as a varietal wine in France, it is the only variety permitted in the appellation Coteaux de Die, in the Drome region east of the city of Valence. Curiously, it is not the lead grape in the sparkling wine "Clairette de Die", which must be at least 75% Muscat. Up to 25% Clairette is permitted, and it is used to provide "elegance and finesse" to the otherwise intensely floral Muscat grape.3

Clairette Blanche's name is somewhat redundant, as "claire" means clear, fair, or bright, and "blanche" means white. There is a pink variant (Clairette Rose) that is not widely planted, so much so that for most French winemakers, they simply refer to the white version as "Clairette". For the Francophiles out there, Clairette is one of very few French grape names that is feminine.  Most grapes are masculine, and the white variant is "Blanc". Because Clairette is feminine, the adjective white becomes "Blanche".

In 2003, we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties, and took field cuttings from Beaucastel of the seven grapes we had not yet imported. Clairette Blanche was one of these.  It spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in 2009, propagated, and in 2010 planted in a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first release of Clairette off of these vines came in 2014.

Clairette Blanche in the Vineyard and Cellar

Clairette Blanche is relatively late-budding, and therefore less vulnerable than most of our white grapes to the spring frosts that are the chief weather hazard we deal with each year.  It grows vigorously and very upright, and produces large, oval grapes. Its upright growth pattern means that it can be head-trained (and typically is in France) but we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens in the middle of the harvest season, after grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Syrah, and typically right as we're finishing Grenache Blanc and starting Grenache Noir.

As this grape is new to us, in 2015 we experimented and picked our block twice: once in mid-September (at 21° Brix and a pH of 3.6) and once late in the month (at 22.8° Brix and a pH of 3.9). We found that the grape lost more than it gained with the later harvest, picking up some additional richness but at the cost of the citrusy expressiveness we liked from the earlier picking.  To give more richness to the earlier picking, this year we fermented Clairette in neutral oak and stirred the lees regularly, and feel like this treatment gave us the best of both worlds: freshness and expressiveness, but also richer mouthfeel.

Clairette

As we do with our new varieties whenever we're in our first few years of production, we have bottled our Clairette Blanche on its own in 2014, 2015 and (just last month) 2016. That said, we expect it to ultimately be a blending grape most years. We were excited to be able to source in 2016 some Clairette from a nearby vineyard to include in the 2016 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. It's only 3% of that wine, but its citrus character fits in nicely with the Grenache Blanc that leads the blend, and its modest alcohols moderate the higher-sugar Grenache Blanc and Viognier components.

Flavors and Aromas
Clairette Blanche is quite pale in color (it name means "clear white" after all), and on the nose reminiscent in many ways of Picpoul; in our newly-bottled 2016 I found aromas of pineapple, key lime, and mint. In the mouth, it stands right on the edge between sweet and tart, with flavors of kaffir lime, green plum, and lemongrass. The finish is clean and slightly nutty, with an anise note. If you are interested in trying it, we will be releasing our 100-case production of the 2016 Clairette Blanche at the end of the month.

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
  3. Clairette-de-Die official Web site, June 2017

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Terret Noir

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one here at Tablas Creek who thinks that one of the most fun things I get to do is to work with new grapes. In some cases, these grapes are ones that are pretty well known in France, but new to California. There, we have a frame of reference, and what's fascinating is where our versions do (and don't) line up. Vermentino and Picpoul Blanc would fit that category. In other cases, we start working with new grapes that have been little used in France in recent decades, and we get to make discoveries without really knowing whether what we're making is true to what the grape "should" be like. That's a different sort of fun. Terret Noir, which we planted in 2010 and have been harvesting since 2013, fits into that category.

Terret noir lithoHistory
Terret Noir is an ancient grape from the Languedoc, one that like Grenache or Picpoul has three color variants (Terret Blanc and Terret Gris are the others). It is first noted in the historical record in 1736, when it was noted for generous production ("Terret noir: produit beaucoup")1.  Never very widely planted (unlike Terret Gris, which a half century ago showed more than 20,000 acres in Languedoc, much of it used to distill into vermouth) Terret Noir's acreage has declined in recent years, down to some 460 acres in 2008, nearly all in Hérault, the French département that surrounds the university town of Montpellier. Even in Hérault, Terret Noir produces less than 2% of the 900,000 hectoliters of wine the region produces annually2, and is typically blended into the more-planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Grenache, and Mourvedre.  Although it is one of the permitted varieties in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it is barely planted there, with just over two acres planted as of 20093.

The grape was valued for its productivity, its freshness, and its moderate alcohols. In his authoritative ampelography from 1910, P. Viala writes of Terret (translation by my dad), "it produced an abundant harvest that could reach 80 hectoliters per hectare [6 tons per acre]. It was prized on the hillsides because, aside from its fertility, it brought qualities of lightness and freshness of bouquet to the strong and acid varietals (Grenache, Espar, etc.), and to which it married perfectly".

In 2003, we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties, and took field cuttings from Beaucastel of the seven grapes we had not yet imported. Terret was one of these.  It spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in 2009, propagated, and in 2010 planted in a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first production off of these vines came in 2013.

Terret Noir in the Vineyard and Cellar
Terret Noir is valuable in part because it is late-budding, and therefore less vulnerable to the spring frosts that are the chief weather hazard we deal with each year.  It grows vigorously, and produces large, oval, pinkish red grapes that look more like table grapes than they do like a darkly pigmented grape such as Syrah or Mourvedre. Its upright growth pattern means that it can be head-trained (and typically is in France) but we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens relatively late in the growing season, about a week before the very end of harvest each of the last three years. This puts it in timing in synch with grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise.  

At harvest, it is relatively modest in sugars (we've picked it between 21.0° and 21.6° Brix each year) and mid-range high in acids (pH between 3.6 and 3.9). The skins are light in pigment and the berries large, so it is not a grape that picks up much color during fermentation.  In fact, the first year we fermented it, after two weeks it still looked like a rosé, so we kept it on the skins for another week, at which point it hadn't picked up much more color but had accumulated quite a bit of tannin.  We have since gone back to a more normal 2-week maceration, accepting the lighter color but keeping the tannins modest.

Ultimately, we expect this to be a blending grape, and in fact beginning in 2016 will be using it in a blend with Syrah and Grenache (for that full story, see here). In a blend, its spiciness, herby savoriness, and low alcohols provide a moderating effect on the more powerful, deeply fruity Syrah and Grenache, while those darker grapes give to Terret substance.  On its own, as we've bottled it in 2013, 2014, and 2015 vintages, it is reminiscent of pale color, fairly tannic grapes like the Jura's poulsard.

Flavors and Aromas
Terret Noir is pale garnet red, with spicy, lifted aromatics of dried herbs and wild strawberries. On the palate it shows a persistence surprising for such a pale red wine, with crunchy red fruit like pomegranates and red currants, complex notes of black tea and dried roses, good acids, and some grippy tannins on the finish. We have no idea how it will age, and the literature doesn't provide much insight here. If you are interested in trying it, we just released our 2015 Terret Noir, and we hope you'll let us know what you think.

Terret Noir 15

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Sud de France WineHub, http://www.suddefrancewinehub.com/en/terroirs/igp-pays-dherault-2/
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009