Buy More Wine (and Fewer Wines)

Last weekend, we hosted our annual en primeur tasting for our wine club members. This is part of a program with roots back to 1954, when my dad offered the customers of his father's Manhattan wine shop M. Lehmann the opportunity to purchase futures on the great Bordeaux vintage of 1952. His father never thought consumers would pay for wine before they could get it, but my dad sold out the entire 3000 case allocation in three weeks and transformed the way that Bordeaux wines were sold in America. I recently uncovered the old pamphlet, with gorgeous hand-colored lithographs printed in Paris and sent to my dad's best customers in Manhattan. It's a remarkable time capsule, from an era where a case of first-growth Bordeaux would only set you back some $37. For larger images, click on the pictures below:

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At Tablas Creek, we offer futures on our two top red wines from each vintage, Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie.  We do this in largely the same way, year after year, as is fitting for a program that looks back nearly seven decades. We send out an invitation to purchase at a futures-only savings to our club members, as well as the opportunity to come to one of two sessions where we debut these new wines. Guests try the wines on their own and with a hearty dish that can stand up to the wines' youth, while Neil and I spend the sessions doing our best to put the newest vintage into context with other recent vintages, and share our best guesses as to how the wines will evolve over time. That was our day this past Saturday.

Here's where things get interesting. Because, while we can and do try to draw parallels with other years, no two vintages are the same. For example, my closest comparison for the 2017 wines is 2005: a year, like 2017, where we saw a multi-year drought cycle end with a bang, and where the resulting vintage was both high quality and plentiful, the vines' expression of their health in a warm, generous year. But, of course, the vineyard is older now than it was in 2005, with the oldest vines pushing 25 years and a much higher percentage of head-trained, dry-farmed acreage. The raw materials are not the same. And the young 2017 reds manage to be both densely packed and approachable, thick with primary fruit and yet savory, with hints of the complexity that they'll develop over the decades. They clearly have a long and fascinating life ahead of them.1

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I was asked at both sessions what I thought the drinking windows would be on the wines that we were tasting, and I did my best. I think that both of these wines have two windows, one 3-6 years after vintage where the wine has lost its youthful blockiness but remains young, juicy, and exuberant, and another (after a 1-3 year closed period that I liken to a wine's teenage years) 8-20 or more years after vintage where it has softened, developed more secondary and tertiary flavors of meat, leather, and truffle, when the wines' tannins have softened, when it's mature, graceful, and elegant.

But really, the most fun for me is getting to know a wine at different stages of its life. And this led me to share with the guests one of my revelations I've tried to act on over recent years. I realized I needed to buy more wine, but fewer wines. Most of us don't have unlimited resources and unlimited space. We have to prioritize. And with wine -- or at least my favorite wines, which I think will age well -- this means buying enough to be able to open at different phases of its life, and hopefully still to have some left to enjoy when I think it just can't get any better. I don't think this is feasible with fewer than six bottles, and it's a lot easier with a case.

So, that's my practical wine advice for the year. Buy more wine, but fewer wines. And then get ready to enjoy the journey that the wines you love will take you on. I don't remember seeing any 1952's left in my dad's Vermont cellar. But he definitely went heavy on the vintages he loved: 1964 and 1970 for Bordeaux, 1978 and 1985 for Burgundy, 1981 and 1989 for Chateauneuf du Pape. When we're back there over the New Year's holiday, we'll all be thanking my dad for his foresight.

Footnotes:

  1. If you missed this Monday's order deadline for futures on the 2017's, we'll be accepting orders through this weekend. You can find ordering information here.

A Vertical Tasting of Every Vintage of Cotes de Tablas, 1999-2017

We've been enjoying one of our periodic visits from Cesar Perrin this week.  Monday, we looked at our present by tasting through the cellar to get a first look at the 2018 vintage, and tasting a selection of the wines we've bottled this year to evaluate how the 2016s and 2017s are shaping up. Tuesday, we looked at our future, spending the day with our managers talking about what we want Tablas Creek to be working towards over the next five-plus years, and setting ourselves goals. This morning, we looked at our past by opening up every vintage of our Cotes de Tablas, from the first vintage (then called Petite Cuvee) in 1999 to the 2017 that's sitting in foudre and will be bottled in February.

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The tasting was fascinating.  We hadn't looked at all our Cotes de Tablas wines since 2011, and a lot has changed since then.  We've integrated the Patelin de Tablas into our mix. Our varietals have assumed more of a focus, as our sales continue their gradual move away from a focus on the wholesale market and toward our tasting room and wine club.  And we've seen the end of a wet, cool cycle and the full arc of our five-year drought that began in 2012. 

I'll dive into the take-home lessons we feel we learned today at the end of the tasting notes, but one thing was clear from the very first wine: we've consistently underestimated (and perhaps, undersold) the sophistication and ageworthiness of these wines. Although it shows well young, even our first examples were still fresh and vibrant as they reach voting age. And these were not wines made consciously to cellar.  Toss in that in the early years the Cotes de Tablas retailed between $20 and $25 (it's still only $35) and I think that the quality that they offer at their price is pretty hard to beat. Kudos to any of you who saved any of these older vintages in your cellars.

I've linked each wine to its page on our Web site, if you want to look at production notes or tasting notes from when the wine was newly bottled. The notes:

  • 1999 Petite Cuvee (65% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre): This was the precursor to the Cotes de Tablas, and we made just a few hundred cases in 1999 of lots that we thought weren't up to the standards of the 1999 Reserve Cuvee (itself the predecessor to the Esprit de Beaucastel), mostly Grenache that we thought too tannic for its weight.  The wine was sold only in our tasting room, and we never thought it would go this long, but it's showing admirably, with the nose pungent and fresh, with a piney, licoricey note. The palate shows strawberry and dried cherry fruit, lots of peppercorn, and a chocolaty note, with still those Grenache tannins that we worried about in the wine's youth now offering lovely counterpoint. A little heat on the finish (the wine is 15.2% alcohol) is the only sign of age to me.
  • 2000 Cotes de Tablas (84% Grenache, 16% Syrah): Our first Cotes de Tablas, from about 600 cases worth of lots we thought pretty but not sufficiently intense to go into the 2000 Esprit, that to our surprise got a 92-point rating from Robert Parker and sold out in less than a month.  There are times when an outside perspective helps you realize the quality of something you've been overlooking each day, and this was one example.  This is gorgeous now, with a meaty, gamy baking spice nose sitting over dark red fruit, and red licorice, plummy and a little pruney with age. The mouth is still richly fruity, meaty, with chocolate and cinnamon warmth, and still some good tannins. It's mature and lovely, and you really can't tell it's 15.6% alcohol. I can't imagine this getting any better from here, but drink up.
  • 2001 Cotes de Tablas (38% Mourvedre, 34% Syrah, 24% Grenache, 4% Counoise): An anomaly for the tasting, as in 2001 we decided that the spring frost had scrambled up the vintage sufficiently that we weren't going to make an Esprit de Beaucastel, and declassified nearly the entire vintage into the Cotes.  So, the only vintage where Grenache was not the #1 grape in the Cotes de Tablas.  The nose was spicy, not as opulent as the 2000, but with some nice savory umami meatiness. It was fresh and still reasonably tannic on the palate, less fruit-driven and showing more of the savory tobacco note I get from aged Syrah. There are still some drying tannins on the finish. It was less of a statement than the wines around it, but felt familiar to us since it's a profile we make wines in nowadays.
  • 2002 Cotes de Tablas (45% Grenache, 22% Syrah, 21% Mourvedre, 12% Counoise): Our first Cotes de Tablas blended primarily as a wine in its own right rather than as a consequence of lots we didn't want in the Esprit. Whether because of the blend or the vintage (which was a low-acid year that made brooding wines) it tasted older to me than the preceding wines, the first that I would put in "late maturity" on our vintage chart.  A deep nose of leather, dark chocolate, and soy marinade. The mouth shows sweet fruit, still fairly tannic, then a dried teriyaki beef jerky character that showed (to me at least) it was likely on the downslope. I preferred the renditions with a bit more acidity and lift.
  • 2003 Cotes de Tablas (60% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 12% Mourvedre, 4% Counoise): The first wine that to me smelled like a "modern" Cotes de Tablas, with that translucent cranberry Grenache character that I associate with the Cotes now. The palate showed nice openness, freshness, and medium weight, although there were some drying cherry skin tannins that came out on the finish. Good acids. Chelsea called it "affable". I'm not sure there's the stuffing here to age much longer, so drink up while it's at its peak.
  • 2004 Cotes de Tablas (64% Grenache, 16% Syrah, 13% Counoise, 7% Mourvedre): Neil said "here is the Cotes of today". The wine showed a lovely cool nose of minty eucalyptus, pie cherry, fresh tobacco, green peppercorn and baking spices. The mouth showed sweet fruit, but had a nice tanginess that kept it from ever being sappy. The finish showed a bright berry compote character with great tannins with the texture of powdered sugar.  The wine of the tasting for many of us.

[Between 2005 and 2007 we bottled the Cotes de Tablas in both cork and screwcap versions.  We hadn't checked in on them in a while, so we tasted both.  They weren't tasted blind, which of course influences our perceptions of them, but since some of us are screcap proponents and others tend to favor corks, we were pleased that our impressions of the wines' relative merits were pretty consistent.  I've included notes from both versions.]

  • 2005 Cotes de Tablas (43% Grenache, 24% Mourvedre, 18% Syrah, 15% Counoise)
    • Cork: a nose deep with soy, baker's chocolate, and meat drippings. The mouth showed some of the depth and weight of the 2002, more sweet earth and dark chocolate and tobacco, and a slightly medicinal cherry cough syrup note that felt to some of us like it was a touch overripe (or a touch past its prime).
    • Screwcap: the nose was a little more closed, but broadly similar, more savory than fruity. The mouth was higher toned, with more freshness but less complexity and richness. It still felt a little disjointed, and we would like to have decanted it an hour or so before we tasted it. The group split pretty much 50/50 as to which closure we preferred.
  • 2006 Cotes de Tablas (72% Grenache, 11% Syrah, 9% Mourvedre, 8% Counoise)
    • Cork: a really nice nose, spicy and lifted cranberry, baking spice, and eucalyptus. Smells cool and fresh. The palate showed flavors of mint chocolate, red cherry, and nicely resolved tannins. Really pretty and delicious.
    • Screwcap: the nose is a little less open and expressive, perhaps a touch medicinal. The palate is very nice, but with a touch of reduction that seemed to make it express as less fruity and maybe because of that a bit more evolved. That also made the tannins a little more evident. Almost all of us preferred the cork on this one. Of course, the first bottle we opened was corked, which drove home the risk of cork finish. That one definitely wasn't better.
  • 2007 Cotes de Tablas (50% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 25% Counoise)
    • Cork: a deep, meaty, gamy nose, with sweet baking spices. Quite massive on the palate, still powerfully tannic, and a little on the heavy side right now.  More power than nuance, we thought.
    • Screwcap: the nose is cleaner and more straightforward: spice and roasted meat and dark red jam. The mouth was really pretty: powerful, but fresher than the cork version. Like the 2000 in some ways: opulent but not overweight. All of us preferred the screwcap version.
  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas (42% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 20% Counoise, 17% Mourvedre): Only bottled in screwcap. A beautiful nose, clean and lifted, with spicy notes of dried strawberry, juniper, cherry skin, new leather, and pepper.  The mouth is generous but with the tanginess that we loved in the 2004, making the wine both fresh and refreshing. Nice sweetness on the finish, with an underlying chalkiness that keeps it pure.  In a very pretty place, and another wine of the tasting for us.
  • 2009 Cotes de Tablas (43% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 18% Counoise, 15% Mourvedre): Only bottled in cork (as were all subsequent vintages).  The first bottle we opened was oxidized and dead (perhaps a cork flaw?) but the second was pristine: powerful on the nose, with an iron-like minerality that was more dominant than the fruit or meat that lurked underneath. The mouth was nice, but big, with a grapey Grenache character, powerful tannins, and a little alcohol coming out on the finish. From a very powerful, extracted vintage that saw yields reduced by both spring frosts and the third year of drought. More about complexity and power than charm, for me, this was the only Cotes de Tablas to ever appear in the Wine Spectator's "Top 100" list. Definitely enough stuffing to lay down for a while longer.
  • 2010 Cotes de Tablas (46% Grenache, 39% Syrah, 10% Mourvedre, 5% Counoise): Smells like Syrah to me: iron and blackberry and loam. The mouth shows more open than the nose suggests, really nice, with black cherry, some tanginess, and good integrated tannins, with lots of black licorice on the finish. A serious wine from a very cool, slow-ripening vintage, still probably not quite at peak. Cesar commented "you feel a lot of potential".
  • 2011 Cotes de Tablas (49% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre, 8% Counoise): More open on the nose than the 2010: blackberry and spice and rich dark earth, though the coolness of the vintage (the back-to-back vintages of 2010 and 2011 were the coolest in our history) still means that the fruit tones are more black than red. The mouth is velvety, with nice acids and elegant tannins. Not quite the fruit density of the 2010, but that may be a stage. This feels to me like it's emerging from a closed period, will be better in another six months, and drink well for another decade.
  • 2012 Cotes de Tablas (60% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 10% Counoise, 5% Mourvedre): Charmingly Grenache on the nose: red cherry and red licorice, loam, and sweet spices. The mouth shows cherry-chocolate, more red licorice, and a nice tanginess on the finish. It's a little light on the mid-palate compared to a great vintage, but it's easy and charming. Chelsea called it "joyous".
  • 2013 Cotes de Tablas (55% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 10% Counoise, 5% Mourvedre): Darker and more powerful on the nose than the 2012, almost 2011-like, with iron, soy marinade, baking spices, and figs. Inviting. The mouth is really nice: licorice, raspberry and blackberry, with appealing earthiness and a nice tannic bite coming out on the finish. My favorite of the relatively young vintages.
  • 2014 Cotes de Tablas (44% Grenache, 36% Syrah, 12% Counoise, 8% Mourvedre): Seems older on the nose than the 2013, jammier and less vibrant. Still, nice strawberry jam, sweet earth, and baking spice character. The mouth shows great tanginess, sweet fruit, good tannins, a bit primary right now with some grapiness and a little baked fruit. Maybe on a track similar to a wine like 2002 or 2005, and that's not surprising: we thought that 2014 was in many ways a throwback vintage that reminded us of the mid-2000s.
  • 2015 Cotes de Tablas (39% Grenache, 35% Syrah, 16% Counoise, 10% Mourvedre): So focused and precise on the nose, like (to me) all our 2015 reds: spicy cranberry, young, fresh, and playful. The mouth to me is on point, with both precision and intensity, and vibrant acids. A little less rich on the mid-palate than the 2014 -- not surprising given the cooler vintage -- but for me more than made up for that with the focus.
  • 2016 Cotes de Tablas (55% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 13% Mourvedre, 7% Counoise): Still young and less focused on the nose than the 2015, pungent and spicy with a cherry cola character and (I thought) a little touch of sweet oak. On the palate, like strawberry puree with tangy acids but a nice creamy, chalky mineral backbone to play off. Strawberries and cream on the finish, fun and expressive.
  • 2017 Cotes de Tablas (53% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise, 10% Mourvedre): Out of foudre; will be bottled in February and go out to wine club members in the spring. A rich but lifted nose of spicy strawberry, iron, and vibrant freshness on the nose. In the mouth, red fruit and licorice, complicated by a garrigue-like herbiness and with youthful tannins that come out with black cherry and fresh fig flavors on the finish. A baby, but should be outstanding.  

A few concluding thoughts. First, on corks vs. screwcaps. This was the least conclusive tasting that we've done on these three vintages; with one vintage seeming better in cork, another in screw cap, and the third a split decision. But I left feeling like the decision to put the wine in cork starting in 2009 was a good one, as most people who are drinking the wines are doing it in the wine's first decade, and there's plenty of freshness to carry the wines to that age, while the added depth from the aging under cork seemed a benefit. If you are opening wines like this under screwcap, a decant is highly recommended.

Of course, the one disappointing wine was the corked 2006. If you'd waited a decade and opened that, what a bummer. It's a dilemma.

Second, while the Cotes de Tablas wines are a less important piece of our production now than they were a decade ago -- when they represented about 40% of our production instead of the less than 15% they do now -- we all agreed that they're still a lovely, flexible wine that can be a pleasure to open young yet still offer an incredible drinking experience if you choose to let them age out a decade or so. And what a  bargain. We choose to price this less than our other wines because we want to be able to offer wines at different prices, and we usually aren't including our most intense lots in this blend. But it's still 100% estate fruit off the organic (and now biodynamic) vineyard, fermented and aged in the same way as our Esprit, and it has consistently exceeded our expectations for ageworthiness. I'm going to start tossing a case of each vintage in the back of my cellar, and try to keep my hands off.

Third, although (or perhaps because) the style changed over the years and from vintage to vintage, there was something for everyone in the lineup. I asked everyone to vote for their favorites at the end, and fourteen of the nineteen vintages got at least one vote. The Cotes de Tablas that got the most votes (five of the eight of us) was the 2008. Tied for second with four votes were the 2001 and 2004. Two wines (the 1999 and 2010) got three votes.  And the 2006, 2011, 2013, and 2017 all got two votes. So there were favorites young and old, from bigger vintages and from more elegant vintages, with mostly Grenache and with Grenache levels around 40%.

Finally, it was great to have Cesar's perspective around the table. One of the things I'm most grateful for in our collaboration with the Perrins is that they manage to bring the best qualities of being both insiders and outsiders at the same time. Insiders, because they've worked with these grapes for generations, all over the south of France, and they've been cutting edge in experimenting with new ways to grow and vinify Rhone varieties since the time of Jacques Perrin in the 1950s. Plus, they've been deeply involved with Tablas Creek since the beginning and are regular visitors several times a year. Cesar spent the 2011 harvest working at Tablas Creek, and has been back most years since. So it's not like we have to bring them up to speed on the vision or the decisions that were made previously. But at the same time, this is not the world that they're immersed in on a day to day basis, and their mindset is in what they do in the Rhone. So, when they come, they come with fresh -- but informed -- eyes. And that's a remarkably valuable perspective, for which I am grateful.

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Checking in on the 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel

I have a confession to make.  I know that winemakers and winery proprietors are supposed to love all their creations, but I'm afraid that the 2009 vintage was never a favorite of mine.  Products of the third year of drought, further concentrated by some of the most damaging spring frosts we've ever seen, and then given yet more power by a hot, sunny summer, our wines from 2009 have generally come across to me as more massive than nuanced, with whites that tended to feel heavy and reds that were so bound up by their tannins that they masked the more subtle expressions of soil and varietal.

It's not as though these wines didn't have fans. The 2009 Esprit got a raft of 92-96 point ratings, the 2009 Esprit Blanc's ratings ranged from 91-94, and the 2009 Cotes de Tablas even made it into the Wine Spectator's Top 100 Wines of 2011.  But they were never the wines that I reached for when I wanted something to drink with a meal.  However, time has a way of resolving this particular issue -- what you might call muscle-bound-ness -- with red wines, and when I saw a few bottles stashed in my parents' cellar in Vermont on a recent trip, I decided to bring one up and open it with dinner.

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The transformation that I felt had begun two years ago -- when we chose the 2009 to go out to our Collector's Edition Wine Club members -- has continued, and the wine was singing.  My notes:

A rich nose of Worcestershire, marinating meat, bay, cloves, and plum compote. Mouth-filling with flavors of chocolate syrup, licorice, tangy dark spice, meat drippings, and soy. The tannins are still potent on the finish, keeping control over flavors of cola, licorice, and sweet spice. A lingering impression of meatiness focused by salty minerality is lovely. Just coming into its own, with a long life ahead of it.

I really shouldn't be surprised that this wine has blossomed. After all, it had all the elements for a wine that shows best with some age: plenty of tannin and concentration, solid acidity, and rich texture. What it didn't have in its youth was elegance: the translucency of flavor that shows off the soils as well as the fruit, the spices as well as the structure.  It does now, and anyone who's got some in their cellars is in for a treat.


Choosing the Wines for the Fall 2018 VINsider "Collector's Edition" Shipment

Each summer, I have the pleasure of tasting through library vintages of our Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc to choose the wines for the upcoming VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment. We created the Collector's Edition version of our VINsider Wine Club back in 2009 to give our biggest fans a chance to see what our flagship wines were like aged in perfect conditions. Members also get a slightly larger allocation of the current release of Esprits to track as they evolve. This club gives us a chance show off our wines' ageworthiness, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.

This year, our selections will be the 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel and the 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. Each wine bears the signature of its vintage: 2010 was one of our coolest, with exceptionally long hang times and wines that show depth almost effortlessly, while 2012 was the first warm year after two cool vintages, producing Roussanne with charm and friendliness.

In both cases, the wines have evolved in fun ways, becoming something more complete than they were when they were young.  The 2010 Esprit, which was always an intellectually satisfying wine, has fleshed out and added heft and substance without muddying the vintage's essential elegance.  The 2012 Esprit Blanc has added depth and savory, nutty notes that layer beautifully over the wine's essential sunny generosity.

It's worth noting that this isn't the end; both these wines will go out another decade, at least, and the 2010 Esprit, particularly seems like it will benefit from even another six months in bottle. The duo:

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Tasting notes, from tastings today:

  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc:  Medium gold, only slightly deepened with time. An immensely appealing nose of almonds, honey, white flowers, mint, and a rich fruity yeastiness that Chelsea identified as apple fritter.  The mouth is like baklava: nuts and honey, with additional flavors of roasted pear, clove, and candied lemon peel. Still vibrant and youthful, but with delicious additional complexity from the five years in bottle. 75% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc.  Delicious now, but will certainly be good for another 5-10 years, or more.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel: A deeply meaty, spicy nose of strawberry fruit leather, bittersweet chocolate, and bay leaf. On the palate, beautifully balanced between youthful and more mature expressions, with flavors of plum skin, leather, loam, and meat drippings. Very nice freshness, with savory notes of black pepper and black tea coming out on the finish.  It's still unwinding, and we think that anyone with the patience to wait another 6 months will be rewarded. It will drink well and continue to gain depth and complexity, we think, for another decade or two. 45% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 4% Counoise. 

The complete Collector's Edition shipment is pretty stunning, if I may say so myself:

  • 2 bottles of 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel
  • 1 bottle of 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 3 bottles of 2016 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2014 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2016 En Gobelet
  • 2 bottles of 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2017 Cotes de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2017 Grenache Blanc

We will be adding to the Collector's Edition membership, subject to available space, in the next few weeks. If you're on the waiting list, you should look for an email with news, one way or the other, of whether you've made it on for this round. We add members, once a year, in the order in which we received applications to the waiting list. If you are currently a VINsider member and interested in getting on the waiting list, you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online or by giving us our wine club office a call. And if you are not currently a member, but would like to be, you can sign up for the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition, with all the benefits of VINsider Wine Club membership while you're on the waiting list.

One final  note. This will be the 10th year of our Collector's Edition club.  I remember back in 2008 when we were brainstorming ideas as to how to get the library wines that we'd been cellaring since the 2003 vintage into the hands of our fans, and struggling with how to do this without cheapening the experience of VINsider Club members. It's interesting for me to go back and read a blog I wrote then, sharing our thoughts and soliciting ideas from readers.  I still think of the Collector's Edition as a "new" addition to our offering, but with a decade under our belts, it's clearly not any more.  Those of you who are members, I'd love to hear your thoughts.  And thank you, as always, for your patronage. We are grateful, and don't take it for granted.


Into the Heart of Darkness: Tasting every Tablas Creek Tannat 2002-2017

Each year, we pick a wine we've been making for a while and open up all that wine's vintages, for the dual purposes of better understanding how it ages over time and better advising our fans which vintages to open if they're looking for peak drinking1. This year, we decided to look at Tannat, which is a grape renowned for its ageworthiness that somehow, we'd never opened systematically. So, it was with significant anticipation that we assembled each vintage of Tannat we've made, from our first (2002) to the newly-blended 2017:

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An additional goal of this particular tasting was to choose a selection of the Tannats to show at a public retrospective tasting. Sixteen wines is too many, but we figure we can pick a representative sample that will give guests a great sense of how the wine develops in bottle, as well as how the vintage affects the wine's composition and flavor profile.  If this sounds like fun, we'll be hosting that tasting on August 19th.  Details are here.

Whether you're thinking of coming or not, I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I have linked each vintage to that wine's page on our Web site, if you'd like to see production details or what the tasting notes were at bottling.

  • Tannat 2002: On the nose, inviting, with eucalyptus, black cherry, chocolate and mint. The mouth is similar, still quite rich and tannic, with a little cedary oak coming out on the finish. So fresh, and still absolutely in its prime. A treat.
  • Tannat 2003: Smells a little more mature: leather and soy marinade, as well as mint and dark chocolate. The mouth was still quite tannic, elevated by Tannat's signature acids, with flavors of cream soda, chocolate truffle and raspberry liqueur. The finish was my least favorite part of the wine, a touch on the pruney side. 
  • Tannat 2004: Some wildness on the nose, very savory: aged balsamic, tobacco, dried strawberry, and green herbs. The mouth is generous, spicy, and richly tannic, with an earthy mulchy note playing back and forth with black cherry liqueur.
  • Tannat 2005: A lovely meaty chocolate-cherry nose, with meat drippings. Like a Burgundy from an impossibly powerful vintage. The mouth is comparatively gentle, with beautiful currant/plum/black cherry juiciness, with additional flavors of mint and hoisin.  Less overtly tannic than the first three wines, and a real pleasure. My favorite of the older Tannats.
  • Tannat 2006: A slightly oxidative note on the nose, on top of milk chocolate and baking spices. The mouth leads with sweet cherry fruit, given savory complexity by a pine forest note. Medium-weight (less than the four wines before) but nice tannin and acid on the finish, with higher toned flavors of chocolate-covered cranberry lingering.
  • Tannat 2007: Fresh on the nose: minty eucalyptus, cherry cola, and pork fat. Rich and figgy in the mouth, powerfully tannic, but with a sweet edge. It came across to me as a touch alcoholic at this stage, with a finish of chocolate-covered raspberry cordial.
  • Tannat 2008: Immediately different than the previous wines, more translucent on pouring. The nose is older, a touch raisiny, less spicy. The mouth too is quieter, with leather and golden raisin, and less tannin and verve. Not sure if this is a stage, or just a weaker Tannat vintage.
  • Tannat 2009: A blockbuster nose: soy, mineral, tobacco and potpourri.  On the palate, all black descriptors: black plum, black tea, and black licorice, rich and concentrated, with both juiciness and gaminess coming out appealingly on the finish.  Impressive.
  • Tannat 2010: The cool 2010 vintage produced a different, more elegant expression of Tannat: graphite, white pepper, lilac, pork fat, and molasses on the nose. Rich but not aggressive on the palate, with fresh cherry flavors, chewy mouth-coating tannins, and that pancetta-like note returning on the finish.
  • Tannat 2011: Spicy fruit jumps out of the glass: cranberry, eucalyptus, and cocoa powder. Bright on the palate, almost pomegranate-like in its vibrancy and tannic bite, roasted leg of pork and chocolate-cherry. Falls a little short on the finish, with a little raisiny note coming out. We thought this might be better in a few years.
  • Tannat 2012: Again, something different: more red fruit than black, with cedary oak and star anise spices. The mouth shows vibrant acids, then cherry skin, then tannic on the finish.  Still very young.
  • Tannat 2013: Spicy and powerfully savory on the nose: iron shavings, juniper, and fall leaves. The mouth is nicely balanced and more generous than the nose suggests, with cocoa butter, blueberry, and more minty spice. Nicely complete, with excellent finesse.
  • Tannat 2014: Electric and spicy, with za'atar and meat reduction, violets and strawberry on the nose. The mouth is similarly vibrant, with echoes of red cranberry fruit and a long, tangy, saline finish.
  • Tannat 2015: A darker nose, of black licorice, spicy eucalyptus, and a meaty note like a rosemary-rubbed leg of lamb. The mouth is dense and plush, yet lifted by a welcome bitter note that we alternately identified as blood orange and aperol. Really cool, and drinking great right now.
  • Tannat 2016: Just bottled 6 weeks ago, the nose still seemed quiet from the recent bottling: violets and black olive, but obviously more to come. The mouth is nice: dark chocolate, black plum, licorice, and plenty of tannin. Lots to show here, but much more to come. Will be released later this year. Patience.
  • Tannat 2017: Newly blended and living (for now) half in wooden upright tank and half in small barrels while we wait to free up foudre space. Smells like a baby: grape jelly, meaty, still youthfully thick like raspberry pie.  Lots of fermentation aromas.  Tons of potential, but a long way from bottling yet. 

I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and the wines that got votes included the 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, and 2015, with the 2005, 2009, and 2015 pretty universally among everyone's top picks.

We ended up choosing the following vintages for August's public tasting: 2002, 2005, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • Tannat definitely has a strong personality.  We were commenting at about wine five that we were running out of ways to say chocolate, mint, and black cherry. That's not to say there weren't vintage variations; there definitely were. But unlike, say, Syrah, which is something of a chameleon depending on where it's grown, I think Tannat's personality is pretty well set, wherever it grows, both in flavors and in its full-bodied, richly tannic texture.
  • Tannat really does age gracefully. The oldest wines didn't taste at all elderly, and some (like that 2002) were almost impossibly fresh, with tannic structure, acids and density that suggested another few decades weren't out of the question. Now Tannat is famous for its ageworthiness, but it's still nice to have confirmation that this fact holds true here in Paso Robles too.
  • That said, I was surprised by how vibrant the younger wines showed. I tend to bury my Tannat bottles in the back of my wine fridge and assume I shouldn't even crack one open for a decade.  The 2013, 2014, and 2015 were all showing beautifully. I think that's one of the benefits of growing this grape here in Paso Robles: you have plenty of sun to ripen the grapes, and so there is fruit to balance the grape's tannins. But just as important, there is acidity from the cool nights and the calcareous soils that keep the wines fresh. If there was one surprise for me, it was the vibrancy of the wines.
  • The meatiness in Tannat is different than what we find in Mourvedre or Syrah. Mourvedre tends to remind me of the drippings from beef roasts. Syrah brings to mind smoky bacon. Tannat's meatiness was more fatty pork, but not bacon-smoky, more like pancetta or roast leg of pork. 
  • For all its meatiness, maybe the most fun thing about Tannat was the floral note that the younger wines showed. I've often found violets in new Tannat releases, which is a fun surprise, like a bodybuilder in a tutu. As the wines age, the floral tones deepen, becoming dried roses and eventually (in the 2009) potpourri. 
  • Those of you coming out for the tasting in August are in for a treat.

Footnote

  1. We update a vintage chart at least quarterly with the results of these tastings.

A Horizontal Retrospective: Tasting Every Wine from 2008 at Age 10

In 2014 we began the tradition of looking back each year at the vintage from ten years before.  Part of this is simple interest in seeing how a wide range of our wines -- many of which we don't taste regularly -- have evolved, but we also have a specific purpose: choosing ten or so of the most compelling and interesting wines from this vintage to show at the public retrospective tasting we're holding on February 11th.  Ten years is enough time that the wines have become something different and started to pick up some secondary and tertiary flavors, but not so long that whites are generally over the hill. In fact, each year that we've done this we've been surprised by at least one wine that we expected to be in decline showing up as a highlight.  The lineup:

2008 Retrospective

A while back, as part of a look back at each of our vintages for our then-new Web site, I wrote this about the 2008 vintage:

The 2008 vintage was our second consecutive drought year, with yields further reduced by spring frosts. Berries and clusters were small, leading to excellent concentration. Ripening over the summer was gradual and harvest about a week later than normal. Crop sizes were similar to 2007 and about 20% lower than usual. The low yields and gradual ripening resulted in white wines with good intensity, lower than normal alcohols and an appealing gentle minerality and red wines that were unusually fresh and approachable despite appealing lushness.

I was interested in the extent to which we'd still see what we'd noted when the vintage was younger.  Would the wines (red and white) show the elegance that we thought we might find? Would this vintage marked by elegance (sandwiched between two of our most powerful vintages) have retained the stuffing to make them compelling a decade later?  And were there any lessons we might take for the wines we're making now?

In 2008, we made 17 different wines: 8 whites, 1 rosé, and 8 reds. My notes on the wines, with notes on their closures, are below (SC=screwcap; C=cork). Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see a breakdown of the winemaking or the tasting notes at bottling (well, except for the Pinot Noir, which we only made one barrel of and never made a Web page; if you have questions about that, leave them in the comments and I'll do my best to answer).  I was joined for the tasting by our cellar team (Neil Collins, Chelsea Franchi, Craig Hamm, and Brad Ely) as well as by our National Sales Manager Darren Delmore.

  • 2008 Vermentino (SC): A combination of bright and more aged notes on the nose: petrol, peppermint, grilled grapefruit, lime leaf, lemongrass, and wet rocks. The mouth shows nice acids, clean and younger than the nose, with citrus pith and a nice briny finish. It's in a nice place: like a dry riesling with a little age on it.
  • 2008 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): A deeper golden color. The nose is like that of a sweet wine: caramel and butter pecan and a little minty lift. The mouth is round, and, by contrast, dry. Tons of texture. Flavors of candied orange peel and nectarine, with a pithy bitterness like peach pit coming out on the finish. A touch low in acid, particularly compared to the wines before and after in the lineup. A perfectly admirable showing for this wine, but drink up if you've got any.
  • 2008 Picpoul Blanc (SC): A lifted nose: monty, watermelon rind, barely ripe honeydew, and wet rocks.  This filled out with time in the glass and turned into lemon meringue.  Pretty fascinating.  The mouth is fun: quite rich, with pineapple flavors and a creamy texture that remind me why I always think Picpoul evokes pina colada. A nice limestoney character comes out on the long, clear finish.  Still vibrantly alive, and one of my favorites of the tasting.
  • 2008 Grenache Blanc (SC, and in fact our first experiment with the Stelvin "Lux" that we now use for all our screwcaps): A quieter nose than the first 3 wines: preserved lemon, white pepper, and a little crushed chalky rock. The mouth is initially all about sweet fruit (lychee and candied grapefruit, for me), then the acids take over, and then a little tannic bite that's absolutely characteristic of Grenache Blanc plays back and forth with ripe pear and a spicy juniper character on the long finish.
  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 42% Viognier, 26% Roussanne, 21% Marsanne, 11% Grenache Blanc): A sweetly spicy nose, more floral than the first four wines, with honey, wild herbs, anise, and jasmine. The mouth is very nicely balanced between sweet attack (I thought peach syrup), good acids, and a little Grenache Blanc pithy bite on the back end. The long finish showed candied orange peel, honeysuckle, and marzipan. It's in a good spot, long after we would have thought.
  • 2008 Bergeron (C): Made from 100% Roussanne, harvested a little earlier from cooler blocks around the vineyard. A cool nose of green pear, honeysuckle, and cantaloupe. The mouth is all about texture: smooth flavors of watermelon and lemon custard, with a soft minerality pervading everything. Still quite Roussanne, in its way, though it's medium-bodied and lively. A little hazelnut and lemon drop comes out on the long finish, but the persistent impression is of its cool, smooth texture. 12.8% alcohol.  We're offering this now as an extra taste in our tasting room, if you're curious.
  • 2008 Roussanne (C): A deeper gold color.  An explosive nose: butterscotch, grilled pear, and a yeasty pastry note: pear tart, anyone? The mouth is gorgeous: luscious, rich, caramel and vanilla, and nuts, but dry. A long powerful finish with apricot and baking spices and a little sweet oak. Really impressive, if you like white wines with power and density. 14.2% alcohol.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (C; 65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): An appealing nose, less powerful than the Roussanne but more complex: key lime pie, honey roasted peanuts, baked apple and a cool green bay leaf herbiness. The mouth shows sweet Roussanne fruit on the attack, pear, honey, and brioche. Then Grenache Blanc's anise lift and pithy bite keep order. Then a long, soft finish with flavors of kiwi and sweet spice, and a little salty minerality which I credited to Picpoul.  A few signs of age, but the wine is in a very nice place.
  • 2008 Rosé (SC; 58% Mourvedre, 32% Grenache, 10% Counoise): A pretty deep amber-pink color. A beguiling nose of candied fruit and baking spices that I thought was like fruitcake and Chelsea compared to "walking through a candy shop". The first of several descriptors that were more like a craft cocktail than a wine: singed orange. The mouth is nice: tart cranberry, cherry soda, grenadine, and campari. A nice texture, with a little tannic bite. Still an interesting wine, but we all remembered this as being insanely good on release, and while this was interesting, it would be a shame to have missed that.
  • 2008 Pinot Noir (C): Our second-ever Pinot, from a few rows of vines in our nursery we were using to produce budwood to plant at my dad's property for our Full Circle Pinot. Quite dark for a Pinot. A deep, ripe nose of root beer and figs and black cherry, with a little pine needle savoriness. The mouth is quite rich: chocolate-covered cherry, cola, dates, and sweet baking spices. Not particularly expressive of Pinot -- and to me less interesting than the Full Circle, which comes from a cooler spot -- but a nice rich red wine.
  • 2008 Cotes de Tablas (SC; 42% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 20% Counoise, 7% Mourvedre): After several years of bottling under both cork and screwcap, we only bottled under screwcap in 2008. This was terrific: a nose of roasted meat, plum, raspberry, black pepper, and graham cracker. The mouth was vibrant, with beautiful lifted red fruit: cherry and red plum. There are nice dusty tannins. Still young, lively, and without any real signatures of age, and anyone who has some of this is in for a treat. 
  • 2008 Grenache (C): A nice medium-intensity Grenache nose: cherry cola, cocoa powder, and pepper. Like a flourless chocolate cake with raspberry syrup. A powerful mouth, with supple but significant tannins, great cherry fruit, and nice balance. A long finish with sweet spices and ripe fruit. In an excellent place, and carrying its 15.5% alcohol well. Neil commented "that's a wow for me". One of our favorites of the tasting.
  • 2008 Mourvedre (C): A fun contrast to the Grenache, with a nose more structured and savory: meaty, eucalyptus and garrigue around currant and chocolate. The mouth is medium weight, with more currant fruit and still some pretty big, dusty tannins.  It was a nice example of why Mourvedre and Grenache make such good partners: Mourvedre's austerity is opened up by Grenache's exuberance, while at the same time taming Grenache's tendency toward booziness.
  • 2008 Syrah (C): A different color palette than the Grenache and Mourvedre: all black on the nose, like blackberry, black olive, iodine, black pepper, and baker's chocolate. The mouth shows cool-climate syrah's austerity, with a minty, minerally, meaty darkness, tannins that are still just starting to resolve, and a mouth-filling character that suggests some additional time in bottle will be rewarded. Our best guess: wait another 5 years for peak.
  • 2008 Tannat (C): Also very dark: pine forest, soy, and dark chocolate. The mouth is comparatively friendly, with a sweet attack of milk chocolate, nice grapey purple fruit, a little violet floral lift, and tangy acidity that keeps everything lively. Then lots (lots!) of tannins come out on the finish, with a raspberry preserves note.  Fun to taste, at this stage more appealing, I thought, than the Syrah, but clearly capable of going another decade or more.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel (C; 38% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 26% Syrah, 6% Counoise): Lovely on the nose, tending more toward red than black, but with aspects of each: red currant, new leather, baking spices, balsamic glaze, and a minty garrigue-like savoriness. The mouth is luscious: strawberry preserves, milk chocolate, rare steak, tangy acidity, and really nice, persistent tannins. Elegant and in a good place, with plenty more development to come.
  • 2008 Panoplie (C; 54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah): A nose of density and power: balsamic cherry glaze, meat drippings, and wild herbs, with more of Mourvedre's characteristic restraint than Grenache's exuberance. The palate was more luscious: dark red fruit, chocolate, raspberry preserves, dried cranberry, and big but ripe tannins. Very long. A little dustiness that comes out on the finish and the still-thick texture suggests that there are more layers to emerge with additional time in bottle.  Still, a very nice showing for the Panoplie, and an impressive wine.

A few concluding thoughts

I was very happy, overall, with how the wines showed.  I didn't have as clear an impression of 2008 in my mind as I did for the vintages surrounding it, perhaps because the character of the wines wasn't as dominated by the vintage signature as it was in, say, 2007, but also perhaps because the year was overshadowed by the massively powerful vintages on either side. That said, the wines were nearly all in good shape at age 10, and the year's elegance meant that there were more wines that I would want to drink at this stage than I found in 2007. The whites, in particular, were as a group the most impressive we've found in our five-year history of horizontal retrospectives, and presaged, I think, a shift toward the more elegant style that we prefer today.

Nearly all of the wines improved in the glass, and I thought that most of them would have benefited from a quick decant. A lot of people don't think of decanting older whites, but I think it's often a good idea, and particularly so with wines that have been under screwcap. There's a clipped character that all our older screwcapped whites have that dissipates with a few minutes of air. It happens anyway in the glass, but a decant would have been welcome.

This tasting was yet another data point for me suggesting that Syrah really needs time, and yet its value in a blend.  This 2008 Syrah was still, I thought, too young, but the structure and austerity of the Syrah component gave the Esprit red and Panoplie a feeling of balance and restraint that were really valuable. We choose to harvest our estate Syrah at ripeness levels where it has good structural elements, because that's where it's most valuable when blended with Grenache and Syrah.  That's likely a few weeks earlier than we would if we were focusing on the wine as a varietal bottling, and I'm OK with the tradeoff of having to wait a few extra years for our varietal Syrahs to come around.

Finally, we chose ten pretty exciting wines for what should be a great February 11th Horizontal Tasting: Picpoul Blanc, Roussanne, Esprit Blanc, Cotes de Tablas Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah, Esprit, Panoplie, and Tannat. There are still some seats available; I hope many of you will join us!


Checking in on our first ever Tablas Creek red: the 1997 Rouge

In the early days of Tablas Creek, we followed a very simple model: one red wine (which we called "Rouge") and one white wine (which we called "Blanc").  In 1999, we got really crazy and added a pink wine, which we called (of course) "Rosé".

Things have changed since then, as we've come to know both our vineyard and the market better, and this year we'll bottle, by my count, 29 different wines: 13 reds, 13 whites, 2 rosés, and one sweet wine.  These include our three tiers of blends, a pretty wide range of varietal wines, particularly on the white side (thank you, rainy 2016-17 winter), some small-production wine club-only blends, and one special project we're doing in conjunction with the team at Bern's Steakhouse.  I'm grateful to have the flexibility and opportunity to make these different wines, which I feel show off the uniqueness of our grapes and the talent of our vineyard and winemaking team.

That said, when we get to the blending, Neil and I always look at each other and remark that it used to all be so easy: as long as we liked the lots, they all went to the same place.

So, it was with a mix of nostalgia and anticipation that I opened a bottle of our 1997 Rouge while I was back in Vermont for the holidays.  This was where it all began, and it was not just the reflection, or the essence, of the vineyard that year, but the entirety of our red production.  Even so, we only made about 2000 cases.  It was the first harvest off the Beaucastel cuttings we had brought into the country, as they were kept in quarantine between 1989 and 1992, and then required two years of propagation before we could plant our first block in 1994. To this, we added small amounts of fruit from our American-sourced one-acre blocks of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, most of which we have since grafted over to French clones.  And even these older blocks were only planted in 1992, so the oldest vines in the vineyard were five years old in 1997.

Jason decants 3

Given the youth of the vineyard, it was very much to our surprise that the 1997 Rouge ended up in Wine & Spirits Magazine's "100 Best Wines of 2000", receiving 94 points and the following notes:

"The scent of this wine draws you in, then the texture holds you effortlessly. What’s great about this Rhône blend, however, is not just the deep, dark scent of dried cherries and wet stones, not just the succulent red fruit flavor and voluptuous feel. When it’s gone it leaves a memory of earthiness and a clean, refreshing taste. The wine isn’t about complexity. It focuses on perfect ripeness, and the delicious savory flavors and textures that come with such impeccably balanced grapes. A joy to drink. This is the first release from Tablas Creek, a joint venture between Château de Beaucastel’s Perrin family and their longtime importer Robert Haas."

Because it was so long ago, because we no longer make a "Rouge", and because there wasn't much of the wine to begin with, I don't get to open the 1997 Rouge all that often.  So, it was a treat to see that, even as it approaches its 21st birthday, it's still going strong.

Jason decants 2

My notes from the dinner:

"A deep, rich nose of hoisin, pine forest, currant, green peppercorn, nutmeg, and a coolness that's surprising from such a warm vintage. The mouth is full of sweet fruit: red raspberry and cocoa powder, and a rich texture with tannins that feel like powdered sugar. A little mushroomy earthiness is the wine's best hint of its age.  Shows nice tanginess on the finish and some still-substantial tannins that linger.  Fully mature, but nowhere close to over the hill."

 What a relief that it's finally old enough to drink.


We celebrate the holidays with a vertical tasting of 16 vintages of Esprit Blanc

The holidays are a time of year when many of us reach back into our wine libraries to pick out a special vintage we've been saving for just the right moment.  We keep our vintage chart updated for exactly these sorts of inquiries.  But while there are some wines that we open fairly regularly, there are others that come across our tables more rarely.  And so we try periodically to choose a wine and taste through every vintage of that wine, in order to assess how each wine is tasting now, should someone inquire, but just as much to track the arc of development of each vintage and to step back and take a big picture look at how our thinking about that particular wine has evolved.

So, with that in mind, I decided to get our cellar team together and open all the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and Esprit de Tablas Blanc wines we've made, from the debut vintage in 2001 to the 2016 that we just bottled last week and won't release for another 10 months.  It made for quite a kickoff to the holidays:

Esprit Blanc vertical Dec 2017

Now many people don't think about aging their white wines.  But Roussanne has a remarkable ability to maintain its freshness while also developing interesting secondary flavors, and the Chateau de Beaucastel white wines are some of the world's most ageworthy whites.  The Esprit Blanc, modeled after the Beaucastel Blanc and predominantly Roussanne, is no different.  Joining me for this tasting were Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, Cellar Master Brad Ely, Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg, and Assistant Tasting Room Manager Charlie Chester.  My notes on the wines are below.  If you want detailed technical information, professional reviews, or our tasting notes from when the wines were first released, I've linked each wine to its page on our Web site:

  • 2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (44% Roussanne, 22% Viognier, 18% Grenache Blanc, 16% Marsanne): As it has been the last several times I've opened this, just a revelation at age 16. On the nose, still so fresh: minty Bit-o-Honey, with richer flavors of pie crust but no apparent oxidation. On the palate, vibrant, with well integrated acidity, and flavors of honeydew melon deepening to marzipan on the finish. Craig commented, "for a 2001, this is just crazy". And Neil added "it's wines like this that are why, when people ask me how long a wine will age I have to answer that I have no idea. I never thought it would go this long."  Just lovely.
  • 2002 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): The nose shows more age (or perhaps its higher Roussanne content) than the 2001, with aromas of almond brittle, candied orange peel, and brioche.  On the palate, all our descriptors were sweet, though the wine is not: liquified cracker jacks, creme caramel, and vanilla custard. There is some noteworthy structure, almost a tannic feel, and chalky minerality that provides relief from the mouth-coating texture and rich flavors. The wine got fresher as it sat in the glass, and the finish of apple pie spices was my favorite part.  Still, the wine's density and power were its defining characteristics.
  • 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 27% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): On the nose, butterscotch, clove-studded orange, fennel, and a little cedary spice that I thought came from some well-integrated oak. The mouth is livelier than the nose suggested: toasted marshmallow, white tea, and salty minerality.  Quite chalky, with a little pithy bite on the finish.  A first bottle that we opened was more linear, with a matchsticky sharpness that seemed less appealing.  A good reminder that even non-cork-tainted bottles can expect a fair degree of variation at age 14.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): The first year that we included Picpoul in the blend (see my note at the end) and Neil immediately commented that "it smells like what we now do".  There was a cool lychee minty savoriness on the nose, over beeswax and white flowers.  On the palate, preserved lemon (from the Picpoul?), clementine orange, and a steely minerality that led to a precise finish of sea spray and spice.  This made us all want food, and the table was debating between dover sole, halibut piccata, and soft-shell crab when I moved us along to the 2005.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Powerfully Roussanne on the nose with burnt honey, green tea, mint julep, and some cedary oak. The mouth was quite ripe, with flavors of apricot tart set off by some pithy Grenache Blanc tannins and surprisingly bright acids that felt a touch out of keeping with the rest of the wine's personality.  Tons of power, but maybe not 100% resolved into what it will be at maturity. 
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A pretty, striking, youthful nose that reminded me of Chablis and Chelsea of Riesling: wet rocks, fresh pear, spruce forest and fresh herbs that Chelsea insisted were lemon thyme. The mouth was more youthful and more open than any of the vintages 2002-2005, with flavors of grilled pineapple, spun sugar, vanilla bean, and a lovely salty minerality that came out on the finish. Gorgeous and integrated.  Pretty clearly our favorite of the older vintages.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): The nose's tangy pungency reminded us of '02 or '05, with a little more age evident than the 2006: candied orange peel, cedar, a little mentholy lift, and a dense fruit, not altogether sweet, that Chelsea nailed as pineapple core.  On the palate, very rich and round, but with nicely integrated acidity to pull it through and a salty beurre blanc character that came out on the finish.  I thought the wine was begging for lobster: something unapologetically rich.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Banc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A different wine on the nose than any we'd seen before, so fruity that a couple of people commented that they'd have called it Viognier in a blind tasting: peaches in syrup, with complicating flavors of tarragon, lemongrass, and Bartlett pear.  The mouth is similar, though less exuberant, with flavors of apricot and key lime, medium body, and nice balance, with a briny salinity coming out on the finish.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul Blanc): A dense nose on which cedary spice was the most dominant element, not particularly friendly, but impressive. On the palate, some surprisingly red fruit descriptors: red apple skin and strawberry, with spicy lacquer and maple sap elements, and a smoky acidity that reminded me of grilled lemon.  More power than subtlety, at least right now.  The last of a sequence of wines that had a similar character that went from '02 to '05 to '07 to '09, all our most powerful vintages of the 2000's. 
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A nose that manages to be bright and luscious at the same time: maple candy, sea spray, juniper, lychee, and honeysuckle.  The palate is soft and creamy, gentle compared to the 2009, like orange blossom honey with clementine notes.  Pretty and less evident structure than most of the earlier vintages, but with all of the pieces in balance.  Butterscotch comes out on the long finish.  I thought it a crowd pleaser; Neil thought it a little low-acid for his taste.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): A nose like the beach, with cocoa butter and sea spray. Brad compared it to Condrieu for its leanness yet its promise of power. On the palate, more savory than any other wine in the tasting, showing the effects of our coolest-ever vintage, with flavors of grilled lemon and flint and beeswax, yet with tons of texture and a finish of mineral and pear skin.  Not an easy wine, but one we all kept coming back to.
  • 2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A nose like honeycomb, with additional aromas of baked apples, graham cracker, and a little sweet spearmint. The mouth is lush and creamy, youthful, with flavors of honeycrisp apple and just enough saline to keep it savory.  Gorgeous, balanced, and pure.  Chelsea commented that "if you don't want Champagne, this is your New Year's Eve wine."
  • 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (71% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc): A sweet resiny character on the powerful nose that broadens into lychee, crystallized pineapple and vanilla bean, with savory notes of dried sage and alpine forest.  The mouth is rich but savory, with flavors of salted caramel and preserved lemon, a cool, minty lift, and a finish that features sea salt, sweet herbs, and crystallized ginger. Gorgeous now, and a wine that we all thought would be fascinating to watch evolve.  On the balance, and amidst strong competition, our favorite of the younger wines.
  • 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): An explosively appealing nose with aromas of yellow peach, candied oranges, citrus blossom honey, vanilla custard, and pie spices. The mouth is structured but with an underlying note of sweet fruit, like orange creamsicle with a spearmint kick. The most floral of all the wines we tasted, with a beautiful jasmine note coming out on the long finish.  A close second to the 2013 among the young wines.
  • 2015 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (55% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 17% Picpoul Blanc): Neil's first comment was that he was "running out of honey descriptors". And yes, even in its youth, the 2015 showed a smoky honey character, as well as kiwi and passion fruit and newly split firewood.  The mouth was less dramatic than the nose, pretty and savory and textural, some caramel and apple notes, and a drier finish of apple skin, beeswax, and briny minerality.  Still deepening, and as pretty as it is right now, we all thought it would be better yet with another six months in bottle.
  • 2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 18% Grenache Blanc, 7% Picpoul Blanc): Just bottled last week, so our expectations were modest, but the wine already showed nicely, with a classically Roussanne nose of baklava, vanilla custard, Haribo peaches and sweet oak.  Clean and tangy on the palate, with a little salted pineapple and a yeasty character that reminded me of rising bread.  Still a baby, but should be lovely when it gets to its release in a little less than a year.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The overall quality of the wines was exceptionally high.  I asked everyone around the table to pick three favorites, and the wines that got multiple votes were 2001 (2), 2006 (5), 2010 (2), 2012 (3), 2013 (4), and 2014 (2).  But there wasn't a single wine here that we thought people would be disappointed by if they opened it right now.  And I don't think, even with all of Roussanne's famous idiosyncrasy, that a single one of the vintages was is in a "closed" phase.  Yes, the wines change and evolve, and it's possible that you will prefer the wines old to young, or vice versa.  But they were all, we thought, showing well.
  • We are often asked, if we love Roussanne so much, why our flagship white wine isn't a 100% Roussanne.  The wines that we liked showed why, I think.  The vintages that were the most densely characteristic of Roussanne (2002, 2005, 2007, 2009) didn't receive many votes, as we found them a little one-dimensional, for all their power.  The lift that came from the Grenache Blanc and Picpoul were welcome counterpoints to the Roussanne power and density.
  • I still remember vividly the tasting in our lab in 2004 where we made the decision to switch from getting a little floral lift with Viognier to getting the same lift -- plus a lemony saline focus -- from Picpoul.  Tasting the blend, identical except for the 5% substitution of Picpoul for Viognier, was like cleaning your glasses when they are badly smudged.  You didn't realize how much more in focus the world could be, until it was.  And that lemony, briny thread that all the subsequent wines have is, I think, thanks to the addition of between 5% and 17% Picpoul.  Its contribution has been remarkable.
  • I very much like the direction the wines have moved in since 2010. Driven in part by what we learned in the cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, we have been picking our whites less ripe in recent years, and yet they show ample density and luscious textures.  But they are less structure-bound, and also show more high notes, with a fresher fruit profile.  More is not always better.
  • Anyone opening one of these wines with a meal over the holidays is in for a treat.  Happy drinking, everyone.

Tasting the Wines for the 2017 VINsider Wine Club "Collector's Edition" Shipment

Each June, I have the pleasure of tasting through library vintages of our Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc to choose the wines for the upcoming VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition shipment. We created the Collector's Edition version of our VINsider Wine Club back in 2009 to give our biggest fans a chance to see what our flagship wines were like aged in perfect conditions. Members also get a slightly larger allocation of the current release of Esprits to track as they evolove. This club gives us a chance show off our wines' ageworthiness, and it's been a great success, generating a waiting list each year since we started it.

This year, our selections will be the 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel and the 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. You couldn't pick two more different vintages; 2007 followed our driest winter of the last two decades, which combined with a warm summer to produce blockbuster wines, luscious with plenty of structure and tannin to age. 2011 followed our second consecutive wet winter, and was marked by the effects of a spring frost (reducing yield) and the coldest summer, and latest harvest, in our history. These factors combined to make powerful wines with a persistent coolness to their personality that matched the vintage.

Where the vintages overlap is that each produced wines that benefited from (and in many cases, really needed) a few years in the cellar to show their full potential.  What I found most fun about these wines was that both show the signature of their vintage with crystal clarity. And yet time has, in both cases, made the wines more complete. The 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel spent longer in its closed phase [for more on that, see here] than any other wine we've made: nearly 5 years, opening only gradually over the last year as its tannins softened and the finish lengthened. The 2011 Esprit Blanc was powerful but not very giving in its youth, a wine that impressed more than charmed. Its flavors have opened and deepened, without losing the characteristic spiciness and lift of the vintage.

It's worth noting that this isn't the end; both these wines will go out another decade, at least. The duo:

CE Wines 2017

Tasting notes, from tastings today:

  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc:  Medium gold, only slightly deepened with time. Spicy beeswax Roussanne on the nose, lifted by cool vintage signatures of menthol, tarragon, and crushed rock. The mouth is clean, with a cool dryness taking precedence over flavors that sound -- but aren't at all -- sweet: orange peel, dried pineapple, cream soda, and lots more honey. A cool mintiness and more lemon zest come out on the finish, along with a walnut oil character that is the strongest indication of the wine's time in bottle. Still quite youthful at age six. 64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc.
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel: What a pleasure to see the highest rated Esprit we've ever produced in all its mature glory. A meaty, minty, dense nose: like a leg of lamb roasting with garlic and juniper, with notes of baker's chocolate and crushed rock. On the palate, more dark chocolate, creme de cassis, rich and mouth-coating, with chalky tannins that will help this go out another decade at least. It tastes like a special occasion, and only improved with time open; it will almost certainly be better in another 6 months, and we strongly recommend a decant if you're drinking this in the near term. 44% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 6% Counoise. 

The complete Collector's Edition shipment is pretty stunning, if I may say so myself:

  • 2 bottles of 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel
  • 1 bottle of 2011 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc
  • 3 bottles of 2015 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2013 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2015 En Gobelet
  • 2 bottles of 2015 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2016 Cotes de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2016 Grenache Blanc

We will be adding to the Collector's Edition membership, subject to available space, in the next few weeks. If you're on the waiting list, you should look for an email with news, one way or the other, of whether you've made it on for this round. We add members, once a year, in the order in which we received applications to the waiting list. If you are currently a VINsider member and interested in getting on the waiting list, you can upgrade to the Collector's Edition online. And if you are not currently a member, but would like to be, you can indicate that you would like to join the Collector's Edition when you join the VINsider wine club.


A Vertical Tasting of Every Vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Tablas, 2000-2015

Some of the best days at the winery are the days when we open up back vintages of a specific wine, for the dual purposes of better understanding how it ages over time and better advising our fans which vintages to open if they're looking for peak drinking1. Somehow, the last time we'd done this with our flagship Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel wines was December of 2014. So, it was with significant anticipation that we assembled each vintage of Esprit we've made, from our first (2000) to the 2015 that is going into bottle this week:

Esprit Vertical June 2017

An additional goal of this particular tasting was to choose a selection of Esprits to show at a public retrospective tasting. Fifteen wines would have been too many, but we figure we can pick a representative sample that will give guests a great sense of how the wine develops in bottle, as well as how the vintage affects the wine's composition and flavor profile.  If this sounds like fun, we'll be hosting that tasting on August 27th.  Details are here.

I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I have linked each vintage to that wine's page on our Web site, if you'd like to see production details or what the tasting notes were at bottling. Note that we didn't make an Esprit red in the frost-impacted 2001 vintage.

  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2000: A meaty, leathery, minty and smoky nose, very appealing, with dark red currant fruit lurking behind. On the palate, consistent with the nose: deep and meaty, with tobacco leaf and dark chocolate savoriness, and lots of texture. Chewy, with enough tannins still to suggest it's nowhere near at the end of its life. This is the best showing I can remember for this wine, and notably improved from that tasting in 2014.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2002: Smells younger and also more powerful than the 2000; menthol and crushed rock and brambles and meat drippings. The mouth is still quite tannic but also shows sweeter fruit than 2000: milk chocolate, plum skin, juniper, and black cherry, with a finish that turns spicy, tangy and floral among grippy tannins. Still on its way up, we thought. We're looking forward to trying it again in a few more years.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2003: An incredibly inviting nose, my favorite of the tasting: toffee and leather and milk chocolate and malt and black cherry. The mouth shows a mix of sweet dark fruit (plum jam, chocolate-covered cherry, figs), nice acids keeping things fresh, and a little minty lift on the finish. The wine is a little less dense than either 2000 or 2002, with tannins that are fully resolved, and I can't imagine this getting any better. Drink up.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2004: On the nose, showing density reminiscent of the 2002: menthol, roasted meat, sage, anise, and red currant. The mouth shows a mix of sweet fruit and big tannins: milk chocolate, dates, and candied orange peel, and a chalky, powdered sugar texture to the tannins that becomes more pronounced on the licorice-laced finish. I get a little alcohol sweetness on that finish, a pastis-like character, that seems heightened by some still substantial tannins. A big wine, with life left.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2005: A very meaty nose, gamy, with tobacco leaf and mint, and pine forest undergrowth. Savory, not fruity. On the palate, all that savoriness is leavened by dark red fruit, tangy acids, and bold but integrated tannins. The finish shows plum skin, black cherry, and an iron-like minerality alongside bold but integrated tannins. Neil's comment was that it was great now but would be even better in 10 years. I thought it on a similar path as the 2000.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2006: Smells less dense and more integrated/evolved (and more refined) than the earlier wines: cassis and mint and cherry candy and malt and meat drippings, with a pretty rose petal note coming out with air. On the palate, beautiful sweet red fruit, but great acids too: rose hips and ripe plums. A minty eucalyptus note comes out on the finish. Beautiful texture: just the right amount of tannin for the fruit, young and supple, and in a great place.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2007: A meaty, minty, dense nose: like a leg of lamb roasting with garlic and juniper, with notes of baker's chocolate and crushed rock. On the palate, more dark chocolate, creme de cassis, rich and mouth-coating, with chalky tannins that will help this go out another decade at least. It tastes like a special occasion. What a pleasure to have this wine out of its closed phase and firing on all cylinders, though it's still a little youthfully thick and blocky. It has plenty of complexity and richness to gain elegance without losing its fruit.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2008: This vintage is in the unenviable position of being squeezed between two blockbusters, but it showed nicely, if quieter than its brethren: a nose of mint and marinating meat and rosemary and soy. The mouth is gently delicious: raspberry and mint chocolate and clean, piney brambles. Seemed very Grenache dominated, with strawberry preserves and baking spices coming out on the finish. Not a dramatic wine, but a very pretty one.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2009: Bold on the nose, spicy and minty with garrigue and raspberry liqueur. The palate is still quite tannic, with plum skin, crushed rock minerality, and both red and black licorice flavors. The wine is showing very youthfully both in its relatively high toned fruit and its tannic structure. I'm looking forward to seeing what it's like when it turns the corner into maturity; my guess is that it will deepen in tone.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2010: A very different nose than the last several, clearly reflective of the cool 2010 vintage: soy and sage, but not much fruit. The palate is almost Nordic in its tone: elderberry and crushed rock and charcuterie and wild herbs. The texture shows nice chalky minerality, and the tannins are modest. I feel like this is still quieted by being in a closed phase, and will get more expressive in the next year or so, but there were several around the table who gave it votes as their favorites. Note that this doesn't mean either of us is wrong.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2011: Love this nose of spicy juniper and blackberry, with deeper notes of chanterelles that I'm guessing will turn meaty with a few more years. On the palate, nice poise and cool dark fruit, but lighter in body than the nose suggested to me. The finish is nicely balanced but shorter than I remember it, with chalky tannins and some lingering dark fruit. I suspect this is entering its closed phase, and will likely become less expressive over the next 6-12 months before reopening sometime next year.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2012: An appealingly brambly nose with both red and black components: soy and spice and plum and menthol and new leather. On the palate, mostly red: tart cherry, red licorice, sweet baking spices. Medium weight, some youthful tannins, good acids.  A baby, still.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2013: Dark on the nose, more like 2010/2011 than 2008/2009/2012, with soy and eucalyptus predominating. Not hugely giving. The mouth is tangy with blackberry fruit and baker's chocolate, black licorice, and good acids. Structural elements come out on the finish, with a spiciness to the tannins that Chelsea pegged as "Mexican hot chocolate". Still very, very young.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2014: So youthful on the nose: like cherry pie (both the fruit and the buttery crust), red licorice, and sweet spice. Beautiful on the palate, with red currant, rhubarb compote, and big, chewy tannins that show the wine's youth. Pure and primary right now, but with an exciting future ahead of it.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2015: At the time that we tasted it, this was about 2 weeks from bottling. A really appealing nose of blackberries in a pine forest. Deep. On the palate, beautiful dark fruit, tobacco leaf, black plum, and soy marinade.  Great structure and weight on the palate, with a finish showing black raspberry, black licorice, and lingering tannins. I am very excited to start showing this to people this fall.

I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and the wines that got votes included the 2000, 2003, 2006, 2010, and 2015, with the 2003 pretty universally among everyone's top picks.  There were other wines (notably 2005, 2007, and 2014) that got lots of positive comments for their structure and their potential, and which I think will end up in the next round's top picks.

We ended up choosing the following vintages for August's public tasting: 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • These wines really do reward patience. If we have consistently underestimated the wines' ability (and need) to age, I'm sure that most of our customers have. Look at a wine like the 2000: three years ago, I commented that it was the best showing for that wine I'd ever seen. This year's was better yet. Nearly every one of the older wines was better now than it was at the last tasting in 2014. This long aging curve wouldn't be a surprise for Mourvedre-heavy Chateauneuf, and I think we need to be recasting our expectations along those lines.
  • The degree to which the wines showed primarily red fruit vs. primarily black fruit was -- somewhat to my surprise -- not exclusively tied to the relative proportions of Grenache and Syrah.  Sure, some of the wines that show more red fruit than black (like 2006, 2008, and 2014) did have high percentages of Grenache. But others (like 2003 and 2012) didn't. And the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages both show mostly black fruit, despite their high percentage of Grenache. Variety matters, but vintage matters at least as much.
  • The tasting reaffirmed my belief that the 2014 and 2015 vintages are the best back-to-back showing we've had in some time, probably since 06 and 07. Both 2014 and 2015 Esprit de Tablas wines were beautiful examples of how this blend can have power without excess weight, fruit without sappiness, and structure without hardness. Both offer lots of pleasure now, but will age into something remarkable. And each shows its vintage's signature in an expressive way: the warm 2014's generous juiciness, and 2015's alternating cool and hot months in its tension and complexity.
  • Those of you coming out for the tasting in August are in for a treat.

Footnote

  1. We update a vintage chart at least quarterly with the results of these tastings.