A "Horizontal" Tasting: Looking Back at the 2009 Vintage 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 nine of the most compelling and interesting wines from this vintage to show at the public retrospective tasting we're holding on February 10th.  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 white that we expected to be in decline showing up as a highlight.  The lineup:

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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 2009 vintage:

The 2009 vintage was our third consecutive drought year, with yields further reduced by serious April frosts. Berries and clusters were small, with excellent concentration. Ripening over the summer was gradual and our harvest largely complete except for about half our Mourvedre at the time of a major rainstorm on October 13th. Crop sizes were 15% smaller than 2008 and 30% lower than usual. The low yields and gradual ripening resulted in white wines with an appealing combination of richness and depth, and red wines with an great lushness, rich texture and relatively low acid but wonderful chalky tannins.

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 same powerful structure that they did upon release? Would the whites have had enough freshness to be compelling a decade later?  And were there any lessons we might take for the wines we're making now?

In 2009, we made 15 different wines: 7 whites, 1 rosé, and 7 reds. This is a smaller number than most other vintages of that decade, reduced by the fact that so many grapes were scarce that year. Of the white Rhone varieties, our only varietal wines were Grenache Blanc and Roussanne (plus a second Roussanne bottling, under our Bergeron label). On the red side, our only Rhone varietal red was Grenache, making 2009 the only vintage since 2003 where we weren't able to bottle a 100% Mourvedre.

Although we made 15 wines, there were only 14 available in our library to taste today. Unfortunately (and none of us can remember how) there is none of our rosé left in our library. I can't remember another time where we didn't have even one bottle left to taste at the 10-year mark. And it's not like this disappeared recently; the last bottle was pulled out of the library early in 2011. Perhaps with the vintage's scarcity we reached into the library to fill a last few orders?  I wish I remembered. In any case, if any of you have any of our 2009 Rosé at home and want to share one with us, you'd have our undying gratitude and a spot in this or any future retrospective tasting of your choice.

My notes on the fourteen wines we did taste are below. I've noted their closures (SC=screwcap; C=cork) as well. 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 for; 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, Amanda Weaver, and Austin Collins) as well as by our National Sales Manager Darren Delmore.

  • 2009 Vermentino (SC): At first sniff the petrol/rubber cement character I tend to get in older screwcapped whites, but this blew off pretty quickly and rocky, briny, youthful notes emerged. With even a little more time in the glass, they were joined by aromas of orange blossom, lemon custard, and grapefruit pith. On the palate, key lime juice, passion fruit, white grapefruit, and more salty brininess. Surprisingly luscious, with a pretty sweet/salty lime note lingering on the finish. Really impressive, once it got past that initial note, and a good reminder to decant old screwcapped whites.
  • 2009 Grenache Blanc (SC): A lovely golden color. The nose showed marzipan, butterscotch, and a rising bread yeastiness. In the mouth, gentle on attack, with flavors of preserved lemon, wet rocks, and a little sweet spice, with acids building over time and finishing with a pithy tannic note we often find in Grenache Blanc. Not as youthful or dramatic as the Vermentino, though perfectly sound still. Drink up if you've got any.
  • 2009 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 45% Viognier, 28% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne, 7% Grenache Blanc): A nose like beer, with a green hoppy note that reminded Chelsea of lemongrass. With time, some honeysuckle and dried apricot emerged. The mouth had nice texture, very Rhone-like, with impressions of peaches and cream, ginger and straw, and a little burst of sour apple on the finish that we thought might come from the Grenache Blanc. Like the Grenache Blanc, it's on the elderly side, but still sound.
  • 2009 Bergeron (SC): Made from 100% Roussanne, harvested a little earlier from cooler blocks around the vineyard. A lovely nose of minty spruce and cedar, with caramel and baked apple behind. The mouth was similarly appealing, with caramel apple, chalky minerality, and a nice pithy marmalade note on the finish. It was a pleasure to taste, but also seemed like it would be a great dinner wine.
  • 2009 Roussanne (C): A deeper gold color.  Smells a little like a sour beer, with the yeasty character vying with a little sarsaparilla that I think came from some new oak. The mouth too has that same sour crabapple character, more to us like cider than wine, with flavors of Granny Smith apple, sour cherry, and pork fat, on top of Roussanne's signature rich texture. A strange showing for this wine. Not sure if it's in a stage, or if it's on its way downhill.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (C; 62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul Blanc): An appealing nose like an entire apple pie, complete with baked apples, nutmeg spice, and rich yeasty crust. Also aromas of honeycomb and sea spray. The mouth showed great texture: very rich, but with nice building acids that balanced the weight, flavors of baked pear, beeswax, spiced nuts, and a nice briny character that came out on the finish. Fully mature and beautiful.
  • 2009 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): One of our last Chardonnay bottlings, from a vintage where production was devastated by the frosts. The nose showed tarragon, buttered popcorn, lemongrass and green tomato, while the mouth was plush yet with a nice lemony note, like a beurre blanc, with a coconut creaminess and a little creamsicle-like orange character on the finish. It tasted to me like it was picked a touch on the early side, and a good reminder that when you're growing a grape that's not an ideal fit for your climate there are times when you don't have a great choice: wait until ripeness and live with extra alcohol and too much weight, or pick early and end up with some green character. In cooler years, I loved our Antithesis, but warmer years like 2009 are more common in Paso Robles, and a big part of why we decided to end the experiment a few years later.
  • 2009 Pinot Noir (C): Our third-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. Our most successful, I think, of the four vintages we made of this wine: a nice minty, cherry and tobacco nose. The mouth shows an appealing lean power: cherry skin and baker's chocolate, menthol and green herbs, Chinese five spice and cloves. A little luxardo cherry character on the finish. Admirable and fun.
  • 2009 Cotes de Tablas (C; 43% Grenache, 24% Syrah, 18% Counoise, 15% Mourvedre): Our only Cotes de Tablas to make the Wine Spectator's "Top 100". A really nice showing for this wine, dark and spicy on the nose, more black in tone than I expect from our Cotes, with blackberry, juniper, pepper, leather, and iron. The mouth is really impressive, with classic but concentrated Grenache flavors of milk chocolate, raspberry, currant and cigar box, nice balance, and a powdered sugar character we loved to the tannins. The finish showed roasted meats and plenty of tannin. Still at peak, and likely to go a while longer. 
  • 2009 Grenache (C): A powerful nose, tangy with cherry liqueur, pine sap, garrigue, and licorice. A touch of alcohol shows too. The mouth is quite tannic, yet with nice fruit intensity: redcurrant, wild strawberry, leather, black pepper, and autumn leaves. A little one-dimensional right now, and not as appealing as the Cotes de Tablas, with its Syrah-added black notes and Counoise's brambliness.
  • 2009 En Gobelet (C; 56% Mourvedre, 23% Tannat, 21% Grenache): Quite a contrast to the Grenache, with a nose more savory than fruity: lacquered wood, teriyaki, black licorice, cedar, and a little plum skin. The mouth is friendlier than the nose suggests, with blackberry and juniper flavors, smoked meat, pepper, bittersweet chocolate, and blackcurrant all giving relief to the still-substantial tannins. Just our second En Gobelet, and all still from the low-lying areas we planted initially as our first head-trained, dry-farmed blocks.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel (C; 40% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, 27% Grenache, 5% Counoise): The complete package on the nose, evenly balanced between red and black fruit, with added appeal from notes of meat drippings, chocolate, and junipery spice. The mouth is gorgeous: powerful plum and currant fruit, tons of texture, and little hints of sweet spices, dark chocolate, and candied orange peel. A great combination of savory and sweet, at peak drinking but with plenty left in the tank. Neil commented that it was "just what an Esprit should be".
  • 2009 Panoplie (C; 65% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 9% Syrah): Less generous on the nose than the Esprit, with red licorice, teriyaki, bay, and Chinese five spice. The mouth is powerful, with tangy red fruit, cherry skin, and then a wall of tannins locks things down and clips the finish a bit. The texture and the mid-palate were highlights, but I think this is still emerging from a closed phase and will be a lot better in a year or two.
  • 2009 Tannat (C): Tannat's classic blue-black color. A cool nose of black licorice, sarsaparilla, elderberry, and a little violet potpourri lift. The mouth is lovely, with tangy chocolate and plum, still big tannins, and a little welcome sweet oak. Classic and reliable, without being as hard as Tannat can be when young. A pleasure, just entering peak drinking.

A few concluding thoughts

As I suspected at the time, this was a very strong red vintage, and a somewhat weaker white vintage, although there were still treasures to be found among the whites. The Bergeron, I thought, was particularly good, and a fun surprise. On the red side, it's clear that time has been kind to the powerful tannins that characterize the 2009 vintage, with the bigger reds still showing plenty of structure and yet the flavors having emerged. I confessed in a blog from last summer that 2009 was never a favorite vintage of mine, but that what I didn't love in its youth -- a certain muscle-bound tannic weight -- has made wines with remarkable staying power.

Unlike the other vintages around it, I don't have a comparable recent vintage for 2009. The similarly low-yielding 2015 vintage has a lot more in character with more elegant years like 2006 and 2010 than with 2009, and we're picking less ripe, overall, now. That doesn't break my heart; I love the openness of the texture of the wines that we're making now. But when we do get another similarly concentrated vintage as 2009, I know I'm going to try to have the patience to do the same thing, and bury the wines in the back of my wine fridge for a decade. 

It's worth noting that 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 most 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.

Finally, we chose nine pretty exciting wines for what should be a great February 10th Horizontal Tasting: Vermentino, Bergeron, Esprit Blanc, Pinot Noir, Cotes de Tablas, En Gobelet, Esprit, Panoplie, and Tannat. There are still some seats available; I hope many of you will join us!


Checking in on Mourvedre, young and old

For the last three winters, Meghan and I have brought our boys to Vermont, to spend a week in the house in which I grew up playing with my sister's family, and to experience some real winter. This has meant lots of time sledding (or, in this relatively snow-free year, chilly forest walks), lots of time around a board game or a jigsaw puzzle, and of course lots of time around the dinner (or lunch, or breakfast) table. Our family is notorious for not wanting to get up from one meal without knowing with confidence what the next one will be, and when.

One of the pleasures of this house (and, for that matter, this family) is getting to explore the wine cellar that my dad stocked over the course of his six-decade career. Often that means older Burgundies, Bordeaux, or Rhones, but one of the most fun explorations we did this year was of two vintages of Mourvedre, which we opened with a simple but delicious dinner of pasta with homemade Bolognese, simmered for several hours the day before by my sister Rebecca.

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Mourvedre is known for its ageworthiness. But one thing that I've always appreciated about it is that even in its youth it's not usually forbidding or difficult. Its tannins tend to be more chewy than hard, it's got plenty of red fruit, and it has a lovely loamy earthiness, like new leather and pine needles, even when it's young, that just gets more pronounced as the wine ages.

The two vintages that I chose are similar in some ways. Both were overshadowed by blockbuster vintages that followed, and we have underestimated how good the red wines from both 2006 and 2013 really were, with later vertical tastings (like the one we did of Cotes de Tablas just last month) showcasing how well each was showing now. But each vintage is also representative of the era in which we produced it, with 2006 in the middle of a run of vintages where we were pushing for a bit more ripeness than we have in recent years, and 2013 in the shadow of the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages where we were more comfortable picking earlier, and lower sugar levels. And the alcohol on the labels of both wines reflect this, with the 2006 at 14.5%, while the 2013 came in at 13.5%.

Both wines were lovely. My notes on each (brief, since I was taking them in the middle of dinner conversation):

  • 2006 Mourvedre: Chocolatey and generous, with candied raspberry and plum, a little mushroomy earthiness vying with sugarplum and roasted meats on the palate, and a finish of milk chocolate and forest undergrowth. A touch of heat on the finish.
  • 2013 Mourvedre: Savory in contrast to the 2006, showing more darkness on the nose: pepper spice, soy, and roasted meats, with flavors of blackberry, pine forest, and meat drippings, and a lingering graphite-like minerality on the finish.

The opinions around the family table were interesting: most people preferred the 2006 at first taste, for its lusciousness and generosity. That chocolatey character was pretty irresistible, the tannins soft, and the fruit red and unmistakable. But as the meal wound on, I (and most of the rest of the table) kept coming back to the 2013, which seemed to evolve and open up more over the course of the meal, and whose savoriness offered a nice contrasting tone and whose umami-like minerality seemed to play more confidently with the Bolognese.

Of course, the point of pouring two vintages isn't particularly to declare a winner. Both wines were delicious, and I can't imagine anyone opening either of them being disappointed. But the meal was a good affirmation for me of the direction our wines have taken in recent years, still showing plenty of fruit and Paso Robles' characteristic generous sunshine, but preserving more savoriness and minerality to provide balance, contrast, and lift.

I hope that you opened something wonderful over the holidays, and that your new year is full of great food, interesting wines, and outstanding company to enjoy with both.


Our Most Memorable Wines of 2018

One of the things I appreciate most about the team that I work with at Tablas Creek is the wide range of their interests and experiences. If you don't work at a winery, you might expect that those of us who do spend most of their time drinking their own wines, but in my experience, that's far from the case. Most people who find a career in wine do so because they find it fascinating, and that interest doesn't go away just because they've landed at a particular winery, even a winery that they love. And most people who work at wineries look at exploring other wines as an enjoyable form of continuing education.

This year, I thought it would be fun to ask some of our key people about one wine that stuck with them from all the ones they'd tried in 2018. I loved the responses I received, and thought that readers of the blog might too. Here's everyone's submission, in their own words, in alphabetical order (except mine, which is at the end):

Leslie Castillo, Tasting Room Team Lead: Casa Gran del Siurana La Fredat 2014 Garnatxa
DSC08261This last November my husband and I traveled to Barcelona, Spain. A longtime friend from Baja, Mexico happened to be there at the same time, so we met up and drove to the Priorat for a day and had lunch at Mastrucafort in Bellmunt del Priorat, it was there where we had my most memorable wine La Fredat 2014 Garnatxa from Casa Gran del Siurana, objectively the wine was elegant yet wild simply beautiful but what made it even more memorable was the amazing Catalan food, rice prepared with rabbit, escargots and wild mushrooms; pasture raised lamb and the best braised “bacalao” I’ve had. The wine on its own was beautiful but what made it most memorable for me was everything that surrounded it our friends, the place the amazing dishes, whenever I drink La Fredat in the future I will remember that snapshot of our trip.

Neil Collins, Executive Winemaker: 2013 Domaine Tempier La Tourtine
IMG_9163I have always maintained that a really great wine can only achieve its full potential when it’s company and surroundings are all in perfect tune. Just such a moment happened last week. I took the glorious drive over the Nacimiento-Ferguson road to Big Sur with my boys and a friend. We lunched at my favorite lunch spot anywhere on the planet, Nepenthe. A glorious winter day, we were treated like kings! Classic steak & frites, the wine a 2013 Domaine Tempier La Tourtine. Stunning is an under statement! Food family friends great weather great view GREAT Wine, perfect.

Ian Consoli, Tasting Room: AmByth Estate 2013 Mourvedre
My favorite bottle of 2018, AmByth Estate 2013 Mourvedre, had two special moments. Number one was in its tasting room. As a man stood across from me and poured me 14 memorable natural wines one stood above them all. I took that bottle and held it for the right occasion until it found me only 2 months later at a dinner made exclusively of biodynamic ingredients. I brought it out to pair with the lamb and was immediately sent into a world where everyone else at the table disappears and only the dish, the wine and myself remain in the phenomenon known as “the vortex”. It was magical.

Darren Delmore, National Sales Manager: 2005 Franck Balthazar Cornas 
IMG_1005This 2005 Franck Balthazar Cornas quietly resides on one of my favorite wine lists in the US, at Sacramento’s Tapa the World. Half wine bar and half hookah lounge, owner Paul bought heavy amounts of old world juice before the financial downturn of 2008, and a lot of it is still there at original prices for us industry types to drool over. Black and viscous in color, raw meat and kalamata olive aromatics, with just enough of the Cornas funk bumping in the glass; it's in a beautiful pop-and-pour state at 13 years of age with time-tamed tannins.

Evelyne Fodor, Tasting Room Team Lead: Fino Sherry
Tapas and wineAt a tapas joint in Córdoba, Andalusia this summer.  We spotted this little place hidden in the backstreets near the grandiose Mezquita-Cathedral that we had just visited that morning.  In this picture taken by my husband, you’ll notice our glasses of chilled Fino Sherry, the local wine, ubiquitous in the region.  I still feel the deliciously crisp refreshing taste of it, with its distinctive aromas of almond that remind me of our Roussanne.  It did not need any more than a simple plate of chorizo and Manzanilla olives to make the experience delicious and unforgettable.

Chelsea Franchi, Senior Assistant Winemaker: 2017 Ridge Montebello (from Barrel)
20180803_143440 (1)Thinking about my favorite or most memorable bottle of wine from a given year is like going through a highlight reel from the past 12 months.  Travel experiences, epic dinners with friends and family, celebrations both large and small… for me, every one of those events is marked with a special bottle of wine.  Going through my favorite memories of the year and trying to narrow it down to a single bottle is a difficult task, indeed! 

However, there was one singular wine experience that absolutely blew me away this year.  Before harvest, our cellar team took a trip to Santa Cruz under the auspice of teambuilding, but the real reason for the trip was that our winemaker, Neil Collins, got an invitation from Eric Baugher, winemaker at Ridge Vineyards, to visit the Ridge Monte Bello Estate.  We jumped.  FAST.  Eric gave us a full cellar tour and led us through a stellar barrel tasting experience before showing us the separate Monte Bello cellar.  It was here that I had my very first taste of Ridge’s Monte Bello wine.  My dad had always been a fan of Ridge and the striking green and black labels were a staple in our wine rack – but never the Monte Bello.  This, to me, was tasting from barrel a lifetime of curiosity, longing and wonder.  And while it may have been my first taste of this venerable wine, it was not to be my last that day.  We sat down to lunch and after enjoying flights from their Lytton Springs and Geyserville properties, as well as a flight from their ATP wines, we were treated to a flight of the 1992, 2002 and 2012 Monte Bello.  These wines and this experience was the closest to perfection I’ve ever had the good fortune to be part of.

Working in this industry, we get access to all kinds of really extraordinary experiences, events and wines.  But hanging out with the Ridge vineyard and cellar team and talking frankly about their winemaking practices over glasses of exceptional wines I’d been waiting my entire life to try – this was one of those days where I sat thunderstruck, asking myself “Is this really my life?  How did I get so lucky?”  If a glass of wine causes you to ask questions like that, well, that’s certainly a highlight of the highlight reel.

Linnea Frazier, Media & Marketing: 1984 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
My most memorable bottle actually all came into play because of a chipped tooth. Yes, a chipped tooth. I was at my orthodontist and we were chatting about my work in the wine industry and his past wine collections, so being curious about the more obscure Rhone whites he proposed we do a bottle exchange next appointment. I readily agreed, not thinking too much of it and when the time came presented him with a bottle of our 2017 Picpoul Blanc. Casually, he places a bottle of 1984 Diamond Creek Volcanic Hill Cab Sauvignon on the table between us. Needless to say I laughed. And despite my protestations, he was adamant about us exchanging. Much to the delight of my conscience, I do believe he ended up buying a couple cases of Picpoul a few weeks after.

That bottle was opened during the holidays with the people I love most and given the ceremony it well deserved. Of course it was outstandingly rich and rustic, with immediate sinister earthiness and gained more dark fruit after a couple hours. Cheers!

Misty Lies, Tasting Room Team Lead: 2013 Domaine Ponsot Clos de la Roche
IMG_0048Earlier this year we had a free afternoon to open a nice bottle of wine. We decided on a bottle from Domaine Ponsot and decanted it. As the afternoon progressed we tasted it about every 20 minutes to see how it would open up over time. Even as a youthful wine, it was simply amazing and it gave me a whole new appreciation of wine.

John Morris, Tasting Room Manager: 1996 Tablas Hills Cuvee Rouge
This was a year where I drank plenty of wine, but mostly good, solid, everyday stuff.  The exception, at the risk of being a homer, was the discovery of a handful of cases of 1996 Tablas Hills Cuvee Rouge.  This predated the first Tablas Creek Vineyard labeling by one year, but is in essence an Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel.  A caveat: there’s none left.  We sold it bottle by bottle in the tasting room over the course of a couple of months, and I had the opportunity to taste it a handful of times.  It’s held up remarkably well, and still has some years left.  It is of course an old wine, so is ethereal in body, delicately perfumed, graceful on the palate, with just enough vibrancy to make it fresh.  It’s not quite a perfect wine, as it shows a touch of green, maybe stemmy tannins that are mostly calmed with age, but for a 22-year-old wine made from three-year-old vines, it’s a revelation.  And as much I as enjoyed it, I‘m even more excited about what the wines we’re making now will be like in 20 years, with fully mature vines and a vineyard and winemaking team with two decades of experience on this site.

Suphada Rom, Sales & Marketing: Vouette & Sorbée’s Fidèle
Suphada ChampagneI might be the worst minimalist ever! I carried around this bottle of champagne around with me through the better part of the summer. I had a sneaking suspicion that Cameron (my now fiancé) was going to propose at some point and me, being my hyper organized and planned self, I wanted to be prepared. Thankfully, I only had to tote it around for a month or two! Our engagement wine was Vouette & Sorbée’s Fidèle, a beautiful expression of Pinot Noir from the Aube. If I can give any unsolicited advice, I would say to always have a bottle of champagne ready- you never know (or sometimes you do!) when you may need to celebrate.

Randy Thurman, IT and Facilities Manager: 2012 Esprit de Tablas
We celebrated a new niece arriving this year with a bottle of Esprit Red 2012. I also gained a brother in law almost 3 months to the day that my niece was born, which we also drank to at their wedding with 24 bottles of Tablas Dianthus, Picardan, and Patelin current releases. We did not have any immediate family pass but we usually toast them at every family get together with any drink available and reminisce about how they would have enjoyed being there with us and how much we miss them. To King Po Po as my family would say.

Me: Domaine Marquis d'Angerville, Clos des Ducs, Vintage Unknown
IMG_7056As readers of the blog or followers of Tablas Creek will know, my dad Robert (founder of Tablas Creek) passed away this March one month from his 91st birthday. I wrote at some length on the blog on his life, and also in another piece shared the eulogy I gave for him at the celebration of his life we held at the vineyard in April. That celebration was a mix of sadness and appreciation for the many things he built and left for all of us. In that spirit, at a family gathering two nights before the memorial, my brother Danny and I decided to open a bottle of made by the Burgundy proprietor with whom he had been friends longest: Jacques d'Angerville, born like him in 1927.

I've always loved the wines from Domaine Marquis d'Angerville in Volnay, which for me exemplify Burgundy's magical ability to have depth and intensity of flavor without any sense of heaviness. The bottle itself had spent some years in my dad's Vermont cellar, where the high humidity is ideal for the wine inside the bottles but enough to cause labels to disintegrate. I'm sure that the vintage was printed on the cork, but I don't remember what that was, and the part of the label that would have shown it is gone. Almost certainly some vintage between 1976 and 1985, but I can't be more specific than that.

I remember the wine, though: translucent and ethereal, high-toned, fully mature and yet still very much alive. It's a wine I would have loved in any circumstances, but it was everything else that the wine signified that night that made it my most memorable wine of the year: a backdrop for our telling stories of our dad's life; tangible proof of the impact of his career; and a symbol of endurance (Jacques passed away in 2003, but his brilliance shines through in the wines he made).

A few concluding thoughts:
As you might expect, this was an eclectic list. Some wines are Tablas Creek, but most are not. Many were older, which says that for all the challenges of storing and being patient with wines, the rewards can be marvelous. But the thing that stood out most for me was the extent to which wines can mark the significant occasions in our lives, and give those moments additional depth and meaning. May your food and wine experiences be memorable in 2019.


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 screwcap 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.