Looking back at the cold, frost-reduced 2011 vintage with a decade's perspective
January 14, 2021
2011 was a year unlike any that we'd seen before, and it seems unlikely that we'll see another like it any time soon. It was the second consecutive cold vintage, cooler than any we'd seen since 1998, and much colder than anything we've seen since 2012. It began with devastating frosts on consecutive nights that April 8th and 9th, reducing yields of early-sprouting varieties dramatically. Grenache was off 41%. Syrah and Grenache Blanc were both down 51%. Viognier was down a devastating 71%. Our late-ripening grapes were less affected, but even Mourvedre saw crops reduced 24%. Only Roussanne, always the most frost-resistant grape in the vineyard, saw increased yields over 2010, and our total yields off the estate were down 34%.
The year's challenges didn't end after the frost. Persistent onshore flow meant that we had many more foggy mornings than we're used to, cooler temperatures, and delayed ripening. A heat spike in August was one of our most severe to date, and many vineyards around California, who had pulled leaves because of mildew pressures and worries about slow ripening, saw significant sunburn. Early rain the first week of October came while most of the harvest was still on the vine, and many vineyards saw an explosion of rot. And the frost-delayed beginning to the growing season and the unusually cool summer weather combined to produce one of our latest-ever finishes to harvest, on November 8th, which allowed two more rainstorms to pass through before we were done.
Still, in the end we felt fortunate. We harvested fruit with intense flavors (from the low yields and long ripening cycle) and bright acids (from the cool year). As of mid-October, we were less than one-third complete with harvest, but we were able to harvest everything that was out. Unlike most of Northern California, when the rainstorms passed through Paso they were followed by dry, breezy weather, which meant we didn't have significant fungal issues. And because of our relatively high investment in late-sprouting, late-ripening grapes, we saw lower frost losses than many of our neighbors. I was feeling optimistic enough toward the end of harvest that I wrote a blog with the headline Why Paso Robles Will Make California's Best Wines in 2011.
Still, our options when it came to blending were significantly constrained. We ended up not making many of the wines that we were used to. No varietal Grenache, or Syrah, or Counoise, or Viognier. No dessert wines. Unusual blends of the Cotes de Tablas wines given the scarcity of some of the lead grapes. But we felt at the time that the wines we were making from that year would end up being very ageworthy. The red wines all showed a dark, brooding character that suggested they would age slowly, opening up with time to reveal extra layers of fruit, earth, and spice. The white wines all showed remarkable texture and pronounced salinity. And we've loved the expressiveness of the 2011 vintage in the recent vertical tastings we've done. So it was with great anticipation that we opened all our 2011 wines yesterday. The lineup:
My notes on the wines are below. I've noted their closures (SC=screwcap; C=cork) and, for the blends, their varietal breakdown. Each wine is also linked to its technical information on our Web site, if you'd like to see winemaking details or the tasting notes at bottling. 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 Marketing Coordinator Ian Consoli.
- 2011 Vermentino (SC): The nose initially showed all of Vermentino's mineral notes (flint, oyster shell) but with just a little time the citrus leaf and grapefruit pith character emerged. On the palate, very young tasting and bright, with preserved lemon flavors, bright acids, plenty of stony minerality, and briny sea spray notes on the finish. Still youthful and bright, though it's a good reminder to let older screwcapped whites breathe a bit before judging them.
- 2011 Picpoul Blanc (C): None of us were quite sure why we bottled this under cork, when the other aromatic whites were all screwcapped and Picpoul Blanc had been screwcapped the year before. The wine showed a deeper golden color than any of the other whites we opened. On the nose, sweet aromas of toasted marshmallow, creme caramel, chamomile, and wheat kernels. The mouth was viscous and rich, with flavors of lemon meringue, creamy texture, and a long finish of Asian pear and lemongrass. I think we all wished this had been finished in screwcap too, as it would have shown more of the brightness we love about Picpoul.
- 2011 Grenache Blanc (SC): A nose of peppered citrus and chalky minerality that reminded me of a Chablis with a decade in bottle. On the mouth, the initial impression was a sweet one of spun sugar, then bright acids took over, then rich texture and a pithy bite on the finish helping keep the sweet lychee flavors fresh. Pretty, youthful, and in an excellent place. A terrific showing for this grape that's known to oxidize young.
- 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (SC; 45% Grenache Blanc, 34% Viognier, 18% Roussanne, 3% Marsanne): Our second-ever Patelin Blanc showed very well, with a nose of pineapple skin, apple, and crunchy nectarine. On the palate, sweet fruit, good acids, and surprisingly rich texture, with lemon curd and flan flavors and a fruity, vibrant finish with apple fruit leather and mandarin orange notes. Seems to strike a great balance between Viognier's fleshiness and Grenache Blanc's tension. Really pretty.
- 2011 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (SC; 27% Viognier, 26% Grenache Blanc, 25% Marsanne, 22% Roussanne): An unusual Cotes de Tablas because we had so little Viognier, and therefore decided to leave the Viognier on the skins during fermentation to extract maximum character from the grape. The nose showed sweeter dried peach, white gummy bear and cream soda notes, but also a salty sea spray character. The mouth was spectacular. Rich texture, a pronounced saline note like high quality salted butter, and fruit flavors of dried mango and orange creamsicle. A little skin texture kept things from being too weighty. A highlight for me, and many of us.
- 2011 Marsanne (SC): Our second-ever varietal Marsanne. A nose like the sea that we all came up with different ways of describing, from kelp forest to sea spray to miso. A little hint of quince... almost sweet but not quite. On the palate, more generous than the nose suggested, with a creamy minerality, egg custard and beeswax notes, and a hint of butterscotch. A little nuttiness (blanched almond) cane out on the long finish. Pretty and elegant.
- 2011 Roussanne (C): A weird showing for this wine. The color was medium gold, and showed a slight haze. The flavors were a little more reminiscent of a sour beer or cider than typical Roussanne honey and nuts, with coriander, yuzu, and wheaty notes. A hint of retsina-like pine sap and some sweet oak came out on the finish. I'm still hopeful that a little more time in bottle will help this assume a more recognizable form, but for now, it's more interesting than pleasurable.
- 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (C; 64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): Very Roussanne on the nose, with aromas of pear, pineapple, candied ginger and graham cracker. The mouth is lovely and mouth-watering, with fresh pineapple and sarsaparilla flavors and rich texture that brightens up on the finish leaving lingering notes of roasted nuts and clove. At peak maturity but with plenty left in the tank.
- 2011 Antithesis Chardonnay (C): Our last Chardonnay bottling, from a vintage that seemed like it should have played to the cool-loving grape's strengths. A creamy nose of marshmallow and sweet oak. The palate showed lots of glycerine texture, and flavors of baked apple and caramel. The finish came off to me a bit sweet-tasting, with notes of chamomile and white tea. Not particularly evocative of Chardonnay to me, and felt a little overripe. Drink up if you've got any left.
- 2011 Rosé (SC; 58% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 12% Counoise): Still a nice deep pink-orange in the glass. The nose isn't recognizably a rosé nose, or even terribly wine-like at this point. Reminded us of a Negroni, with a spicy wintery nose of mulling spices. The mouth shows sweetness on the attack with candied strawberry flavors and a bitter tinge on the finish like Campari. No one would have intentionally kept this wine this long, but it's at least still interesting.
- 2011 Full Circle (C): Our second Full Circle Pinot Noir from my dad's property in the Templeton Gap, and not our favorite showing, to the point that we opened a second bottle because we thought the first might have been oxidized. But the second bottle was the same: a nose of coffee grounds and cocoa hulls, a little oxidized and pruney. The mouth is in a nicer place, showing dark chocolate-covered cherries, saddle leather, and a little seed tannin perhaps from whole cluster fermentations. The finish showed a figgy note. This seems like it could have been impacted by the heat spike, or perhaps we just picked it a little too ripe.
- 2011 Tannat (C): A cool herby eucalyptus note over sweet/bitter aromas that we variously described as dark chocolate, molasses, and black cherry cola. On the palate, still youthful: unsweetened chocolate and juniper forest, still quite tannic, with a nice smoky black raspberry note coming out on the finish. If you have some of this, I'd recommend you stash it at the back of your cellar for another couple of years.
- 2011 Patelin de Tablas (SC; 52% Syrah, 29% Grenache, 18% Mourvedre, 1% Counoise): This wine has always carried a touch of a reductive character from the cool vintage and the high percentage of Syrah, and it still does, with a gunpowdery minerality over iron, black cherry, and meat drippings. Neil compared it to a Loire Cabernet Franc. The mouth is in a nice place, with a sweet minty chocolate note, savory baking spices, and nicely resolved tannins. I'm sure most of this has long been drunk, but if you find a bottle you're in for a treat. We sold this for $20 at the time.
- 2011 Cotes de Tablas (C; 49% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 15% Mourvedre, 8% Counoise): The nose is beautiful, very red fruited in contrast to the darkness of the previous two wines, with notes of cherry and sweet herbs. The mouth is juicy and lively, with beautiful raspberry and sweet tobacco notes. There are still some tannins that keep the juicy finish from being overly sweet. A consensus favorite and absolutely at peak.
- 2011 Mourvedre (C): A lovely mature nose of dried cranberry, leather, sweet cola and potpourri. The mouth is fully resolved too with milk chocolate-covered cherries, soft tannins, and a little soy umami note. A hint of oxidation started to come out with a few minutes in the glass, suggesting that while this is very pretty, the clock is ticking. Might be a year or two past peak. Drink up if you've got any.
- 2011 En Gobelet (C; 29% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 26% Tannat, 18% Syrah): With so much Tannat, relatively little Grenache, and no Counoise, it was probably unsurprising that the En Gobelet was so dominated by dark notes and still youthfully tight. The nose was brooding and iron-like, with the other grapes seeming subservient to Tannat. With time, a little minty dark chocolate did come out. On the palate, luscious and mouth-coating like a traditional Black Forest cake made with cherry liqueur. The tannins are still massive, and this wine feels a ways still from its peak.
- 2011 Esprit de Tablas (C; 40% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Counoise): Initially reserved on the nose, with savory Worcestershire and roasted meat coming out with time. On the palate, in a very nice place, with semi-sweet chocolate, rose petals, and soy marinade flavors and some powdered-sugar tannins maintaining order. The long finish shows all the components of a flourless chocolate cake, with a meaty, salty lingering note. At peak, or nearly so, with plenty of life left.
- 2011 Panoplie (C; 60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): A powerhouse on the nose, with aromas of sugar plums, Worcestershire sauce, loam, and a little minty lift. On the palate, soft and generous, with sweet Mexican chocolate and fresh blackberry, and meat dripping flavors, and well integrated tannins that glide into a generous finish of baker's chocolate, rose petals, and black tea. At peak, with lots more to come.
- 2011 Petit Manseng (C): Our second bottling of this classic southwest French grape known for maintaining great acids as it reaches high (and occasionally extremely high) sugar levels, which we make each year in an off-dry style. The nose showed lychee, pineapple, green herbs and petrol, reminiscent of an aged demi-sec Chenin Blanc. The palate was like a lemon bar with powdered sugar, sweet but still bracingly tart, with a long finish of mango and caramel. Fun, unique, and still youthful.
A few concluding thoughts
2011 is a vintage we're unlikely to ever see the likes of again. In the last decade, the impacts of climate change on California have become much more pronounced, and 2011 was already an unusually cold vintage. I'm not sad about that; this was a tough year for grapegrowers around the state, even though I was pleased with how we handled the year's challenges. In this tasting, the wines were a little more uneven than in a truly great year, with a few reds unexpectedly showing signs of age. I'm not sure whether that is a function of the uneven and sometimes very low yields, the heat spike, or the fact that we still had in the back of our heads the ripeness levels we were used to seeing in the 2005-2009 era, and perhaps left some of the grapes on the vine longer than we would have now. It could be a combination. Still, the best wines were really strong, and the whites overall outstanding.
It was not easy selling the 2011 in the market when they were first released. It was clear that the wines had potential, but the character was darker, denser, and more brooding than the blockbuster, juicy 2009's or the elegant, open-knit 2010's. I feel like I spent a lot of time contextualizing the vintage, explaining why Paso Robles shouldn't be painted with the same brush as Napa/Sonoma in this difficult vintage, and hoping people could look beyond the brooding present to what the wines promised to become. I was only partially successful, and it wasn't until we were ready to release the 2012 reds that the 2011's really started to open up. Oh, well. It meant that we stashed a higher-than-normal quantity of our top wines, and have been able to portion them out to people in recent years. There are worse problems to have.
I asked the team to vote for their favorites, and the wines that received multiple nominations cut across the spectrum that we make: Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Patelin de Tablas, Cotes de Tablas, Mourvedre, and Panoplie. That both Cotes de Tablas wines showed so well is a continuation of what we've seen time and again at these tastings. Although we think of the Cotes wines as ones to drink while we wait for the Esprits to mature, at a decade out both show consistently well. I should remember that and lay more down.
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.
In uneven vintages, the benefits of blending are even more evident. We made less of both Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc in 2011 than we did in 2010. Some of that was because there was less wine to work with, and if we'd made an equal amount of Esprit and Esprit Blanc we wouldn't have had many other wines. But more of that was our commitment to only blending the very top lots into the Esprits. And that quality really showed through in the Esprit Blanc, Esprit, and Panoplie. I think we can be proud of the process that produced those wines.
In a normal year, this tasting would be the prelude for a public event at which we would share the highlights of this tasting with wine club members and other guests. Ten years is a great duration to show the rewards of cellaring; it's 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. That's not an option this year, or at least not right now. If things continue to improve, I'm tentatively thinking of hosting our 2011 horizontal tasting this November. Fingers crossed.