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

I returned this week from two and a half weeks on the east coast to find a vineyard landscape transformed.  In what was a sea of green we now have new colors: pinks, reds and purples in our red grapes, as well as the first hints of gold in our white grapes. 

Long View with Grenache

These transformations are normal for early August, and while I stand by my prediction that harvest will be a couple of weeks early, the changing colors don't mean that harvest is imminent.  In fact, I was a little surprised to see that even in the earliest-ripening grapes we weren't through veraison.  To give you all a sense of what things look like now, I snapped representative photos of each of the main Rhone grapes, red and white.  I'll go through them in the order in which we expect them to come in, starting with Viognier, the only grape I tasted that seemed pretty close.  Note the golden color; I'm figuring maybe two more weeks before we start picking:


Next, Marsanne, which was still quite green by comparison to the Viognier:


Our first red will almost certainly be Syrah, but even there I still found a few green berries and the grapes didn't taste nearly ripe.  We will likely see some Syrah from warmer parts of Paso for our Patelin wines as early as late next week, but I don't expect much off our own property before the end of August:


Grenache Blanc made for very good eating -- about the sugar/acid balance of table grapes, for now -- but that's far less than the concentration that we look for at harvest.  You can see in the photo below that it's also still tautly inflated.  We'll look for the grapes to soften quite a bit more before we pick, likely starting early September.

Grenache Blanc

There's often a gap between the early grapes above and the late grapes below, so I wouldn't be surprised to see a pause in early-mid September when much of the Viognier, Marsanne, Syrah and Grenache Blanc have come off, but we're still waiting on our later grapes.  Grenache, typically next in line, is still less than halfway through veraison, and while it does ripen pretty quickly once it finished veraison, I'd still expect it to be late-September before much Grenache is coming in:


Counoise is always our last grape to go through veraison, later, even, than Mourvedre, although Mourvedre's unusually long time between veraison and ripeness means that we typically harvest Counoise first.  Many Counoise vines were still entirely filled with green clusters, and the photo I got is on the advanced side for the Counoise blocks as a whole.  The grapes were also still quite hard and sour, even those that had turned purple:


It's not usually possible to take a good photo of white grapes in mid-veraison, but I managed it in our Roussanne.  Note the differences in color between the grapes that are still green and those that have begun to take on the russet color that gives Roussanne its name.  All the Roussanne grapes were still crunchy, though those with the russet tint were starting to get sweet, while the green ones were still sour.  We're likely more than a month out from even our first Roussanne pick, and I expect a significant portion of our Roussanne harvest not to happen until October:


Finally, Mourvedre, which is as usual taking its time getting through veraison.  It often starts before Grenache (and always before Counoise) but it's typically the last to finish veraison. We've come to expect to wait another 6 weeks between full veraison and harvest, when most grapes take 4 weeks.  We might start to pick in the very end of September, but October will see the bulk of it:


Overall, and even after the two weeks of warm weather that just concluded (eleven consecutive days between 7/23 and 8/2 that reached the 90's, with the last three topping 100) the vineyard still looks to be in remarkably good shape.  The Viognier was showing signs of some end-of-season stress, but it only has another couple of weeks to go.  I saw a little sunburn damage here and there, mostly in Syrah, but less than we see most vintages.  And the weather forecast for the next week is perfect: highs in the upper 80's or low 90's, and cool nights in the upper 50's.  That's about as good as it gets for Paso Robles in August.  If all continues as we're seeing it, I think we're in for another terrific vintage.

We welcome a new grape to California: Picardan

Today we make history as we plant 1000 vines of Picardan in a rugged block we've reserved for new grape varieties at the extreme western edge of our property. 

Overview with vines

This is the culmination of a nearly decade-long process.  We decided in late 2003 that we wanted to have all thirteen of the traditional Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes and imported Beaucastel field cuttings of the remaining seven obscure grapes we hadn't yet procured [see the press release dated 2/2/04 when the vines arrived at U.C. Davis for quarantine]. These included Cinsaut, Clairette, Terret Noir, Muscardin, Vaccarèse, Bourboulenc, and Picardan.

In our press release we were optimistic about their prospects for rapid release to us; because of California's favorable climate, it only takes two years to do the mandated virus testing instead of the three years our earliest imports required in Geneva, New York.  But the U.C. Davis scientists found viruses in the plants, and the vines had to go through maristem cultivation: a high-tech program where they grow the vines in a hyper-rich growing medium and take a tiny slice of the newest growth from the tip of a shoot. This new growth can have outgrown any viruses that the plant came with, and can then be grown into full-size plants and be retested.  Unfortunately, the first round only cleared up some of the viruses, and they had to undergo a second round and were only declared virus-free and released to us in late 2010.  At that point, we sent the vines to NovaVine for propagation.  They produced our first grafted vines last year, and we received them last week:

Picardan vines in pots

We estimate that the 1000 vines we received, enough to plant a little more than a half-acre, will increase the total world-wide acreage of Picardan by about 50%.  According to Jancis Robinson's authoritative guide Wine Grapes, there is just over an acre planted in all of France, and it has never before been used in America. She specifically mentions Beaucastel's use of "small amounts of Picardan in their red Chateauneuf" as one of two documented estates using the grape.

What do we expect from Picardan?  We're not sure.  It's reputed to have good acidity, supported by the fact that like Picpoul its name is purportedly derived from piquer ("to sting" in French).  It is supposed to be mid-ripening, and well suited to "hot, dry, low-fertility sites".  That sounds like us.  If it's as successful as Picpoul has been in showing California's lush fruit while maintaining terrific acidity, we'll be thrilled.

The site we chose for our new varieties is a steep, hilly one, and exceptionally calcareous even by our standards, with bits of limestone everywhere and a predictable challenge even making the holes into which we're putting the baby vines.  This photo will give you a sense:


Once we've dug the holes (using a post-hole digger, below left) we place a vine in each hole (below, right):

Post hole digger Vine in pot in hole
The next thing we have to do is to free each vine out of its pot, place it in the hole, replace the soil around it and then tamp it down lightly.  Vineyard Manager David Maduena demonstrates:

David with vine in hand David with vine under foot
We'll give the new plantings eight or so hours of irrigation this evening, and then monitor them to make sure they stay healthy through the heat of the summer. They'll go into dormancy with the rest of the vineyard this winter, and hopefully come out with the vineyard in the spring.  Some vigorous vines might try to set a crop, but we'll prune this off.  The next summer, if the vines seem healthy, we might allow them to hang a small crop.  Then, we'll start to have a sense of what Picardan will bring.

We celebrate the release from quarantine of four new Rhone grapes

By Robert Haas

This week we are filing a petition to recognize Terret Noir, Vaccarese, Picardan, and Bourboulenc for use as grape varietal names on labels in the United States. The petition, ready to go out yesterday afternoon:

TTB petition

In 1990, when Tablas Creek Vineyard was founded, it was our intention to establish a Châteauneuf-du-Pape-like, Rhône-style vineyard and winery in the Paso Robles AVA.  Châteauneuf-du-Pape is famous for planting thirteen grape varieties, although over 70% of the acreage in the appellation is Grenache Noir, and many estates use only the “big three” of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre for their red wines and Clairette and Grenache Blanc for their whites.  Beaucastel is noteworthy for planting and using all thirteen (actually fourteen if you count Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc as two) approved grape varieties.  We wanted to do all thirteen here, too.  Because some of the thirteen didn’t exist in California, and we had doubts about the quality of those that did exist here, we decided to import cuttings from France and put them through USDA quarantine.

The first imports of cuttings of the major varieties were in 1990, and because the California USDA station was closed, they were brought through the USDA station in Geneva, NY.  Indexing was finished in 1993.  Nursery Manager Dick Hoenisch and I went out to Geneva in wintertime, washed the bare roots of the dormant plants and prepared the FedEx shipment to California. I remember that Geneva winter trip.  There were several feet of snow on the ground and it was freezing cold.  It seemed a long way from grape planting territory.

Those cuttings included Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Picpoul Blanc. All except Counoise, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul had already been recognized varietals in the U.S.  Tablas Creek subsequently successfully petitioned for acceptance of the last three, each of which has proven to have value both in our blends and on its own.

We have always wanted to plant, experiment, and work with all thirteen varieties authorized in the Châteauneuf-du Pape appellation of origin, but at the time we began, the other varieties weren’t available in the French nursery service for us to import, and we felt that taking field cuttings (which would likely be virused) would add a long, unpredictable delay to our launch.  But once we saw how successful the trace varieties in the first wave had been, we decided to move forward.  In 2004, we took cuttings of the remaining unrepresented varieties in a selection massale [field selection] from the Château de Beaucastel vineyard and sent them to (the now operating) Davis station for indexing and for eventual release to us. 

We were right that the vines were likely to have a tortuous process ahead of them.  All tested positive for virus, and had to be cleaned up by the scientists at UC Davis.  We received the first two of these (Terret Noir and Clairette) in 2010 and we just received news that Cinsault, Picardan, Vaccarèse, and Bourboulenc are being released. When we get Muscardin (hopefully in 2014) it will complete the virus-free collection of all the authorized Châteauneuf-du-Pape varietals in the United States.

13 Cepages Poster

What these grapes will do in Paso Robles is a good question.  For a few, there is so little planted in France that there is not much to go on.  But the success we and others in California have had with our other formerly unknown varieties such as Counoise, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc makes us hopeful.  Here’s what the literature says:

  • Bourboulenc is a vigorous and late budding white grape, which should be good news in our frequent spring frosts. It ripens late and maintains moderate sugars and good acidity.
  • Picardan is also a late budding white variety that gives a pale colored wine with good acidity.  This grape is one on which there is the least information available; we’ll likely be planting the first new block anywhere in the world in several decades.
  • Terret Noir is one of the Languedoc’s oldest red varieties.  It too buds late, and in southern France brings lightness and freshness to its blends with varietals such as Grenache.  We hope that it will do the same thing in our vineyard.
  • Vaccarèse is a fourth late budding variety that, according to the ampelographer Pierre Galet is said to have an “uncontestable original floral aroma, a fresh and elegant taste, particularly interesting for modifying the alcoholic ardor of the Grenache in the rosé wines of Chusclan and the red wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”

Before we or anyone else can use the grapes on a wine label, they need to be accepted by the TTB into the lexicon of recognized American grapes.  Cinsault and Clairette are already recognized.  The petition we are sending off this week has assembled the available research for Picardan, Bourboulenc, Terret Noir, and Vaccarèse. 

It will require patience to test our theories.  First, the bud material will have to be multiplied and then grafted.  Then, once the vines are propagated in sufficient quantities, we’ll plant a small block (perhaps a half-acre) of each. We’ll wait three years to get our first crop and vinify each separately.  Only then will we start to see what they’re good for.

We should have the vines’ names recognized in plenty of time.

Tannat: the Perfect Grape for Paso Robles?

Tannat2[Editor's Note February 2019: With the announcement of the 2016 Tannat as our featured wine for February 2019, we have updated this blog to include information about this wine.]

Although we specialize in Rhône varietals, we continue to experiment with other grapes that we feel might thrive in the shallow rocky soils and dramatic summer climate of Tablas Creek. Tannat is one of these grapes, and its intense fruit, spice and powerful tannins combine to make remarkable wines here, in a distinctly different style than our Rhone grape varieties. 

In addition, we've come to believe that it is perhaps the easiest grape to keep happy in Paso Robles' challenging climate.  If there's an empirical sign that a grape is suited to an area, it has to be that it excels without an extraordinary amount of work on the part of those who grow it.

Early History
Though many scholars believe Tannat originated in the Basque region, Tannat is most closely associated with the winemaking region of Madiran, at the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains in southwestern France and just north of the region that is traditionally thought of as the Basque heartland. The grape has been grown in that region for centuries, and 17th and 18th century French kings accepted Madiran wines as payment for taxes. Madiran appellation laws mandate that Tannat be blended with Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, but Madiran producers have recently begun receiving notable press for their 100% Tannat wines.

Tannat continues to be grown in the Basque country, most notably in the tiny appellation of Iroulèguy, on the Spanish border. In 1870, Basque immigrants brought the grape to Uruguay, where it adapted well to the local soil and climate. It has since become the national red grape variety of Uruguay, accounting for approximately one third of all wine produced in that country; more Tannat is grown in Uruguay than in the varietal’s native France.

Tannat at Tablas Creek
We did not originally intend to produce a Tannat. In fact, the Perrins’ French nurseryman included Tannat cuttings of his own volition when he also packed up the Rhone varieties we'd asked for in 1990.  These cuttings were entered into quarantine at the USDA station in Geneva, New York and it was a couple of years before we untangled the mystery of how this non-Rhone grape came to be under our account with the USDA. When we traced it back to the nurseryman we asked him why he'd included this (to us) unrelated grape.  His response was "I know this grape, and from what I've learned about Paso Robles, it should grow well there. You should try it."  When in 1993 the Tannat cuttings were declared virus free and released to us, we decided that with little of our vineyard yet planted we might as well see if he was right.  In 1996 we planted just under an acre, and while we received a tiny production that was tossed in at harvest with other varieties starting in 2000, we first harvested enough to ferment on its own in 2002.

In the vineyard, Tannat is one of the easiest varietals to grow. It is frost hardy and a solid producer whether trellised or head-pruned. Yet unlike most of our other red varietals (most notably Grenache) it is not prone to overproduction, and we do not have to thin the shoots to keep production down. Its berries have thick skins, which make it resistant to powdery mildew and botrytis.  It ripens in the middle of the ripening cycle, typically in late September or early October, and we can harvest it nearly every vintage at numbers that we consider ideal: around 24° Brix and a pH of around 3.3.  The sole difficulty with growing Tannat is its thick stems, which cling tightly to the berries and can be difficult to de-stem at harvest. 

Tannat is quite tannic (due in part to the berries’ thick skins), and we ferment it in open-top tanks to expose the juice to more oxygen and soften the tannins.  We age Tannat in small (usually neutral) barrels to expose the juice to some oxygen in the aging process.  We typically either co-ferment or blend into our Tannat our small nursery parcel of Cabernet Sauvignon.  In France, Cabernet is traditionally added to Tannat to open it up and make it more approachable.  That fact alone should give you a sense of just how powerful Tannat can be.  But the grape gets riper here in Paso Robles than it does elsewhere in the world, while still maintaining its wonderful structure.  When I asked Winemaker Neil Collins for his thoughts on Tannat this morning, he replied "Tannat is very happy in Paso Robles, where our climate and terroir allow the tannin to become an asset not a detriment".

Because of our enthusiasm for the grape's potential, we have since 2002 planted two more parcels to Tannat, and now have a total of 3.5 acres at Tablas Creek, off of which we harvest on average 9 tons of fruit per year.

Tannat and the BATF
Although Tannat had existed in the University of California’s vine collections since the 1890s, when we began growing Tannat it had not yet been recognized by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

When we decided to bottle it, we petitioned the BATF to recognize Tannat as a separate varietal, a process we had recently undergone with both Grenache Blanc and Counoise. We amassed literature on Tannat to demonstrate it was a recognized varietal in other countries, and compiled descriptions of its characteristics to show that it had positive value as a wine grape in the United States. In September of 2002, our petition was formally approved.

As of 2010, there were 248 acres of Tannat planted in California, most from Tablas Creek cuttings.

Aromas and Flavors
Tannat makes decidedly robust wines, with pronounced aromas of smoke and plum, significant tannins and a wonderfully spicy finish. Here at Tablas Creek, we’ve found the wines to be dense purple-red in color, with a nose of tobacco, smoke, and ripe berries. The rich palate has juicy flavors of plum and raspberry, with a long, generous finish. The tannins are impressive, but nicely balanced with the intense fruit and spice flavors of the wine. Unlike most Old World examples, you can enjoy our Tannats young, but we believe that they benefit from three to five years of bottle aging and should evolve gracefully for two decades. As for food pairings, Tannat's smoky character makes it a perfect match for roasted meats and game, as well as sausages and strong aged cheeses.

In addition to bottling Tannat as a varietal wine each year since 2002, we have recently started including it in our En Gobelet blend of head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard blocks, where Tannat's firm structure and smoky minerality balance the relative opulence of Grenache and Mourvedre.  In this blend, it assumes the role typically played by Syrah -- which does not head-prune well -- in the southern Rhone.

Tannat and Health
Recent research, led by Dr. Roger Corder (a cardiovascular expert at the William Harvey Research Institute in London) makes the case for oligomeric procyanidins (OPCs) as the source of red wine’s health benefits. All red grapes, particularly those with thick skins and high skin-to-pulp ratios, contain OPC’s. But, after measuring the OPC concentration of several common red wine grapes, Dr. Corder identifies Tannat as the grape with the greatest concentration. The real-life evidence of Tannat’s benefits can be seen in the surprisingly long lifespans of residents of the département of Gers in southwest France, whose local wine appellation is Madiran. Gers contains more than double the national average of men in their nineties.  I wrote a few years ago about the link between Tannat, heart health and longevity.

2016 Tannat: Featured Wine for February 2019
We taste through our cellar regularly to see which wines are showing particularly well given the season and the wines’ own inherent evolution. As a way of sharing these observations with you, many months we spotlight one of our wines as our featured wine. To encourage you to try this featured wine, we offer it, for the designated time only, at a 10% discount. This discount is applied above and beyond any other discounts that might apply, such as for case purchases or wine club membership. The February featured wine is the 2016 Tannat, featured through March 1, 2019.  It recently received 92-point ratings (some of the best ever bestowed on a Tannat-based wine) by both Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and Antonio Galloni's Vinous.  You can find links to the complete reviews.

A Tale of Two Grenaches

About a week ago, I got back from our annual pilgrimage to the Yosemite Vintners' Holidays event held at the beautiful Ahwahnee Hotel each fall.  At this event -- which I wrote about a few years ago and which I highly recommend -- each winery is expected to present a seminar to the roughly 200 guests on a topic of their choosing.  I've conducted blending seminars, focused on obscure varieties, and delved into grapes in depth.  This year, I presented a seminar titled "Grenache: Red, White, and Coming to a Vineyard Near You".  In the research into acreage statistics I did in preparing for the talk, I realized that the data suggests a fascinating narrative about the Grenache grape in California.

Bounty of HarvestGrenache, pictured right at harvest, is a grape of enormous importance around the world.  It is the Rhone Valley's most widely planted grape, and along with significant plantings in Spain and Australia, accounts for the second greatest world-wide acreage of any wine grape.  Its history in California dates back to the 1860's.  [For more on Grenache's history and characteristics, I refer readers to the post Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Grenache from 2010.]

Despite Grenache's long history and the increasing popularity of Grenache-based wines from Europe, Grenache in California has had a checkered history.  For many wine drinkers who learned about wine in the 1960's and 1970's, "California Grenache" was sweet and light in color, and had fallen decisively out of favor by the 1980's.  More recently, most of this Grenache acreage has found its way into blends, often jug wines, and gone unacknowledged.  Acreage in California has declined correspondingly, from a peak near 20,000 acres (I've been unable to find when it peaked, or exactly at what level) down to 11,000 acres in 2000 and just 6170 acres today.

At the same time, Grenache is in the middle of a renaissance.  James Laube, writing in the Wine Spectator last year, called it "one of the most exciting and enticing wines to emerge in California in the past decade, capable of stardom" and in premium areas it has become downright scarce.  In Paso Robles it is now one of the most in-demand grapes, and commands a premium price.  We could have filled a boat with the Syrah we were offered for our Patelin de Tablas this year, but it was a struggle to find the Grenache we wanted even though Grenache is more productive and easier to grow. 

At first glance, it doesn't make sense that Grenache can be both on the rise and on the decline.  But looking at the acreage data in detail shows a more complex story, in which Tablas Creek plays a part.  For there are really two Grenaches, and I'm not referring to Grenache Blanc.  When we started to research the available clones of Rhone varieties in California, we were not thrilled with what we found.  Many clones appeared to have been chosen (if that is not too strong a word) for productivity rather than high quality.  When we looked at, particularly, Grenache and Mourvedre, the cluster sizes and the berry sizes were both enormous, much larger than we were used to seeing at Beaucastel, and the flavors were fruity and friendly enough but not exciting.  Sure, some of that could be attributed to being overirrigated and overcropped, but we thought that there was something inherently different about the raw material.  It was this conclusion that cemented our decision to bring in our own clones from France rather than make the best of the clones that were available here.

We weren't the only people to bring in new clones of Grenache.  Perhaps spurred by our actions, ENTAV licensed a handful of California's grapevine nurseries to bring in a range of new clonal material, and there have doubtless been unauthorized importations as well.  But the net effect of the arrival of these new clones has been dramatic.  Grenache has been planted in high quality areas where its previous footprint was negligible at the same time it's being pulled out of the Central Valley, where its quality has historically been low.  Some acreage statistics:

Acreage by County1995
2000 2005 2010
Fresno 3083 3128 2483 1789
Glenn 503 503
Kern 1418 1154
Kings 270 271
Madera 3605 3674
387 315
San Joaquin
637 567
849 758
167 398
Total Central Valley
11019 10768
Amador 8 10
0 0
El Dorado
8 9
Lake 0
Mendocino 38
Monterey 133 111
Napa 10 17
San Luis Obispo
7 50
114 326
Santa Barbara
8 115
Sonoma 36 55
Total Coastal & Foothills

The Grenache planted in the Central Valley has been pulled out at an annual rate of about 4% since 1995, accelerating to 6% since 2000.  By contrast, Grenache acreage in coastal and foothills counties has grown at about 10% per year since 1995, a rate that increases to 15% per year if you exclude Monterey County, which seems to me to be an outlier in the data.  Of course, it's important to recognize that there are Grenache vineyards going in and being pulled out of most of these counties, and that while older clones are being pulled out of the Central Valley, there are also new, higher quality vineyards being planted in places like Lodi.

San Luis Obispo County's rise is worth noting, particularly since almost all of this acreage is in Paso Robles.  From a nonentity in 1995 with just 7 acres, it now has the fourth most acreage of Grenache in California, with 50% more acres than Santa Barbara, the next-most-planted coastal county.  In fact, the three counties with the most acreage are all in the Central Coast, whose acreage is nearly triple that of the North Coast and fifteen times that of the Sierra Foothills.

What does this all mean for the future of Grenache?  I think it's all positive.  The grape is increasingly being planted in the right places, and just as importantly being pulled out of the wrong places.  The clones that are available are better than they've ever been before.  In general, the producers who are working with Grenache are Rhone specialists, which suggests it's in the hands of people who will know what to do with it, unlike, say, Syrah, which was planted speculatively in lots of the wrong locations by growers who were guessing at what California's next big grape would be.  Syrah has yet to recover.  There are two active and effective organizations (The Rhone Rangers and Hospice du Rhone) who are advocating for Grenache.  The wine press and trade seems solidly behind Grenache right now; nearly every writer I've spoken with in the last year has remarked on how they think Grenache is poised for greatness in America.  And the market seems increasingly comfortable with both new, unusual grape varieties and with blends, where Grenache shines.

Will Grenache be the next big thing in California?  I'm not sure I would wish that on it.  But will it see success over the coming decades?  I think that's an easy prediction.

Photos of each Rhone grape variety as harvest nears

Harvest is beginning to feel imminent.  We haven't brought in any fruit yet, but we've prepared our log books, washed out all our tanks and equipment, put our harvest cellar team together and we're ready.  We're expecting our first fruit from a couple of the vineyards we use for Patelin later this week.

We don't expect anything off our own property for another week or two, but with the beautiful warm weather we've been having for the last three weeks we've made a lot of progress.  Syrah and Mourvedre are through veraison, Grenache is nearly done, and even Counoise is making good progress.  The whites are also coming along nicely.

I spent an hour prowling the vineyard this morning to get shots of what each grape looks like now.  I'll take them in the order in which we expect them to come into the cellar.  First, Viognier, which was most affected by the April frosts and which is scarcest in the vineyard.  We're hoping for five tons off the roughly five acres we have planted:


Next, Syrah, which looks great.  Already showing its classic blue-black color, with thick skins and lots of flavor:


Next will likely be Marsanne, which I'm feeling more positive about after today's explorations.  Yields will be lower than normal, but not as drastically as in the Viognier.  And the vines and clusters look terrific:


Grenache Blanc will likely come in next.  It was reduced by the frost, but Grenache (both red and white) is sufficiently vigorous that it still set a decent crop.  I may be being optimistic about its timing; it will likely be a later Grenache harvest than we've ever seen before:


Grenache Noir is typically harvested soon after Grenache Blanc, though this year I'm sure that some Grenache lots won't come in before November.  Different vineyard blocks are at widely different stages, with some looking nearly full red and others still mostly green.  Some Grenache blocks have very little crop, and others look fine.  Our normal practice of harvesting Grenache selectively and carefully will be particularly critical this year.  The cluster below is probably about average for the vineyard, mostly through veraison but still fairly light in color and with some greenish berries mixed in:


Roussanne, which would normally be very late, seems comparatively more advanced this year.  It came through the frosts just fine and looks to be in exceptional condition; for whatever reason, the typical late-season Roussanne malaise that we're used to seeing hasn't materialized this year.  In fact, I may have misplaced it, as I'm almost certain we'll see our first Roussanne lots before our first Grenache lots.  Below, you can see Roussanne starting to get its typically russet color:


Right around when Roussanne is harvested, we typically bring in Picpoul.  I'd think that Picpoul, which is planted in our coldest pocket, will likely be a little later this year.  Still bright green, it seems a while off yet:


Normally, Mourvedre would be last.  But like Roussanne it was largely unscathed by the frosts, and actually started veraison first of the reds.  It does take a long time between veraison and ripeness, but I still will go out on a limb and say we'll bring some in before we do Counoise, which is still partly green even in the ripest areas.  The Mourvedre looks really strong this year:


Last is Counoise, which was just starting to sprout at the time of the frosts.  That's not as bad for productivity as if a vine is more advanced (as were, say, Viognier and Grenache) but it does tend to delay ripening significantly.  And Counoise is already late.  I'm hoping we bring it in in October this year, but wouldn't be surprised if it's November.  The cluster below is a little more advanced than what's average in the vineyard, but still shows some green berries mixed among the pink and red:


Overall, I'm feeling a little more positive about yields than I was after my last extended trek around the vineyard three weeks ago.  Our two most important varieties (Roussanne and Mourvedre) look good, and most blocks of Syrah look fine.  Grenache and Grenache Blanc will be reduced, probably by half compared to last year, and Marsanne and Counoise are probably similar.  Viognier will have a quarter of last year's crop, if that.  While that all may sound bleak, that's not too bad given that Mourvedre and Roussanne account for nearly half our total planted acreage.  We'll see, soon enough, if I'm right.

Introducing California's first Petit Manseng

Fans of Tablas Creek on Facebook this week saw something unexpected: a photo of a bottling we've never done before.  In fact, it's a bottling that no one in California has done before, that we know of at least.  It's Petit Manseng, a white grape traditional to France's southwest, which has made admired but not widely disseminated sweet wines for centuries in the region of Jurancon.

Jurancon Jurancon, in the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques, is a mountainous region that includes a small stretch of the rocky Atlantic coast and a larger stretch of the Spanish border, high in the Pyrenees mountains.  Culturally, it forms a part of the Basque community that spans the French-Spanish border.  A larger, interactive version of the map at right can be found on Wikipedia.

There are three permitted grapes in Jurancon (Corbu and Gros Manseng, in addition to Petit Manseng) 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.  Gros Manseng, which we also imported but have not yet harvested, is more suited for the dry Jurancon Sec wines, while Petit Manseng achieves sufficient concentration and sugar content to make naturally sweet wines without botrytis.  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 have increased correspondingly, from less than 90 hectares in 1968 (90 hectares was the combined plantings of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng) to nearly 650 hectares in 2006.  Two images of the grape are below; to the left a lithograph from a 19th Century ampelography and to the right a photo of one of our Petit Manseng mother vines, in a pot on our patio.

Petit Manseng Lithograph   Petit_manseng_vine0002

In addition to its ancestral home in Jurancon and the neighboring Pacherenc, Basque settlers brought Petit Manseng to Uruguay, and it has found homes in the neighboring Languedoc and the more surprising (to me) Virginia, where its resistance to rot is particularly valuable in the often humid climate.

When we decided to bring in Petit Manseng, we had not yet discovered the Vin de Paille process for making dessert wines, and were fresh off a disastrous experiment where we had tried to freeze grapes to make a pseudo-ice wine.  Given the success we'd seen at Tablas Creek with Tannat, another French Basque grape, Petit Manseng seemed a natural extension.  The vines were brought into USDA quarantine in 2003, and released to us in 2006.  The first small vineyard block was planted in 2007.

Petit Manseng is so named for its small, thick-skinned berries (Gros Manseng has larger berries).  It is capable of achieving very high natural sugar content without the benefit of botrytis.  Petit Manseng in France is often left on the vine until December to achieve its high sugars, and its ability to withstand rot is noteworthy.  In Paso Robles, where fall moisture and rot are rare and sun more reliable, its ability to maintain almost inconceivably high acidity is perhaps more valuable.  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 and a pH of 3.3. 

Petit_manseng_0001 In 2010, we picked our Petit Manseng in mid-October at a more manageable 26.2° Brix and a pH of 3.10. We fermented it in a single barrel, and stopped its fermentation when it had about 50 grams/liter of sugar left and sat at an alcohol of 13.5%.  We were stunned that there was so much sugar left at the point where we felt the flavors were in balance.  The very high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest.  The wine was aged on its lees in barrel and bottled last week.  We'll make a small amount available through an offering to our wine club members sometime later this summer or fall.

The flavors of Petit Manseng wines are rich but tangy, perfumed and tropical.  It's possible to identify pineapple, mango, papaya and honey, as well as white flowers and spice.  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 could be a natural fit. I'd also think that it would be a great wine with cheeses, but would need to do some experimentation to have confidence in the right fit.

Where will Petit Manseng take us?  Who knows.  But we're sufficiently intrigued with the grape's capabilities that we're planting another half-acre at the western edge of the estate.  And we may just have to come up with a foie gras-themed event to test the pairing hypothesis of the experts.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley (sort of): Vermentino

Vermentino Vermentino, with its bright acidity, aromas of citrus leaf and mineral, and refreshing finish, has become a favorite of Tablas Creek VINsiders and restauranteurs alike. Its story, however, does not originate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and unlike most of Tablas Creek’s white varietals, it is a grape that is more commonly seen on its own than in blends.

Vermentino in the Old World
Vermentino is commonly thought to be Spanish in origin. Although it is currently grown in several countries around the Mediterranean, its best known examples come from northern Italy (particularly in the region of Liguria) and the island of Sardinia, where the wines are crisp, citrusy and generally unoaked. It is also the most widely planted white grape on the island of Corsica, where high altitude and hot climate vineyards produce more full-bodied wines with heady floral aromas. On the French mainland (where the grape is known as Rolle), it is found in Côtes de Provence and, increasingly, in Languedoc. Although it makes excellent wine, for many years Vermentino was best known for producing table grapes. The grapes are large with a good sugar/acid balance, making them a perfect choice for sweet snacking.

Vermentino at Tablas Creek
As Vermentino is not a Châteauneuf-du-Pape grape varietal, it wasn't a grape that we and the Perrins decided to bring in with our initial eight cuttings in 1989. However, the Perrins’ French nurseryman had other ideas. He believed Vermentino would thrive in the rocky limestone soils of Paso Robles, and included it in that initial shipment, along with the eight grapes we requested and Tannat. When the cuttings arrived into quarantine at the USDA station in Geneva, New York we were as surprised as they were to see Vermentino. But we decided to see if his prediction would pan out, and in 1993, Vermentino was declared free of virus and released to us.

We propagated the vines in our nursery, and planted about an acre of Vermentino on an east-facing slope near Adelaida Road in the northern portion of the property. As the nurseryman predicted, it has indeed thrived here, and in 2008 we planted another two acres at the western edge of the property.

Small quantities of Vermentino were included in our early white blends. However, we found it too distinctive to fit seamlessly into our blends, and since 2002 we have bottled it on its own. We used the Italian name for the grape instead of the French one because Wild Horse Winery (who bought cuttings from us) registered the grape as Vermentino, and, with the exception of a few varietals which have been grandfathered in, the BATF does not permit multiple names for the same grape.

In the vineyard, Vermentino is one of the easiest varietals to grow. It is a vigorous grower, resistant to drought, and usually ripens towards the middle of the harvest cycle. In the cellar, we ferment it in stainless steel tanks and prevent it from completing malolactic fermentation. Both procedures serve to emphasize the grape’s natural minerality and retain its bright citrus character.

As part of our ongoing research on Stelvin screwcaps, we bottled half of the Vermentino in screwcap and half in cork in 2002. We were so convinced that the screwcap preserved the wine’s aromatics and freshness that we have bottled Vermentino exclusively in screwcap since the 2003 vintage.

Flavors and Aromas
Vermentino wines are a pale straw color and relatively low in alcohol, with crisp acids, citrus-leaf aromatics, and pronounced minerality. In the mouth, Vermentino shows flavors of green apple and lime, heightened by refreshing acidity, good richness and medium body. The wine’s crispness makes it a delicious accompaniment to fresh seafood, oysters on the half shell, or grilled Mediterranean vegetables. The 2010 Vermentino was sent to wine club members in the spring 2011 shipment and a small allocation was released to our wholesalers around the country.

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Syrah

Syrah Syrah, also known as Shiraz in Australia, is one of the most noble grapes of the Rhône Valley, and by far the most widely planted Rhone variety in California. It is a key component in both our Grenache-based Cotes de Tablas and Mourvedre-based Esprit de Beaucastel blends (typically 20-35% of each, depending on vintage) and makes a wonderfully dark, spicy varietal wine, which we've made each year since 2002.

Early History
Syrah is one of the oldest established grape varietals in the Côtes du Rhône region of southern France, and competing stories abound about its origin.

One legend attributes its arrival in France to the Phocaeans of Asia Minor, who brought the grape from Shiraz, Persia when they established Marseilles around 600 BC. Another story claims that Romans brought the varietal from Syracuse, in Sicily, to the Rhône in the 3rd century AD. It seems most likely, however, that Syrah is a native French grape, the chance offspring of two grapes (Dureza and Mondeuse) from southeastern France. Whatever its origin, Syrah was well established in the vineyards surrounding the Rhône village of Tain-l’Hermitage by the 13th century.

Syrah Around the World
Syrah is most closely associated with the Northern Rhône appellations of Hermitage and Côte-Rotie, where it produces wines of phenomenal elegance and longevity. It is tremendously flexible, and can make elegant and restrained wines as well as wines bursting with fruit and oak, in locations as diverse as France, California, South Africa, and Australia. In the 1650s, South Africa was the first country outside France to plant Syrah, but it has never been more than a minor variety there. In Australia, however, where it arrived at the end of the 18th Century, it has become the most widely planted grape in that country.

In the northern Rhone, Syrah is typically made as a varietal wine, at times co-fermented or blended with small amounts of Viognier.  In the southern Rhone, Syrah is an important blending varietal, and second only to Grenache in acreage.  It partners lends to Grenache-based blends darker color, structure, tannin and ageability.

The first records of Syrah in the United States show it arriving in California in 1878, but it remained scarce until quite recently, with only 1,200 tons harvested in 1992. As California winemakers recognize its potential, the acreage increased nearly one hundredfold in ten years, and 101,500 tons of Syrah were harvested in California in 2002. Syrah is now the most widely planted Rhône varietal in California, with 19,226 acres planted in 2009. Although it is occasionally confused with the California varietal Petite Sirah, they are separate varietals (most experts believe most of what is called Petite Sirah is a cross of the varietals Peloursin and Durif).

Syrah at Tablas Creek
When we began Tablas Creek Vineyard in 1990, we were not completely satisfied with the variety of clonal selections of California Syrah vines. So, when we brought our other Rhone varieties from france, we included four different clones of Syrah.  These clones were propagated in the Tablas Creek nursery, and we planted our first Beaucastel-clone Syrah blocks in 1994.

Syrah in the Vineyard and Cellar
Syrah is quite vigorous and thrives when given warm days, poor soils, and sun. Because it is so vigorous, it requires extra canopy management (to expose the fruit to the sun for ripening) and aggressive crop thinning. Unlike most other varietals, its canes extend down toward the ground rather than up toward the sun, and therefore it is the one varietal permitted to be trellised instead of head-pruned in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It ripens earlier than any of the other red Rhône varietals, and we typically harvest it throughout the month of September.

Syrah's small clusters and small berries produce juice with concentrated flavors and significant tannin. During vinification, we ferment Syrah in large open-top tanks, a process that exposes the juice to more oxygen and thereby softens the tannins and compensates for Syrah’s tendency toward reduction. Currently, we have approximately 13 acres of Syrah planted at Tablas Creek, which represents about 25% of our red Rhône production.

Flavors and Aromas
The Syrah grape itself is thick-skinned and dark, almost black. Wines made from Syrah are intense with a dark purple-black color. The wines taste of blackberry and black raspberry fruit, smoke, tar and black pepper, and have a smooth supple texture. Syrah reflects minerality well, and the chalky character of the tannins provides a wonderful backbone to softer, fruitier varietals such as Grenache and Counoise.

In our Mourvèdre-based Esprit de Beaucstel, Syrah provides a deep blackish-purple color, minerality, spice, longevity and back-palate tannins.  In our Grenache-based Côtes de Tablas, Syrah cuts the apparent sweetness of Grenache and produces wines that are more balanced between sweet and savory notes, with more mineral and spice.

Beginning in 2002, we have bottled Syrah as a single varietal in limited quantities.  In many vintages this is blended with a small quantity of Grenache, whose higher acidity opens up Syrah and focuses its fruit.

Pneumonia's Last Syrah
Despite its many appealing characteristics, sales of Syrah have faced well-publicized challenges in the American market.  The Rhone Rangers have launched a plan in conjunction with several major health organizations to encourage the sales of Syrah while providing money for vaccinations against pneumonia, the world's largest killer of children.  You can read more about Pneumonia's Last Syrah.

We welcome two new grapes to Tablas Creek: Clairette and Terret Noir

Regular followers of Tablas Creek will know that we selected and imported our eight principal Rhone varieties (Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, Counoise) at the very beginning of our history, in 1989, before we'd even started laying out the vineyard.  It was cuttings from these vines, post-quarantine and post-propagation, that we started planting in 1994, and which we've used to plant the rest of the vineyard.  We continued over the next decade to bring in additional clones of several varieties, and added one new grape (Picpoul Blanc) that went in the ground in 2000.

We've been surprised at times about the varieties that have thrived here.  Many, most notably Mourvedre, Grenache and Roussanne, we expected to do well, and chose our property accordingly.  But others, like Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc and Counoise, seem to develop character in Paso Robles that they only occasionally, if ever, achieve in France.

So, in 2003, we decided to bring in the rest of the Chateauneuf du Pape grapes: Bourboulenc, Cinsault, Clairette, Muscardin, Picardan, Terret Noir and Vaccarese.  We've been waiting ever since as the vines were quarantined (they all had viruses) and then cleaned up at U.C. Davis.  We received the first two varieties earlier this month, and put them in the ground last week.  Please welcome Clairette and Terret Noir:

Clairette   Terret_noir

Of the two, the character of Clairette is better known, and it's much more widely planted with about 7500 acres in the Rhone Valley at the end of the 1990's, according to Jancis Robinson, and additional acreage in South Africa, Australia, Italy and Eastern Europe.  It was even more important historically, and formed, along with Picpoul, the Languedoc's extraordinarily popular Picardan wine that was exported throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.  It is used both to make still wines (often blended with the higher-acid Picpoul or Grenache Blanc) and to make the Rhone Valley's best-known sparkling wines in Clairette de Die.  It tends to have floral, mineral, almost soapy aromas, to be relatively low in acid, and to oxidize easily. 

Terret Noir is less well known; it is reputed to keep its acidity well late in the growing season and to bud late, both useful characteristics in Paso Robles, where we are prone to frost in April and bake in October.  Although it was once (before 1850) the most planted variety in the departement of Herault, very little is reported of its flavors.  Our 1904-edition French ampelography praises Terret Noir for bringing "qualities of lightness, freshness, and bouquet".  As of 2000, there were only 1000 acres of Terret Noir planted in France.  About all Jancis Robinson has to say about it is that it "can add useful structure and interest".  The Perrins don't have much more to report, so we may well be making the first serious investigation into Terret Noir in more than a century.

Both of these varieties are being planted into half-acre blocks in the newest section of our vineyard, at the extreme western edge of the property, to the west of the seven-acre block we planted in 2008.  We'll be leaving space for our other late arrivals.  Look for the first production off of these vines in 2013!