It's hard to believe, but 2021 was our 25th harvest here at Tablas Creek. What began as a simple model to make two wines, one red and one white, in the style of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, has blossomed into nearly thirty wines each year, across three colors, nineteen grapes, and a range of inspirations. We've had hot years (like 1997, 2009, 2016, and this year). We've had cold years (like 1998, 2010, and 2011). We've had "goldilocks" vintages where we hit the sweet middle ground. And yes, every vintage is different. But with a quarter century under our belt, and in response to the questions I get regularly trying to put our recent vintages in context, I thought it would be fun to dive in and talk a little about the vintage character of each of our 25 vintages, and try to give some comps for people who might have worked through their favorite and be looking to restock.
So, from the top. Note that I didn't put anything in for 2022, since we don't know what the wines' characters are like yet from this vintage, though as you'll see there is a year that has some eye-opening echoes to how this vintage is shaping up:
- 1997: A juicy, appealing vintage that showed surprising depth given that it came from vines at most five years old. Also the warmest year of the 1990s, with weather that is more common now, which led to a mid-August start to harvest. These wines are at the end of their lives at this point, but the red is still sound if well stored. Similar vintages: 2003, 2013.
- 1998: Pretty much the polar opposite to 1997, with persistent on-shore flow, regular cloud cover all summer, and an October start to harvest. A relatively austere vintage in its youth, it has aged surprisingly well, and both red and white have shown well in recent tastings. Similar vintages: 2010, 2011.
- 1999: Powerful, rambunctious wines that were the product of a warm, dry year. Whites were good from the get-go, while reds were notably tannic in their youth, though with the fruit to carry it. These wines aged well, and the red was still excellent in a recent tasting. Similar vintages: 2005, 2009.
- 2000: The first vintage that I think we started to approach the model that we use now, including the debut of the Esprit de Beaucastel. The white showed what a lovely year it was for Roussanne, soft and appealing. The reds were earthy and meaty. Both red and white were ringers for Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Similar vintages: 2005, 2013, 2018.
- 2001: A year with great promise and ample winter rainfall was derailed by April frosts that cost us nearly half our production and led to us declassifying most of our red production into Cotes de Tablas. An outstanding year for whites, though. The low yields and warm summer led to a relatively short hang-time, producing reds with modest concentration and a bit of a tannic edge. Similar vintages: no true comps (thankfully!) though 2009 is probably the closest overall.
- 2002: A collector's vintage, with dense, ageworthy red wines and powerfully textured whites. The product of the first year in a drought cycle, which typically makes outstanding wines with a balance of concentration and freshness thanks to the vines' stored vigor and the intensifying effect of low rainfall. Similar vintages: 2006, 2016, 2019.
- 2003: A joyous vintage that we underestimated at the time because it was so appealing and friendly that we thought it wouldn't have the stuffing to age. Then for 15 years we kept picking 2003 out as among our very favorites in vertical tastings. The wines are maybe not among our longest-lived, and are starting to tire a bit, but what a ride they've had. Similar vintages: 2008, 2014, 2020.
- 2004: A vintage that I remember Francois Perrin calling "square": precise, tidy, well-structured, and classic. Very long ripening cycle, with some rain in October that delayed the picking of our latest-ripening grapes. The wines have generally aged well, and I think of them as being precisely on point for what we were going for at the time. Similar vintages: 2013, 2019.
- 2005: A juicy, luscious, exuberant vintage in which I feel like you could taste the health of the vineyard, which got 40+ inches of rain after three years of drought. We dodged frosts, had a moderate summer and a long, beautiful fall. The grapes spent an extra month on the vines, and the vineyard was healthy throughout. We saw high yields but excellent concentration and quality. These wines have aged in outstanding fashion, gaining meatiness to balance their fruit, spice, and tannin, and the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel is the wine I pick right now when I'm trying to show off. Similar vintages: 2007, 2017.
- 2006: Similar overall conditions (ample rainfall, no frost) to 2005, but a later spring and a hotter summer led to wines with a bit more structure and a little less vibrancy. That seriousness meant it was a little overshadowed by the blockbuster vintages around it, and so it was a little bit of a surprise when it produced our first wine (the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel) to be honored in the Wine Spectator's "Top 100". The low acids meant that while it has turned out to be an outstanding red vintage, it was a less strong white vintage. Similar vintages: 2002, 2016.
- 2007: A blockbuster year, with ample fruit, structure, spice, and meaty/earthy richness. This was a product of the previous winter, which was the coldest and driest in our history. The resulting small berries and small clusters gave outstanding concentration to everything, and the moderate summer meant that the grapes retained freshness. The reds from this year got some of our highest-ever scores, and many of these are still youthful. The whites were good but at the time we were picking riper than we do now, and I find their elevated alcohols have meant that they aged less well than the reds. Similar vintages: 2005, 2021.
- 2008: A challenging growing season, bookended by frosts in both April and October, led to wines that didn't have the obvious early juicy appeal of 2007. But they've turned out to be beautiful over time, with whites showing both texture and lift and reds a lovely chocolate note. This is consistently one of Winemaker Neil Collins' favorite vintages in our vertical look-backs. Similar vintages: 2015 and especially 2018.
- 2009: The apex of the concentrated power we saw in the 2000s, with low yields a product of our third straight drought year and a damaging frost in April. Then the growing season alternated between warm and cold months until a severe heat spike in September brought many of our grapes tumbling in. We were mostly harvested when an early atmospheric river storm dumped 10 inches of rain here on October 13th, though the three weeks of warm, dry weather that followed allowed us to bring even those grapes in. The wines were so dense that it took me most of a decade for them to feel approachable, but they're shining now. Similar vintages: none, though these conditions sound a lot like what's happening in 2022.
- 2010: An outlier vintage for us in many ways, unlike anything we'd seen in the previous decade. Ample winter rainfall and no spring frosts combined to produce a very healthy vineyard and good yields. A very cool summer followed, with harvest less than half complete on October 15th. Warm, sunny weather in late October and early November saved the vintage, and our November 13th last-pick was exceptionally late. The wines showed that coolness in their youth in minty, high-toned flavors, though we were still able to get good ripeness thanks to the friendly late-fall weather. An exceptionally good white vintage. Reds I'm less enchanted by, as they're tasting a little tired right now. I'm hopeful that this is just a stage. Similar vintages: 1998.
- 2011: Another outlier, just as cool as 2010 (and much chillier than any vintage since) but with low yields thanks to hard frosts April 8th and 9th. That combination of low yields and cool-vintage character made intensely savory wines, much more reminiscent of the northern Rhone than the south. The wines have aged well, too, while preserving the savory character they had when they were young. Similar vintages: none, though choose 1998, 2010, or 2015 if you want the cool-vintage character, or 2001 or 2009 if you want the concentrated structure.
- 2012: A friendly, juicy vintage with big yields and modest concentration and structure, as one block after the next came in heavier than we'd estimated, even though rainfall was only about 70% of normal. The accumulated vigor from two previous wet winters and the limited demands on the vines' resources in the frost-reduced 2011 crop meant that it didn't act like a drought year. The wines were friendly and open from day one, and while the ageworthy reds have deepened in tone a bit, they're still medium-bodied and a touch on the simple side, and seem to be on a faster aging curve. Whites are lovely. Similar vintages: 2013 for reds, 2010 and 2014 for whites.
- 2013: Similar growing season and similar wines as 2012, but we learned from our experience the previous year and proactively reduced our crop levels both to increase concentration and to reduce the stress on our vines in this second year of drought. A moderate summer (very few days over the low 90s) maintained lift and translated into a leafy, herby note on top of the fruit. Warm weather during harvest and low yields led to an early start and our earliest-ever finish to harvest, as we made sure that we picked early enough to maintain freshness. Similar vintages: 2012 (but with a bit more concentration), 2018.
- 2014: Our third consecutive drought year plus a warm summer produced wines in the classic, juicy Californian style, with a bit less alcohol than those same wines we were making in the 2000s. We got good concentration with yields similar to 2013, though we needed to drop less fruit to get there. The wines are juicy and luscious, with enough structure to keep them balanced and pretty, high-toned red fruit flavors. Similar vintages: 2003, 2017.
- 2015: A lovely, ethereal vintage that produced wines with intense flavors but no sense of weight. With the drought at its most severe, yields were already low and further reduced by a cold, windy May that particularly impacted our early grapes. The summer alternated between warmer than normal (June, August, October) and cooler-than-normal (May, July, September) months, and resulted in a slow, extended harvest, with many of our late grapes coming in with tremendous expressiveness at low sugar levels. My dad called the vintage "athletic", which I thought was a nice way of getting at its weightless power. Similar vintages: none, really, though 2008 and 2013 have some traits they share.
- 2016: Even though we were still in the drought, rainfall was a bit better than the previous years, and the vineyard healthier under our new Biodynamic protocols. Yields recovered a bit from 2015 levels. A warm summer produced intense wines, both reds and whites, with dark colors and the structure to age. Similar vintages: 2002, 2006, 2019.
- 2017: We felt like we saw a replay of 2005, where 40+ inches of rainfall broke the drought with a bang and the vineyard tried to do three years of growing in one. We dodged frosts, had a moderate summer before a dramatic heat spike in late August, but just as things got critical it cooled in September and finished under perfect conditions in October. Good yields but outstanding concentration and colors, juicy early appeal but the structure to age. Similar vintages: 2003, 2005, 2021.
- 2018: As played out a decade earlier, a strong vintage that was overshadowed by blockbuster years on either side, producing elegant wines that were easy to underestimate. The growing season was slightly cooler than average except for a scorching midsummer (July through mid-August). Things cooled back down for harvest, and we picked with outstanding acids and solid concentration. This appears to be one of our greatest white vintages, and a strong red vintage though maybe not with the long aging of our best years. Similar vintages: 2008, 2013.
- 2019: A classic vintage for us, strong for both reds and whites, a product of good rain the previous winter, a cool first two-thirds of the ripening cycle, then consistently warm last third that accelerated the late grapes. The resulting compressed harvest had slightly above average yields, high quality across the board, pronounced varietal character, and good structure on the reds. A classic vintage for cellaring. Similar vintages: 2004, 2016, 2017.
- 2020: A year that many of us would like to forget, but which looks like it produced wines we’ll want to remember. The growing season was challenging, with below-average rain, a cool early summer followed by record-breaking heat in early August and mid-September, wildfires to our north and south, and, oh, a pandemic. The heat produced an early, compressed harvest. Whites turned out to be outstanding, with a lusciousness bolstered by good acids. We're still getting to know our reds, but they appear strong as well, with intense fruitiness and good tannic bite. Similar vintages: 2003 and 2014.
- 2021: It's our most recent vintage, so take this with a grain of salt, but I think 2021 has produced wines that rival the best we've seen in our history. Yields were reduced by a dry, chilly winter, with 13 of the 16 inches of rain coming in one January storm. The summer was lovely except for a July heat spike, and harvest unfolded in ideal conditions, with each warm stretch followed by a cool-down to give the vines (and us) some time to recover. The resulting wines have concentration and freshness, juicy appeal but structure, and (as we often see in our best years) well defined varietal character. Seemingly equally strong for both whites and reds. Similar vintages: 2017, 2019, and especially 2007.
One of the most fun things about what I get to do is to come to know wines (and years) almost as people, with personalities and life journeys that add depth to the things we perceive on first impression. Opening an older vintage can be like revisiting an old friend, and sometimes it makes me realize that years have what are in essence sibling relationships with other years. Of course, not every year has a comp. There are some years like 2001, 2009, and 2015 whose unusual combination of factors leads to vintages we just haven't seen before or since. Perhaps that will change when we have a half-century of years under our belt. I'll report back. Meanwhile, I hope that some of you found this helpful, or at least interesting. If this just raises new questions, leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer.