Last week, Francois Perrin joined me, my dad, Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Brad and Jordan around the blending table as we took our first comprehensive look at the reds from 2016. Coming into the blending, we'd only looked in detail at the whites, which were super. But reds often tell a different story. I'm happy to report that this year, they look as strong as the whites. And, for the first time in 7 years, we got to make a new wine. See if you can spot it:
As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Thanks to the better crop levels that we saw in 2016, there were enough lots that we began with Counoise and Mourvedre on Monday, and continued with Grenache, Syrah, and the handful of oddballs on Tuesday. Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending.
We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. My quick thoughts on each variety:
- Grenache (13 lots): A strong showing for Grenache, with 6 of the lots receiving 1's from me and only one 3. Quite luscious, some lots still a little sweet (not unusual for Grenache at this time of year).
- Mourvedre (18 lots): Also strong, though (for me) quite a large number of very good lots but not that many great lots. I gave seven lots a 1 grade, with another three hovering between 1 and 2. Lots of texture here, beautiful red fruit, good cola flavors. Not blockbuster wines overall, but classy and balanced.
- Syrah (13 lots): The best showing we've ever seen for Syrah. I gave eight of the thirteen lots 1 grades, and felt guilty on a few other cases that I was being too tough a grader. Deep, spicy, meaty, with powerful black fruit. Juicier than Syrah often is at this stage, but with plenty of tannin and concentration to back it up.
- Counoise (7 lots): Plenty of pretty Counoise that will be great for varietal bottlings and the Cotes de Tablas. Not much (in fact, only one lot) that felt like it had the concentration for Esprit for me. Usually there's a mix of the lighter-toned Counoise that reminds me of the Gamay grape and the darker, blueberry and spice Counoise that feels more Rhone-like. This year, almost entirely on the lighter side.
- Tannat (3 lots): All three lots got 1 grades from me; it's going to be a great Tannat year. Lots of black fruit, good tannic structure, good acids.
- Cabernet (1 lot): Only one small (60 gallon) lot of Cabernet this year; not really enough to bottle on its own, and anyway it was a nice dark wine but without as much Cabernet distinctiveness as we look for in a varietal bottling. It will find a happy home in the 2016 Tannat.
- Pinot Noir (1 lot): Just right, for my taste, in its balance between pretty cherry Pinot fruit, herbal elements from the roughly 25% whole clusters we used in the fermentation, and a little kiss of oak. Should make for a delicious 2016 Full Circle Pinot.
- Terret Noir (1 lot): Just the 4th vintage of this new grape for us, the Terret was zesty and bright, with watermelon fruit, good acids, and a little less grip than I remember from recent vintages. We've bottled it on its own in recent years, as we try to wrap our heads around it, but it's ultimately going to be a blending grape, and we think we found a great use for it. Keep reading.
We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the strength of the Syrah (and Grencahe) lots, we wanted to see some blends with higher percentages of Syrah than we've had in most recent years, and some others where we increased both Grenache and Syrah at the expense of Mourvedre.
Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie and continuing on through the lineup. Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. Not this year. We tried three blends and ended up picking as our favorite the one with the most Syrah and least Grenache. I was not surprised to find that we'd preferred the wine with 25% Syrah; the Syrah was outstanding. But I was surprised that we liked the blend with 66% Mourvedre and just 9% Grenache better than one with 60% Mourvedre and 15% Grenache. But it was pretty universal around the table: that by having a high percentage of Syrah and increasing the Grenache as well, we lost something essentially Mourvedre -- and essentially Panoplie -- about the wine.
Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Moreso than the Panoplie, the fundamental question we face each year with the Esprit is whether the character of the Mourvedre benefits more from a greater addition of Syrah or of Grenache, as these two variables are typically how we adjust to warmer and cooler vintages. In warmer years, where the Mourvedre shows juicier and more open (and tends to be higher alcohol) the darkness, spice, minerality, and structure of Syrah are particularly valuable. In cooler years, the flesh, sweet fruit, and more open tones of Grenache tend to be indispensable. So perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising that in the warm 2016 vintage, we preferred a blend with a lot of Syrah -- 31%, our highest-ever -- to options with higher percentages of Grenache. I was surprised that an option where we increased both Syrah and Grenache, and reduced the Mourvedre to around 38%, didn't show as well. But in this relatively ripe year, we found that as we increased the Grenache, the wines tended to come across as a touch alcoholic, while high-Syrah blends felt deep, pure, and balanced. So, the 2016 Esprit de Tablas will be 46% Mourvedre, 31% Syrah, 18% Grenache, and 5% Counoise.
Next on tap were two small-production blends -- one new, one we've been making for a decade -- that will go to the wine club. For our En Gobelet, in early years, we used nearly all the head-trained, dry-farmed lots for this one wine, and typically didn't have a lot of choices. But as the acreage that we've planted head trained has increased, we've had the ability to use these lots in Panoplie and Esprit as well as En Gobelet. But having already chosen the blends of these two wines, there wasn't a lot of choice left. So it was with some relief that we all loved the wine that resulted: a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 8% Counoise, and 3% Tannat. It was deeply red fruited, rich and savory, structured, like we'd distilled down cherries into their essence. It was a testament to the quality that those head-trained vines produce, and made a nice contrast to more Syrah-driven dark fruit we ended up preferring in the Panoplie and Esprit. Club members are in for a treat, in a couple of years.
For our second small-production blend, we wanted to find a way to celebrate the kinship that we felt Syrah has with Terret Noir. Now these two grapes may seem like opposites in many ways, with Syrah dark and Terret quite pale. But Terret shares a peppery spiciness with Syrah, particularly the Syrah lots that we fermented with whole clusters. So, we experimented with a series of blends combining the two, trying to figure out the relative proportion to make a wine with depth and seriousness, yet an openness that Syrah only rarely achieves. We ended up needing to add a little Grenache to the blend for flesh, and think we have a solution at about 60% Syrah and 20% each of Terret and Grenache. The result is like Syrah with an overlay of translucency: elements of both light and dark, savory, zesty, and clean. We're tentatively planning to call it "Le Complice," French for "partners in crime," to celebrate the kinship between Terret Noir and Syrah. We may still tweak this a little, but the bones are there for something that should be exciting.
On Thursday morning, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals. As often happens, the Cotes fell into place pretty quickly. We'd used so much Syrah in our other blends that all the rest of what we had in the cellar was only going to make up 25% of the 2100 cases we were trying to target for this wine. And that amount is about the minimum we feel like a Grenache-dominated blend needs to stay savory and in balance. We never use much Mourvedre in this blend, as we feel like it gets buried by the Grenache and Syrah, and we would prefer to save this Mourvedre for our varietal bottling. So, we were really experimenting with only two components: Counoise and Grenache. We ended up choosing a blend relatively high in Grenache for us (57%), with 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 9% Mourvedre. The wine was cheerful: strawberry and cherry fruit, nice spice, and enough structure and depth to hold it all together. It should be a real crowd-pleaser when it's released, and should also get deeper and more serious with time in barrel.
Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated what we could make as varietals: Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise, but no Syrah. Quantities of Mourvedre should be solid, the other two somewhat less. No Syrah, as often happens in warmer vintages, since it's so important in the blends. That makes two years in a row; if you think you'll miss it, consider this your warning to stock up on the (delicious) 2014.
A few concluding thoughts.
First, the 2016 vintage seems to have an appealing balance between lusher, juicier notes and deeper, more savory notes. Like a somewhat more generous 2014, or a 2015 with a little more power, or 2007 with a little less alcohol. That these are some of our best recent vintages makes me very excited for 2016's prospects. See all the 1's and 2's on my tasting sheet:
Second, after three years where our quantities were dramatically reduced by our drought (and in 2015, by cold weather during flowering) it was such a relief being able to make the quantities that we wanted of most wines. This stands in stark contrast to 2015, where even after some pretty drastic action in nearly eliminating the Dianthus and reducing my target quantities of many wines to rock bottom, we still came up short. There are a few vintages where high quality and solid quantity go hand in hand (I'm thinking 2005, or 2010, here) and I'm always grateful. Not that 2016 was particularly plentiful; it's still quite a bit below what we saw in 2010 or 2012. But compared to 2015, it felt like a windfall.
Third, what a pleasure to taste with Francois Perrin. It's been a few years since we had him here for the blending; we rarely know which Perrin we'll receive when we ask, and he was laid up for a time with some back problems. And each of the Perrins brings amazing depth of experience and terrific insights. But Francois, who has been the chief craftsman in the cellars at Beaucastel for four decades, has a unique perspective. Hearing what he gets excited about is a treat, and knowing that he was enthusiastic about what he found out of the 2016's is a great sign of the vintage's quality.