Does a great vintage like 2019 make blending easier... or harder?

On Friday, after a full week of work, we finally got to sit down and taste the ten key red wines from the 2019 vintage we'd been blending since Monday. It drove home just how good the 2019 vintage is. Several of these wines will, I think, vie for the best examples we've ever made, including the Esprit de Tablas, rich and lush, with deep purple fruit and a creamy texture we only get in great years. Other standouts included Le Complice, dark, herb-laced, but with density and texture to match; Grenache, exuberantly juicy, with vibrant acids enlivening it and yet more plushness and density than we expect from this fruity grape; Syrah, the proverbial iron fist in a (black) velvet glove; and even Cotes de Tablas, spicy and fruity, mouth-filling and lush, with creamy texture and the structure to age. That's not to say that the other wines weren't also terrific, but those were the standouts to me. But for all that, it wasn't an easy blending week.

More about that in a bit. But first, let me take you through how the week played out.

2019 Red blends

Our blending process is one we've developed over the decades, built on how they work at Beaucastel. Of course, with Coronavirus mitigating against international travel, we had to make a few changes this year. But it's still the same process, of building consensus around a table of participants, starting from individual fermentation lots and moving through our hierarchy of wines.

As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Because it's too much to ask to keep your palate fresh to taste 59 separate lots of young red wines, we divided this stage up between two days. Monday saw us tackle Mourvedre, Syrah, and our one lot of Pinot Noir, while Tuesday we tasted Grenache, Counoise, Tannat, one co-fermented lot, and our oddballs: Terret Noir, Cabernet, and our two new red grapes, Vaccarese and Cinsaut. 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. Here's a quick tour of Tuesday's lineup:

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. This year we saw the most "1" grades and the fewest "3" grades I can remember. How I graded each variety, in the order in which we tasted them:

  • Mourvedre (14 lots): Less Mourvedre (in both quantity and number of lots) than recent years, after a short Mourvedre crop in 2019. But amazingly powerful and representative of what we love about this, our most important grape. I gave seven lots a 1 grade, and three others intermediate 1/2 grades. Even the 2 grades I gave out were pure, juicy, and classic, and will make for a tremendous varietal Mourvedre. As for the blends that are based on Mourvedre, wow.
  • Syrah (15 lots): If possible, even stronger than the Mourvedre. Of course, Syrah is the most consistent grape that we grow, but we loved the varietal purity that it showed, and its structure without any sense of hardness. Eight 1's, with five others that I gave 1/2 grades to. If you're doing the math, that leaves only two "2" lots, and no "3" lots. Great syrahs have a creamy, minerally texture equal to their black fruit and structure, and these did, in spades.
  • Pinot Noir (1 lot): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad decided to plant outside my parents' house back in 2007, with a mix of different clones. This year they produced a Pinot that was on point for me, lighter in body than the Rhones we tasted that day, but with plenty of flavor, classic cherry and cola notes, and just a touch of oak. Should make for a very nice 2019 Full Circle Pinot.
  • Grenache (14 lots): Typically, Grenache shows the most diversity at this stage, because it takes longest to ferment and many lots are still settling into final form. The couple of weeks that Coronavirus delayed our blending this year probably helped this more than any other. Four 1's from me, with six others getting 1/2 grades. Only four 2's and no 3's. Plenty of Grenache's signature fruit and spice, with great acids across the board. Less of the sometimes drying front-palate tannins than we sometimes see at this stage. A few lots that seemed high enough in alcohol that we needed to be careful.
  • Counoise (6 lots): A nice range of Counoise styles, from the translucent, juicy lots that remind us of Gamay to the richer, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we look to use in Esprit. The acids here seemed likely to come in particularly useful in this vintage where Mourvedre and Syrah were so luscious. Two 1's, two 1/2 grades, one two, and my only 2/3 of all the lots (though even this found a good home in the Cotes de Tablas later in the week).
  • Cinsaut (1 lot): Our first Cinsaut, and only two barrels. A nose of dusty grape candy, with a fresh, appealing, spicy purple-fruited palate. It didn't seem to have Esprit-level depth, but will introduce itself very nicely to the Tablas Creek audience as a varietal wine.
  • Vaccarese (1 lot): A new experience for most of us around that table, as it's our first harvest of a grape with only about 30 planted acres worldwide. It showed a lovely deep purple color, with a nose of pine forest and minty juniper. The mouth was more Loire red than Rhone-like, to me, with notes of tobacco and spice, medium body, some tannic grip, and fruit flavors playing a secondary role. As we do with new grapes, we're planning to bottle it on its own so we can wrap our own heads around it and share it with all of you. Exciting!
  • Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, but felt more polished than it has in recent years, with more floral character and less aggressive tannins than we've seen the last few years. Plenty pretty enough to bottle on its own, but since we'd reduced crop levels to try to tame the tannins and had seen a mildew outbreak further depress our harvest, we didn't think we'd have enough to use in Le Complice and bottle on its own. It turns out we will... more on that below!
  • Tannat (4 lots): Massive, dense, spicy, dusty, and dark. Tannic but not overbearing. Three of the four lots showed some oak, and I preferred the one without for En Gobelet, but the remainder should make a powerful, ageworthy, chocolaty varietal Tannat.
  • Cabernet (1 lot): Typically, the few rows of Cabernet in our old nursery block go into our Tannat, but in years where we get two barrels, and it's so powerfully expressive of Cabernet that we can't bear to blend it away, we contemplate putting it in bottle. It turns out that 2019 will be the first year since 2013 that we do. A tangy, green peppercorn and eucalyptus nose, with powerful black fruit and cigar box flavors, and a lurking minerality that I absolutely loved. I'm not a big fan of the low-acid, high-tannin style that most Napa Cabernets show (and most other Cabernet regions try to mimic). But this Cabernet, with its minerality and freshness... this, I'm looking forward to drinking. 

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. We also noted that with our relatively small Mourvedre crop this year, we needed to set our expectations for quantity lower.

Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out the two blends, 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 split between a blend with roughly equal Syrah and Grenache percentages and one that had 30% Syrah, which would have been our most ever. (A third option, which was closest to our "normal" Panoplie blend, with 26% Grenache and only 8% Syrah, was no one's favorite, seeming a bit thinner by comparison.) When we get an equal split around the table between two wines, our first approach is to try to hit the mid-point between the two wines, to see if we can get everything we all liked in a single blend. It doesn't always work, but it did for this wine, so we settled on a blend of 62% Mourvedre, 22% Syrah, and 16% Grenache.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Unlike with the Panoplie, we got nearly universal agreement on the first round, with a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, and 10% Counoise. The relatively high percentages of Grenache and Counoise seemed to polish the deeper flavors of Syrah and Mourvedre, producing something deep, spicy, and creamy, with warm spices and a lovely loamy earthy umami character. Just outstanding. I wouldn't have predicted the high Counoise number, but this is similar to what we often find in blending our whites: that in richer, more structured years, a little higher percentage of the brighter grapes makes for a more complete wine.

Thursday, we moved on to our two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice. Because of the high quality of the vintage overall, even with all the lots that we'd chosen for Esprit and Panoplie, we had quite a bit of choice on En Gobelet, made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks. And this turned out to be the most difficult decision of the week. All three of our first round options received at least one first place vote, and the two favorites were quite different, one with twice as much Grenache as Mourvedre, and the other with nearly equal parts of the two. Complicating things, neither favorite had much Tannat, and we were worried that the wine that got the most first place votes, with just 2% Tannat, might end up too similar to the Esprit. We decided to try another blend that replaced some of the Mourvedre in our favorite with enough Tannat to get to 10%. This ended up only muddying the waters, as that Tannat-heavy version got three first place votes, but also four last place votes from people who felt that the added darkness and tannin overwhelmed the terroir character that En Gobelet expresses at its best. And this time, splitting the difference didn't please anyone, as it felt less deep and dark, but still less terroir-driven than the starting point. In the end, we decided that we needed to taste the favorite from round one against Esprit to know whether we'd made the right decision.

It was a relief that, after that, Le Complice came together in one round. The wine 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 that we also need some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. Last year, we didn't end up using all the Terret we produced, but with this year's small crop, we thought we would. Still, given how much we liked the Terret in the lot tasting, we were delighted when it was revealed that our universal favorite was 67% Syrah, 27% Grenache, and just 6% Terret... leaving half our Terret to make a varietal wine. The resulting wine was dark, smoky, and spicy, with just enough of that green peppercorn stem spice to balance the wine's ample black fruit and mineral. Just delicious, and should be fascinating to watch age.

Friday, we started early in the morning to tackle the Cotes de Tablas. Even though we'd already used about two-thirds of our lots with our higher-end wines, all three of our options were delicious. We knew we didn't have much Mourvedre left, and had some Counoise lots we knew we wanted to use as a varietal. That left us exploring options for the relative quantities of Grenache and Syrah. In the end, although we settled on a middle ground, rejecting the wine with 49% Grenache and only 26% Syrah as nice but a touch simple, while the wine with 40% Grenache and 35% Syrah was serious and structured, perhaps too much so for Cotes de Tablas. Our final blend was 44% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 17% Counoise, and 9% Mourvedre. We're making less Cotes de Tablas as we shift the focus of our middle tier (between Patelin and Esprit) in the national market toward varietal wines, but the roughly thousand cases we'll make this year will, I feel sure, be one of our best ever.

That afternoon, we sat down to taste the finalized blends alongside the four main varietal wines that we hadn't yet tried. It turned out that the En Gobelet differentiated itself from the Esprit with no trouble, showing more lift and translucency, and clearer expression of saline minerality, while the Esprit showed darker, plusher tones, and a creamier texture. So, issue solved. Sometimes all it takes is a little time, and perspective.

For our varietal wines, we identify lots during the first stage that express that grape's character the most clearly, and then try to avoid using them in the other wines. Of course, if one of our top blends needs a lot, it gets it, but there's usually enough leeway (and enough difference between what's great for Esprit and what would be great in, say, a varietal Mourvedre) that it works out. And in a year like this, it's a pleasure to see how clearly the character of both the grapes and the vintage shine through. My quick notes on the varietal wines:

  • Grenache (400 cases): Exuberantly juicy on the nose. In the mouth, our most powerful Grenache in years, yet still vibrant. Quite dark. A baby. 
  • Syrah (725 cases): Nose is dark, with black olive, black pepper, blackberry, and smoke. The mouth is plush, with the iron fist of Syrah tannins cloaked in dark fruit. After no Syrah in 2018, will be a treat to send to club members.
  • Mourvedre (300 cases): Nose of pure red fruits. The mouth is creamy, with Mourvedre's ability to walk the line between red and black raspberry fruit, a little loamy earth. Good acids and tannins. Classic.
  • Counoise (325 cases): A brambly purple-fruited nose. The mouth is zesty with more cherry fruit, refreshing acidity and medium body. Should be a crowd pleaser.

In addition to these wines, we'll have 50 cases each of varietal Terret Noir, Cinsaut, and Cabernet, 175 cases of Vaccarese, 475 cases of Full Circle Pinot, and a glorious 1250 cases of Tannat. Lots of fun things to share, for sure.

A few concluding thoughts. First, in looking for a comparable vintage to 2019, the closest one would probably be 2017, but top to bottom, 2019 had a touch more concentration and polish (though lower quantity). In particular, Grenache was stronger than it was in 2017. Maybe a vintage like 2007, which was outstanding across the board, but we were picking riper then, and this 2019 shows, for me, more minerality and less of the super-ripe character that I get now when I drink a 2007. And I like the whites from 2019 a ton -- more than I did either 2007 or 2017. Still, given that we rank these vintages pretty universally as among our top ever gives a sense of how exciting we think 2019 is. It will be fun to get to know it over the coming months and years. 

Second, a vintage this strong, with such terrific raw materials across the board, in some ways complicates the blending process, because we're having to make stylistic judgment calls in addition to quality rankings. In an average year, the limited volume of top-rated lots of our main grapes can constrain the percentage we use in Esprit. In a year like this, we could have chosen quite a bit more top-ranked Grenache, Syrah, or Mourvedre than we did, if we'd wanted. That means that we weren't just having to decide what our best lots were, and whether they fit together properly, but which stylistic direction we wanted to take the wines. And while there's almost always good agreement about what grade a lot should have, as you can tell from my description of the process, what people like best is a more sticky question. Still, in a year like this, we do have the reassuring thought (which came through as we got down to the Cotes de Tablas) that our third- and fourth-choice lots are still really, really good. So, we know that with such good raw materials it's unlikely we can go too far astray.

Finally, given that we weren't able to have a Perrin here, it's great that this vintage was so strong. We're used to having decades of experience tasting Beaucastel around our blending table. We didn't this year, although between Neil, me, Chelsea, Craig, Amanda, Austin, and Jordy, we did have more than 120 Tablas Creek blending sessions under our belts. I'm confident that when the Perrins do get to taste what we made, we will have done them proud.


Report from the distanced blending table: 2019 is a vintage of remarkable power and texture

Last week, six of us emerged after two weeks at home to put together the white wines from the 2019 vintage. This was a smaller group than normal, a blending with no Perrin in attendance and the Tablas Creek participants reduced to a core six (Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Austin, Jordy, and me) in the interest of maintaining social distance. Still, it was a relief for all of us to have some social contact and I know it felt great for me to get out of crisis management mode and immerse myself in the familiar intellectual challenge of taking the 37 different white lots we had at the end of the 2019 harvest and turning them into Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and a collection of varietal wines.

If you're unfamiliar with how we do our blending, you might find it interesting to read this blog by Chelsea that she wrote a few years ago.

Our first step, as it always is, was to taste each variety in flights, give each lot a grade, and start assessing the character of the year. Our grading system is simple; a "1" grade means it's got the richness, elegance, and balance to be worth of consideration for Esprit Blanc. A "2" grade means we like it, but it's not right for Esprit, for whatever reason. It may be pretty, but without the concentration for a reserve-level wine. It might be so powerful we feel it won't blend well. Or it might just be out of the style we want for the Esprit, such as with too much new oak. A "3" grade means the lot has issues that need attention. It might be oxidized or reduced. It might still be fermenting and in a place that makes it hard to evaluate confidently. Or it might just not have the substance for us to be confident we'll want to use it. Most "3" lots resolve into 2's or 1's with some attention. If they don't, they end up getting sold off and they don't see the inside of a Tablas Creek bottle.

2019 white blending notes

My quick thoughts on each variety are below. 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. 

  • Roussanne (12 lots): Some of the best Roussanne lots I can remember in my 18 years doing this. Overall, powerful and concentrated, but not overripe or alcoholic, with better-than-usual acids. Oodles of Roussanne character, across a range of different barrel treatments and vineyard blocks. My grades: five 1’s, a 1/2 that I loved but thought might be too oaky for Esprit, three 2’s, two 2/3 lots that in a weaker year probably would have been solid 2's, and one 3 that will be declassified.
  • Grenache Blanc (7 lots): Some really nice Grenache Blanc, but a little out of the Grenache Blanc mainstream, tending more toward power than brightness. A lot of intermediate grades from me, as I wasn't sure that these powerful, textured Grenache Blanc lots would be needed in Esprit Blanc this year, with Roussanne so powerful and textured on its own. My scores: two 1’s, three 1/2 grades, one 2, and one 2/3.
  • Viognier (7 lots): Like the first two grapes, plenty of power. Since we don't use Viognier in Esprit Blanc, a "1" grade just means that it's as good and expressive as Viognier gets, with freshness to balance its plentiful fruit and body. One "1", two 1/2 lots, three 2's, and one 3 that will be declassified.
  • Picpoul Blanc (4 lots): A great Picpoul vintage, with every lot showing both power and brightness. Two 1's that I thought would be perfect for Esprit, a 1/2 that I wasn't sure whether would be best on its own or in a blend, and one beautifully fresh and lively 2 that was maybe my favorite to drink on its own and which will be the core of our varietal Picpoul this year.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): A terrific showing for this grape, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm, a little extra concentration beyond what we're used to seeing in this famously restrained grape, and better acids that usual too. One 1, one 1/2, and one 2. This will be a great Cotes Blanc component, and plenty worthy as a varietal wine too.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 180 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, but it was pretty: lovely salty minerality, with lemon pith and citrus leaf flavors. Clearly capable of contributing to the Esprit Blanc, but also excellent on its own. I gave it a 1/2. See below for how this played out.
  • Picardan (1 lot): Not quite as scarce as Clairette, at 384 gallons, and for me the best Picardan we've had to work with in the four years we've had it in production. Pure, spicy, and rich, with great acids. A "1" for me.
  • Bourboulenc (1 lot): The first harvest for our newest grape. It's been a crazy orange color since it came out of the press, and even as it dropped clear, it's still got that caramel tinge to it. The nose too was a little caramely, with orange pith and a textured, phenolic character. I gave it a "2" because it didn't seem like Esprit Blanc material, but it will be a fun varietal wine that we're excited to introduce to you later in 2020.
  • Petit Manseng (1 lot): Not really relevant to the rest of the week’s work, since we don’t blend Petit Manseng into the other Rhone whites. Still, this was a good chance to check in on how it was doing, and decide whether we wanted to push it along fermentation to a drier profile, or to leave it with more residual sugar [If this question seems interesting to you, check out the blog from a few years back Wrapping Our Heads Around Petit Manseng]. At roughly 100 g/L residual sugar, it felt closer to Vin de Paille than the off-dry profile we prefer, masking the electric acids that make Petit Manseng so fascinating. We decided to let it continue to ferment, until it gets to our 50-60 g/L target.

We finished Wednesday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc. The relative shortage of higher-toned Grenache Blanc suggested that we try some Esprit blends with more Picpoul and less Grenache Blanc than usual. As for Cotes Blanc, Viognier always takes the lead, but we weren't sure whether we wanted Marsanne's elegance or Grenache Blanc's density and acid to play second fiddle. So, we decided to try one blend with more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne, one with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc, and one where we increased both to nearly as much as we had Viognier. 

Thursday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. In our first round, the consensus favorite was a blend with 60% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc (on the low side for us), 14% Picpoul Blanc (on the high side for us), and 3% each of Picardan and Clairette Blanche. A blend with 25% Grenache Blanc and just 10% Picpoul felt too monolithic, a little heavy, which I suspected would happen given the Grenache Blanc lots we had to add to get to 25%. And the blend where we increased the Roussanne percentage to 75% felt flat, which in retrospect shouldn't have been surprising as to get to that quantity we'd exhausted the consensus "1" Roussanne lots and had to start pulling from lots that received more "2" grades.

We were happy with the result, but not quite done with Esprit Blanc. Given the small Clairette harvest, if we used 3% in Esprit Blanc that would mean we wouldn't have any left over for a varietal bottling. Before we made that determination, we wanted to make sure that the addition of the Clairette made for a meaningful improvement in the Esprit Blanc. If it did, great. That's our primary goal: make the best Esprit we can, and why it gets first dibs on everything. But we wanted to see. So, we decided to taste our favorite against a similar wine that removed the Clairette in favor of more Roussanne. Lo and behold, we all preferred the wine without the Clairette as a little longer, a little more intense, and beautifully pure. Even better! We get a great Esprit Blanc, and a small Clairette Blanche bottling. Final blend: 63% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan.

Next we tackled the Cotes Blanc. Tasting the wines, it was clear that the solution with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc was superior to the others, and we were blown away with how much we liked the resulting wine. It's got the power of a Roussanne-heavy Cotes Blanc vintage like 2011 or 2015, but with more Viognier generosity and sweeter fruit. Just a beautiful wine, and one we're excited to share with you all. Final blend: 44% Viognier, 29% Marsanne, 19% Grenache Blanc, and 8% Roussanne.

We had managed to make our two estate blends without using up any of our grapes completely. So, the final step was to taste those two blends alongside the Patelin Blanc and the eight (yes, eight) varietal wines that this left us. Our principal concerns here are to make sure that the varietal wines are differentiated from the blends that lead with the same grape (so, our Esprit Blanc is different from Roussanne, our Cotes Blanc different from the Viognier, etc) and to make sure that the blends fall into the appropriate places in our hierarchy. My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:

  • 2019 Picpoul Blanc (250 cases): A nose of pineapple upside-down cake. Lovely in the mouth with flavors of fresh pineapple and green herbs. Saline. Long. Great texture.
  • 2019 Grenache Blanc (900 cases): Color is gold, darker than usual for Grenache Blanc. Nose is burnt sugar and citrus peel. The mouth shows lots of texture, preserved lemon flavors, and great acids. Salty. Long.
  • 2019 Marsanne (325 cases): Pretty honeysuckle nose. Mouth is soft, mineral, peaches and cream, with a little honeydew. Nice acidity (for Marsanne) on the finish.
  • 2019 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2200 cases): Nose of Haribo peaches and lemongrass, nice. The mouth is softish for Patelin Blanc, more Viognier than Grenache Blanc right now, medium weight with apricots and gentle acids on finish.
  • 2019 Viognier (400 cases): Intensely peach on the nose, freshened with mint and a sweet almond brittle note. The mouth shows rich texture, more peaches, creamsicle, and marmalade. Good acids and length, with a welcome pithy bite providing balance on the finish.
  • 2019 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1500 cases): Straw, dried apricot, and lemon zest on the nose. The mouth is terrific, balanced between a fruitier peaches & cream note and a yeastier shortbread note. Nice acids and length on the finish.
  • 2019 Roussanne (1300 cases): Honeycomb and cedar on the nose. Mouth is very Roussanne: honey and bay and Indian spices, lots of texture, dry and long on the finish.
  • 2019 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (2200 cases): A sweeter tone to the nose than the Roussanne, sweet oak and jasmine. The palate is lovely: refined green pear fruit, creamy texture, and long, long, long.
  • 2019 Bourboulenc (125 cases): Orange in color and flavors. The nose is shy, a little cola sweetness. The mouth is zesty with a little pithy bite and flavors of orange peel and Seville oranges. Bright acids on the long finish.
  • 2019 Clairette Blanche (75 cases): A nose of clean mineral, sea spray, and lemongrass. The mouth is similar, but with more texture than the nose promises, flavors of watermelon rind, white gummy bear, and a clean finish.
  • 2019 Picardan (75 cases): A richer nose than Clairette, spicy, minty sarsaparilla. The mouth is gorgeous, both bright and rich with flavors of quince, yellow apple, and sweet spice. A little citrus flower note comes out on the yeasty finish. Chelsea described it as "like a really good Champagne you've let go flat".  

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The 2019 vintage seems to have a well defined character already. The 2018 vintage was a terrific year for white wines because of its brightness. Whites like Patelin Blanc, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc were all electric. 2019, by contrast, seems great for the denser, more powerful whites, and particularly good for Roussanne. It will be fascinating to see these wines as they get cleaned up and prepped for bottling. This process tends to brighten up wines, and I'm hopeful that they'll keep their texture and richness while getting a little more translucency. If that happens, I think we'll have 2019 in the conversation for the best whites we've ever made.
  • Of all the varieties, I was least convinced by Grenache Blanc. We felt like we had overcropped Grenache Blanc a little in 2018, and so reduced its yield by around a third in 2019. Tasting these wines, I'm not sure that the decision was a good one. We got more texture and power than I can remember tasting in our Grenache Blancs, but I'm not sure that this was a positive tradeoff for less vibrancy. To what extent was it vintage, and to what extent yields? I don't think we know. But we're going to try to figure this out.
  • The process of working together while still maintaining distancing was educational. With six people spaced around our big conference table, we all had plenty of space. We all pulled and washed our own glasses and dump buckets. The sample bottles were wiped down before they were poured, and only one person picked up and poured each bottle. We kept doors and windows open so there was air moving in the room. We'd all been quarantining at home the previous two weeks, and everyone was healthy. Even though wineries are agricultural businesses and therefore considered essential, that doesn't mean we're operating as though the business environment were normal. And as we start physically blending the wines over the coming weeks, we'll be limiting our cellar team to two people at a time, and making sure they're able to maintain their distance. It will mean a slower process, but we'll get it done.

This week, most of us will go back to sheltering at home. But we'll do so knowing that we've hit one of the milestones of the winemaking year. And that the wines we make have the potential to be memorable. That will be one of the positive memories I'll have of Quarantine 2020.

2019 white blends post-blending


Harvest 2019 Recap: What's Usually a Marathon Turns Out to Be a Sprint

Last Wednesday, as I was on the road heading to the (remarkable) New York Wine Experience, the cellar team brought in the last lot of grapes from the 2019 harvest, some head-trained Counoise from our Scruffy Hill block. This capped a 40-day sprint: our shortest harvest in 18 years, and longer only in our history than the tiny frost-reduced crop of 2001. That 40 days is a full two weeks shorter than our average this millennium. But unlike in some of the other attenuated harvests, we didn't have to pick because there was a threat of imminent rain, or heat. No, it was just that the consistently warm, sunny weather that we've seen since early August meant that everything was ready. No wonder our cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Cellar team with last pick of 2019

Because the weather never forced us to pause, the breakdown of our workflow was nearly constant. After a slow start the last week of August and first two weeks of September (after which we sat at only 10% complete) starting September 16th we picked nearly every day until the end of harvest. You can see steadiness of the vintage in the chart below (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit):

Final Harvest Graph

Yields defy an easy explanation. We ended up down overall about 8% from 2018, but while overall we were almost exactly at our long-time average, the picture depends a lot on which grape you look at. I'll dive into that below. But what stood out to me was that although we had great rainfall last winter, and exceptional vine health all summer, we didn't see the high yields that typically come with that. The complete picture:

Grape 2019 Yields (tons) 2018 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2018
Viognier 17.4 18.2 -4.4%
Marsanne 12.3 11.8 +4.2%
Grenache Blanc 28.3 43.6 -35.1%
Picpoul Blanc 8.6 9.1 -5.5%
Vermentino 24.7 17.9 +38.0%
Roussanne 46.1 32.6 +41.4%
Other whites 7.8 6.1 +27.9%
Total Whites 145.2 139.3 +4.2%
Grenache 51.4 74.3 -30.8%
Syrah 42.5 44.7 -4.9%
Mourvedre 49.6 64.4 -23.0%
Tannat 19.0 19.8 -4.0%
Counoise 20.0 16.0 +25.0%
Other reds 5.6 3.8 +47.4%
Total Reds 188.1 223.0 -15.7%
Total 333.3 362.3  -8.0%

Average yields ended up at 3.02 tons per acre, nearly exactly at our ten-year average. Other years right around 3 tons per acre read like a litany of our favorite-ever vintages: 2003, 2007, 2014, and 2016. As to why we saw only average yields despite the ample rainfall that we saw last winter, I blame a handful of small things: we saw some shatter in our Grenache blocks due to cool weather at flowering; we decided that we'd been hanging too much crop on our Grenache Blanc and were more aggressive in thinning, and (the only one of these which is troubling) Mourvedre, which didn't suffer from shatter, still hung a small crop. We'll be spending some time in the slower season to come trying to come up with a program to reverse this development, as we've done successfully in recent years with Roussanne. Speaking of Roussanne, it's clear from the increased Roussanne crop that the health that we noticed all growing season in our Roussanne was reflected in the quantity we harvested. It was also reflected in the fact that we didn't need to make nearly as many passes through our Roussanne blocks. It's the first time in a while that we've had extra lines on our harvest chalkboard, as we picked 95 lots this year (20 fewer than 2018). And that's including our first-ever picks of Bourboulenc, Cinsaut, and Vaccarese, noted in all-caps and with extra stars on the board:

Finished 2019 Harvest Chalkboard

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74
2018 22.80 3.62
2019 22.30 3.62

You'll note that 2019's sugars saw a small decline from the past two years while the average pH maintained the level we were very happy with last year. The main culprit on the lower harvest sugars were Marsanne and Roussanne, both of which came in, on average, below 20° Brix. That's not a problem with Marsanne -- we typically love it around 12% alcohol -- but it suggests that we'll have a range of Roussannes, including those riper lots that are more likely to be appropriate for Esprit Blanc, and those that may be better suited for the Cotes Blanc or Patelin Blanc. I wouldn't be surprised to see both those wines with a higher than normal percentage of Roussanne in 2019.

The continued lower average pH is a great sign of the health of the vines, and the relative lack of stress that the vineyard was under at harvest time.

I had a sense, from living here and evaluating what I felt week by week, that we were really looking at two distinct weather patterns: a fairly cool one that lasted until the end of July, and then a consistent, warm pattern that took over in early August and lasted until mid-October. And the degree days that we measured this 2019 growing season support that, more or less. The chart below shows the unusually chilly May, the moderate June and July, and then the warmer-than-n0rmal (but not scorching) August and September. Note that October's information is for the first 16 days, as we picked our last block on October 16th:

Degree Days 2019 vs Normal

I mentioned in my introduction that the duration of harvest -- 40 days -- was our shortest since 2001. That's noteworthy enough. But just as unusual was the sequencing of the different grapes. The cool weather in May seems to have set back the early grapes somewhat. Viognier -- which started coming in September 7th -- and Vermentino, Syrah, and Grenache Blanc -- all of which saw their first estate picks September 16th -- were delayed about two weeks compared to our average this decade. This delay in our early grapes led me to conclude mistakenly that we were looking at a later-than-normal harvest. But the late grapes, which flower in June and do the bulk of their ripening in the August-September period where we saw ideal conditions, were actually picked early. We saw our first picks of Roussanne on September 6th and Counoise on September 12th, both three weeks or so before we'd normally expect them. Grenache Noir, which usually lags behind Syrah by a couple of weeks, came in right on its heels, just one day later this year. And we were totally done with Roussanne by October 7th, which is really unusual.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and his response was, "the ferments have been wonderfully slow and measured. It is early for me to say just what to expect from the wines themselves but the whites seem aromatic and quite showy, pretty and delicate wines. Reds have nice rich color and are solid in structure while yet being quite plush and rich in texture." Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi added that it's "a vintage marked by balance." We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

Of course, just because we've finished picking doesn't mean that we're done with our cellar work. There are still plenty of lots to be pressed off, tanks to be dug out, and fermentations to monitor. But it feels different than it does earlier in harvest, when you're emptying tanks to make room for the next pick. Now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, where they'll winter over without taking up space. And the late-season sun shining through the presses make the afternoon warmth that much sweeter: 

Mourvedre in the press

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time (although, to be fair, it doesn't look like there's any precipitation in the long-term forecast). Meanwhile, we're putting the vineyard to bed, seeding cover crop, and getting the animals back into the vineyard, to clean up any second crop clusters still on the vines and start spreading manure in preparation for the rainy season. Even in years like this when there's no inclement weather during harvest, it's still a relief when everything is in tanks and barrels, and you just don't have to worry about rain, or frost, or anything else. Whenever winter feels like coming, we'll be ready. And that's something to celebrate, in and of itself.


What it Feels Like to Spend a Day in the Cellar During Harvest

The 2019 harvest will go down in our history as one of the most intense, compressed seasons ever. After a slow beginning, things ramped up the week of September 15th, and they really haven't stopped. We've picked at least 60 tons off of our estate each of the last four weeks, and suddenly, all that's left out there are little clean-up picks. We'll be done sometime this week.

I'll have a more detailed analysis of how the vintage compares to other recent years in my harvest recap blog either next week or the week after. But for now, what I wanted to do was give you a feel for what a day in the cellar feels like, not least because it's suddenly almost done. And harvest feels like that. You wait all year for it to begin, once it starts it feels like it will go on forever, and yet when the end comes, it comes suddenly, and marks the end of the intense camaraderie that comes with long hours, close quarters, and shared goals.

Our talented Shepherd/Videographer Nathan Stuart chronicled one day in the cellar, October 8th, turning in his crook for his GoPro, adding a soundtrack and editing it all down to two minutes. Definitely turn up the volume on this one.

What did we pick that day? Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Grenache. But the sorting, destemming, and pressing of those lots wasn't all that was happening. We were filling barrels and digging out tanks of Grenache and Syrah harvested in previous weeks, punching down and pumping over a cellar full of wine, sampling vineyard lots to schedule upcoming picks, and cleaning. Lots and lots of cleaning. And playing with the winery dogs, sharing one of Marci Collins' famous cellar lunches, keeping the espresso machine humming, and snacking on the leg of jamon in the lab, of course.

It was just one day, one long day, but also one pretty great day. 

Harvest Video October 8th 2019


The Winding Road to Tablas Creek: We Interview our 2019 Harvest Interns, Ryan Brennan and Adrian Garcia

By Ian Consoli

Every year Winemaker Neil Collins hand selects two eager individuals, usually just starting a career in wine, to join our cellar team for harvest and commence the activities of shoveling grape skins, sorting clusters, and washing presses, bins, and barrels. Cellar work is certainly glorified as a romantic, energetic, and gleeful experience in which a community bonds over the long hours and fermenting aromas that fill the cellars, and it is this; however, it's strenuous, with long hours and close quarters with your team. It takes a certain kind of individual to thrive in this environment day in and day out for one, two, even three months at a time. This year we found two of those individuals from opposite sides of the country with both direct and indirect paths to the Tablas Creek cellar. This is Ryan's and Adrian's story.

Wine Harvest Interns Staredown

Who are you?

Ryan Brennan 

Adrian Garcia

Where did you grow up?

R: I grew up mostly in Virginia. My family is from New England, my dad is military so we bounced around quite a bit, but my formative years were in Virginia.

A: I am from Cupertino, but not the city of Cupertino; I live up in the mountains kind of hidden away on Montebello road. I moved there when I was three and spent most of my life up there.

Wine Harvest Intern Happy RyanRyan Brennan smiles while working the sorting table

When and how did you get into wine?

R: I was a history and politics student in school and realized I'd rather make people happy than make people mad so I got out of politics before I even started. I ended up doing some organic farming work with a WOOFing program, which is a pretty cool program. I was in Sweden, my co-WOOFers and I were just WOOFing around doing some stuff and realized we could be making alcohol at the same time so we started fermenting things in our bathtub, with the farmer’s approval of course. We used apples and cherries and all sorts of fun things. We did grow grapes so that was my first exposure to the magic of making alcohol. I spent a little time in restaurants drinking more and tasting more after that.

A: I grew up around it. My dad's been working at Ridge Vineyards since he was 17.

Wine Harvest Intern Tank Hole Adrian   Adrian Garcia crawls out of the bottom of a tank

What experience did you have prior to Tablas Creek?

R: An opportunity opened up for me at a 3 acre vineyard in New Hampshire of all places. We made batches a little over 100 gallons and I thought that was huge. After that initial introduction a much better opportunity came up in Vermont with a winery that had just won the International Cold Climate Winery of the Year competition. Which it doesn’t sound impressive in California but for everywhere else where it gets cold and there are seasons, it’s pretty awesome. I figured if I could learn how to grow grapes and make wine an hour south of the Canadian border I could do it anywhere. After a little stint in Edna Valley I ended up here in Paso.

A: I officially started getting involved with winemaking when I was 18, straight out of high school, doing mostly vineyard work. I did some lab and vineyard work for Ridge Vineyards for a while then I started working in the cellar once I went to Fresno State. I’ve been in their cellar for about 2 years up until I came here.

How did you hear about Tablas Creek?

R: I was in Vermont and I met Dani Archambeault, who used to work in the wine club at Tablas. She said some pretty nice things that got me excited about the Central Coast and the possibility of coming out this way.

A: I've kind of heard the name since a while back and thought Tablas sounded interesting. I started looked more into their farming and I'm like, this is pretty sick.

How did you end up working harvest with us?

R: I got Neil’s contact info from Dani and I just kept bothering him until I got a job.

A: The viticulturist back home, David Gates, asked me what I was going to do after college and I'm like, Mmm I’ll do some internships. Tablas Creek seem like a nice place. He tells me, well they're going to be here [Ridge Vineyards] next week doing a tour if you want to talk to them. That’s where I met Neil, asked if I could be an intern, and he said yes.

How often do you shower?

A: Every single day

R: Every day for my girlfriend.

How is harvest going?

R: Oh, it’s fine laughs

Wine Harvest Intern Working RyanRyan rakes out the leftover grape skins

We recently processed 51 tons in a day, what did you do when you got home that night?

R: I'll be honest with you it wasn't that hard, it was a fine day. We all work together really well. I mean a lot came in and we were on the table for a while sorting things out and running around, but the team works really well together. So I went home, had a beer and went to bed.

A: Same thing it wasn't that bad. It's pretty efficient here. I went home, chilled, listened to music and went to sleep.

What is your ultimate goal in cellar work?

R: This is a cellar rotation as far as I'm concerned. I spent my first couple years doing cellar work just because someone else needed to do it, but my main focus has been on vineyard work. The place I was working in Vermont, Lincoln Peak, was about 13 acres or so. While there I got to see how a small property like that allows you to get involved in all aspects of the production, so I’m looking at a similar idea down the road; a smaller place 13-15 acres max where you can get a lot of time outside and very little inside.

A: I dislike how people say the Central Valley can't produce great wine. It can, I just think if we planted varieties suited for warmer climates we would have greater success. In Madera, or Fresno, or Lodi it's super-hot during the summers, if you had maybe some Rhone and Spanish varieties, which are good for warmer climate, I think you can make some really great wine over there. It's my dream to prove it.

Wine Harvest Intern Tank AdrianAdrian in one of our wooden upright fermentation tanks

If a genie said you could be head winemaker anywhere you wanted, where would you pick?

R: I don't know there's a lot back in Virginia I’d like to be a part of. Linden Vineyards is a pretty extraordinary place, it’s definitely one of the best if not the best places on the East Coast that make tremendous wine.

A: I have some aspirations to be the head winemaker at Ridge Vineyards because that's where I grew up and that’s where my dad has been working a lot so it would be cool to, you know, have the son of a cellar worker be the head boss.

Best bottle of wine you ever had?

R: It's probably not technically the best one I've ever had, but in terms of the best experience drinking a wine... When you're in Sweden the swedes aren't too pretentious, they don't really care about the packaging, they don't care if its cork or screw-top, in this case it was a very high end organic boxed wine out of Argentina. I don't remember the label, but it was incredible wine, it went so well with what we were eating. A picnic table outside the greenhouse picking vegetables next to us for a salad, grilling stuff up on the grill, Midnight Sun, it was 11 and still sunny out. I mean that's the best wine I ever had and it came out of a box and bag. I’d also like to add the best single bottle I can name was a 2016 Stolo Syrah. It was a game changer for me. It tasted like liquid beef jerky and made me want to become a Syrah grower.

A: There is one pretty damn good bottle of wine that comes to mind and I think the situation made it even better. It was an old Ridge Montebello that one of my cousins stole from his dad, my uncle, back when he worked at Ridge and then stored for years. When we finally decided to open it up we were at a typical Mexican Thanksgiving with tons of people, great food, and probably the last place you would expect to see an 81 Montebello Estate from Ridge.  I think 81 or 88, and it was pretty damn good, funny, funny situation.

What’s next for you?

R: Stay in the area. I’m actually looking at a house to rent right now but the job has to come first so if anyone’s looking…

A: Not sure. I could go back home and work in the vineyard. I’ve also been checking out some wineries in the central valley I would like to work at, or I could start doing internships abroad.

Would Your Rather:

Cake or Pie?

Pie, Pie

Breathe underwater or fly?

Fly, Fly

New World or Old World?

Old World, New World

Winemaker or Viticulturist

Viticulturist, Both

Wine Harvest Interns


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


Harvest 2019: Things heat up and produce our busiest-ever day (and second-busiest-ever week)

At the beginning of last week, three weeks after we'd seen our first grapes arrive in the cellar, Chelsea estimated that we were only 10% of the way done. By the end of the week, 132.4 tons later, we sat at 35% done. We saw our first Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Noir, and estate Syrah. We direct-pressed 2700 gallons (over 1000 cases) of Grenache for our 2019 Patelin de Tablas Rosé. Our staff parking lot became parking for bins on their way into the cellar:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Parking Lot Panorama

We're seeing some unusual timing this year, with grapes that are normally ripe later (like Roussanne and Counoise) ready to pick alongside earlier grapes like Viognier and Syrah. We're attributing this to the exceptional vine health we've seen this year, which has allowed those grapes that normally struggle with vigor as we get toward harvest season to remain green and photosynthesizing efficiently. But we're really not sure; we'll learn a lot more as we get deeper into harvest. For now, we'll enjoy seeing our harvest chalkboard fill up:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Chalkboard

The unusual overlap of varieties is a great opportunity to see the different colors of our different grapes side-by-side. For example, the dark, opaque Syrah (left) is a great counterpoint to the more translucent amethyst of Grenache (right):

Mid-Sept Harvest - Bins of Syrah 2Mid-Sept Harvest - Bins of Grenache

The samples we're taking on a daily basis are an even clearer illustration of the many hues in the vineyard, determined both by the grapes' inherent pigment and how close each is to harvest:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Samples

The peak of the week was Thursday, where estate Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and Syrah combined with Patelin Syrah and Patelin Rosé Grenache (those 2700 gallons I mentioned) to total over 51 tons, the most we've ever harvested in one day and more than 10% of what we're estimating we'll see the entire harvest. Chelsea pointed out how nice it was to get a day like this early in the harvest when everyone was still feeling fresh, rather than in mid-October, when everyone's already ragged.

What does it take to process 51.3 tons of grapes in a day? It begins around 1am with lights, Jordy, David, and our harvest crew arriving out in the Vermentino block. Neil arrives in the cellar at 3am to get the first press load of white going. By the time the rest of the winemaking team gets there around 6, that press is ready to empty, rinse, and refill with the next load. The first Grenache bins destined for Patelin Rosé have arrived, and our second press gets loaded with those. These two presses will cycle through press runs every 3 hours until evening. Meanwhile, bins of red grapes are unloaded from trailers as they arrive, labeled and stacked. We use a highly technical labeling system called "post-it notes":

Mid-Sept Harvest - Grenache D

One at a time, red bins are forklifted off their stacks, weighed, then dumped into the hopper and vibrated down the sorting table, where our team picks out any leaves or unripe or raisined clusters. The grapes then get de-stemmed and pumped into tanks to ferment. Amidst all this, all our red tanks (thankfully, not much yet) have to be pumped over, punched down, or otherwise mixed twice each day. You can see the last of the 103 bins that our rock star cellar team processed that day, in the hopper and on the sorting table:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Last Bin of Busiest Ever Day

Thankfully, the rest of the week wasn't quite at Thursday's pace, but it still resulted in a second-busiest-ever week, just a fraction of a ton less fruit than September 10-16, 2018. You can see how dramatically the harvest accelerated compared to its first three weeks:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Graph

I mentioned a few weeks ago that we felt harvest's wave building, but that it hadn't broken yet. Now it has, and we spent last week paddling fast. Everything looks great in the vineyard, and the flavors and numbers on the fruit we've been picking have been ideal. So, if I can push the analogy a little further, we're up on the board, and going to ride this one as long as we can.


Yes, we've started picking... but there's still plenty of ripening to be done

We've been picking, little by little, for about two weeks. We began with some Pinot Noir from my parents' place and Viognier from here, and then last week got our first Grenache Blanc, Syrah, and (bizarrely, since both are typically late-ripening) both Counoise and Roussanne. This week, we've been picking lots more Syrah, our Vermentino, and more Grenache Blanc. Chelsea estimated yesterday that we were about 10% done, and our harvest chalkboard isn't as empty as it used to be:

Harvest chalkboard mid-Sept

After a hot few days over the weekend, we've had a bit of respite the past few days. Clouds are unusual here in the summer and early fall, and although we didn't get the rain that some other parts of California did yesterday, it made for an unusual tableau. Equally welcome, temperatures topped out in the seventies:

Clouds over Tablas mid-Sept

It's useful to remember, when thinking about harvest for a Rhone specialist like us, that we'd expect it to take roughly two months between beginning and end. And since it's roughly six weeks between veraison and harvest, it's not surprising that we still have rainbow clusters (particularly in Mourvedre, our latest-ripener) even as we're bringing in our first grapes:

Mourvedre cluster mid-Sept

Our other grapes have mostly finished veraison. This Tannat cluster looks like it's ready to pick, although sugars are still a little low and it's likely a couple of weeks out:

Tannat cluster mid-Sept

White grapes are starting to pick up the more golden hue that they get as harvest approaches. Roussanne isn't quite at the russet color from which it derives its name yet, but it's getting there. It's a sign of the vineyard's health that Roussanne, often not ready until late October, has already started to come in. Normally, the grape's susceptibility to virus and stress-related devigoration slows ripening to a crawl sometime in August. Not this year:

Roussanne cluster mid-Sept

Even Counoise, which we wouldn't normally expect until mid-October, has made an appearance in the cellar. The clusters are beautiful, and the grapes make amazing eating. You might be able to tell, just by looking, why it was so valued as a table grape before the development of seedless grapes last century:

Counoise cluster mid-Sept

Most wine lovers, I've found, have pictures in their heads about what a vineyard should look like. These pictures pretty much all have ripe grapes hanging on the vine, dark purple and delectable. In reality, the window in which that scene is present is a relatively narrow one. But it's happening now. If you're coming out for a visit in the next few weeks, you're in for a treat:

Counoise

And no, that's not a stock photo. I took it in our Counoise block yesterday. Happy harvest season, everyone.


The delayed 2019 Harvest begins slowly, but we can feel the wave building

This is the time of year when everyone in Paso Robles begins every conversation with "so, how's harvest coming for you?" Typically, they're asking if you've begun, and if so, if you're far enough in to have a sense of how things will look. And we have begun, although only a little, and just two grapes. But even these grapes give us useful data points as we look to compare the 2019 harvest with other recent vintages. And one thing is clear: there's a lot more on the way, soon.

We began harvest on August 29th with a pick of about five and half tons of Pinot Noir from my parents' place in Templeton. As we typically do for the first pick, the whole cellar team goes out and works alongside the vineyard crew. Perhaps that's why Vineyard Manager David Maduena, overseeing his 26th(!) harvest here at Tablas Creek, is looking amused:

DSC09594

The grapes look amazing. It's remarkable how little stress the vines appear to be under, at a time of year when they're usually starting to look a bit ragged. That's a testament to the ample and distributed rainfall we got last winter, and to the relatively moderate summer we've seen. Even with the past four warm weeks (average high temp: 92.4°F), we've only seen eight days this summer top 100°F, with a high of 103.5°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's well below the average here, and the nights have remained cool: the average nighttime low over the last four weeks was 54.9°F, and every one of the seven 100+ days saw nighttime temperature drop into the 50s. A few photos should help give you a sense of the health of the vines. First, the Pinot block. Everything is green, not a hint of red or yellow to be seen in the leaves:

DSC09499

And it's not just Pinot. Check out this photo looking out over two blocks that would normally be showing signs of stress in early September: a hilltop Grenache block in the foreground (still only partway through veraison) and the dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block on the other side of the creek. Both are still vibrantly green:

Looking over Grenache to Scruffy Hill

But for all that we're still recovering from the delayed beginning to the growing season, we're making up time fast. The conditions (mid-90s highs and mid-50s lows) have been absolutely ideal for grapevine photosynthesis to proceed with peak efficiency. And we've definitely caught up. In my veraison post on August 6th, I looked at the 36-49 day range that we've observed between first veraison on the estate and first harvest and made a prediction that we'd start between September 4th and September 17th. As it turned out, 2019 will tie for our shortest-ever duration between veraison and harvest, and at 3am yesterday (September 4th) the team convened at our oldest Viognier block to kick off the 2019 harvest. Shepherd/Videographer Nathan Stuart was there to capture it. Definitely turn on the soundtrack for this one:

If you haven't been a part of a night pick, it's a memorable experience. There's a camaraderie in the shared work, the early start, and the silence that surrounds you. Until, of course, the lights go on and the tractors rev up, and then it's go time.

DSC03376

We didn't pick that much, just eight bins (a little under four tons) from the top of the block. The bottom of the same hill was enough behind the top to make it worth waiting until next week. But after having run numbers on most of the early-ripening grapes, we know that things have moved enough that it's likely we'll see more Viognier as well as our first Syrah and Vermentino next week. And then, we'll be in the thick of things.

How does this compare to last year? With only two data points, it's hard to say. We picked Pinot quite a bit earlier this year than last (August 29th vs. September 10th) at similar numbers. But we picked the first Viognier from here bit later than last year (September 4th vs. August 31st). Yes, the regions are different, but not wildly so. Instead, I think that the Pinot vines were delayed last year by the swings between cool and hot which we largely avoided this year. In 2019, the two regions have accumulated almost exactly the same number of degree hours compared to average: Templeton Gap 2249 (0.4% above average) and Adelaida District 2430 (1.2% above average). By contrast, to this point last year, we were 9.6% above average here at Tablas Creek, and 5.9% above average in the Templeton Gap. So, why are many of our grapes coming in earlier despite the cooler year?

To understand why, it's important to know what degree days (or degree hours) is measuring, and how it does and doesn't correlate with how grapevines ripen. Degree days measure the number of hours that temperatures spend above an arbitrary line, which corresponds roughly to the point at which plants start photosynthesizing. But in a year like 2018, when we had cool stretches interspersed with one long scorching hot stretch it's important to remember that neither cool nor very hot temperatures are ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. Instead, grapevines photosynthesize optimally in consistent very warm (but not hot) weather. And we've almost entirely avoided those hot days this year. Last year? Not so much. We saw 25 days that topped 100°F, including ten hotter than our hottest day this year (103.5°F). At those very hot temperatures, grapevines close the pores in their leaves to protect themselves from dehydration, slowing their photosynthetic capacity. This year, it's been all systems go.

It may be early in the harvest season, and we may only have brought in two grapes, but all signs point to it getting busy soon. If you see a winemaker out at a restaurant in the next few days, you might want to wish them well. Because you may not see them again until November.


A Mid-veraison Photo Essay

 

Although most of the 2019 growing season has been on the cool side, we've had a couple of warm weeks since my last update. Nothing extraordinary for August (when our average high temperature is 92°F) but the first half of the month saw an average high of 93.8°F and two days late last week topped 100°F. And then, the weather broke, and we had an absolutely stunning weekend, with highs of 73 and 74, a nice breeze off the ocean, and cool, crisp nights down in the 40s.

I took advantage of the cool this morning to hike through the vineyard and get a sense of where the different grapes are sitting in their path to harvest. Overall, I think we're just a touch before veraison's midpoint, maybe 40% overall. So, there are nearly as many berries pink or red as there are still green.  Of course, that varies quite a bit by variety, and even within a variety, with cooler spots at the bottoms of hills a bit behind those same grapes at the tops of the hills.  I'll take them in the order in which we saw veraison start.

Syrah

Syrah is easily the most advanced red grape. I'd estimate it's at roughly 80% versaison. The clusters in the below photo are maybe a touch more advanced than average:

Syrah C

Mourvedre

Although it will be late to harvest, Mourvedre actually went into veraison before Grenache. It's still only at about 40% through, I would estimate, and because it takes so long between veraison's end and when it's ready to pick, we're not likely to see it before October.

Mourvedre

Grenache

There is not much in a vineyard setting that is more beautiful than a Grenache cluster going through veraison. A single cluster can look like a rainbow:

Grenache

I'd estimate that Grenache is only about 30% into veraison; the cluster above was unusually advanced.

Counoise

Last week, I walked two different Counoise blocks and couldn't find any veraison except on a few weak vines. But this morning, I didn't have much trouble finding it. It's still far more green than red, and overall, I'd estimate it's only at 10% veraison:

Counoise closeup

White grapes go through veraison too, although it's hard to photograph the subtle color changes that they undergo. But as they get close to ripeness, you do start to see a yellower tint to the formerly-green grapes. 

Viognier

We're guessing that the first grape we'll get into the cellar will be Viognier. You can start to see the color change in the grape clusters in the photo below:

Viognier at Tablas Creek August 2019

With the combination of plentiful rainfall last winter and our relatively mild summer, I saw fewer signs of stress than I can ever remember in mid-August. I'll share some shots that give you a little more of a view of the vines (in addition to the multicolored clusters). First, Syrah:

Syrah C cordon

And second, another Counoise shot, maybe my favorite of the entire day. Counoise is typically looking a little ragged by now, with as much brown or yellow in its leaves as green. Not this year:

Counoise

Overall, things look great as we turn into the home stretch. But we're going to have to be patient. We're starting to read stories about the grape harvest beginning in other parts of California, and even at Beaucastel things are getting close:

Syrah close to harvest. #familleperrin #beaucastel #syrah #rhonevalley #rhonevalleywines #winery #harvest

Posted by Famille Perrin - Beaucastel on Monday, August 12, 2019

But here, we're going to have to wait a bit. I still don't expect grapes before September, and not much before the middle of the month.