Each summer, I taste through library vintages of our Esprit and Esprit 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 2012 Esprit de Tablas and the 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. Although both vintages were warm and sunny, and that showed up in the wines we made those years, 2012 was the first dry year after two wet ones, and the vineyard really showed no signs of stress all growing season, by 2014 we were starting to see the effects of our drought in lower yields and a denser, chewier lushness. That said, both wines showed a lovely balance of fruit and mineral, structure and openness, and richness and elegance when I tasted them today. The pair:
My tasting notes:
2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc: Lovely medium gold. Rich on the nose, with aromas of gingersnap, lacquered wood, yellow pear, and sweet green herbs. The palate is similarly exuberant, with rich texture and flavors of baked spiced pear and honey. A little pithy Grenache Blanc tannin kicked in on the finish, ushering in a briny minerality that was a welcome counterpoint to the wine's lushness. 72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc. Delicious now, and will certainly be good for another 5-10 years or more.
2012 Esprit de Tablas: A deep nose of iodine, soy marinade, cassis, and chalky minerality. The mouth shows bittersweet chocolate and black cherry notes, warmed by sweet baking spices. The finish is long, with good tannins, plum skin, and black tea, and the 2012 vintage's signature freshness. 40% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 9% Counoise. It's already deepened notably since my last tasting of it just over a year ago, and my sense is that it's only getting better. Still, it's lovely now, and anyone who pops one open upon arrival is going to be very, very happy.
So how have the wines changed? Both have deepened since bottling. The flavors in the Esprit Blanc have shifted from fresh pear to poached pear, and from new honey to something more like creme brulee. The flavors in the Esprit have shifted from more red-fruited to something poised between red and black, and the texture has become richer. And yet they're both still youthful enough that anyone who loved them when they were young will feel like they're visiting an old friend. And, of course, they're nowhere near the end of their lives, so collectors who like a fully mature profile can wait another decade easily.
The complete Collector's Edition shipment is awfully exciting, at least to me, between the combination of the library vintages and the variety of new wines. I'm really loving the vibrancy and freshness of all the 2018s, and am excited to share some of our first of the luscious 2019s:
2 bottles of 2012 Esprit de Tablas
1 bottle of 2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
3 bottles of 2018 Esprit de Tablas
2 bottles of 2018 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
1 bottle of 2018 En Gobelet
1 bottle of 2018 Grenache
1 bottle of 2019 Cotes de Tablas Blanc
1 bottle of 2019 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 be receiving an email soon 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 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.
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.
Usually, at this time of year, I'm locking in the plans for the market visits I'll be making for the busy fall selling season. When I travel, I typically spend my days riding around with distributor reps calling on restaurant and retail accounts to show them our new releases, and my evenings hosting in-store tastings and winemaker dinners to help those same accounts tell the Tablas Creek story to their customers. But I won't be visiting any out-of-state markets the rest of 2020. That's for sure, and I think the first half of 2021 is likely to be more of the same.
Instead, I've been scheduling Zoom meetings and arranging for sample deliveries to wholesale accounts, working on a national strategy to organize virtual tastings around the releases of the 2018 Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, trying to figure out what sorts of trade visits to Tablas Creek we can safely host, and finalizing details with my guest for Wednesday's Instagram Live broadcast.
I think it's safe to say that this pandemic will be a generation-defining event, in the way that 9-11 was, or the Vietnam War. Covid has spurred changes large and small to nearly everyone's personal and work lives. I've been thinking a lot about which of the changes that we're making to our business will be things that will endure even after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror, and which will fade away as we get back to normal life. Here are my current thoughts.
Things that seem like they will endure
Virtual trade tastings. These sorts of tastings have been (in my opinion) exceptionally effective. We've figured out how to rebottle wines into sample bottles and get those samples to the restaurant and retail buyers (and media) in a relatively cost-effective way. Then, over Zoom, we can present the wines, have a conversation, show photos, answer (and ask) questions, and generally be interactive. Compare this to the closest thing in the before world: a trade lunch or trade seminar. People have to physically get to your location, you always get tons of cancellations, it's expensive, and it's inflexible. What you lose from being online is negligible, but what you gain is massive. People can be anywhere. There are no commute costs and no one cancels because they're stuck in traffic. You can add people up to the last minute, and you can even record the events for people who couldn't join you to watch later.
Shift toward e-commerce and delivery. Our baseline of weekly phone and internet orders during the pandemic was roughly three and a half times what it was last year. That's a huge increase. I know that some of it was an unsustainable surge in people stocking up, and some of it was that everyone was at home cooking instead of out at restaurants (and so they needed to buy wine to go with those meals). But that's a lot of customers who now know how to use the online tools who didn't before, and I think it's extremely unlikely that the baseline will go down to where it was before. I've read in other industries that the pandemic spurred five years of changes in behavior in a few months. That sounds right to me, at least for this metric.
Tastings by appointment at wineries. We've always been proud that you didn't need an appointment to taste at Tablas Creek, and felt that allowing someone who is recommended to visit to make a spur-of-the-moment decision to do so was central to our mission to spread the word on the Rhone Rangers category. But we realized that there was no way that we could control our flow of tasters (which then allows us to maintain distancing and ensure a good experience for those who come) without appointments. So, we implemented them. The results have been quite positive. The average sale per customer has gone up about 13%, as have wine club conversions, and we haven't lost much traffic, because when visitors see that Saturday is sold out, they've been booking Friday or Sunday visits instead. That means we can give everyone better experiences, and we've seen the results in sales and club signups. I can easily imagine not wanting to go back.
Fewer wine cruises. We've hosted wonderful cruises that brought people to Beaucastel and around French, Spanish, and Italian wine regions each odd-numbered year since 2013. And we were far from the only ones. By the past few years, it seemed like every winery, wine region, and wine association was sponsoring a wine cruise somewhere. I don't think they will go away, but I do think that we'll see fewer of them, as I think it will take a long time for people's tolerance for close quarters and enclosed spaces to return to where it was pre-Covid.
Wine and drinks to-go from restaurants. One of the relief measures that most states passed in the immediate aftermath of shut-down orders was to allow restaurants to sell beer, wine, and cocktails for takeout with their food. And it's been wonderful, with really no negative impacts on anyone that I can think of. While a few places might re-enact restrictions on this business, I think most of them will stay in place, not least because restaurants are likely to be struggling with reduced capacity or outside dining only for quite a long time. By the time things get back to normal, I just can't see state governments choosing to punish restaurants by taking away this revenue source.
Things that likely won't endure
The end of wine festivals. There just aren't going to be wine festivals, at least not as we know them, until there's a Covid vaccine. Sure, events will move online. (Along those lines, if you want to experience the famously exclusive Aspen Food & Wine Classic, you can do so online for free. One of our wines is even included in a seminar!) But I don't think that this spells the end of wine festivals, because the online experience is so far removed from what you get if you go to an event and can choose from hundreds of wines from dozens of wineries, and sample tastes from scores of restaurants. That doesn't translate online very well, and as soon as people feel safe in crowds, I expect these sorts of events to come roaring back.
Virtual consumer tastings. We pivoted to offer virtual wine tastings during the three months when our tasting room was closed. And we enjoyed them, and got lots of positive feedback. But as things have moved toward reopening, we've seen demand fall pretty sharply. In April, we sold 58 of our virtual tasting packs per week. In May, that declined to 23 per week. In June, it fell to 8 per week. Some of that was other wineries jumping into that same space. But a lot of it was, I think, Zoom fatigue, and the fact that sitting in front of a computer is a pale reflection of a winery visit, no matter how engaging a winery tries to make it. We're going to plan to continue to offer virtual tastings, but I don't expect the demand to be huge. The sorts of virtual events that I do think will endure are those that offer experiences that aren't a knockoff of what you can get at a winery, like panel discussions including far-flung members of the wine community, and offering deep insights into regions, grapes, or techniques.
Cheap wine shipping. There were a ton of pressures, both short- and long-term, for wineries to offer free or discounted shipping during the first round of stay-at-home orders. And we did, offering $10 flat-rate shipping for more than three months. It seemed the least we could do to help people sheltering at home, and we were worried that the closure of restaurants would mean that a big outlet for our wines would disappear, leaving us with lots of extra inventory. As it turned out, we did lose most of that restaurant business, but the growth in direct sales mostly made up for it, though at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars in shipping subsidies. Boutique wineries can generally not easily replicate Amazon and other e-commerce giants' infrastructure of having warehouses around the country, and therefore being able to offer fast, cheap ground shipping. Many wines are made in tiny quantities, and the logistical challenges of splitting, say, 70 total cases of inventory of our newly-released 2019 Picardan among multiple warehouses and our tasting room are really thorny. Because wine is perishable, two-day shipping or faster is pretty much non-negotiable. And because wine bottles are heavy, air shipping is expensive. Even with the better rates that our fulfillment center can negotiate because of their volume, it's around $100 for us to send a case of wine to the east coast, and not much less to go to Texas or the Midwest. That's a lot of cost to eat if you're offering free or steeply discounted shipping, particularly if your wines aren't $50 or more per bottle. Essentially, nothing has changed since this Twitter thread I shared in February. All together, this means that I don't think that most wineries will be able to keep up free or nearly-free shipping indefinitely:
A short thread on customer expectations and wine shipping. 12 years ago, we surveyed wine club members who had canceled in recent years to learn more about why. One response we got repeatedly was that people expected free or very cheap shipping. https://t.co/JwhKebLKdb 1/
So, I'm curious. What did I miss? Any big wine industry changes that you're seeing that you think are here to stay? Or that will be relegated to the dustbin of history as soon as we have a Covid vaccine? Please share in the comments.
As it has across America and around the world, the pandemic has disrupted our routines in ways large and small. The large ways I've talked about at some length here on the blog. But bigger questions like if and how we open safely, or what the market impacts of nation-wide closures will be are just a part of the story. Another, less dramatic part is that we don't have the same rhythm of events here at the winery. For example, each summer we look at a specific wine by opening every vintage we've made. We use this tasting to pick eight to ten of these vintages for a public retrospective tasting. These are some of our favorite events each year.
Enter 2020. We aren't able to host large gatherings here at the winery. So, no public summer retrospective tasting. But I realized that it's still important for us to continue to make regular explorations through our wine library, both so that we have the context to make the right winemaking decisions with our most recent vintage, and so that our fans who may be cellaring our bottles have some insight into how they're developing.
With that in the background, I decided to get our cellar team together and open all the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and Esprit de Tablas Blanc wines we've made, from the debut vintage in 2001 to the 2019 that we blended recently. It made for quite a morning:
I recognize that it may seem strange to some people to talk about the aging curve of white wines. And for many grapes, I wouldn't recommend it. But Rhone whites, and particularly Roussanne, have the structure and richness (and just enough acidity) to evolve in an interesting way for decades. Beaucastel's white wines, and particularly their Roussanne Vieilles Vignes, are renowned for lasting generations. Want a professional opinion? No less an authority than Jeb Dunnuck, who got his start writing the Rhone Report before covering the Rhone for Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and more recently setting out on his own, recently tweeted this:
Joining me for this tasting were Winemaker Neil Collins, Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi, Assistant Winemaker Craig Hamm, and Cellar Assistant Amanda Weaver. My notes on the wines are below. I've linked each wine to its page on our Web site if you want detailed technical information, professional reviews, or our tasting notes from when the wines were first released.
2001 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (44% Roussanne, 22% Viognier, 18% Grenache Blanc, 16% Marsanne): I thought this was a little less impressive than it has been the last few times I've opened it, with a nose of hazelnuts over crème caramel, with a little eucalyptus lift. Rich and butterscotchy on the palate, with lemon custard and a little pithy bite on the finish. Nice elegance, but more signs of age than I'm used to seeing in this wine. I'm not sure if it was just this bottle, or if after nearly 20 years it's starting its long decline, but we would never have thought that it would have gone this long.
2002 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): The deeper golden color and the nose both show more age and ripeness than the 2001, with aromas of almond brittle, marzipan, and burnt sugar. There is a nice minty note that is particularly welcome given the density of the other aromas. On the palate, rich and lovely, with some age, but not over the hill: crème brulée, marmalade, and a lovely, long, clean finish with flavors of candied orange peel. I got a little alcoholic heat on the finish. A great showcase for the density and power of Roussanne.
2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 27% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier): Similarly golden as the 2002. On the nose, toasted hazelnuts, star anise, clove, graham cracker, and burnt sugar. The mouth showed the same caramel, nut, and baking spice flavors that the nose suggested but also livelier acids than the 2002. A little pithy bite on the finish provided nice lift too. Seemingly at the end of a long, lovely peak.
2004 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): The first year that we included Picpoul in the blend, and while the color was similarly golden as the 2002 and 2003, the nose showed more lift: jasmine, lemon custard, and the first wine in the tasting to show the briny sea spray minerality on the nose that we've come to look for. On the palate, long and precise, with flavors of salted caramel, mango, candied ginger, and minty eucalyptus. The minerality carried through to the finish, with a crushed rock note lifting the beeswax impression.
2005 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A less golden hue than 2002-2004. The nose is spicier and less rich/caramely too: like grilled rye bread, lemongrass, and aromatic bitters. The mouth was quite a contrast, with very rich texture and the impression of super-ripe almost vin de paille-like apricot and honey flavors, though no residual sugar. On the finish, lingering crème brulée and peach liqueur notes, with a little sweet green herby character for relief. A little disjointed for me: lots of interesting elements but not quite together.
2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): The youthful pale gold color that we see in younger Esprit Blanc. On the nose, also the first one that reminded us all of what we're making now: new honey, baked pear, preserved lemon, and sweet spice that Chelsea nailed as cinnamon stick. The palate was lovely too, with flavors of brown sugar and lemon cake and a little pithy bite leading into a finish of honey, saline minerality, and a little cedary spice. Gorgeous and integrated. A clear favorite among the older vintages.
2007 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): A spicy nose with menthol, charcuterie, sweet oak spice, and a little pungent character that I noted as aromatic bitters and Neil described better as charred orange peel. The mouth is rich, with great texture and flavors of Seville oranges. Clean and long, with salty, piney notes providing lift over richer honey and caramel notes on the finish. I haven't always loved this vintage of the Esprit Blanc because of its unrelenting richness, but this showing was outstanding.
2008 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Banc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): After three more youthful vintages, this 2008 felt older again, with aromas of spun sugar, baked golden delicious apples, and new leather. The mouth is full, bordering on heavy, with flavors of orange creamsicle, preserved lemon, and charcuterie. It did improve with time in the glass, which suggests that it may be in a closed phase. Decant if you're drinking one now, or wait a year or two.
2009 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul Blanc): Nice richness on the nose, honey and lacquered wood, nectarine and white flowers, with a sweet green note like newly cut grass. On the palate, both fruity and yeasty: imagine pineapple upside down cake, but dry. Tremendous texture. Lingering flavors of honeycomb and candied orange peel, enlivened by fresh green herbs on the long, focused finish. A great showing for this wine, which like the 2007 I often found in its youth so dense that it was easier to admire than love.
2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc (60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): An immediately appealing nose of brioche, fresh pear, new honey, and sweet spice. The mouth is similarly lovely: fresh pineapple, crushed rock, and poached pear, with a rich, soft texture but lively acids cleaning things up. On the finish, candied grapefruit and beeswax. I've always loved this vintage, from our coolest-ever year, and this showing was no exception.
2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul Blanc): From a similarly cool vintage as 2010, but from a frost year that gave more density and a linear firmness to everything we made. Aromas of lemon, lemongrass, and minty juniper. On the palate, rich but notably dry: preserved lemon and savory custard, quince, and a little savory oak. There was also a whey-like character that we didn't find in any other wine in the sequence. Unique and distinctive, if a bit polarizing.
2012 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): A reticent nose, then like a quieter version of 2010, showing sea spray, honey, and Thai basil. The mouth is more generous and open, with vanilla custard, fresh honey, and caramel apple flavors. The finish showed a little pithy red apple skin bite, against a backdrop of tasted marshmallow and baked pear. This has been a favorite in most past vertical tastings, and it was less impressive this time. It's about the point at which it would enter a closed period, so I'd recommend people be patient and wait.
2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (71% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc): An intensely Roussanne nose of jasmine and sarsaparilla, honeysuckle, key lime, and sweet resin. The mouth is rich but dry, with flavors of pineapple, honeycomb, and vanilla custard. There's plenty of structure, and a very long, savory finish. It seems like it's going to have a long, interesting life.
2014 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (72% Roussanne, 23% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul Blanc): Rich on the nose, with aromas of gingersnap, lacquered wood, yellow pear, and sweet green herbs. The palate is similarly exuberant, with rich texture and flavors of baked spiced pear and honey. A little pithy Grenache Blanc tannin kicked in on the finish, ushering in a briny minerality that was a welcome counterpoint to the wine's lushness.
2015 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (55% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 17% Picpoul Blanc): The vintage with our highest-ever percentage of Picpoul showed a notably different nose: more tropical, with aromas of papaya, passion fruit, and sweet spice. The mouth shows more delicacy than most of our other vintages, with flavors of nectarine, peppered citrus, lovely freshness, and a finish with lemon drop, beeswax, and salty minerality. I loved this, but it was a bit of an outlier stylistically.
2016 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (75% Roussanne, 18% Grenache Blanc, 7% Picpoul Blanc): Rich, dense, concentrated Roussanne character on the nose, a little like the 2013: lacquered wood, grilled lemon, maple syrup, and ripe pear. The palate was rich yet precise: honeydew melon, lemon meringue, and a little cedary oak. Gorgeous key lime acids come out on the finish, leaving a minty, tropical lift.
2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (68% Roussanne, 17% Grenache Blanc, 7% Picpoul Blanc, 4% Clairette Blanche, 4% Picardan). Our first vintage with the two new grapes included. A really pretty nose, somehow both deep and lively: honeysuckle, new leather, and sweet oak. The mouth is vibrant, with flavors of grilled pineapple, mandarin peel, lemon custard, and baked apple. The finish is lively and lovely, with honey and sweet spice. A consensus favorite among our newer vintages.
2018 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (66% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan, 2% Clairette Blanche). Bottled this past December and not yet released. A nose of yellow roses, fresh pear, yellow raspberries, and an orange leaf-like sharpness. On the palate, lovely and high-toned, with fragrant fresh honey and green herb character. Plenty of weight and texture, but the flavors are still deepening to match. Should be great to watch as we get toward its fall release.
2019 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (63% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan). Just blended, and currently sitting in large oak. A really bright nose of Meyer lemon, minty spice, and a little yeasty leesiness that seems like a relic from its recently-finished fermentation. A lovely rich texture but also tons of Keffir lime brightness, flavors of pineapple core, passion fruit, and white pepper. Still a baby, with lots of time both in barrel and bottle before its release in the fall of 2021, but there's nothing here that changes my mind that 2019 will go down as one of our greatest-ever vintages.
A few concluding thoughts:
The overall quality of the wines was exceptionally high. I asked everyone around the table to pick four favorites, and the wines that got multiple votes were 2001 (3), 2006 (3), 2009 (3), 2013 (2), and 2017 (5). But there were wonderful vintages that didn't get "favorite" votes too. The wines do change and evolve, and you should do your best to explore if you prefer your Esprit Blancs older, younger, or somewhere in the middle. But across the board, we thought that they were great showcases for the texture, richness, structure, spice and minerality we think this property imbues in our white wines.
We were happy with the direction we've taken in recent vintages. The last three years, which incorporate to varying degrees additions of Picardan and Clairette Blanche, all showed really well, the zesty acids seeming to highlight the Roussanne-driven richness without thinning the wines' texture. I also think we were all happy with the amount of oak that we were putting on these wines. There was a stretch where we felt they weren't showing quite enough of the spice and weight of the large French oak we love, and then it took us a vintage or two to get that dialed in.
The wines do move around. The outstanding showings for vintages like 2007 and 2009, which weren't our favorites in many past tastings, and the fact that some vintages we loved last time out (most notably 2008 and 2012) seemed a little disjointed in this tasting, do point what an evolutionary roller coaster Roussanne can be. I dove more deeply into the phases of how Roussanne ages in a blog last year, if you're interested in a rough timeline of what to expect. Nothing in this tasting changed my conclusions from that blog that we'd been underestimating the duration of all Roussanne's evolutionary stages.
Don't forget the vintage chart. We update this chart several times a year based on the results of tastings like these, wines we open in the normal course of life, and feedback we get from customers and fans. It's there whenever you want it.
Bourboulenc's arrival had particular significance because it meant that we finally had all the approved Chateauneuf-du-Pape white grapes in the cellar, joining Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, and Picardan. (As well as Viognier and Marsanne, which are allowed in Cotes du Rhone though not Chateauneuf du Pape.)
Rhone whites are generally thought of as settling on the richer, more textural, lower-acid side of the white wine spectrum. And that's definitely one face of what the Rhone offers. But it's far from the only face of the family. It includes rich, low-acid wines (like Viognier). Rich, mid-acid wines (like Roussanne). Rich, high-acid wines (like Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc). Medium-weight, low-acid wines (like Marsanne). Medium-weight, high-acid wines (like Picpoul and Picardan). And light-weight, high-acid wines (like Clairette Blanche). The fact that the wines that were preferred by growers beginning particularly in the 1970s tended toward the richer, lower-acid part of the spectrum (think the rise of Roussanne, Marsanne, and, most dramatically, Viognier, of which just 35 acres were planted in total in the late-1960s) was a function of the marketplace's preferences toward powerful, aromatic wines, and of what worked in that comparatively chilly decades that preceded the 1990's.
Starting with the 1990s we've seen three decades each warmer than the last, and each the warmest on record world-wide. With the climate warming around the world, all grapes achieve ripeness more reliably than before. I remember my dad commenting five or six years ago that the warming climate had basically eliminated bad vintages in France (typically characterized by thin, acidic wines from cold, rainy years). Of course, those warmer years also produce wines with less acid and more sugar (and therefore more alcohol and body). That reduces the risk of growing the grapes on the higher-acid, lower-body edge of the spectrum, because they're likely to get to full ripeness and have enough body. It also makes the lower-acid grapes more at risk of being heavy or out-of-balance. For this reason, Clairette Blanche is currently seeing a resurgence of interest in Chateauneuf-du-Pape for its ability to bring freshness and elegance to the ever-weightier Roussanne and Grenache Blanc.
Enter the forgotten Rhone varieties: Picpoul Blanc, Clairette Blanche, Bourboulenc, and Picardan. All four have high acids at harvest. All four saw years of decline in the Rhone, and because international markets tend to follow what is in demand in a grape's homeland, all four were late to arrive in California. None pre-dated our arrival. And even as we brought in Roussanne and Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Viognier, we decided to wait to focus on these less-planted white varieties. It wasn't until we saw what a revelation Grenache Blanc turned out to be here in Paso Robles that we dipped our toes into the water, importing Picpoul Blanc in 1997, planting it in 2000, and getting our first small crop in 2003. All it did was force its way into (and displace Viognier out of) our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc in 2004, just its second harvest.
Our next round of imports began in 2003, but because these grapes were so rare that we had to take field cuttings, all our imports had virus and had to be cleaned up by UC Davis. The grapes trickled out of quarantine, Clairette Blanche in 2009 (we planted it in 2010) and Picardan in 2012 (we planted it in 2013). Bourboulenc didn't make it until 2015 (we planted it in 2016). But both Clairette and Picardan showed Picpoul's precocity, finding their way into Esprit Blanc in 2017, their fifth and second vintage, respectively, at Tablas Creek.
It probably shouldn't have surprised us. We're convinced that grapes like Picpoul and (to a lesser extent, Grenache Blanc) are victims of a vicious circle in France. Because they're not much respected and don't command a high price on the market, they tend to be only viable economically if they're cropped heavily. So, they're usually overcropped and then earmarked for quick fermentations and inexpensive bottles, which reinforces that they're of low value. Here in California, we crop them modestly, give them the same attention in the cellar as our other grapes, and then allow them to find their place in the blends and varietal bottlings through the blind tastings that kick off our blending trials each year.
For the first time, in 2019, we have all four as varietal bottlings to share with you. They were bottled the week of June 8th, and I opened these four high-acid wines this past week in order to write tasting notes for our Web site. I thought it would be fun to share them with you now. I've linked all the wines (except the Bourboulenc, for which we're still waiting for a bottle photo) to its page on our Web site if you want detailed production notes.
2019 Clairette Blanche: a clean mineral nose of lemongrass, lychee, and honeydew melon. The palate is bright and yet mouth-filling, with flavors of fresh apricot, lemon, chalky minerality, and a little sweet anise-tinged spice. The finish is clean, long, and mouth-watering, with a lingering citrus note.
2019 Picardan: clean but rich aromas of nectarine, yellow raspberry, and sun-dried hay. On the palate, quite rich texture balanced by yellow plum flavors and a preserved lemon pithy bite. The finish is long and peachy, with a lingering note of saline minerality.
2019 Picpoul Blanc: an immensely appealing nose of yellow roses, fresh pineapple, sea spray, and sweet green herbs. The palate is mouth-watering, with flavors of salted pineapple, yellow raspberry, and briny minerality. Tropical and saline notes come back out on the long, vibrant finish. Drink now and over the next few years.
2019 Bourboulenc: a rich golden color. On the nose, aromas of marmalade, caramel, and a briny sea spray minerality. The palate is richly textured yet bright, with flavors of mandarin and nectarine, and a little Meyer lemon pithy bite coming out on the long, minerally finish.
We didn't make much of any of these wines: just 70 cases of Clairette Blanche, 80 cases of Picardan, 145 cases of Bourboulenc, and 280 cases of Picpoul. And because we have so many whites from 2019 -- not just these, but Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and our blends -- we've decided to space out their releases. We'll be announcing the release of the first two (Clairette and Picardan) to club members this week. Picpoul will follow next month, and Bourboulenc will go out to members of our VINsider "white-only" club in September.
After my tasting of these four wines, I just can't imagine that these grapes will remain obscure for long. Although each had its own personality, every one had texture and richness, vibrant fruit and refreshing acids, and all showed the saline minerality we attribute to our calcareous soils. We can't wait to share them with you.
What do regions like Champagne, Burgundy, Chablis, Tuscany, Alsace, the Loire, Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux, and Chateauneuf-du-Pape all have in common? They've all got soils that are variously described as chalky, decomposed limestone, and calcareous. In chemical terms, all are high in calcium carbonate, the basic building block of marine life.
So too does much of the Paso Robles AVA, particularly the sub-AVAs of the Adelaida District, Willow Creek District, Templeton Gap, El Pomar, and Santa Margarita Ranch. In all these regions, if you find a road cut, the rocks will be chalky and white, and if you dig into them you'll find marine fossils, from fish scales to oyster shells to whale bones. Yes, ten million years ago, our part of Paso Robles was under the Pacific Ocean. This makes our land, in geologic terms, relatively young. When they make their way to the surface, the rocks are creamy white and surprisingly lightweight:
What Are Calcareous Soils? Calcareous soils are formed from the crushed up and decayed shells and bones of sea creatures. These layers settle down to the bottom of shallow oceans and, depending on how much heat and pressure they're subjected to, can be as soft as talc or chalk, or as hard as limestone or even marble. Of course, in order for plants to be able to access the calcium carbonate, it needs to be friable: soft enough for roots to penetrate. This means that even when you hear about a region having "limestone soils" the value to the plants isn't in the limestone itself, but in areas where the limestone has decayed into smaller particles.
From a grapevine's perspective, it doesn't really matter if the calcareous soils come from the erosion of limestone (as in Burgundy) or whether they never quite got heated and compressed enough to become rock (as in Paso Robles). The net impact is the same. There are four principal reasons why these soils are so often good for wine quality.
In winter, the calcareous clay absorbs moisture, turning dark. Note the roots that have pene- trated between the layers of clay.
Benefit 1: Water Retention & Drainage Calcium-rich clay soils like those that we have here have water-retention properties that are ideal for growing grapevines. Some water is essential for cation exchange -- the process by which plants take up nutrients through their roots. But grapevines do poorly in waterlogged soils, which increase the likelihood of root disease. Calcium-rich clay soils have a chemical structure composed of sheets of molecules held together in layers by ionic attractions. This structure permits the soil to retain moisture in periods of dry weather but allows for good drainage during heavy rains.
The porosity of our soils mean that they act like a sponge, absorbing the rainfall that comes in the winter and spring months and holding it for the vines to access during the growing season. We've done backhoe cuts in late summer, after it hasn't rained for several months, and while the top few feet of soil are dry, there's moisture in the layers six feet down and more.
At the same time, we never see water pooling around the vines. Part of that is that our whole property is hilly. But hillside vineyards in other regions still end up with standing water at the bottoms of the hills. We never do. That balance of water retention and drainage is ideal, and it allows us to dry-farm in the summer months of what is essentially a desert climate.
Benefit 2: Higher Acids at Harvest We've had anecdotal evidence of calcium-rich soils producing wines with more freshness for years. At the symposium on Roussanne that we conducted last decade, producers from non-calcareous regions (from Napa to the Sierra Foothills to vineyards in eastern Paso Robles with alluvial soils) consistently reported harvesting Roussanne roughly half a pH point higher than those of us from calcareous regions like west Paso Robles and the Santa Ynez Valley. But the chemistry of why this was the case has only become clear in recent years.
It appears that the key nutrient here is potassium, which is central to the processes by which grapevines lower acidity in berries as fruit ripens. High calcium levels displace potassium in the soils, inhibiting this chemical process and leaving more acidity at any given sugar level. Of course, this can be a challenge. I have friends in other parts of Paso Robles whose pH readings are so low at the sugar levels that we like to pick at (say, 22-24° Brix) that they have no choice but to wait for higher sugars. This can produce wines that carry massive levels of alcohol. But in moderation, it's a wonderful thing. I'm grateful that (unlike in many California regions) we can let malolactic fermentation proceed naturally, producing a creamy mouthfeel without unpleasantly high alcohol levels. In much of California, the higher harvest pH readings mean that they have no choice but to stop the malolactic bacteria from working to preserve the sharper malic acids in the finished wines, for balance.
The calcium-rich layers of the mountain behind the winery shine bright white in mid-summer
Benefit 3: Root System and Vine Development Unlike cereals and other annual crops that have shallow root systems, grape vines have deep root systems. This means that the composition of the deeper soil layers is more important for vine health and wine character than that of the topsoil. It also means that amending the soil (by, for example, liming to add calcium) is less effective than is natural replenishment of essential nutrients from deeper layers.
Grapevine roots are remarkable. They can penetrate dozens of feet into soil in their search for water and nutrients, and they continue to grow throughout the vines' lives. This means that the physical properties of the soil are important: a hardpan layer through which roots cannot penetrate can have a serious negative impact on a vine's output. Calcareous clay's tendency toward flocculation (soil particle aggregation) creates spaces in which water can be stored. In addition, the softness of these soils means that as they dry out, they shrink, creating fissures through which roots penetrate to where more residual moisture can be found. As they get wet, they expand again, opening up yet more terrain for the vines' roots to access. This process repeats itself annually. In our vineyard we've routinely found grapevine roots ten feet deep and deeper in experimental excavations.
Benefit 4: Disease Resistance Finally, there is evidence that calcium is essential for the formation of disease-resistant berries. Calcium is found in berries in its greatest concentration in the skins, and essential for the creation of strong cell walls and maintaining skin cohesion. However, if calcium is scarce, plants prioritize intracellular calcium over berry skin calcium and berries are more susceptible to enzyme attack and fungal diseases.
Where Are California's Calcareous Soils? When my dad and the Perrin brothers were looking for a place to found the winery that would become Tablas Creek, calcareous soils were one of three main criteria they were looking to satisfy (the others were sun/heat/cooling and rainfall). But they quickly realized that soils like these are rare in California, except in a crescent of land in the Central Coast between the Santa Cruz Mountains to the north and Lompoc to the south. The portion of this this area that is on the western slope of the coastal mountain ranges is too cold to ripen most Rhone varieties. The western and southern pieces of the Paso Robles AVA, on the eastern slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains, are home to the state's largest exposed calcareous layers, and it's largely because of this that in 1989 we bought property here.
There's a great story about how they went about finding soils. As they tell it, they decided that it was a lot cheaper and faster to look at road cuts than to hire backhoes and dig their own. They looked for the better part of four years around California without finding soils that excited them. Until they were driving along Peachy Canyon Road one afternoon in 1989, saw one of the many switchbacks where CalTrans had dug into the hillside to make the roadbed, and pulled over to see if the white rocks that they noticed were really what they'd been searching for. The composition looked right, the fossils looked right, and they then brought over a French geologist to confirm their impressions. They put in an offer on the property where we are now later that year.
We've thought since the beginning that finding calcareous soils would be a key to making great wines. Learning the science behind why only underscores the importance that the vineyard's founders put on this search.
Further Reading: Thanks to Dr. Thomas J. Rice, Professor Emeritus of Soil Science at Cal Poly, for pointing me in the right direction on some of the trickier geology questions. See also:
"Calcium in Viticulture: Unraveling the Mystique of French Terroir, Part I and Part II" by Valerie Sexton, Wine Business Monthly. Originally published September/October 2002.
For the last three months, I've been taking walks through the vineyard every Wednesday morning to gather photographs to share during the weekly Instagram Live broadcasts I've been hosting from Tablas Creek. This has given me a more consistent archive of the changes in the vineyard landscape than I've ever had before. And even as we've reopened our tasting room this week (hooray!) I'm going to continue these weekly walks and reports, to make sure that we can share what's going on here with everyone, whether or not they're able or comfortable to come for a visit.
The landscape has made its annual transformation from late winter shaggy green, with soft edges around dormant vines, to midsummer vibrancy, with golden hillsides, brown earth, and intensely green vines. After months of transition, the last two weeks have felt complete. Here's a visual tour. First, to set the stage, a long view looking down from the vineyard's highest spot, through Grenache vines and over Counoise, Tannat, and to a block (on the far hill) that used to be Grenache Blanc and is now home to our newest grape, Muscardin:
A photo from within that new Muscardin block shows what it looks like, two weeks post-grafting (left). A close-up of one of the grafts (right) shows the new Muscardin bud already sprouting.
The twelve additional (short) rows that we grafted over to Muscardin will more than double what we put into the vineyard last year, and will give us enough to really wrap our heads around it when it gets into production next year. If you're interested in learning a little more about this exceptionally rare grape, I summarized the little that's available in the literature in a post last summer.
The vineyard, after a longer-than-normal period of shagginess due to the late rain we received and our caution in trying to minimize staff out here in the early days of the Covid-19 shutdown, is mostly back looking tidy. Here are two views. On the left, down through a Mourvedre block toward Las Tablas Creek, and on the right, a view through our old Vermentino block. Click on either for a larger view:
We've seen an excellent fruit set this year, with virtually no shatter and uniform, healthy clusters. Below, see Vermentino (left) and Grenache (right), two of our earlier varieties, whose berries are already pea-size or larger and mostly round:
But even less precocious grapes like Mourvedre (left) and Syrah (right) have made good progress too. If I had to make a prediction, it would be that we're looking at veraison and harvest more or less on schedule with the past two year, at times close to our 20-year averages:
The next photo, of a head-trained Tannat block in the middle of the vineyard, shows why it's so important for us to get in and clean out the weeds in these blocks early in the growing season. Already, the vines are bushy enough that their canes almost touch, and running a tractor through here would damage the vines.
In the trellised sections of the vineyard (like the Counoise block below) we've been finishing up our shoot thinning. This process helps open up the canopies to the free flow of light and air, and allows us to reduce and even the crop load from vine to vine to encourage even ripening. You can see the canes that we've discarded on the ground:
Although we're still two months or more away from harvesting any grapes, many of the fruit trees that we have interplanted in the vineyard are getting closer to their own harvests. We've been enjoying cherries the last couple of weeks, and this apple (pictured in front of a head-trained Mourvedre block) is set with a heavy crop and looking like we'll start to get fruit in July.
I'll leave you with one last photo, of one of our handsome Grenache vines from our original plantings in 1992. At nearly three decades old, it's solidly in its prime, but looks like it's got decades of high quality production ahead of it.
So, that's the report from the vineyard, as of mid-June. Looking great. Full speed ahead.
By Barbara Haas. Photos by Rebecca Haas and Ellery Hutten.
Chester, Vermont is where we've lived for fifty years and where I still spend summers. This summer has been unlike any other. With social distancing in force and restaurants closed, we've been eating every meal at home, and looking for ways to upgrade these home dining experiences. Thankfully, we were not the only ones looking around. Food wholesalers and local farmers, without their normal restaurant orders, have been looking for customers at the same time. A group of creative locals found a way to get the supply to the demand and, at the same time, help fund meals for people in need.
Chester Helping Hands, founded by local restaurant owner Jason Tostrup, sells a weekly box of produce, supplied by a regional wholesaler, as well as unusual products from local vendors, all at very reasonable prices. At the same time, his restaurant Free Range provides family dinners twice a week for families who want or need food. All you do is reserve on line and pick up your meal curbside. Those who are able to are invited to make a donation, but no questions are asked. Donations have ranged from $5 to $500. Free Range has been providing about 700 meals per week, with all work done by volunteers. This community endeavor has been a win, win, win for all concerned.
One of the fun things about this program is that you never know from week to week what will be in your box. As our car snaked through well-organized lines in the elementary school parking lot a few weeks ago, we first made a donation for the free meal program, then received our large box of produce (put into the trunk by a volunteer). Next stop was for “poultry and eggs”, which in this case were six semi-boneless quail and a dozen beautiful little quail eggs, from Cavendish Game Birds in Springfield, VT.
Quail is a treat for us, because it is usually only available in restaurants. So we put our heads together to build a meal around it – and, of course, to pair the succulent little birds with just the right Tablas Creek wine. The “we” of this collaboration are Barbara and Rebecca Haas, partners in Tablas Creek and mother and sister respectively of Jason Haas, and Tom Hutten, husband of Rebecca. Also at the table were Emmett and Ellery Hutten, ages 10 and 6, who would be eating quail for the first time.
After combing the internet and several cookbooks for inspiration, we came up with our own recipe for Roasted Quail, Asian Style (see recipe below). We accompanied the roasted quail with a side dish of sautéed shiitake mushrooms with local bok choy, and simple boiled rice. In consultation with Jason we determined that a bright and fruity red wine was the best choice for the gentle sweetness of the marinade, so up from the cellar came a 2013 Grenache and a 2015 Cotes de Tablas, and we prepared to see which was the better match.
I should say here that after living with Robert Haas for fifty years, I find it totally normal to give food and wine equal billing. Sometimes over those years, Bob would have a special wine to serve and I would be tasked with finding food that would enhance it, or at least not fight with it. Sometimes it was the reverse. I would have a special dish I wanted to try, and he had to find the right wine. Always to be hoped for was the perfect pairing, a rare and special event.
When the little brown quail came out of the oven, redolent of ginger and garlic and hoisin sauce, we were all more than ready to dig right in. After the first bite of quail, we sampled the Grenache. Brief pause for reflection, then the three of us looked at each other and broke into wide smiles. It was as if that wine had been created especially for our dish! There was enough richness in the wine to stand up to the sweetness and exotic flavors of the quail and enough acid to balance the palate. It was one of those stellar moments when the wine and the dish each made the other taste better.
We then tried the 2015 Cotes de Tablas and found that this was not as happy a match. The Cotes, which is led by Grenache but also has significant portions of the more-tannic Syrah and Mourvedre, had more perceptible bite, and the tannins were emphasized by the sweetness in the quail sauce. The Cotes would have been much more at home with, say, savory grilled lamb with herbes de Provence and roasted potatoes.
But we felt victorious with our choice of Grenache. When that rare match of two harmonious tastes occurs, the experience is something like listening to two notes of music which make a more beautiful sound together than either does alone. So don't feel reluctant to try different pairings; even the ones that don't really work are fun, and you learn something. And then you get the occasional moment of perfection!
RECIPE: ROASTED QUAIL WITH ASIAN FLAVORS
Ingredients: 2 tbsp Hoisin Sauce 2 tbsp Sesame seeds 1 tbsp Chili paste with garlic 3 tbsp Dark sesame oil 2 tsp Sugar 1 tbsp Minced fresh ginger 3 Cloves of garlic, minced ¼ cup White wine ¼ cup Soy sauce 6 Quails, semi-boneless if available 2 tbsp vegetable oil
Combine the first nine ingredients in a ziplock bag, and add the quail. Turn the bag over to make sure all sides of the quail are in contact with the marinade. Marinate for 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 375°F.
In a large non-stick pan, heat the oil over medium-to-high heat. Sear the quail quickly on both sides being careful not to burn them. Save the leftover marinade.
Transfer the quail to a small roasting pan and roast for approximately 20 minutes. Whole quail may take ten minutes longer.
Meanwhile, simmer the reserved marinade in a small pan for 10 minutes until slightly reduced.
Remove the quail to a warm platter and top with the marinade.
[Editor's Note June 9, 2020: We have received permission from the state and county to reopen. Our first day open will be Wednesday, June 17th. Thank you for your patience!]
When I wrote that blog, three weeks into most stay-at-home orders, the idea that businesses would reopen into a very different reality hadn't hit most people yet. The hope was that we could crush the curve in a month or two, and then reopen more or less as we were before. Now nearly every state has begun reopening, to some degree at least, and California has entered stage 2 of its Resilience Roadmap. In this stage, restaurants (and wineries who serve meals) can reopen for in-person dining under distanced guidelines.
At Tablas Creek, we're not a restaurant, and don't feel it's wise for us to try to become one just to reopen a few weeks early. Food, after all, changes how wine tastes. There's a reason that professional tasters don't evaluate wines over a meal. And great food (as well as great food service) is hard, particularly if you have to provide "bona fide meals" as specified in the state protocols.
If I thought we were looking at months before we could reopen, I might evaluate, but I really do think that we're in the home stretch, and reopening tasting rooms under new safety protocols is a matter of weeks away, not months. After all, as a recent letter from CA regional wine associations to the governor points out, if serving food and wine can be done with an acceptably low level of risk, serving just wine is (if anything) safer. There's less prep, fewer utensils, less cleanup. Less to sanitize.
We don't know exactly when that will happen. But we do know that when it does happen, we want to be ready with plans that we're confident will provide a great experience, safely. So, what can customers expect? Much of what I predicted in my April blog, but a few additional things. Here's what we're planning:
Tasting by appointment only, so we can regulate traffic flow, make sure that we don't have people building up in our parking lots, and be sure that we can take great care of the people who do make the journey.
Get to know our patio. We'll be doing all our tastings outside for at least the next few months. We have a great patio space with several shaded levels, and we're making some alterations to ensure that everyone has their own space. Why outside only? I dive into why we think that's so critical below.
Plenty of time between groups to clean and sanitize spaces. We're leaving roughly double the time that we figure most guests take for a tasting with us between bookings. We want to make sure we have enough time for a relaxed tasting, and to clean and sanitize spaces, with no one having to wait.
All seated flight tastings. We're planning tastings of six wines, which we'll serve in two flights of three. We're getting cool no-touch carriers to bring the wines to guests' tables. That way we don't need to stay in guests' space as long. That level of spacing just isn't possible across a tasting bar.
No groups larger than six. Large groups in and of themselves encourage people to abandon physical distancing, even if you ask them to maintain it at your facility. Plus they're inherently chaotic at the winery. I feel like this is a part of not encouraging behavior that is likely to have negative consequences.
Face coverings for us, and for you until you're seated. Our team will be wearing face coverings, and we'll ask guests to as well until they're seated at their tables. We'll have disposable masks for anyone who needs one.
Education and health checks for our team. We're working with our team to help them monitor their own health. No one who is showing any symptoms will be allowed to come to work. We have always granted paid sick leave for our team members, so they have no economic incentive to work while they might be ill.
No merchandise browsing or picnicking. We'll be restricting our merchandise to a few items that we can display on the wall behind our check-out table, and then getting items from boxed stock as requested. And because we'll be using our whole patio to properly space out our tastings, we won't be able to accommodate picnicking. We apologize!
As we learn about how Covid-19 spreads, it's clear that the most important thing to avoid is creating spaces where virus particles accumulate and stay. That's why the rates of outdoor transmission are so (happily) low, particularly with distancing guidelines observed. Earlier this month I shared on Twitter this terrific piece by UMass epidemiology professor Erin Bromage. In it, he investigates where significant spread occurs and where it doesn't. Because infection becomes much more likely as sustained contact with virus particles occurs, the risks are high in enclosed indoor spaces without much fresh air flow, low elsewhere. And while I love our tasting room, and feel confident in our cleaning protocols, it's not a space I'm comfortable welcoming guests in right now. There's not a ton of air flow. It's surrounded by our cellar (a space without much air flow, for obvious reasons). We only have one door. It's just not feasible to match the level of air circulation we can get outdoors.
Fortunately, we've got our patio. We did the math and figure that we can easily seat 50 people at a time, with plenty of distance between groups. Plenty of shade (and yes, we know there will still be some hot afternoons and are installing both fixed and portable misting systems to help ameliorate this).
On our patio, with our other safety and cleaning protocols, I feel that we can open with exceptionally low risk to our guests and team. And that's critical. This is a marathon, not a sprint. I'm expecting that we'll need to operate in a Covid-19 environment for a long time. If you feel you can operate each day 99% safely, that sounds like pretty good odds. And if you're just open a few days, that's probably OK. But if you have to be successful every day for a month, your likelihood of zero mishaps drops to 74%. If it's six months, it drops all the way to 16%. A year, and your chances are just 2.5%. That's just the relentlessness of exponential math. But it drives home what the stakes are as we contemplate how to reopen. Each additional step that we can take to reduce our risk of catching or transmitting the virus, even if it's minor and incremental, makes a big difference over time.
For years, we've gotten requests for outdoor tastings. This wasn't the situation in which I'd hoped to add them to our lineup, but I do think it's going to be a great experience for our guests, and I'm confident that we can sustain it as long as we need to, safely.
What do you think? Are you ready to go back wine tasting? And under what conditions? Are there things you're particularly concerned with? Please share in the comments.
On Friday, after a full week of work, we finally got to sit down and taste the ten key red wines from the 2019 vintage we'd been blending since Monday. It drove home just how good the 2019 vintage is. Several of these wines will, I think, vie for the best examples we've ever made, including the Esprit de Tablas, rich and lush, with deep purple fruit and a creamy texture we only get in great years. Other standouts included Le Complice, dark, herb-laced, but with density and texture to match; Grenache, exuberantly juicy, with vibrant acids enlivening it and yet more plushness and density than we expect from this fruity grape; Syrah, the proverbial iron fist in a (black) velvet glove; and even Cotes de Tablas, spicy and fruity, mouth-filling and lush, with creamy texture and the structure to age. That's not to say that the other wines weren't also terrific, but those were the standouts to me. But for all that, it wasn't an easy blending week.
More about that in a bit. But first, let me take you through how the week played out.
Our blending process is one we've developed over the decades, built on how they work at Beaucastel. Of course, with Coronavirus mitigating against international travel, we had to make a few changes this year. But it's still the same process, of building consensus around a table of participants, starting from individual fermentation lots and moving through our hierarchy of wines.
As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Because it's too much to ask to keep your palate fresh to taste 59 separate lots of young red wines, we divided this stage up between two days. Monday saw us tackle Mourvedre, Syrah, and our one lot of Pinot Noir, while Tuesday we tasted Grenache, Counoise, Tannat, one co-fermented lot, and our oddballs: Terret Noir, Cabernet, and our two new red grapes, Vaccarese and Cinsaut. Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending. Here's a quick tour of Tuesday's lineup:
We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. This year we saw the most "1" grades and the fewest "3" grades I can remember. How I graded each variety, in the order in which we tasted them:
Mourvedre (14 lots): Less Mourvedre (in both quantity and number of lots) than recent years, after a short Mourvedre crop in 2019. But amazingly powerful and representative of what we love about this, our most important grape. I gave seven lots a 1 grade, and three others intermediate 1/2 grades. Even the 2 grades I gave out were pure, juicy, and classic, and will make for a tremendous varietal Mourvedre. As for the blends that are based on Mourvedre, wow.
Syrah (15 lots): If possible, even stronger than the Mourvedre. Of course, Syrah is the most consistent grape that we grow, but we loved the varietal purity that it showed, and its structure without any sense of hardness. Eight 1's, with five others that I gave 1/2 grades to. If you're doing the math, that leaves only two "2" lots, and no "3" lots. Great syrahs have a creamy, minerally texture equal to their black fruit and structure, and these did, in spades.
Pinot Noir (1 lot): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad decided to plant outside my parents' house back in 2007, with a mix of different clones. This year they produced a Pinot that was on point for me, lighter in body than the Rhones we tasted that day, but with plenty of flavor, classic cherry and cola notes, and just a touch of oak. Should make for a very nice 2019 Full Circle Pinot.
Grenache (14 lots): Typically, Grenache shows the most diversity at this stage, because it takes longest to ferment and many lots are still settling into final form. The couple of weeks that Coronavirus delayed our blending this year probably helped this more than any other. Four 1's from me, with six others getting 1/2 grades. Only four 2's and no 3's. Plenty of Grenache's signature fruit and spice, with great acids across the board. Less of the sometimes drying front-palate tannins than we sometimes see at this stage. A few lots that seemed high enough in alcohol that we needed to be careful.
Counoise (6 lots): A nice range of Counoise styles, from the translucent, juicy lots that remind us of Gamay to the richer, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we look to use in Esprit. The acids here seemed likely to come in particularly useful in this vintage where Mourvedre and Syrah were so luscious. Two 1's, two 1/2 grades, one two, and my only 2/3 of all the lots (though even this found a good home in the Cotes de Tablas later in the week).
Cinsaut (1 lot): Our first Cinsaut, and only two barrels. A nose of dusty grape candy, with a fresh, appealing, spicy purple-fruited palate. It didn't seem to have Esprit-level depth, but will introduce itself very nicely to the Tablas Creek audience as a varietal wine.
Vaccarese (1 lot): A new experience for most of us around that table, as it's our first harvest of a grape with only about 30 planted acres worldwide. It showed a lovely deep purple color, with a nose of pine forest and minty juniper. The mouth was more Loire red than Rhone-like, to me, with notes of tobacco and spice, medium body, some tannic grip, and fruit flavors playing a secondary role. As we do with new grapes, we're planning to bottle it on its own so we can wrap our own heads around it and share it with all of you. Exciting!
Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, but felt more polished than it has in recent years, with more floral character and less aggressive tannins than we've seen the last few years. Plenty pretty enough to bottle on its own, but since we'd reduced crop levels to try to tame the tannins and had seen a mildew outbreak further depress our harvest, we didn't think we'd have enough to use in Le Complice and bottle on its own. It turns out we will... more on that below!
Tannat (4 lots): Massive, dense, spicy, dusty, and dark. Tannic but not overbearing. Three of the four lots showed some oak, and I preferred the one without for En Gobelet, but the remainder should make a powerful, ageworthy, chocolaty varietal Tannat.
Cabernet (1 lot): Typically, the few rows of Cabernet in our old nursery block go into our Tannat, but in years where we get two barrels, and it's so powerfully expressive of Cabernet that we can't bear to blend it away, we contemplate putting it in bottle. It turns out that 2019 will be the first year since 2013 that we do. A tangy, green peppercorn and eucalyptus nose, with powerful black fruit and cigar box flavors, and a lurking minerality that I absolutely loved. I'm not a big fan of the low-acid, high-tannin style that most Napa Cabernets show (and most other Cabernet regions try to mimic). But this Cabernet, with its minerality and freshness... this, I'm looking forward to drinking.
We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the apparent strengths of all three of our main red grapes it only made sense to kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie and Esprit with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned. We also noted that with our relatively small Mourvedre crop this year, we needed to set our expectations for quantity lower.
Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out the two blends, starting with the Panoplie. As always, we tasted our options blind, not knowing what was in each glass. Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. But in this vintage, we split between a blend with roughly equal Syrah and Grenache percentages and one that had 30% Syrah, which would have been our most ever. (A third option, which was closest to our "normal" Panoplie blend, with 26% Grenache and only 8% Syrah, was no one's favorite, seeming a bit thinner by comparison.) When we get an equal split around the table between two wines, our first approach is to try to hit the mid-point between the two wines, to see if we can get everything we all liked in a single blend. It doesn't always work, but it did for this wine, so we settled on a blend of 62% Mourvedre, 22% Syrah, and 16% Grenache.
Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Unlike with the Panoplie, we got nearly universal agreement on the first round, with a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, and 10% Counoise. The relatively high percentages of Grenache and Counoise seemed to polish the deeper flavors of Syrah and Mourvedre, producing something deep, spicy, and creamy, with warm spices and a lovely loamy earthy umami character. Just outstanding. I wouldn't have predicted the high Counoise number, but this is similar to what we often find in blending our whites: that in richer, more structured years, a little higher percentage of the brighter grapes makes for a more complete wine.
Thursday, we moved on to our two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice. Because of the high quality of the vintage overall, even with all the lots that we'd chosen for Esprit and Panoplie, we had quite a bit of choice on En Gobelet, made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks. And this turned out to be the most difficult decision of the week. All three of our first round options received at least one first place vote, and the two favorites were quite different, one with twice as much Grenache as Mourvedre, and the other with nearly equal parts of the two. Complicating things, neither favorite had much Tannat, and we were worried that the wine that got the most first place votes, with just 2% Tannat, might end up too similar to the Esprit. We decided to try another blend that replaced some of the Mourvedre in our favorite with enough Tannat to get to 10%. This ended up only muddying the waters, as that Tannat-heavy version got three first place votes, but also four last place votes from people who felt that the added darkness and tannin overwhelmed the terroir character that En Gobelet expresses at its best. And this time, splitting the difference didn't please anyone, as it felt less deep and dark, but still less terroir-driven than the starting point. In the end, we decided that we needed to taste the favorite from round one against Esprit to know whether we'd made the right decision.
It was a relief that, after that, Le Complice came together in one round. The wine celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with Syrah, and particularly the Syrah lots fermented with stems or whole clusters. Both grapes share a peppery spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. Because both grapes tend toward high tannin, we've realized that we also need some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. Last year, we didn't end up using all the Terret we produced, but with this year's small crop, we thought we would. Still, given how much we liked the Terret in the lot tasting, we were delighted when it was revealed that our universal favorite was 67% Syrah, 27% Grenache, and just 6% Terret... leaving half our Terret to make a varietal wine. The resulting wine was dark, smoky, and spicy, with just enough of that green peppercorn stem spice to balance the wine's ample black fruit and mineral. Just delicious, and should be fascinating to watch age.
Friday, we started early in the morning to tackle the Cotes de Tablas. Even though we'd already used about two-thirds of our lots with our higher-end wines, all three of our options were delicious. We knew we didn't have much Mourvedre left, and had some Counoise lots we knew we wanted to use as a varietal. That left us exploring options for the relative quantities of Grenache and Syrah. In the end, although we settled on a middle ground, rejecting the wine with 49% Grenache and only 26% Syrah as nice but a touch simple, while the wine with 40% Grenache and 35% Syrah was serious and structured, perhaps too much so for Cotes de Tablas. Our final blend was 44% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 17% Counoise, and 9% Mourvedre. We're making less Cotes de Tablas as we shift the focus of our middle tier (between Patelin and Esprit) in the national market toward varietal wines, but the roughly thousand cases we'll make this year will, I feel sure, be one of our best ever.
That afternoon, we sat down to taste the finalized blends alongside the four main varietal wines that we hadn't yet tried. It turned to that the En Gobelet differentiated itself from the Esprit with no trouble, showing more lift and translucency, and clearer expression of saline minerality, while the Esprit showed darker, plusher tones, and a creamier texture. So, issue solved. Sometimes all it takes is a little time, and perspective.
For our varietal wines, we identify lots during the first stage that express that grape's character the most clearly, and then try to avoid using them in the other wines. Of course, if one of our top blends needs a lot, it gets it, but there's usually enough leeway (and enough difference between what's great for Esprit and what would be great in, say, a varietal Mourvedre) that it works out. And in a year like this, it's a pleasure to see how clearly the character of both the grapes and the vintage shine through. My quick notes on the varietal wines:
Grenache (400 cases): Exuberantly juicy on the nose. In the mouth, our most powerful Grenache in years, yet still vibrant. Quite dark. A baby.
Syrah (725 cases): Nose is dark, with black olive, black pepper, blackberry, and smoke. The mouth is plush, with the iron fist of Syrah tannins cloaked in dark fruit. After no Syrah in 2018, will be a treat to send to club members.
Mourvedre (300 cases): Nose of pure red fruits. The mouth is creamy, with Mourvedre's ability to walk the line between red and black raspberry fruit, a little loamy earth. Good acids and tannins. Classic.
Counoise (325 cases): A brambly purple-fruited nose. The mouth is zesty with more cherry fruit, refreshing acidity and medium body. Should be a crowd pleaser.
In addition to these wines, we'll have 50 cases each of varietal Terret Noir, Cinsaut, and Cabernet, 175 cases of Vaccarese, 475 cases of Full Circle Pinot, and a glorious 1250 cases of Tannat. Lots of fun things to share, for sure.
A few concluding thoughts. First, in looking for a comparable vintage to 2019, the closest one would probably be 2017, but top to bottom, 2019 had a touch more concentration and polish (though lower quantity). In particular, Grenache was stronger than it was in 2017. Maybe a vintage like 2007, which was outstanding across the board, but we were picking riper then, and this 2019 shows, for me, more minerality and less of the super-ripe character that I get now when I drink a 2007. And I like the whites from 2019 a ton -- more than I did either 2007 or 2017. Still, given that we rank these vintages pretty universally as among our top ever gives a sense of how exciting we think 2019 is. It will be fun to get to know it over the coming months and years.
Second, a vintage this strong, with such terrific raw materials across the board, in some ways complicates the blending process, because we're having to make stylistic judgment calls in addition to quality rankings. In an average year, the limited volume of top-rated lots of our main grapes can constrain the percentage we use in Esprit. In a year like this, we could have chosen quite a bit more top-ranked Grenache, Syrah, or Mourvedre than we did, if we'd wanted. That means that we weren't just having to decide what our best lots were, and whether they fit together properly, but which stylistic direction we wanted to take the wines. And while there's almost always good agreement about what grade a lot should have, as you can tell from my description of the process, what people like best is a more sticky question. Still, in a year like this, we do have the reassuring thought (which came through as we got down to the Cotes de Tablas) that our third- and fourth-choice lots are still really, really good. So, we know that with such good raw materials it's unlikely we can go too far astray.
Finally, given that we weren't able to have a Perrin here, it's great that this vintage was so strong. We're used to having decades of experience tasting Beaucastel around our blending table. We didn't this year, although between Neil, me, Chelsea, Craig, Amanda, Austin, and Jordy, we did have more than 120 Tablas Creek blending sessions under our belts. I'm confident that when the Perrins do get to taste what we made, we will have done them proud.
Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were on at least a somewhat later track this year. Flowering, which I've been waiting to see for a couple of weeks now, confirms it. This suggests that we're looking at a similarly cool beginning of the growing season to what we saw in 2018 and 2019 (and different from the warmer, earlier beginnings of 2013-2017). Please join me in welcoming the first flowers of the year, a Viognier vine courtesy of Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg:
If you haven't seen grapevines flowering before, you can be excused for finding it underwhelming. It's not a showy process. Still, the tiny white fuzz-like flowers that appear on the clusters are the first stage of development of the berries. From this point on, if the berries are fertilized successfully, they'll grow in size and mass until veraison, at which point they stop growing but accumulate sugar and ripen the seeds within. As with all parts of the vineyard annual cycle, there are grapes that enter (and exit) flowering earlier and later, with the early grapes being Viognier, Grenache, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino. They are followed shortly by Marsanne and Syrah, and finally, as much as a month after the early grapes, Roussanne, Counoise, and Mourvedre bring up the rear. Flowering is the second of the four viticultural markers that we use each year as markers: notable reference points that indicate where we are compared to other years. These are, in order:
Budbreak (typically beginning late March or early April, and lasting three weeks or so)
Flowering (typically beginning mid-May, lasting a month or so)
Veraison (typically beginning late July or early August, lasting as much as 6 weeks)
Harvest (typically beginning late August or early September, lasting two months or so)
You might notice that in the above list, the duration of each stage is longer than the previous one. That's because grapes start their growing cycle at different times, and also proceed at different rates. So, harvest stretches over a longer time than veraison, which takes longer than flowering, which takes longer than budbreak. Given that today was the first day we saw any flowering, we're likely to be enjoying grape bloom until the second half of June.
During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain. So, the two-tenths of an inch of rain we got overnight, and the wind that we're getting today, aren't ideal. Cold or wet weather at this stage can produce incomplete fertilization, or shatter, where a cluster has a high proportion of unfertilized berries, looking snaggle-toothed and (often dramatically) reducing yields. Some varieties, most notably Grenache, are prone to shatter, while others are less so. Still, we're so early in flowering, with only Viognier showing any blooms, that what really matters is what the weather is like for the next month.
How close are the other grapes to flowering? It depends. A grape like Grenache Blanc looks like it may be a week away, or less:
Whereas with later grapes like Roussanne, Counoise or Mourvedre (below), the flower clusters are just forming, and likely won't bloom for the better part of a month:
I'll leave you with one more photo of the newly blooming Viognier. It may not look like much, but it's an important milestone nonetheless. Full speed ahead.