Last week, after two full weeks of work, we finally got a chance to taste all 11 red wines we'll be making from the 2018 vintage. It was impressive. Esprit and Panoplie were rich and lush, with plenty of ripe tannin but also freshness provided by vibrant acids. The En Gobelet and Le Complice each spoke clearly of the idea behind why we created the wines: En Gobelet earthy, with plenty of concentrated red fruit, while Le Complice was dark, herby, and spicy, like Syrah and yet not quite. The Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise were intensely characteristic of each grape: Mourvedre meaty and chocolaty, Grenache fruity but also powerfully structured, and Counoise juicy and electric, translucent and fresh. Even the Patelin de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas were each, in their own way, remarkably expressive. And, equally important, thanks to the relatively plentiful 2018 harvest, we'll be able to make solid amounts of most of our wines. With our 2012-2016 drought still in our recent memory, that was a relief.
How did we get here? It was the result of a process we've developed over the decades, where we spend a week or more sitting around our conference table, schedules cleared so we can focus just on this. Around that table this year joining Neil and me was the rest of our cellar team (Chelsea, Craig, Amanda, and Austin), Claude Gouan (Beaucastel's long-time oenologist, recently retired) and, once he arrived mid-week for our 30th Anniversary celebration, Jean-Pierre Perrin. As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. As we typically do in years where we have decent crop levels, we split our varietal tasting into two days: Counoise and Grenache (plus our few lots of Terret Noir and Pinot) on Monday, and Syrah, Mourvedre, and Tannat 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 (19 lots): The most powerful Grenache we've seen in years, although with the power came some lots that were tannic enough that we felt we had to be careful how we applied them in blending. Nine of the lots received 1's from me, with two others getting 1/2 grades (my intermediate grade that sits between a 1 and a 2). Only one 3. A combination of excellent fruit, good acids, and tannic structure.
- Syrah (15 lots): Really outstanding, reminiscent in many ways of what we saw in 2016. Eight 1's, with three others that I gave 1/2 grades to. Dense, dark, creamy and mineral. And, like what we saw in 2016, we ended up liking the syrah's contribution in the blends so much that we didn't have any left over for a varietal. Sometimes, that's how it works.
- Counoise (7 lots): A nice range of Counoise styles, from the translucent, juicy lots that remind us of Gamay to the rich, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we love to use in Esprit. Three 1's of the seven, on my sheet.
- Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, but felt less focused and concentrated than it had in past years, and while it will make a nice contribution to Le Complice, we didn't feel it was worthy of bottling on its own. The portion that didn't make it into Le Complice will get declassified into Patelin, which is also fun to contemplate.
- Tannat (3 lots): Massive, dense, and dark, and powerfully tannic. Chocolaty. Should be a Tannat-lover's dream vintage.
- Cabernet (1 lot): Beautiful, classic Cabernet, but with only one barrel (from our old nursery block) not enough to bottle on its own. It will go into the Tannat, as it does most years.
- Pinot Noir (7 lots): All these lots come from the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad planted outside my parents' house back in 2007, with different clones and levels of stem inclusion providing several small (in many cases, one-barrel) lots. The mix of the seven hit, for me, just the right note, with pretty cherry Pinot fruit given weight and complexity from the stems. A nice touch of oak. Should make for a delicious 2018 Full Circle Pinot.
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 apparent strengths of all three of our main red grapes it only made sense to kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie and Esprit with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned.
Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie. As always, we tasted our options blind, not knowing what was in each glass. 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. But in this vintage, we all agreed on the blend with the higher percentage of Syrah, which we felt offered great lushness and structure. After a brief discussion, we settled on a blend with 64% Mourvedre, 24% Syrah, and 12% Grenache.
Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. The first trial helped us narrow things down, as none of us picked the wine with the highest percentage of Mourvedre (50%). This was likely true for the same reason we saw last year: because although the Mourvedre was outstanding, we'd used all the lots that got near-universal 1 grades to get to 40% Mourvedre. Increasing that to roughly 50% forced us to include Mourvedre lots to which several of us gave 2 grades at the expense of 1-rated Grenache and Syrah, and our blind tasting confirmed that this was a mistake. That said, we split roughly evenly between camps favoring more Grenache (which produced wines with vibrancy and lift, nice saltiness and firm tannins) and those favoring more Syrah (which produced wines with more density and dark lushness) and decided to try some blends that split the difference.
The next day was a big one. We tasted the day before's Syrah-heavy Esprit against one with equal parts Syrah and Grenache, and again split pretty evenly between the two. In the end, we decided that yet another in-between blend was best, and ended up with an Esprit at 40% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 23% Grenache, and 10% Counoise.
We next moved on to our two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice. Given the head-trained lots that we'd chosen for Esprit and Panoplie, we didn't have a ton of choice on En Gobelet, which is made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks. And given the relatively high tannins across the vintage, and particularly among the Grenache lots, we were leery of including too much Tannat in the blend. So, it was with some relief that we loved the blend that resulted: 36% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 6% Counoise, and 3% Tannat. It made for an En Gobelet that was juicy yet structured, with beautiful red-fruited power and the tannins to age.
Le Complice celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with Syrah, and particularly the Syrah lots fermented with stems or whole clusters. Both grapes share a peppery spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. Because both grapes tend toward high tannin, we've realized the past two years that we also need some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. That said, because we felt the Terret on its own was weaker than 2016 or 2017, we decided to try some blends with lower percentages of the grape and more Syrah and Grenache. But it was interesting to me that we still all coalesced around the blend with the highest percentage of Terret (15%), along with 60% Syrah and 25% Grenache, as the most characterful and balanced. It was a good reminder that grapes that might be lacking on their own that can be just what a particular blend needs.
After this, we had to break for our 30th Anniversary party, and Claude and his wife left for a driving tour of the desert southwest. So, the next Monday, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals. The main question this year with the Cotes was, given the relatively high tannins of the Grenache lots, what was the right blend (and the right choice of Grenache lots) to show off the grape's charm. We ended up spending more time on this question than I can ever remember, added a relatively high percentage of Counoise and swapped in some of the Grenache lots we'd originally liked less because their simple juiciness was just what the more tannic lots needed. In the end, we chose a blend of 45% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 10% Mourvedre. Even with our adjustments, it will be a serious Cotes de Tablas, with significant aging potential.
Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated how much of the varietal wines we could make: no Syrah, and not much Counoise (125 cases), but a nice quantity (680 cases) of Mourvedre, 1250 cases (our most-ever) of Tannat, and a glorious 1100 cases of what should be an amazing varietal Grenache. Although we'll miss having the Syrah, we should have plenty of great stuff to share with fans and club members over the next couple of years. And coming on the heels of bottling all four of our main red grapes from the terrific 2017 vintage I feel better about the selection of red wines we have in the pipeline than I can remember.
A few concluding thoughts. First, although we're always looking for comparable vintages to the newest one we're wrapping our heads around, it's hard for me to make an easy vintage comp for 2018. Maybe 2002, which was also a dark, serious, structured year, outstanding for Syrah, and the first dry year after a very wet one, but the vines were so much younger then. Or 1999, with the same big tannins around expressive fruit, but without the concentration we see now. The fact that I'm having to reach so far back into our history suggests that it was a year with its own unique character. It will be fun to get to know it over the coming months.
Second, we saw more day-to-day variation in how the wines tasted this year than I can remember since at least 2011. The same wines would taste lusher and rounder one day and more powerfully tannic the next. This was a good reminder that it's important to leave yourselves the flexibility to come back and re-taste things a second or third time. Whether that's a function of what was going on with the weather (it still hasn't settled into our summer pattern, and we had a few rainstorms pass through while we were tasting), or the stages of the wines, or even (as much as I cringe to mention it) the Biodynamic calendar, it's a fact that wines do taste different on different days. Making decisions over the course of two weeks helps reduce the likelihood that those decisions will be based on a tasting day that is an outlier.
Finally, it was such a treat to have both Claude and Jean-Pierre around that blending table. It's pretty mind-blowing to think of the number of vintages, and arguments, and discoveries, they have made at Beaucastel sitting around blending tables like this, in the 40-plus years they've worked together. To have that accumulated experience on display will be my lasting memory of this year's blending.