A Mid-veraison Photo Essay

 

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

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

Syrah

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

Syrah C

Mourvedre

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

Mourvedre

Grenache

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

Grenache

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

Counoise

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

Counoise closeup

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

Viognier

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

Viognier at Tablas Creek August 2019

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

Syrah C cordon

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

Counoise

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

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

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

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


Tasting the Wines in the Fall 2019 VINsider Club Shipments

Each spring and fall, we send out a selection of six wines to the members of our VINsider Wine Club.  In many cases, these are wines that only go out to our club.  In others, the club gets a first look at wines that may see a later national release. Before each shipment, we reintroduce ourselves to these wines (which, in some cases, we may not have tasted since before bottling) by opening the full lineup and writing the notes that will be included with the club shipments. Today, I sat down with our winemakers Neil Collins and Chelsea Franchi and we dove into this fall's collection. For what we found, read on.

Neil and Chelsea with Fall 2019 VINsider wines

We base the fall shipments around the newest releases of the Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc, and this fall's shipment is no exception. But there's a lot more to this fall's shipment than these two wines. We have a couple of (we think, really terrific) varietal whites, and two other smaller-production blends, one each red and white. We think it's one of the most compelling shipments we've ever put together. I'm excited to get them in our members' hands soon.  

The classic shipment includes six different wines:

Classic Fall 2019 Shipment

2018 GRENACHE BLANC

  • Production Notes: The relatively cool 2018 growing season produced Grenache Blanc with exceptional brightness and pronounced minerality. Yields were down slightly from 2017, but still slightly above average, a sign that our Grenache Blanc blocks were healthy. For the varietal Grenache Blanc, we chose lots that were fermented in stainless steel (for brightness) and foudre (for roundness), blended them in April 2019 and bottled the finished wine under screwcap to preserve its brightness in June 2019.
  • Tasting Notes: A classic Grenache Blanc nose of lemon pith, green apple peel, anise, and briny minerality. On the palate, very bright at first, with a burst of lemon on the attack, then sweeter flavors of sarsaparilla and tarragon, while the grape's richness comes out on the finish, leaving on a long sweet/tart lemon drop note. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 1470 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2018 COTES DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: Viognier is always the lead grape in our Cotes Blanc, and we balance Viognier's lushness with the elegance of Marsanne and the brightness of Grenache Blanc. In 2018, the Viognier (39%) already had nice elegance, so we chose to use more Grenache Blanc (36%) top bring vibrancy, and a relatively low percentage of Marsanne (19%), leaving more Marsanne for a varietal bottling. 6% Roussanne rounds out the blend and provides structure. The selected lots were blended in April 2019, and the wine was bottled in June 2019.
  • Tasting Notes: An elegant nose of apricots cut with lemon, Asian spices, and crushed rock. The mouth is balanced right between Viognier and Grenache Blanc character, with flavors of nectarine and lemon verbena. A clean, fresh, and elegant finish rounds out the wine, leaving a lingering impression of sea spray minerality. Drink now and for at least the next five years.
  • Production: 1840 cases.
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

2017 ESPRIT DE TABLAS BLANC

  • Production Notes: We celebrated the classic 2017 vintage by incorporating two of our newest white grapes into the Esprit Blanc blend for the first time. Of course, Roussanne (68%, fermented in a mix of oak of various sizes and ages) still takes pride of place, but the different higher-acid, more mineral varieties (17% Grenache Blanc, 7% Picpoul Blanc, 4% Clairette Blanche, and 4% Picardan) all add citrusy acidity and saline freshness. As we have done since 2012, we returned the blend to foudre after it was assembled in April 2018 and aged it through the subsequent harvest before bottling it in December 2018 and letting it rest an additional 9 months in bottle before release.
  • Tasting Notes: A spicy, deep Roussanne nose of wildflower honey, cedar spice, jasmine, and Asian pear. The mouth shows flavors of baked pear, cinnamon stick, and brioche, all deepened by a little sweet oak. The wine's rich texture is balanced by nice acids and a saline mineral note on the finish. A powerful Esprit Blanc that we expect to go out two decades, gaining additional nuttiness and complexity over the years.
  • Production: 2250 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

2017 MOURVEDRE

  • Production Notes: Mourvedre is the one red grape that we try to bottle on its own each year, because we think it is a wonderful grape that too few people know, and one we feel worthy of some proselytizing.  Mourvedre, more than any other red, suffered during our drought, and the 43+ inches of rainfall we received in 2017 resulted in Mourvedre with deeper color, richer texture, and more intense dark red fruit than we've seen in years. All our Mourvedre lots were fermented in large wooden tanks and moved it to neutral barrels to await blending. The chosen lots were blended in the spring of 2018, then aged in foudre until bottling in April of 2019.
  • Tasting Notes: A dense red fruit nose of boysenberry, blackcurrant, new leather, and licorice. The mouth is lush without being heavy, with flavors of plum, Chinese five spice, and Mourvedre's signature roasted meat drippings. The finish shows sweet spices and youthful tannins that suggest some time in the cellar will be well rewarded. Drink any time over the next 15 years.
  • Production: 950 cases
  • List Price: $40 VINsider Price: $32

2017 EN GOBELET

  • Production Notes: Our tenth En Gobelet, a non-traditional blend all from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks, and mostly from the 12-acre block we call Scruffy Hill, planted in 2005 and 2006 to be a self-sufficient field blend. These lots tend to show more elegance and minerality than our closer-spaced irrigated blocks, although in 2017 the wine shows plenty of power and density. We chose a blend of 38% Mourvedre, 34% Grenache, 11% Syrah, 11% Tannat, and 6% Counoise. In this luscious vintage, we chose a higher-than-usual Tannat percentage for its chalky tannins and deep flavors. The wine was blended in June of 2018, aged in foudre and bottled in April 2019.
  • Tasting Notes: A deep and appealing nose of black raspberry, aged ribeye, black pepper, and soy. The mouth is dense with powerful fruit, with cracked peppercorn and licorice giving relief. A granite mineral note comes out on the finish, along with a touch of Tannat's signature tannins that promise decades ahead. Wait six months if you can, and then drink any time over the next two decades.
  • Production: 820 cases
  • List Price: $55 VINsider Price: $44

2017 ESPRIT DE TABLAS

  • Production Notes: Although the Esprit is based as always on the red fruit and meatiness of Mourvedre (40%), in this vintage where every variety did well, it was a surprise to us when our blending trials ended with Grenache (35%) tied for its highest percentage ever. Syrah (20%) adds dark fruit, powerful structure, and chalky minerality, while Counoise (5%) brings brambly spice. The wine's components were fermented separately, then selected for Esprit, blended in June 2018 and aged a year in foudre before bottling in July 2019.
  • Tasting Notes: A cool wintergreen minty note sets off deeper smoked meat, redcurrant, mocha, and juniper aromas. The mouth shows Grenache's sweet fruit and licorice on that attack, then deepens into notes of black cherry, chocolate, and a chorizo-like meatiness, all with tremendous mouth-coating texture. The long finish, with lingering flavors of wood smoke, roasted meat, plum skin and crushed rock, hints at more rewards to come with cellar aging. Hard to believe this wine had been in bottle only a week when we tasted it; we recommend that you drink either between now and 2022 or again starting in 2025 any time over the subsequent two decades.
  • Production: 4090 cases
  • List Price: $60 VINsider Price: $48

One additional wine joined the Cotes de Tablas Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Esprit de Tablas Blanc in the white-only shipment (we doubled up the Esprit Blanc and Grenache Blanc):

Whites Fall 2019 Shipment

2018 PICPOUL BLANC

  • Production Notes: The 2018 Picpoul Blanc is our eleventh bottling of this traditional Southern Rhône white grape, used in Châteauneuf du Pape as a blending component, and best known from the crisp light green wines of the Pinet region in the Languedoc. On its own, it shows the vibrant acids for which it is valued, along with a tropical lushness from the generous Paso Robles climate that gives it complexity you'd never see in its homeland.  We ferment it in a mix of stainless steel and neutral barrels, and use the majority of our production for our Esprit de Tablas Blanc, while reserving a small quantity for this varietal bottling.  The Picpoul lots were selected in March 2019, and bottled in June 2019.
  • Tasting Notes: An electric nose of pineapple and lemon, sea spray, and sweet green herbs. The mouth is like biting into a fresh, barely ripe pineapple, with additional lemongrass and mineral notes. The finish is clean, vibrant, and delineated, with a lingering impression of waves breaking over rocks. Drink now and over the next few years.
  • Production: 440 cases
  • List Price: $30 VINsider Price: $24

Two additional reds joined the Mourvedre, En Gobelet and Esprit de Tablas in the red-only shipment:

Reds Fall 2019 Shipment

2017 COUNOISE

  • Production Notes: After no varietal Counoise between 2011 and 2013, this is the fourth consecutive year we've been able to make one, and we feel our most impressive ever, thanks to the vines' remarkable vigor in 2017. Valued as a blending grape in France because of its spiciness, its fresh acidity, and its low alcohol, it's rarely seen on its own. But we love being able to share one, and deploy it much like a Cru Beaujolais: slightly chilled, with charcuterie or as an aperitif. The wine was fermented in stainless steel and neutral oak, aged in foudre, and bottled -- under screwcap, to preserve its brightness -- in April of 2019.
  • Tasting Notes: A darker garnet color than recent years. On the nose, brambly tangy purple fruit that reminded me of elderberries, with additional aromas of meatiness and sweet spice. On the palate, very juicy with intense red cherry flavors and brambly spice, over a medium-bodied frame, with cherry skin and dusting of cocoa powder emerging on the finish. A crowd pleaser, and endlessly flexible with food. Enjoy it any time in the next six to eight years.
  • Production: 530 cases
  • List Price: $35 VINsider Price: $28

2017 FULL CIRCLE

  • Production Notes: 2017 is the eighth vintage of our Full Circle Pinot Noir, grown on the small vineyard outside the Haas family's home in Templeton, in the cool (for Paso) Templeton Gap AVA. Its name reflects Robert Haas's career: from a start introducing America to the greatness of Burgundy, through decades focusing on grapes from the Rhone, he's now growing Pinot at home. The grapes were fermented in one-ton microfermenters, half de-stemmed and half with stems for a more savory profile, punched down twice daily by hand. After pressing, the wine was moved into year-old Marcel Cadet 60-gallon barrels, for a hint of oak.  The wine stayed on its lees, stirred occasionally, for 10 months, before being blended and bottled in August 2018.  We've aged the wine in bottle for an additional year since then.
  • Tasting Notes: A pretty nose of cherry cola, black tea, dried lavender, and a little sweet oak. The mouth is medium-bodied but fresh, with flavors of wild strawberry and sweet herbs. The lightly tannic finish shows cedar spice and a lingering cherry skin note. Drink now and over the next decade.
  • Production: 490 cases
  • List Price: $45 VINsider Price: $36

The tasting was a great way to hone in on the character of our two most recent vintages.  2017 is luscious and powerful, with the health of the vineyard coming through clearly in the rich texture of the wines. 2018 is vibrantly expressive, producing wines with electric acids and outgoing personalities. I can't wait to get these wines in our club members' hands and find out what they think.

If you're a wine club member, you should make your reservation for our shipment tasting party, where we open all the wines in the most recent club shipment for VINsiders to try. This fall's party will be on Sunday, October 6th.  If you're not a wine club member, and you've read all this way, then why not join us while there's still a chance to get this fall shipment? Details and how to join are at tablascreek.com/wine_club/vinsider_club


Veraison 2019 Suggests a mid-September Start to Harvest

This year, as both Jordy and I have noted, has been cool. Even the warm stretches have been moderate. And the vineyard has noticed. While in most years I would be posting about veraison in mid-to late-July, this year we didn't see any evidence of color until just a few days ago. And it's still barely started. But now, if you head to one of our Syrah blocks, you don't have to look too hard to find veraison:

Veraison 2019 Syrah 1

Veraison is a physiological stage of grape evolution where the berry stops accumulating mass and starts accumulating sugar. More visibly, red grapes start their color change from green, while white grapes take on more of a yellow tint. Both red and white grapes start to soften. [For more about what's happening chemically, check out this veraison post from the archives.] This landmark comes roughly six weeks before the onset of harvest, and gives us our best estimate for when harvest will begin. The most advanced Syrah cluster I could find has some berries that don't look all that different than they will at harvest:

Veraison 2019 Syrah 3

It's important to note that this cluster is exceptional. Even at the top of the hills, most of the Syrah clusters are green (you can see this in all the other clusters in the above photo). At the bottom of the hills, there's very little color change to be found. And as for the other grapes, I couldn't find any red in any of them. This Mourvedre cluster is just one example; I could have pointed the camera just about anywhere and shown you the same thing:

Veraison 2019 Mourvedre

Although the "first veraison of the season" posts you're likely seeing from your favorite wineries may make it seem like veraison is a moment, like Christmas, it's probably better understood as a continuum, like winter, and first veraison is like first frost, or first snowfall. It will likely be several weeks before even all the Syrah clusters are red, and longer than that until late grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise finish coloring up. 

While six weeks is a good basic guide for the duration between veraison and harvest, it's not totally constant, and can be influenced by the weather that we get in the interim, as well as by the amount of fruit the vines are carrying.  For example, 2007's first veraison was in mid-July, but relatively light crop levels and a very warm August produced a beginning to harvest before the end of August. By contrast, in 2010 a veraison ten days later than 2007's (July 30th, just like this year) was compounded by a very cool August, and we started harvest after the mid-point of September, three weeks later than we had in 2007. The last dozen years are compiled in the chart below, with each year linked to my blog post about that year's veraison:

Year First Veraison Noted Estate Harvest Begins # of Days
2007 July 20 August 28 39
2008 July 23 September 3 42
2009 July 20 September 1 43
2010 July 30 September 16 49
2011 August 5 September 20 47
2012 July 25 September 5 42
2013 July 17 August 26 40
2014 July 9 August 23 45
2015 July 18 August 26 39
2016 July 13 August 18 36
2017 July 20 August 30 40
2018 July 29 September 101 42
2019 July 30 ? ?

Using the range of durations between first veraison and first harvest (36 to 49 days) we can have good confidence that we'll begin picking sometime between September 4th and September 17th. The weather between now and then will determine where in the range we'll fall. 

What's next for the vineyard? We'll watch the different grapes go through veraison. Syrah will likely be followed by Mourvedre and Grenache soon, and Counoise a bit later. White grapes too stretch out across a continuum; in fact, Viognier has already started veraison, according to Jordy, although the visible changes are subtle enough that a photograph doesn't really show anything. Vermentino and Marsanne will move into veraison on the earlier side, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul in the middle, and Roussanne bringing up the rear, as usual. It's an exciting time, and the view changes daily. We'll be posting regular photos of veraison's progress on our Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram pages. In the cellar, we're finishing up the last of the year's bottling, and starting the process of pulling out and cleaning all the tanks, barrels, and equipment we'll be using once harvest begins.

I'm not sure whether veraison really marks the beginning of the end of the growing season. But it does at least seem to mark the end of the beginning. The countdown clock is ticking, and we now know -- roughly -- how much time is on it.

Veraison 2019 Syrah 2

Footnotes:

  1. OK, we picked our first Viognier on August 31st. But we didn't bring in any estate reds off the property until September 10th, so I'm going with that date.

A massive honey harvest from our new Langstroth hives means... a great vintage?

By Jordan Lonborg. Photos by Nathan Stuart.

Could a prolific honey bee year be indicative of a stellar wine grape vintage? I think so!!

Keeping bees in Paso Robles is no easy task. Years of drought, cold winters, and extreme heat are a just a few of the many factors as to why this is true. Nationwide, beekeepers are losing colonies due to pesticide use, Varroa Destructor (a parasitic mite that attaches itself to the thorax of a honeybee and grows large enough so that the bee can no longer fly), and ever changing weather patterns. All that said, if one was to decide to start beekeeping in 2019, on the west side of Paso Robles, it would have seemed easy.

Jordy Lonborg  Suited Up

The rainfall this year was prolific. Not so much the amount of rain received (roughly 35” here at Tablas Creek, which is excellent but was not a record by any means) but the consistent wet weather pattern we were in. As opposed to sporadic, large storms that would dump 3” at a time (there were definitely a few of those) leaving stretches of sunshine in its wake, the weather was regularly wet, with 69 days producing measurable precipitation, the most in the 23 years we've had our weather station. This was great for many reasons. First, the ground was able to become fully saturated before the rain started to run off. This allowed for deep percolation helping to recharge all of our deep aquifers in the area. This fully wetted soil profile in combination with the cold weather (30 days reached below freezing temperature on the property) ensured that any dormant wildflower seeds within the soil profile stayed dormant until soil temps started to rise. It also ensured that the cover crop would have all the water it needed to thrive into early summer. Lastly, it all the moisture meant lots of grass, and we were able to successfully graze our 200+ sheep through the vineyard at least two times, some blocks seeing a third pass. The nutrients provided by the animals broke down in all the wet weather and moved through the soil profile more efficiently.

When the days started to lengthen and the soil temp started to rise, we were rewarded with a cover crop that grew to be seven feet tall in places. The Cayuse Oats in that cover crop mix provided some of the strongest scaffolding for our Purple and Common Vetch I’d ever seen. Our beneficial insectary/nectary plantings throughout the vineyard were an explosion of purples, reds, yellows, oranges, and white flowers. On the banks of Las Tablas Creek were blankets of miner's lettuce. On every hill in the Adelaida you’d see brilliant patches of phacelia, mustard, fiddleneck, lupine, sage, and poppy. In the forests were elderberry trees, madrone and oaks bursting with pollen. In other words, the nectar flow was on!!!

As soon as we posted the swarm catchers throughout the vineyard in mid-April, they started getting hits. In total, we caught six swarms this season. Then came the tricky part, putting them in a hive and getting them to stay. Normally, this process isn’t that hard due to the fact that we had been using Langstroth Hives (the square hive body we are all familiar with). The native swarms seem to establish themselves more easily in these hive bodies. It’s hard to pin-point why, but I’ve always had good success. But this year, we decided to try something different: Top Bar hives. For more, check out this short video:

Tablas Creek Beekeeping with Jordy Lonborg from Shepherd's Films on Vimeo.

Top Bar beekeeping is one of the oldest and most commonly used forms of beekeeping on the planet. There is only one long horizontal box in which bars are laid across the top. The bees build their comb off the bottom of these bars, filling the void below. You do not need frames, foundation, or wire for the comb to be built. You do not need an extractor for the honey and there is no heavy lifting of boxes or supers. The bees are less agitated when you work the hive because when inspecting you are only moving one bar at a time as opposed to pulling entire frames or moving entire sections of the box altogether.  Having been the first time I’d ever worked with this style of beekeeping, it took a few tries before I could get a swarm to stay put. Through trial and error, I realized a few things. Always hive a swarm in the evening (just before dark), make sure there is food in the hive (50/50 sugar water mix), and make sure there are large enough entrance/exit holes for the bees to allow for heavy traffic. Of the six swarms we caught, only one took. But it is thriving. Of the 31 top bars, 24 of the have full comb drawn out. Knowing what I know now, we should be able to fill the rest of the hives next year (if we are lucky enough to have similar conditions).

Queen BeeCheck out the queen bee (surrounded by worker bees in the corner of the hive)!

Honey production has been amazing thus far in our Langstroth hives. To date, we have harvested around 72 pounds of honey off of just one hive and it is still coming. Obviously this has been due to the prolific bloom we experienced early in the year. There is another factor at play as well. It wasn’t just the size of the bloom, but the length of the bloom that has been so astounding. In years past we’d start experiencing pretty high temps earlier in the season which causes the bloom to end a bit more abruptly as the ground dries out faster and the sun beats on the flowers. This was one of the coolest springs and early summers I’ve experienced in the Adelaida. We've only seen 3 days reach 100°F, and another 23 reach 90°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's not. The average summer high here is 93°F. And even when our days were warm, it was only for a few hours, as our evenings have been chilly. We received more than an inch of rain in May, which also prolonged that top layer of soil from drying out. There simply was no stress on the plants, allowing them to go through their entire life cycle at their own pace, which in turn allowed the honey bees to continuously harvest pollen and nectar at their own pace. This lack of stress is why I am also predicting an amazing wine grape vintage for Tablas Creek Vineyard. 

Being an older vineyard for the west side of Paso comes with its challenges. Like humans, the longer a vine is alive the more exposure it has to disease and virus. Many of our older blocks at Tablas Creek have some level of trunk disease or virus within them.  When we experience prolonged periods of heat in the vineyard, vines will experience some level of stress. Vines that have trunk disease or virus are stressed even more so. The symptoms and signs of the disease and virus express themselves sooner, thus restricting that vine's ability to set fruit, grow leaves, sustain the crop, and ripen the crop. And even with our last warm 10-day stretch (average high temp: 95°F) the growing season has been a mild one. The vineyard has not been truly stressed, and you can tell. Typically, in our most infected blocks, the signs and symptoms of virus and disease are obvious at this point. That is just simply not the case this year.

To date, I’ve not seen this property so vibrant and green at this point in the season. It is August and we’ve yet turn the water on in any of our irrigated blocks. In most years past, our irrigated blocks had been watered at least once already. This lack of stress is why I am predicting an amazing vintage. All of our vines both healthy and unhealthy have been allowed to go through their natural growth cycle with no hiccups or speed bumps in the road. Obviously, only time will tell what this harvest holds in store for us. But if we continue on this path, it could be a vintage unlike any other.

Farmers use nature’s cues to predict many things on their property. In Paso, we always say that when the Almonds start to bloom, the grapes are two to three weeks behind. I think I may have gained another this year. “If I am pulling 75 lbs. of honey out of one box, we are gonna be making some killer wine this year!”

Fingers crossed….


A lighter wine bottle revisited, 10 years and 1,370,000 pounds of glass later

Almost exactly nine years ago, I posted a blog called Introducing a Greener Wine Bottle, in which I shared our decision to move our flagship wines from a heavier bottle to a lighter one. Today, we're bottling our 2017 Esprit de Tablas in a (slightly updated) version of this very same bottle. If you add up the impacts of this change over the ten years that we've used this lighter bottle, the numbers start to get really big. I'll throw a few out there.

A decade ago, we were using two bottles. Our flagship wines were in this beautiful but massive bottle that weighed 31.5 ounces empty. Our other wines (this was pre-Patelin, so that was our Cotes de Tablas and our varietal wines) were in a more classic Burgundy bottle that weighed about 19 ounces. Fast forward to 2019. Our current bottle, which we use for all our 750ml wines, weighs 16.5 ounces empty. For the roughly 8,000 cases of wine a year we switched over from the heavy bottle, that 15 ounces per bottle adds up to 90,000 pounds of extra glass weight, or about 11 pounds per case. Add in the roughly 25,000 cases of wine that on average we would have put each year in the 19-ounce bottle, saving just under two pounds per case, and you save another 47,000 pounds of glass weight. So, in ten years we have saved roughly 1,370,000 pounds of glass weight, or 685 tons.

That extra weight came with costs at every stage. We had to pay more to have it manufactured, shipped to us, and then either trucked away for wholesale sales or sent via UPS or FedEx to our direct customers. We needed larger wine racks to fit the wines in our library, which means we could store fewer bottles per square foot of space. Our trucking company can fit three more pallets of our flagship wines (22 pallets vs. 19) in the new package before reaching their legal weight limit, which means that for the roughly 40% of this wine that we sell via wholesale, we've had to run roughly one fewer full truck of cases of wine each year up to the Vineyard Brands warehouse in American Canyon, CA. And those are just the hard costs. The invisible environmental cost savings are massive as well, with less weight having to be driven or flown around in every stage between manufacture and consumption. 

There was a nice article by Dave McIntyre earlier this month in the Washington Post about Jackson Family Wines' moving their production of two of their major brands into glass about two ounces lighter per bottle. Esther Mobley, of the San Francisco Chronicle, picked this up and added her approval on Twitter. I responded with our own story, and this started a couple of conversations I found fascinating. The beginning:

You might find my "and people mostly hate them" comment about the larger bottles surprising. But before we made our bottle change, we reached out to our fans on Facebook, Twitter, and this blog asking for what they looked for in a wine bottle. I was expecting a mix of people in favor of the solidity and feel of the heavier bottles and those who wanted the greener environmental footprint of the lighter bottles. And there were a few of each of those. But the overwhelming majority of the responses focused on utility: people wanted bottles that they could lift and store comfortably, and larger bottles don't fit in many pre-made wine racks. The hostility toward the larger bottles was eye-opening. From one representative comment on our blog:

I don't care what the bottle looks like, I care what's inside it. I don't want to pay for heavier glass and increased transportation costs. I don't want bottles that won't fit in my wine rack unless I put them in the Champagne section.

I've never refused to buy a wine because I thought the bottle looked cheap, but I've stopped buying several because they had larger, heavier, too tall or silly shaped bottles.

And another:

When a case of wine from one of my favorite California producers (such as Tablas Creek) arrives via UPS at my office, and I can barely pick up the damn box to take it home because the producer used those stupid two-pound wine bottles, you better believe I notice. 

Once we wrapped our heads around this as primarily a question of utility, the choice was easy, and we made the switch. The next year, we were able to work out an agreement with our glass company to make a new mold based on this lightweight bottle, but with an embossed version of our logo on the neck, and we haven't looked back. To us, the bottles look great, feel great, and we can feel good about the positive impacts that making this change has made on both our bottom line and our environmental footprint.

Esprit 2017 on Bottling Line

So, given that lighter bottles cost less and people seem to like them more, why are there still wineries using the heavy bottles? That's complicated. You can get a sense of some of it if you click through Esther's twitter thread and look at the responses. There is definitely a perception in the market that a heavier bottle signifies a more serious wine. And I'm sure that this is true, to some extent, although I think it's important to mention that most of the great wines from Burgundy and Bordeaux, not to mention California icons like Ridge and Calera, have stayed with classic bottle shapes and weights. But I feel like these larger bottles now have more detractors than they ever did before, both because of the sense of environmental tone-deafness that they convey (I had one consumer recently compare it to driving around in a Hummer) but mostly because consumers have to deal with the difficulties and higher costs of transport and storage.

It’s also worth noting that we realized that only a small percentage of our bottles ever appear on a retail shelf, where the bottle has the potential to play into a purchasing decision. Half our production we sell direct. More than half of the rest we sell in restaurants, where all that customers see is a name and maybe description on a wine list. And of that remaining ~20% a significant chunk is sold online, where bottle heft isn’t a factor.

So, I'm hoping that the trend I'm seeing will continue, and more California wineries will make similar decisions to move to lighter bottles, and focus on differentiating their marketing in other ways.  After all, bottles are only a part of the perception. Between labels and capsules, wineries have plenty of opportunity to distinguish themselves, and marketing is, of course, so much more than package design anyway.

Hummers went the way of the dinosaur a few years ago. Here's hoping that wineries feel comfortable ushering the Hummers of the wine bottle world offstage too.


A Mid-Summer Vineyard Check-In Suggests 2019 Harvest Will Be Latest Since 2011

On Friday, I joined more than a hundred other members of the Paso Robles wine community at the California Mid-State Fair's wine awards. It's always a fun celebration, and I thought that this year's honorees -- Justin Smith of Saxum Vineyards for Winemaker of the Year, Paul Hoover of Still Waters Vineyards for Grape Grower of the Year, and (posthumously) Scott Welcher of Wild Horse and Opolo as Wine Industry Person of the Year -- were all highly deserving. The awards were presented by some of the icons of the local industry (Gary Eberle, Ken Volk, and Austin Hope) and the great turnout was a testament to both how well liked all the honorees are and to the work that the Mid-State Fair has done to involve the wine community in recent years.

After the awards, we stuck around with our kids and wandered the fair's Midway, ate our annual allotment of funnel cake, and called it a relatively early night because we were all freezing as soon as the sun set and the wind kicked up, particularly Sebastian, our 11-year-old who decided it would be a good idea to go on a water ride at sundown.

OK, pause for a record scratch here, to appreciate how weird it is to type freezing and fair in the same sentence. Typically, the Mid-State Fair week is scorching here in Paso Robles, and you call it a day after a few hours because you can only stand so much 100+ heat. It is, after all, the second half of July, when the average high temperature in Paso Robles is 93°F. Last July (admittedly, a hot one) saw 14 different days top 100°F and another four miss by less than a degree. But at 8:30pm on Friday, as we drove home, it was 60°F, and downright chilly with the wind even inside our newly-purchased fair sweatshirts.

We've had that experience a lot this spring and summer, and the vineyard has been thriving in the comparatively cool weather. With only one day having topped 100 so far this year, and good water in the ground from last winter's generous rainfall, you would hope that the grapevines would be looking green and healthy. And they are. I posted this video over the weekend taking a look at one of our Grenache blocks:

Zooming in, the clusters are resolutely green, at a time of year when in most years this decade I've been posting pictures of veraison. On the property here, we would expect to see veraison first in Syrah. But it doesn't feel like it's close, with some berries still showing the oval shape they do as they are growing. The clusters, though, are beautiful and relatively plentiful, which will be a nice change from most recent years where Syrah was scarce:

Syrah mid-July

White grapes do go through veraison, although it's subtle and harder to photograph. That said, even Viognier (below) shows none of the hints of yellow that it gets as it nears ripeness:

Viognier mid-July

Mourvedre isn't even full-sized yet, with the uneven look that many clusters have at this time of year, with some berries twice the size of others:

Mourvedre mid-July

Grenache is still green, but the story there isn't that as much as it is the shatter that we're seeing. Shatter happens when cold, wet, or windy weather during flowering prevents full fertilization of the flowers, and you end up with missing berries. Some grapes are more prone to it than others, and Grenache is notoriously susceptible. But it's not necessarily a bad thing, as in years when there isn't any shatter we have to thin this heavy producer more rigorously. A little shatter, like we're seeing this year, actually makes our job easier:

Grenache mid-July

What does all this mean for harvest? Well, we're behind where we were last year, when we didn't really get going until the second week of September, and three or more weeks behind warmer years like 2013, 2014, and 2016. Is it possible that we're looking at a vintage more like 2010 and 2011, when we didn't get going until late September and were still picking in mid-November? I doubt it. We're forecast for a week of very warm weather starting today. That will help things catch up a bit. And after all, while it's been cool, it's still been warmer than either of those unusual years. The temperature chart below has a line for each year this decade, with 2019 in red to make it easily visible. The 2010 and 2011 lines show consistently colder growing seasons:

Average Temps by Month 2010- July 2019

So, while I'm not expecting a late-September start, I think we're likely to be waiting until mid-September to see anything significant off the estate, and I think it's a better than 50/50 proposition that we're still harvesting into November. But that's not a bad thing. The climate here in Paso Robles is pretty reliable until mid-November, and I tend to prefer the balance and character of vintages with longer hang times. Meanwhile, we'll keep our eyes out for veraison, which kicks off the roughly 6-week sprint to harvest. So far, so good.


Tasting the wines in the Fall 2019 VINsider "Collector's Edition" Shipment

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 2011 Esprit de Tablas and the 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc. Although the vintages were quite different (2011 was one of our coolest, followed a wet winter, and saw crop levels reduced by 40% from an April frost, while 2013 was on the warm side, two years into our drought but with still-solid yields) both produced wines that we thought at the time would reward cellaring. And indeed, both the wines were still youthful when I tasted them today.

So, how have the wines changed? The 2013 Esprit Blanc has picked up a nutty note that plays nicely off the honey and green herbs it had when it was first released. And the 2011 Esprit, which was always dark and dense from its combination of chilly vintage and low yields, has opened up to show a lovely chocolaty character and tannins that have softened and come into balance with the wine's fruit, spice, and mineral notes.

And because of the stuffing that these wines began with, they will both go out another decade, at least. The pair:

2019 Collectors Edition Wines

My tasting notes, from today:

  • 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc: Lovely medium gold. A nutty nose of marzipan, creme brûlée, fennel spearmint, and candied orange peel. The mouth shows a sweet butterscotch note on the attack, then nice acids and a little bit of Grenache Blanc's characteristic pithy bite, and finally mandarin, sweet spice, and chalky minerality on the long finish. 71% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc.  Delicious now, but will certainly be good for another 5-10 years, or more.
  • 2011 Esprit de Tablas: A dark nose of juniper forest, bramble, bakers chocolate, peppermint, tamari, and black plum. The mouth is similarly savory, with flavors of rosemary, chocolate-covered black cherry, a clean loamy Mourvedre-driven earthiness, and a leathery, meaty note that is just starting to emerge. The finish is back to the flavors promised on the nose, especially juniper, plum skin, and black tea. 40% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 10% Counoise. It's only getting better, and if you have the patience to wait it could go out another decade or more, continuing to soften and open for most of that time. 

The complete Collector's Edition shipment is awfully exciting, at least to me, between the combination of the library vintages and all the wines from 2017, which I think will go down as one of our greatest ever:

  • 2 bottles of 2011 Esprit de Tablas
  • 2 bottle of 2013 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 3 bottles of 2017 Esprit de Tablas
  • 1 bottle of 2017 En Gobelet
  • 1 bottle of 2017 Mourvedre
  • 1 bottles of 2017 Esprit de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2018 Cotes de Tablas Blanc
  • 1 bottle of 2018 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 us our wine club office a call. And if you are not currently a member, but would like to be, you can sign up for the VINsider Wine Club Collector's Edition, with all the benefits of VINsider Wine Club membership while you're on the waiting list.

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.


We open every vintage of Panoplie, from our first-ever 2000 to the newly-blended 2018

This year, we've been looking for various ways to celebrate our 30th Anniversary. Just a couple of months ago, we opened every vintage of our flagship red, from 1997 Rouge to 2017 Esprit de Tablas. It was fascinating. But for our summer vertical tasting (in which we pick a different wine each year and open a range of vintages to show how it's evolving) we thought it would be appropriate to turn our attention for the first time to Panoplie. For those who don't know it, Panoplie is our elite red wine modeled after the Beaucastel Hommage a Jacques Perrin, with a very high percentage of Mourvedre and an extremely limited production.  Because it's not a wine that we put into distribution -- it goes exclusively to our wine club members each spring -- it's our chance to make as spectacular a wine as we can, without worrying about having to make it in quantity. Members have the opportunity to purchase 2 or 3 more bottles maximum after each shipment. Even so, it rarely lasts long. Because of the wine's scarcity and the fact we don't distribute it, I don't open Panoplie very often. That made Friday's lineup of 18 wines all that much more special:

Panoplie Vertical Jun 2019

I invited some of our other key people (Chelsea Franchi, Senior Assistant Winemaker; Austin Collins, Cellar Assistant; John Morris, Tasting Room Manager; Monica O'Connor, Direct Sales Manager; and Ian Consoli, Marketing Coordinator) to join me. While the principal goal was to choose eight representative (and spectacular) wines to share with the guests who are coming for the July 21st Vertical Tasting, I thought it would be fun to share my notes from all the wines, as well as some thoughts about the wine, how it evolves, and how our thinking about it has changed over the years. The wines didn't disappoint, but I'll save the rest of my conclusions until the end.

A few notes on the wines, and the names. Note that we didn't produce a Panoplie in the frost-impacted 2001 vintage. And we've moved the wine's name around a couple of times. In 2004, the Perrins pointed out to us that it was a little awkward that there was a wine in our hierarchy above the "Esprit de Beaucastel", so we renamed the Panoplie "Esprit de Beaucastel 'Panoplie'" starting that year. It wasn't ideal, and I can't tell you how many times we had people complain that they opened a Panoplie when they didn't mean to, or that they couldn't tell them apart in their wine racks. So, when we rebranded our flagship wine to Esprit de Tablas with the 2011 vintage, we reverted back to the simpler "Panoplie" again. Finally, if you want detailed technical information or to see the tasting notes we wrote shortly after bottling, each wine is linked to its profile page on our Web site:

  • 2000 Panoplie (55% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 15% Grenache): A nose of menthol, pine forest floor, juniper, meat, and plum. John called it "very wild boar-ish". On the palate, showing some signs of age in its leathery notes, but still quite rich with dark cherry fruit, chewy tannins, and full body. I'm not sure this was as good as it was the last time we tried it in 2016, but still an admirable performance for our first and oldest Panoplie, made from vines no more than 8 years old.
  • 2002 Panoplie (80% Mourvedre, 13% Grenache, 7% Counoise): Dark, savory, and meaty on the nose, like a leg of lamb marinating in soy and rosemary. On the palate, more youthful than the 2000, with red cranberry and currant fruit, a sweet Chinese five spice note, and some muscular tannins. The finish turned savory again.  In a nice place, and while there's no hurry, it seems wise to drink this if you've been saving it.
  • 2003 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 7% Syrah, 3% Counoise): Mint chocolate, meat drippings, and sweet tobacco on the appealing nose. On the palate, lovely red currant fruit and a sweet chocolate truffle note. Lovely acids and just enough tannic bite to keep it fresh. The long finish offers luxardo cherries and a rose petal floral note we loved. Our favorite of the older vintages, and just in a beautiful place.
  • 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (69% Mourvedre, 21% Grenache, 10% Syrah): The nose is complex but also a touch older than the previous wines, with mature notes of cocoa powder, menthol, teriyaki, and prune.  The mouth shows sweet figgy flavors and is quite tannic, with a little raisiny note alongside the chocolate on the finish that I didn't love. This was an era where we were trying to build more perception of sweet fruit into this wine, and looking back with 15 years of perspective, I think we pushed a little too far on ripeness, at the expense of freshness.
  • 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (70% Mourvedre, 25% Grenache, 5% Syrah): Sweet fruit on the nose, but in a fresher, more integrated way than the 2004. The mouth is lovely, rich and luscious: chocolate-covered strawberries, big tannins that feel in keeping with the wine's other attributes, and notes of baker's chocolate and violets on the finish. An unapologetically dense, lush wine, but unlike the 2004, I thought it worked. Should be great for quite a while longer, too.
  • 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (68% Mourvedre, 27% Grenache, 5% Syrah): The nose was all savory, and may have suffered a bit compared to the 2005: marinating meat, bone marrow, juniper, bay leaf, and soy. With air, a little maraschino cherry and dark chocolate appeared. On the palate, by contrast, the sweet fruit takes center stage, with sugar plum, cassis, and chocolate-covered cherries the dominant notes before the wine's tannins reassert control on the finish. But still, my lasting impression was one of opulence. 
  • 2007 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): A savory Old World nose with chaparral, meat, and spice. Monica commented that it "smells like a food, not a drink". And we agreed; we spent a while deciding which holiday is smelled most like before coming down on Christmas dinner. The mouth is very complex, with dark leather, substantial dusty tannins, a sweet Chinese five spice note, and more herby thyme/bay notes coming out on the finish. More than any other wine in the lineup, this kept evolving as it sat in the glass, and we feel like it's going to go through a number of different stages in what's going to be a long future life.
  • 2008 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (54% Mourvedre, 29% Grenache, 17% Syrah): There was a noteworthy break between 2007 and 2008, with the 2007 and older wines all feeling bigger, riper, and fully mature, while the 2008 felt much closer to what we're doing now, more fresh and delineated. The nose showed spearmint, red plum, bay leaf and new leather. The palate had milk chocolate, chamomile, cherry, and redcurrant fruit. The finish showed sweet clove and candied orange peel, red licorice, anise, and fresh black fig. A real pleasure, and my favorite of the "middle aged" wines.
  • 2009 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (65% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 9% Syrah): A very aromatic nose of anise, leather, mint, figs, and an orange liqueur note we eventually named as triple sec. On the palate, more composed, and in fact we felt it was still unwinding: plums and cedar, a little black licorice, an some substantial tannins. A tangy note comes out on the finish, with flavors of roasted meats flinty minerality. This may still be emerging from its closed phase and seems likely only to get better over the next decade.
  • 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel "Panoplie" (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): Different and notably quieter on the nose than the previous wines, though still appealing: loamy earth, cardamom, braised meat and ginger. On the palate, more generous, with flavors of blackberry, black raspberry, teriyaki, bay, and a meaty little caramel smokiness on the finish that Austin called as jamon.
  • 2011 Panoplie (60% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 10% Syrah): On the nose similar to but more giving than the 2010, with a slightly redder tint to the cola, red licorice, crushed rock, and fresh prosciutto-wrapped figs. In the mouth, plum and sarsaparilla, loam and roasted root vegetables in which we identified roasted beets and parsnips. It's possible that we were getting hungry by this point in the tasting.
  • 2012 Panoplie (70% Mourvedre, 20% Grenache, 10% Syrah): High-toned spicy fruit on the nose, with cherry cola, juniper, bergamot, and a complex note that reminded me of angostura bitters. In the mouth, more spicy red fruit flavors of wild strawberries, green peppercorn, and yellow raspberry. Cool, minty, and tangy on the finish. Chelsea described the wine's Nordic character well: "like a high altitude meadow". A bit uncharacteristic for the Panoplie, without some of the bass notes we tend to look for, but complex and refreshing.
  • 2013 Panoplie (75% Mourvedre, 15% Grenache, 10% Syrah): A lovely expressive dark fruited nose, with teriyaki, black licorice, bay, and a meaty roast pork character. The mouth is lush and silky and delicious, powerful and complex without any sense of overripeness: wild mushrooms, black plum, chalky mineral, and licorice. Still very much on its way up, and a consensus favorite among its cohort.
  • 2014 Panoplie (65% Mourvedre, 28% Grenache, 7% Syrah): A spicy red fruit nose more like the 2012 than the 2013, seemingly marked by the higher Grenache percentage: red plum, pine forest, new leather and clove. On the palate Grenache's characteristic tangy red fruit character, surprisingly complex and mature for only being five years old. Salted plums and baking spices give way to a lingering smoky note.
  • 2015 Panoplie (71% Mourvedre, 24% Grenache, 5% Syrah; from foudre): A very evocative youthful Mourvedre nose: thyme and oregano on top of mineral-laced red fruit. On the palate, concentrated salted watermelon, yellow raspberry, with firm tannins that promise a long future, and a finish of mint and blueberries. Like many of our 2015 reds, it feels powerful without any sense of extra weight. Still deepening and opening up, and should be great in another year or two.
  • 2016 Panoplie (66% Mourvedre, 25% Syrah, 9% Grenache): More powerful and plush (and darker) on the nose than the 2014 or 2015, perhaps driven by the higher Syrah content, with rich brambly plum skin, minty dark chocolate and crushed rock aromas. The mouth is textured and complex, perfectly balanced between sweet and savory notes, with a meaty, spicy jerky note. Significant, lingering tannins frame a finish with black licorice and an iron-like minerality. Our favorite of the youngest vintages, recently sent out to VINsider Wine Club members this spring.
  • 2017 Panoplie (69% Mourvedre, 17% Grenache, 14% Syrah; pulled from foudre, where it has been aging for the last year): Mostly dark on the nose for me, with black currant, black licorice, and black pepper slowly softening to show an appealing cocoa butter and crushed rock note. On the palate, very fruity, with sweet plum and blackberry fruit on the attack, then substantial tannins to restore order, then tangy teriyaki and iron mineral notes come out on the finish. This will be bottled in about a month, then held in bottle before it's sent to VINsiders next spring. 
  • 2018 Panoplie (64% Mourvedre, 24% Syrah, 12% Grenache; newly blended just last week): Smells so young and primary, like grape essence, but undercut by a little dark chaparral spiciness. The mouth is thick with young fruit, still more grape than anything else, and still because of its recent blending cloudy and settling out. It's about to go into foudre, where it will rest for the next year-plus. A baby, but with tons of fascinating potential.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • It seems like we're settling in on ideal drinking windows for Panoplie. With nearly 20 vintages under our belts, and some of our oldest wines starting to feel like they've peaked, I feel more confident than I ever have in suggesting that wine lovers drink Panoplie either in the 3-6 year window (before the wine shuts down) or in the 9-15 year window (once it reopens). It's not that the wines will fall apart after age 15; I think that many of them will provide fascinating drinking for a decade more, but it's hard for me to imagine those older wines being any better than they are now.
  • All the wines were excellent.  I asked the six people around the table for their votes on some favorites, and fourteen of the eighteen wines received at least one vote.  The highest vote-getters were 2016 and 2013, which both got votes from all 6 of us. 2007 and 2003 received 4 votes each, while 2008 and 2012 received 3 votes each. But I'm confident that even the wines which didn't receive any favorite votes in this tasting (2000, 2004, 2010, and 2015) would make for exceptional drinking if you open one.
  • Flavors evolve, but favorites stay favorite. Looking back at our last Panoplie vertical from 2016 some favorites that we noted were 2003, 2005, 2008, 2011, and 2013. All five of those received multiple favorite votes this time too.
  • Nothing seemed like it was in a "closed" phase. Unlike in our last tasting, there weren't any vintages that I was confident were in their closed phase. It seemed like 2009 was still unspooling, but it was far from closed. 2010 might have been a little quiet, but it too was still delicious. And neither 2011 nor 2012, which we'd think would be next in line, seemed diminished at all. But if you're worried, check our vintage chart periodically.
  • Don't be afraid of young Panoplie.  I know that when we let people know that these wines can age for decades it often scares them away from opening one young.  But the young wines in this flight were almost all drinking beautifully, and anyone who opens a vintage like 2013 or 2016 in coming months is in for a real treat.
  • Those of you coming for our July 21st Panoplie tasting are in for a treat. We've decided to show eight vintages: 2000, 2003, 2007, 2008, 2011, 2013, 2016 and 2017.

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Muscardin

We have some big news. With last week's grafting of some 250 Muscardin buds into the vineyard at Tablas Creek, we've achieved our goal of having all the Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes in the ground here at Tablas Creek. This is the culmination of a 30-year project, and meaningful for me in part because it's the realization of one of my dad's dreams.

But what, you ask, is Muscardin like? That's a difficult question. I've been answering it by saying, "well, it's red, but not very" and making a joke that that's all I know. But it's only sort of a joke, because there is so much we don't know yet. Muscardin is barely planted even in its Rhone Valley homeland, and there has been none that I've been able to find that ever made its way outside of the Rhone. But still, I've done what I can to pull together everything we know about it here.

MuscardinHistory
Muscardin is rare nowadays, and it appears never to have been very common, or found anywhere outside the Rhone. Its first mention in the historical record from 1895 talks about it being one of the "old southern grape varieties", along with Grenache, Piquepoul, Tinto, Terret noir, gris and blanc, Counoise, Vaccarese, Clairette, and Picardan.1  Its combination of relatively low vigor, pale color, and sprawling growth appears to have been three strikes against it in the period after Phylloxera2, and in 2009 there were just 11 hectares (27 acres) in Chateauneuf du Pape, and less than that in the rest of France.3 Nevertheless, it is recognized in the official Chateauneuf-du-Pape regulations as a distinct grape, and the Perrins have been one of its advocates, valuing the wine for its freshness and floral lift. When we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties in 2003, our Muscardin cutting came from the Beaucastel estate.

The origin of Muscardin's name is obscure, but the one thing that practically everyone agrees with is that it has nothing to do with Muscat or Muscadet. And the grape's scarcity (it doesn't even appear in Viala & Vermorel's seminal 1905 Ampelographie) means that there is just not that much literature out there on this rare grape.  So, we really are breaking new ground here.

The grape did not have an easy time getting into California either. We took cuttings from Beaucastel in 2003 along with Picardan, Terret Noir, Cinsaut, Vaccarese, Bourboulenc, and Clairette Blanche, and all entered quarantine at U.C. Davis at the same time. But while the other grapes were released to us after one, two, or three rounds of virus cleanup, Muscardin took four separate rounds and wasn't released to NovaVine until last year. They have been working on producing buds ever since.

Muscardin in the Vineyard and Cellar
In order to speed up our production of this last grape, we made the decision to graft the 250 buds we were able to secure onto existing vine stock. About 50 of those buds were grafted onto rootstocks that we planted last year, with the other 200 grafted onto a few surplus rows of 20-year-old Grenache Blanc. We expect to get production off of this block perhaps as soon as 2020.

We don't know that much about how Muscardin will do in our vineyard, but we do have some reports from Chateauneuf-du-Pape. There is a great quote from Baron Le Roi of Chateau Fortia that John Livingstone-Learmonth recounts in his 1992 book The Wines of the Rhone: "You know, we would be better off here if we replaced the Cinsault with the Muscardin. The Muscardin doesn't produce a lot, makes wine of low degree and spreads out over the soil, preventing tractors from passing freely between the vines, all of which combine to put people off it. But I believe that it gives a freshness on the palate and helps the wine to achieve elegance."4

As with any new grape, our initial picking decisions are educated guesses, but Muscardin is supposed to both emerge from dormancy and ripen early, more or less in sync with Syrah. This suggests we will need to be ready to protect it from frost. It is known for ripening at low alcohols and relatively high acids. The freshness and floral character it is supposed to bring to the table suggest that ultimately it will become a part of our blends, and serve perhaps a similar role to Counoise. That said, we plan to bottle the first few vintages on their own, so that we can wrap our heads around them and so we can show them to other people and get their feedback.

Flavors and Aromas
At Beaucastel, because it is so scarce, Muscardin is rarely vinified on its own and I was not able to taste it on either of my last two visits. I did taste a tank where they co-fermented it with two other pale, floral grapes, Vaccarese and Terret Noir. It was delicious, rose petals and fresh acids, spicy with yellow plum and strawberry fruit. I suspect from our own experiences here that the tannic bite I remember came from the Terret; neither Vaccarese nor Muscardin are supposed to be particularly tannic. But we will know more soon. As for aging, Muscardin is reputed to be prone to oxidation, like Counoise, so it may well be something best drunk young, and I suspect we will choose to bottle it under screwcap. We look forward to finding out, and sharing our discoveries with you!

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012, p 678.
  2. John Livingstone-Learmonth, The Wines of the Rhone, Faber & Faber 1992, p 326.
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009, p 78.
  4. Livingstone-Learmonth, p 326.

Why flowering 2019 indicates a later-than-normal but robust, high quality harvest

There are five 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 late March or early April)
  • Flowering (typically May sometime)
  • Veraison (typically late July or early August)
  • First Harvest (typically late August or early September)
  • Last Harvest (typically late October)

Budbreak gave us the first sign that we were on at least a somewhat later track.  Flowering, which we began mid-May but which is still widespread as we get into mid-June, is confirmation that we're looking at a growing season more like last year's than what we got used to the rest of the decade. An example, from one of our Grenache blocks on June 3rd:

Flowering 2019 grenache

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.

During flowering, you hope for consistent, sunny weather, with only limited wind and no rain.  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.  This year, the cool spring conditions seem to have delayed flowering long enough that even our late rain in mid-May seems to have rolled through before the flowers were open enough to be susceptible to much damage, and conditions have been ideal ever since. We are cautiously optimistic that shatter won't be a major issue. (It's also worth remembering that overall, conditions in Paso Robles are pretty benign compared to what grapevines face in most parts of the world.)

I always think it's interesting to compare our current year to a range of recent ones. A quick line graph may help give you a sense. I've put the line for 2019 in red, to help it stand out:

Average Temps by Month 2010-2019

You'll likely notice a couple of things. First, May was actually cooler than April, for the first time this decade. And it felt like that too. April felt benign, with less than 0.1" of rain, no frosts, and an average high temperature of 73.4F. May was another story. The Paso Robles Wine Festival, which often coincides with our first hot weekend of the year, took place under conditions that felt more like February: low 60s, with rain threatening. We got seven days with measurable precipitation, totaling 1.44" (triple the 0.44" we average in a normal May). The average high temperature was 70.7F, and eighteen days failed to make it into the 70s. Five days failed to make it even into the 60s.

Second, you'll likely notice the rapid recovery of average temperatures in June. This trend actually began the last week of May, which was (fortunately) right when we first saw flowering. But even that warm-up has been modest, as we've yet to have the temperature here break 100. The next week looks like it's supposed to be in the 80s every day. That's pretty much ideal.

Looking for a comp is premature, as so much depends on what comes next, but it's starting off like 2015, where we ricocheted between significantly warmer-than-normal months and significantly cooler-than-normal months.  But it's also not that different from 2018, when a cool early season built to a scorching July before settling back down to a cooler harvest. But whatever the future holds, we do have a not-insignificant portion of the growing season behind us, and at this point we're 6.3% below our average number of degree days through June 16th, and 25.8% below our maximum to date (2014).  That cool weather, combined with a fairly late budbreak, suggests we're a couple of weeks behind most of our recent years, and unlikely to begin harvest before September.  I'll keep updating you throughout the summer, as there's a long way to go.

At this point, we're happy to be most of the way through flowering in good shape, with the vines healthy from the winter rain we received and the lack (so far) of heat spikes, at the roughly one-third point of the growing season.  It's not just the grapevines that are flowering away. We've got blooms all over our olive trees:

Olive flowering 2019

And the California poppies are still putting on a show, at a time of year when they're often past their primes:

CA poppies June 2019

But the main event is, as always, the grapevines. We're thrilled with what we've seen so far. Fingers crossed for more of the same. And if you visit a vineyard in the next few weeks, take a sniff... the scent can be intoxicating.

Flowering Grenache 2019