A Report from the Red Blending Table: 2020 Isn't Just a Good Vintage... It's a Great Vintage

On Friday, after a full week of work, we finally got to sit down and taste the fifteen red wines from the 2020 vintage we'd created in a week of blending. We loved them. The Panoplie was plush, dark, and dense, a true blockbuster. The Esprit was somehow both elegant and meaty, with chocolate and spicy purple fruit. Several varietal bottlings were the best I can remember from recent years, including a deep, spicy, blackcurrant and leather-laced Mourvedre and a juicy redcurrant and cocoa powder Cinsaut that provided validation for our decision to include it in the Esprit for the first time. Even the Patelin de Tablas, normally the base of our pyramid, was dense, chewy and tangy, with blackberry fruit and plenty of structure. But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

Our blending process is one we've developed over the decades, built on how they work at Beaucastel. Of course, for the second straight year we were around the blending table without a Perrin, as Covid continues to make (particularly international) travel more difficult. But we feel great about the process we use, descended from the Perrins' own system, which takes the blending process in steps and builds consensus rather than relying on one lead voice to determine the wines' final profiles.

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 66 separate lots of young red wines in one day, we divided this stage up between two days. Monday saw us tackle Grenache, Counoise, Cinsaut, and Pinot Noir. Tuesday we dove into the more tannin-rich grapes: Mourvedre, Syrah, Tannat, Terret Noir, Vaccarese, and our tiny Cabernet lot. 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 some of the lineup of components:

Blending bottles on patio - 2020 reds

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). We also give ourselves the liberty to give intermediate 1/2 or 2/3 grades for lots that are right on the cusp. 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:

  • Grenache (18 lots): Grenache is often a challenge in this first tasting, as it is slow to finish fermentation and some lots are just rounding into form. Plus, we had a really Grenache crop, which led to our most lots ever. But the quality was consistently good: Seven 1's from me, with four others getting 1/2 grades. Only five 2's and one 2/3. Plenty of Grenache's zesty fruit and spice. A solid number of lots that added to that a chocolatey richness and good structure. Plenty of good pieces to work with for all the wines, and the makings of a great varietal Grenache.
  • Counoise (6 lots): A good-but-not-great showing for Counoise. Although all six lots were juicy and lively, in the Gamay-style that most of you who enjoy our varietal Counoise bottling are familiar with, there was only one lot that showed the richer, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we look to use in Esprit. Grades: one 1, two 1/2 grades, and three 2's.
  • Cinsaut (1 lot): Our second Cinsaut, and five barrels this year instead of last vintage's two. A lovely spicecake nose, medium-weight (though richer than the Counoise), zesty tannins, and a nice dusting of cocoa that suggested it might find a place in Esprit for the first time. I gave it a 1/2.
  • Pinot Noir (6 lots): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap, outside my parents' house, that my dad decided to plant to a mix of different Pinot Noir clones back in 2007. We fermented each clone separately this year, to get a sense of how they differed, but they will all be blended together. Overall a good Pinot year, although we decided to hold out a few of the new barrels that we thought were making the wine too oak-dominant. Should make for a very nice 2019 Full Circle Pinot.
  • Mourvedre (13 lots): As I mentioned in my 2020 harvest recap blog, Mourvedre yields suffered in 2020, battered by the heat spikes and the dry winter. But the quality of what we got was superb, deep and rich, leathery and meaty, with a lovely luscious texture. I gave seven lots a 1 grade, and five others intermediate 1/2 grades. Only one 2. I'm sure that's a first. The limited quantity would prove a challenge, as we use Mourvedre as the lead for so many key wines. But if such an important grape is going to be short, it was a saving grace that it was so strong, top to bottom.
  • Syrah (13 lots): Syrah at this stage is often the easiest to love, with its plush dark fruit and spice already well-formed. This year was no exception, although the variety of cooperage that we had it in did give us more variation than we saw in Mourvedre. Seven 1's, with two others to which I gave 1/2 grades. Three 2 lots, and one 2/3 that was showing some oxidation but which should be strong once it's cleaned up.
  • Vaccarese (1 lot): Even better, I thought, than our 2019 debut which anyone who follows our social media knows I really dig. Dark, herby and savory, blackberry and chalk, rose hips and leather. Medium-weight or a little above, but less plush than a grape like Syrah. Really fun, different from all the other Rhones, and plenty good enough for consideration for Esprit. I gave it a 1.
  • Terret Noir (2 lots): Terret felt more refined but also somehow less dramatic than it has the past few years. Pale, pretty, zesty and bright, with salted watermelon and sweet spice notes. Notably floral. One lot (which I gave a 2) felt on point for a varietal bottling, while the other (which I gave a 1/2) was more structured and grippy, and seemed a natural for Le Complice.
  • Tannat (3 lots): Dense, chewy, and chocolatey, yet with the acids that always surprise me in such a powerful grape. Not a lot of decisions to be made here, except for how much Tannat we want to put into En Gobelet, and how much we're willing to bottle and sell (the crop was big). But quality and personality are never concerns.
  • Cabernet (1 lot): Typically, the few rows of Cabernet in our old nursery block go into our Tannat, but we always taste it and have a few times decided we couldn't bear to blend it away. Not 2020. It was fine, dark cherry flavors but not particularly evocative of Cabernet. It will go into Tannat and be happy. 

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 with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned. For the Esprit there was a different concern. With our small Mourvedre crop, we didn't really have the option of a Mourvedre-heavy Esprit unless we wanted to drastically reduce our production. Even with a normal Mourvedre percentage, we were looking at a production level closer to 3,000 cases than the 4,000 that we normally make. So, we decided to try a blend higher in Grenache than Syrah, a blend higher in Syrah than Grenache, and a third blend where we increased them both to almost the same amount as Mourvedre. 

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 more Grenache than Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. But in this vintage, the Mourvedre was so luscious that we felt it was able to handle a larger-than-usual Syrah component without losing its essential Panoplie-ness, and we settled on our first try on a blend of 59% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, and 13% Grenache. This is the most excited I've been for a Panoplie since maybe 2007.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Unlike with the Panoplie, the first round saw a split around the table, with the overall favorite having our highest Grenache component, our least Syrah, and small additions of Counoise, Vaccarese, and Cinsaut. But the higher-Syrah option and the high-Syrah-high-Grenache-low-Mourvedre blend got some votes too. It took us 3 rounds before everyone came around to a consensus: 40% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 5% Counoise, 3% Vaccarese, and 1% Cinsaut. It's interesting to me, looking at that solution, how close it is to what we decided in 2019. That provides some support to my overall feeling that the two vintages will end up having related blockbuster characters. The one difference: this year, we get to add two new grapes to the blend. With six grapes in the 2020 Esprit de Tablas Blanc, that means that 12 of the 14 Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes will have graduated into the Esprit in 2020!

Thursday, we tackled our remaining blends: the two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice, and our Cotes de Tablas. Because of the scarcity of Mourvedre, we didn't have a ton of options for En Gobelet. We used all the remaining head-trained Mourvedre, Counoise, and Syrah lots and were basically deciding on the relative quantities of Grenache and Tannat. But there was clear consensus in the first round, and we ended up with a blend 37% Grenache, 25% Mourvedre, 22% Syrah, 11% Counoise, and 5% Tannat. The wine was complex, with red-to-purple fruit, still primary but with the signature elegance we see from our head-trained blocks and tons of potential.

For Le Complice, we had a bit of a different challenge than in recent years. 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. But this year Terret was friendlier, with less of the grippy tannin and herby stem character that we've seen each year since our first harvest back in 2013. So, it was really a question of how much lift we wanted from Terret (and Grenache) vs. how much density and plushness we wanted from Syrah. In the end, we all loved the solution with the most Syrah, more than we've ever used before. But oh, what a wine: dense and lush yet with tension and spice. Final blend: 77% Syrah, 15% Grenache, 8% Terret Noir. This had the added benefit of leaving us enough Terret to bottle as a varietal wine!

Because the En Gobelet and Le Complice don't really compete with the Cotes de Tablas for lots, we were able to knock out a third blend that day. We knew the amount of Counoise (substantial) and Mourvedre (hardly any) which we had available for Cotes, and so as usual the blending decision on this wine came down to the relative ratios of Grenache and Syrah. And, as might not be surprising given the results of our trials so far (Esprit the notable exception) we chose the highest Syrah percentage. The wine still leads with the spicy, minerally purple fruit of Grenache, but that iron and smoke backbone that Syrah brought was welcome. Our final blend was 43% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 20% Counoise, and 4% Mourvedre.

On Friday, we reconvened to taste the finalized blends alongside all the varietal wines that we ended up making. And for the second year in a row, we'll have a wide lineup. My quick notes on each of the fifteen wines we made, and their rough quantities: 

  • Terret Noir (70 cases): A spicy, high-toned floral nose like aromatic bitters and watermelon rind. The mouth is salty and tangy, with an herby sweetgrass note and spice coming out on the finish.
  • Counoise (230 cases): A nose of cran-apple, orange peel, and brambly raspberry. The mouth is simple but clean and juicy, with good acids: sour cherry and yellow plum skin. Thirst-quenching and fun.
  • Cinsaut (90 cases): A nose of chocolate-cherry and redcurrant. On the palate, melted popsicle, cola, and cocoa powder, with good dusty tannins and length.
  • Full Circle (390 cases): A very Pinot nose of bing cherry, leather, and sweet oak spice, with a little stemmy wildness lurking behind. The mouth shows nice fruit and structure, a little oak but not too much, with lingering flavors of sarsaparilla, cherry skin, and pork fat. 
  • Patelin de Tablas (2060 cases): A dark nose, dense and rich with black fruit and wood smoke. In the mouth, tangy blackberry, substantial texture, tannins rising on the finish but in good balance with acids and fruit. Because of the amount of Tannat we produced in 2020, we included a little (it should end up around 7%) in the Patelin for the first time.
  • Grenache (1230 cases): Pure and juicy (cranberry and cherry) on the nose, with some pepper spice providing depth. The mouth is juicy and mid-weight, strawberry and red cherry fruit, good acid and brightness. 
  • Cotes de Tablas (1130 cases): A nose with both darkness and lift, black cherry, soy marinade, and a savory black olive note. On the palate, both red and black fruit, deepened by licorice and chaparral notes. A creamy texture, and very long.
  • Mourvedre (140 cases): A deep spicy nose of spicy, leathery blackcurrant and meat drippings. The mouth is chewy sugarplum, more leather, and sweet baking spices. Lots of texture, tangy and long. A testament to what Mourvedre is capable of here at Tablas Creek. A pity there's not more of it, though I should be happy. At the beginning of blending I was worried there wouldn't be any at all.
  • Vaccarese(120 cases): A savory almost Nordic nose of juniper, iodine, and blackberry. In the mouth, tangy black plum, graphite and mineral, salty, structured, and long.   
  • Syrah (470 cases): A dense nose with notes of fig reduction and melted licorice, with wild herbs and pepper. On the palate, plush and long, with black raspberry fruit and a little sweet oak spice.
  • Le Complice (880 cases): A nose like wild, dark spruce forest, bacon fat, and green peppercorn. In the mouth, a beautiful balance between structure and density, with leather, cedar, black fruit and tangy green herbs. Along with Panoplie, the wine of the day, for me.
  • En Gobelet (850 cases): Very red on the nose: plums and redcurrant and dark cherry and red licorice. The mouth is structured and chewy, more restrained than the nose, still very primary but with these lovely tannins with the texture of powdered sugar. Patience.
  • Esprit de Tablas (3400 cases): A nose of spicy purple elderberry, pepper spice, roasted meats, and sagebrush. The palate was generous, with gorgeous purple fruit and Mourvedre's signature rose petal florality, deepened by flavors of meat drippings and milk chocolate. Plenty of tannin, but plenty of lift too. 
  • Panoplie (840 cases): A blockbuster nose, leather and black licorice, deep loamy earth and baker's chocolate. The mouth was more of the same, black cherry and leather and cocoa powder and chalky tannins. Long and opulent.  
  • Tannat (970 cases): A cool tanginess to the nose, candied orange peel and black cherry and minty spice. On the palate, fun and zesty, with lifted blackberry fruit, a little sweet oak spice, and Tannat's unexpected but welcome violet florality. 

A few concluding thoughts. 

First, this felt like an "easy" blending week. We didn't have any serious disagreements, or any wines that just wouldn't come together. Many of the wines were decided in the first round of tasting. Some of that comes from the vintage's scarcity (reducing our options) and strength (meaning we couldn't go too far wrong). But it's also a reflection of the fact that this was a veteran crew around the blending table, with everyone having done this at least four times before, and the core of Neil, Chelsea, Craig and me all with at least ten vintages under our belts.

Second, I came out of that blending session really excited that all these wildly different grapes and blends, each with a well-defined personality, can have come out of the same cellar. That's a testament to the diversity of the Rhone pantheon of grapes, but even more so to our winemaking team's willingness to let each grape be itself, rather than imposing a set of winemaking techniques on them all. I can't wait to start sharing these with people.   

Finally, in looking for a comparable vintage to 2020, I don't think that you have to go any farther back than 2019. Although the 2020 vintage was more challenging because of the heat spikes and fires (not to mention the pandemic) the overall harvest dates and degree days were similar. Beyond that, the distribution of the heat, with a cool first half of the summer and a hot (often very hot) second half was reminiscent. And that's a great thing. 2019 is proving to be a great vintage across both reds and whites. If 2020 can come through all its tribulations and match that, this collection of wines will indeed give us a reason to want to remember the year most of us would prefer to forget.

Blending bottles on patio from above - 2020 reds


A Sigh of Relief from the Blending Table as the 2020 Whites Are Strong and Unaffected by Smoke

Last week, six of us spent most of the week around our blending table working to turn the 39 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2020 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. For the second year in a row, this was a reduced group compared to normal, with the challenges of international travel dictating that we sit down without a Perrin in attendance, and the Tablas Creek participants reduced to a core six (Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Austin, Amanda, and me) in the interest of maintaining distance around the table. It was further complicated by the fact that we had a couple of storm fronts blow through Paso Robles, chasing us indoors after the first day and (with all our open windows and doors) leading to papers blowing around and everyone breaking out their collection of padded coats and beanies. But at least we knew that fresh air was circulating!

This blending session was particularly interesting because it was our first time sitting down in a comprehensive way and evaluating what came out of the challenges of the 2020 vintage. When I wrote up my 2020 harvest recap, I felt pretty sure that we hadn't seen any smoke taint, or taken any serious harm from the twin heat spikes that broke records as the grapes were ripening. Still, there's only so much that you can tell in harvest's immediate aftermath, when the wines are still sweet and the cellar full of fermentation aromas. So, as we sat down together, we all felt that the stakes were higher than they might be in a more normal vintage. I'm pleased to report that after four days immersed in these wines, I feel confident that 2020 will take its place proudly in our recent string of strong vintages.

If you're unfamiliar with how we do our blending, you might find it interesting to read this blog by Chelsea that she wrote a few years ago.

Our first step, on Monday, was to taste each variety in flights, give each lot a grade, and start assessing the character of the year. Our grading system is simple; a "1" grade means the lot has the richness, elegance, and balance to be worthy of consideration for Esprit Blanc. A "2" grade means we like it, but it doesn't seem like Esprit, for whatever reason. It may be pretty, but without the concentration for a reserve-level wine. It might be so powerful we feel it won't blend well. Or it might just be out of the style we want for the Esprit, such as with too much new oak. A "3" grade means the lot has issues that need attention. It might be oxidized or reduced. It might still be fermenting and in a place that makes it hard to evaluate confidently. Or it might just not have the substance for us to be confident we'll want to use it. Most "3" lots resolve into 2's or 1's with some attention. If they don't, they end up getting sold off and they don't see the inside of a Tablas Creek bottle. A snapshot of my notes:

Blending Notes - 2020 Whites

My quick thoughts on each variety are below. 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. When we think a lot is right on the cusp between two grades, we can note that with a slash (1/2, or 2/3). As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. In rough harvest order:

  • Viognier (6 lots): A really outstanding Viognier vintage, with classic luscious flavors and aromas and better-than usual acidity and minerality. Since we don't use Viognier in Esprit Blanc, a "1" grade just means that it's as good and expressive as Viognier gets, with freshness to balance its plentiful fruit and body. Two "1" lots, two 1/2 lots, and two 2's.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): A strong Marsanne showing, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One "2", one "1/2", and our favorite lot (a "1" grade) with a little extra mouthfeel and tropicality that will be the core of our varietal Marsanne.
  • Picardan (1 lot): Perhaps not at the level of the 2019 Picardan (my favorite in our short history) but still very nice: a tropical nose reminiscent of Viognier, but with a clean, pure palate expression and bright acids. The finish was a little short, so I gave it a 1/2.
  • Bourboulenc (2 lots): The second harvest for our newest grape. Last year's was a crazy orange color when it came out of the press, and although it dropped clear and lightened up, it retained a golden tinge to it. So we experimented with a couple of different pick dates this year, and were rewarded by both of them being a more typical color. The two lots were different, with the earlier pick showing a lush nose but a lean, bright palate, while the later pick showed a quieter nose but a creamier, lusher palate. I gave both lots "2" grades, though (as you'll see) we ended up using some in Esprit Blanc.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 180 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, and it was lovely: pretty green wheatgrass aromas and a vibrant lemony palate with salty minerality. I gave it a 1.
  • Grenache Blanc (9 lots): OK, now we got to the wines that we had in quantity. Grenache Blanc is often tough to evaluate in this first tasting because it's always the last to finish fermentation. And this year we had a lot of it: over 7,000 gallons. I found the quality very high overall, but with more diversity than in most of the other grapes: four "1" grades with brightness, lushness, and minerality, a 1/2 that was classic but a little leaner, a "2" that was nicely saline but didn't show much fruit, two 2/3 lots, each promising but also worrying, both in the final stages of fermentation and showing a little weirdness, and an "incomplete" that was still sweet enough to be impossible for me to assign a grade. I think these last three lots will all turn into something good, but they weren't there yet. Patience.
  • Picpoul Blanc (3 lots): Outstanding for Picpoul, with all three lots showing both power and brightness. Two 1's that I thought would be perfect for Esprit and a 1/2 that was beautifully fresh and lively and which will be the core of our varietal Picpoul this year.
  • Roussanne (10 lots): These were the hardest for me to evaluate, perhaps because a squall blew through as we were tasting and forced us to run indoors as hail fell on our patio. I only found two lots that were clear "1" grades for me. But four lots got "1/2" grades. The reasons varied. One was lovely but still sweet. Another two had great texture but were (for me) a little worryingly low in acid. The fourth was oak-dominated, clearly too much on its own, but likely valuable in a blend. Then there were three "2" lots, all honeyed and lush, with pure Roussanne flavors, but soft and without the length or persistence we want for Esprit. Finally, there was one 2/3 lot that was atypical for Roussanne, pineapply and bright but relatively light in body. We decided to declassify that to Patelin Blanc, where it will fit in nicely.

We finished Monday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. The shortage of obvious Esprit-caliber Roussanne, and the relative softness of the lots in the next tier, suggested that we try some Esprit Blanc blends with less Roussanne and more of the higher-acid grapes than usual. But whether that should mean more Grenache Blanc, more Picpoul, or more of the obscure whites than usual we didn't know. That's what our blending trials are for!

Tuesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. One, which none of us preferred, hewed closer to our "traditional" blend, with none of the obscure grapes and a roughly 60/30/10 balance of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul. Better was a blend that decreased the Roussanne to make room for more Picpoul and some Clairette and Picardan. But the consensus favorite included our highest percentage of Picpoul Blanc (14%) since 2015 and made room for significant quantities of all three obscure whites. That means that the 2020 Esprit Blanc will for the first time contain all six approved white Chateauneuf-du-Pape grapes. That's exciting! It also will have a quantity of Roussanne that ties for our lowest-ever, at just 45%. But still, the finished wine had texture, lushness, complexity, and minerality, and plenty enough acidity to keep everything lively. The final blend: 45% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 5% Bourboulenc, 4% Picardan, and 4% Clairette Blanche. A note to lovers of this wine: because of the relative scarcity of top Roussanne, we made a few hundred cases less of this than we have in recent years. Consider yourselves forewarned that it may go fast.

Next we tackled the Cotes Blanc. Viognier always takes the lead, but we weren't sure whether we wanted Marsanne's elegance or Grenache Blanc's density and acid in the primary support role. So, we decided to try one blend with more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne, one with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc, and one where set them to roughly equal levels but added a little more Viognier. Tasting the wines, we settled on the blend heaviest in Grenache Blanc, which seemed to focus Viognier's aromatics while also providing a vibrant, fresh, juicy palate. Final blend: 38% Viognier, 32% Grenache Blanc, 22% Marsanne, and 8% Roussanne.

In making the quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we wanted, the only grape that we'd used all of was Clairette Blanche. Looking at the quantities of the varietals that this left us, everything seemed fine except that because of the generosity of the vintage and the smaller quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we made, we were on track to make about 1500 cases of our varietal Grenache Blanc. Given that this isn't a wine we sell much of in wholesale, to keep our supply reasonable we decided to declassify an additional 800 gallons into our 2020 Patelin Blanc. Combined with the relatively large Roussanne declassification, this means that our 2020 Patelin Blanc will be fully one-quarter Tablas Creek fruit. This works out well; we had been conservative in the tonnage of grapes we'd contracted for, worried that the pandemic-induced closures of restaurants would mean we'd end up long on supply. Thanks to a very nice score from Wine Spectator for the 2019 Patelin Blanc, that turned out not to be the case, and having some more of this wine will be good. Plus, those estate lots are only going to make the 2020 Patelin Blanc that much better.

With our blends decided, our final step was to taste them alongside the seven varietal wines that we'll be bottling from 2020. Our principal concerns here are to make sure that the varietal wines are differentiated from the blends that lead with the same grape (so, our Esprit Blanc is different from Roussanne, our Cotes Blanc different from the Viognier, etc) and to make sure that the blends fall into the appropriate places in our hierarchy. My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:

  • 2020 Bourboulenc (180 cases): Medium gold. A nose of caramel apple and marzipan, lifted by a bright lemongrass note. On the palate, bright with preserved lemon and chamomile flavors and a little pithy note on the long finish.
  • 2020 Picardan (70 cases): A tropical but lively nose of lychee and passionfruit. A similar palate with mango and sweet spice, cleaning up to a chalky mineral note on the finish.
  • 2020 Picpoul Blanc (250 cases): A nose of fresh pineapple. That pineapple note continues onto the palate, with a richer texture than most picpouls. Long and creamy on the finish with a wet rock mineral note.
  • 2020 Grenache Blanc (1040 cases): Super appealing on the nose: lemon meringue and butterscotch and sea spray. Sweet citrus fruit (lemon drop?) and cream soda on the finish. Still a bit more sugar to ferment but super promising.
  • 2020 Viognier (660 cases): Classic young Viognier nose of Haribo peach. The mouth is leaner than the nose suggests: nectarine, white flowers, and a little pithy bite. Should be really appealing with a lift rare in the grape.
  • 2020 Marsanne (350 cases): A nose of peppered melon rind and apricot pit, absolutely classic for young Marsanne. The mouth is clean and spare, gentle kiwi and sarsaparilla, with a chalky mineral finish.
  • 2020 Roussanne (940 cases): Honeydew melon and jasmine on the nose. Mouth-filling and creamy on the palate, with flavors of beeswax and white tea. More textural than flavorful right now. We're going to put it back in some newer barrels for the next six months.
  • 2020 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2500 cases): Nose of lemongrass, ginger, and green apple, with a little meaty charcuterie note adding depth. The palate starts with bright apricot and quince flavors, then softens into a sweeter peachy note. Serious and complex for Patelin Blanc, and a worthy successor to the 2019.
  • 2020 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1230 cases): A nose of nectarine and mandarin, seemingly signed equally by Viognier and Grenache Blanc. A sweet/tart contrast on the palate, with lime and ripe peach. A little coconut-like creamy texture comes out on the finish.
  • 2020 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (1960 cases): Despite its relatively low Roussanne component, very Roussanne on the nose: beeswax and honeysuckle, lemon bar and graham cracker. The mouth is luscious and textured, with citrus blossom honey and vanilla bean, then cleaning up on the finish to honeycrisp apple and saline mineral.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The power of blending really came through to me in this process. As I said above, I wasn't particularly convinced by the Roussanne lots, as a whole. But the Esprit Blanc turned out to be terrific. The luxury of being able to reduce the quantity of our lead grape and bolster the wine with the texture and acid of Grenache Blanc and Picpoul and the complexity of the three "minor" varieties allowed us to do something we could never have done just using Roussanne lots. There are times when adding other components actually make the wine taste more like the lead grape. This was one of those times. 
  • The 2020 vintage gave us lots of texture and flavor at very low alcohols. The overall potential alcohols of all the Rhone whites as a unit was just 12.52%. Grapes like Marsanne and Roussanne were even lower at 11.5% and 12.4% respectively. I think that this was one area where we saw an impact of the stressfulness of the vintage. Those late-summer heat spikes did a number on the acid levels of all the grapes. Those with normally higher acids (like Picpoul, or Grenache Blanc) had enough to withstand that. But Marsanne and Roussanne are naturally lower acid anyway, and we just couldn't leave them on the vines long enough to get to the sugar levels that we're used to without our acids falling to unacceptable levels. That said, I felt like the finished wines had plenty of texture, and enough acidity. The alcohol numbers on the labels, though, may be eye-openingly low. 
  • It's early to know what vintage 2020 will end up reminding us of. But in recent years, it seems like 2015 might provide a pretty good comparison. In that year too, stressful conditions (the peak of our 2012-2016 drought) led to Roussanne lots with low acids and low alcohols. Our solution was similar: reduce Roussanne in the Esprit Blanc to make room for more of the Grenache Blanc and (especially) Picpoul Blanc. Going back to read my notes from the 2015 white blending I see a lot of similar threads. If the wines turn out like that, I'll be excited... 2015 is one of my favorite recent vintages. 

Of course, we've still got a ways to go. There are lots that need some time to finish fermenting, and everything needs to be racked, blended, and let settle and integrate. But as a first detailed look into a year that dropped a number of new hurdles in our way, it's incredibly encouraging. I now feel confident saying that the wines from 2020 will give us something we want to remember from a year most of us would prefer to forget.

Blending Bottles - 2020 Whites


Revisiting the 2001 Roussanne and the Beginning of the Tablas Creek Varietal Program

2001 Roussanne on Patio

The original model for Tablas Creek was that we were going to make one red wine and one white wine, with the thought that when the vineyard had matured, we might make a reserve-level white and red as well. We named our first wines Tablas Creek Blanc and Tablas Creek Rouge.

Within a few years, we'd come to the conclusion that this simple model was a mistake, for two reasons. First, it didn't give the market much help in figuring out what the wines were. Sure, the Rouge was red. And the Blanc was white. But other than providing elementary French lessons, that didn't help a consumer trying to figure out what was in those wines, or what they would taste like. In an era where blends from California didn't yet have a category on most shelves or wine lists, that was two strikes against us at the start. Second, and more importantly, having just one red and one white didn't give us any flexibility in putting the wines together. If using everything threw off the balance between the varietals, or a lot didn't have the character we wanted, our only option was to sell off those lots. That's a painful choice to make, and although we did it from time to time, usually the blends ended up containing something close to the full production of that color from that year.

Things started to change for us in 1999. We made the decision during the blending of that vintage to pull out a couple of Grenache lots that were juicy but also quite alcoholic and tannic from our main blend, blended them with a little Syrah and Mourvedre, and called the wine "Petite Cuvée". That allowed us to shift our main red blend to be heavier on Mourvedre and feature a richer, lusher profile. We called that "Reserve Cuvée".

The next year, we added a third blend from three remarkable barrels, called it Panoplie, and renamed the two blends we'd made the year before. Petite Cuvée became Cotes de Tablas, referencing the usually Grenache-based wines of Cotes du Rhone, while the Reserve Cuvée became Esprit de Beaucastel, connecting its Mourvedre-driven profile with that of Beaucastel and making our connection with our partners more explicit. And with the 2001 vintage, we applied that same model to the whites, making our first vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. We were able to be selective with the Esprit tier, make better wines than before, and get recognition for that from press and collectors. We were able to sell the Cotes tier at a price that restaurants could pour by the glass, and get exposure to new customers. As I wrote last year in my reflections on our 30th anniversary, these changes were a big part of helping us get ourselves established in the marketplace. But as anyone who has counted the 25+ wines that we now make each year will realize, that's not the end of the story.

It turned out that each year there were some lots that were so evocative of an individual grape that it seemed a shame to blend that character away. The first time we acted on this nagging feeling was 2001, when my dad identified two Roussanne barrels while tasting through the cellar in advance of that year's blending. He made the executive decision that we should bottle them alone and we'd be able to figure out how to sell them. It was, after all, only 50 cases. And it turned out that with the opening of our tasting room in 2002, it was valuable having something that was not available in distribution for the people who made the trek out to see us, and even more valuable having a varietal bottling of this grape that was still new to most of our visitors, so they could start to wrap their heads around it. The label has my dad's typically dense, complete description of the selection process on its back:

TCV_2001_Roussanne_RGB_Full
And the wine itself has always been compelling. I have a vivid memory of a dinner I hosted in 2004 or 2005 where, when this 2001 Roussanne was opened on the other side of the room, the whole gathering stopped what they were doing and looked over because the room had filled with the aroma of honeysuckle. But it had been years since I opened one, and so I pulled a bottle out of our library yesterday to check in, and invited our winemaking team to join me. It was amazing.

2001 Roussanne on Limestone Rock

My tasting notes from yesterday:

A lovely gold color in the glass, still tinged with Roussanne's typical hint of green. The nose shows sugar cookies and lemon curd, warm honeycomb and cinnamon stick. On the palate, dense and lush with flavors of spun sugar and candied ginger. Someone around the table called it "liquid flan". And as sweet as all those descriptors make it sound, it was dry, with just enough acid to keep it fresh without taking away from the wine's lushness. The finish had notes of graham cracker, dried straw, and vanilla custard. Neil called it "an exceptional moment for an exceptional bottle".

With this wine as the starting point, we added new varietals most vintages in the 2000's, each time when we found lots that evoked the grape particularly vividly. Syrah, Counoise, Tannat, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino debuted in 2002. Mourvedre, Viognier, and Picpoul saw their first vintages in 2003. Grenache came on in 2006, and Marsanne completed the list of our original imports in 2010. Once we started getting the obscure Chateauneuf du Pape grapes out of quarantine and into production in the 2010s, those made their debuts as varietal bottlings: Clairette Blanche and Terret Noir in 2013, Picardan in 2016, and Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, and Cinsaut in 2019. These wines have proven to be fascinating for us, and great tools to share the potential and diversity of the Rhone pantheon with our wine club members and other visitors to the winery.

But it all started here, in 2001, with two barrels of Roussanne. To know that two decades later that first-ever Tablas Creek varietal wine is not just still alive but a shining testament to the potential of this grape in this place is pretty darn cool.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Bourboulenc

It's been an exciting couple of years for us getting to discover new grapes. Ten days ago, Muscardin became the fourteenth and final grape in the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape collection to make it into the cellar at Tablas Creek. I wrote about it on the occasion of its grafting into the vineyard last June, and we're hoping to ferment maybe 10 gallons this year. I've written this summer about two red grapes that we harvested for the first time in 2019: Vaccarèse and Cinsaut. These are both sitting quietly in the cellar, awaiting bottling next year. But somehow I haven't yet written about Bourboulenc, which we've already put into bottle and even sent out to the members of our white wine VINsider club this fall. It's particularly egregious that I haven't taken up Bourboulenc given that it was the grape my dad was the most excited about when we decided to import seven obscure Chateauneuf du Pape grapes in 2003. So, let's dive in.

Bourboulenc lithoBourboulenc's History
The grape Bourboulenc first appears in the historical record in 1515 in a description of a vineyard near Cavaillon, an ancient village about ten miles south-east of Avignon.1 It appears to have been named after another vineyard near Avignon that was known as Barbolenquiera. Never very widely planted or exceptionally rare, Bourboulenc has seen a gradual decline in acreage since 1970, when it peaked at some 3,000 acres. Its decline is likely due to a fashion for richer white wines in the 1980s and 1990s and a shift in focus across the south of France from white to rosé in more recent years. 

Today, Bourboulenc is the fourth-most planted white grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (after Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Roussanne) at nearly 85 acres2, making it roughly 1% of total plantings and 15% of white acreage. As of 2016, there were about 1,230 acres planted worldwide, all of it in France3 except the handful of acres that were planted from our clones here in California. It appears never to have gone far from where it originated, and today can be found in the regions surrounding Avignon, including Costières de Nîmes, Tavel, Cassis, Bandol, Languedoc, Corbières, Minervois, and (of course) Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Bourboulenc is pronounced boor-boo-lenk. Like nearly all French words, the syllables are emphasized equally.

Bourboulenc at Tablas Creek
In our first round of grape imports, which we brought into quarantine in 1989 and were released in 1992, we focused on the main grapes at Beaucastel: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier. Shortly after, we brought in Picpoul Blanc.

By 2003, we were sufficiently convinced that the more obscure Rhone grapes could shine here that we decided to import the complete Beaucastel collection, which meant another seven grapes. Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche were the first two to be released to us, in 2009. Picardan was next in 2012. Cinsaut, Bourboulenc, and Vaccarese were released in 2015, propagated, and then planted at Tablas in 2017. Muscardin, the seventh and final of those grapes, was released to us in 2017.

We chose a small (0.66 acre) block with a west-facing slope at the far western edge of Tablas Creek for Bourboulenc, and harvested our first small crop in 2019.

Bourboulenc juiceBourboulenc in the Vineyard and Cellar
Bourboulenc vines are fairly vigorous, the berries relatively large, and the clusters loose, which makes it resistant to rot. In France, it is known as drought-tolerant and prized for its ability to retain good acids while still achieving above-average body, but can be a risk because it is late-ripening. We haven't found that to be true here. In 2019 (our first harvest) we picked 2.15 tons of Bourboulenc at 20° Brix (roughly 12.4% potential alcohol), and a pH of 3.38. In 2020 we harvested 3.05 tons at 19° Brix and a pH of 3.38. Both years we picked in September, at roughly the one-third mark of harvest. That puts the grape in synch with Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. The sugars were among the lower levels that we picked, and the acids toward the lower pH (higher acid) end.

In 2019, and to a lesser extent in 2020, we noticed a distinctive orange color in the Bourboulenc juice as it came out of the press. Much of that color dropped out during fermentation, but it remained a darker gold than most of our white wines. This is not mentioned in the literature anywhere that we've been able to find, nor is it a phenomenon that the Perrins have seen at Beaucastel. We're working on the tentative hypothesis that perhaps because the vines were young the clusters were exposed to too much sun, and worked in 2020 to leave more canopy to shade the clusters better.

In the cellar we have fermented  Bourboulenc in a small stainless steel tank each of the last two years and then moved it to neutral barrels to complete its malolactic fermentation.

In the long run, we're excited to have Bourboulenc become a part of our blends. But we always prefer to bottle new grapes on their own the first few years so we can wrap our own heads around their character and share it with our guests and fans. So, it was exciting that it showed well in our blending trials this spring. We bottled some 145 cases of our 2019 Bourboulenc. 80 of those cases we set aside to go out to the members of our White Wine-Only VINsider Club this fall. We sold out of the other 65 in less than six weeks, as it quickly became a favorite among both our team and our guests.

Flavors and Aromas
Our experience with Bourboulenc here is only one vintage long, but that debut vintage showed a nose of lychee and wet rocks, lightly floral, with an unusual and appealing fresh almond note. On the palate, it was richly textured and softly mineral, with pineapple and Seville orange fruit and a little mintiness, pretty and delicate and lovely. We have no idea how this will age, but given its slightly oxidative note even in its youth I'm guessing it might be best suited to drinking younger rather than older. We will know more in coming years.

Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins, 2012
  2. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
  3. Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen, Which Wine Grapes Are Grown Where, University of Adelaida Press, 2020

Harvest 2020 Recap: Fast and Furious, a Reflection of Our Warmest Harvest Season Ever

On Friday, with the bin of Tannat pictured below, we completed the 2020 harvest. This capped a 45-day sprint: among our shorter harvests and earliest finishes in our history. What produced this sustained sprint? Our warmest-ever harvest season, with really no breaks in the heat, except for a couple of days where the atmospheric smoke was so thick that the sun never came out and the days topped out in the low 70s. That wasn't pleasant. But for all the unusual conditions and unrelenting pace, we're still happy with the quality of what's in the cellar. And that, in 2020, is reason to celebrate:

Last bin of 2020 harvest

Many years, you expect to see a bell curve-shaped harvest graph. Not 2020. After a fairly gentle first two weeks, we brought in between 60 and 75 tons off the estate each week for five weeks, and then were done. The chart below shows the box-shaped curve (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit):

Harvest Tons By Week 2020

Yields were solid, up about 7% from 2019, but still in that 3-3.5 tons per acre that we see in many of our favorite vintages. This is somewhat of a surprise. We were expecting yields at or below last year even before the record heat waves impacted yields on sensitive grapes like Mourvedre and Roussanne. And those two grapes did suffer a bit. But other grapes, particularly the Grenaches, made up the difference. The complete picture:

Grape 2020 Yields (tons) 2019 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2019
Viognier 18.8 17.4 +8.0%
Marsanne 13.0 12.3 +5.7%
Grenache Blanc 46.7 28.3 +65.0%
Picpoul Blanc 8.7 8.6 +1.2%
Vermentino 21.1 24.7 -14.6%
Roussanne 34.8 46.1 -24.5%
Other whites 7.9 7.8 +1.3%
Total Whites 151.0 145.2 +4.0%
Grenache 74.9 51.4 +45.7%
Syrah 43.8 42.5 +3.1%
Mourvedre 46.9 49.6 -5.4%
Tannat 17.6 19.0 -7.4%
Counoise 15.9 20.0 -20.5%
Other reds 7.2 5.6 +28.6%
Total Reds 206.3 188.1 +9.7%
Total 357.3 333.3  +7.2%

Average yields ended up at 3.35 tons per acre, just slightly above our ten-year average, and almost exactly our average if you exclude the frost years of 2009 and 2011. Other years between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre include 2008, 2018, and 2019, all among our favorite years. It's perhaps unsurprising that our later-ripening grapes (like Mourvedre, Roussanne, Tannat, and Counoise) were the ones that were down (by just under 15%, on average) since the vines were starting to wear down under the relentless heat and dry conditions. Why we weren't down overall can be credited to Grenache, and that was up not because of the conditions in 2020, but because in 2019 both Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc suffered reduced yields due to shatter (incomplete fertilization of berries caused by cool weather or wind during flowering).

I am concerned that this is two years in a row of very low Mourvedre production. Both years came in under two tons per acre. Some of that is variety-specific (we know it's not a high-yielding grape like Grenache or even Syrah) but it came in at 2.6 tons/acre as recently as 2017, and in the mid-2000's averaged around 3.0 tons/acre. We know we have some missing vines in some of our older Mourvedre blocks, and we'll be replanting a Mourvedre block we pulled out a couple of years ago. Hopefully, between some additional focus on vine health and these new blocks, we'll be able to get our Mourvedre production back up. For this year, I'm expecting it to constrain the amount of Esprit de Tablas and varietal Mourvedre we can make.

We had 118 harvest lots, an increase of 23 over 2019. Most of that is multiple picks that we made with our late-ripening blocks (identified with Roman numerals in the chalkboard below) but it's also exciting to see our first-ever harvest of Muscardin:

2020 Harvest Chalkboard Final

That Muscardin, 130 pounds in total, is currently sitting in our smallest stainless steel microfermenter. We're hoping for maybe 10 gallons of wine, enough to taste and evaluate. Stay tuned!

Muscardin Microfermenter

Muscardin Microfermenter Closeup

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2007 24.42 3.67
2008 23.87 3.64
2009 23.42 3.69
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74
2018 22.80 3.62
2019 22.30 3.62
2020 22.14 3.62

You'll note that 2020's numbers are very similar to last year's, and in fact our average harvest pH has been steady for three years. Given how much we love the 2019's, that's a good thing. It also suggests that, as much as we know that the late-ripening grapes did suffer in the heat, our multiple picks allowed us to get the riper clusters off the healthier vines early enough to maintain solid acids.

In terms of weather, I feel like I invited disaster when in late July I commented that 2020's conditions had been, so far, benign. And almost from that moment, it got hot. Some of those days had noteworthy, record-breaking heat. But even the days that weren't noteworthy were mostly warmer than normal. Between August 10th and October 9th (our last day of harvest), we saw just 15 days cooler than seasonal averages, vs. 46 days above, often significantly so. You can see the two stretches that broke records in mid-August and early September, but it's worth also noting the third spike in late September and early October, with daytime highs some 15+ degrees above normal. 

Daily High Temps 2020 Harvest

Looking at that information another way, our August degree day totals were 25% above the average of what is already our a very hot month. September was 21% above average. And the first 9 days of October (we finished picking October 9th) were 55% above our 20-year averages. No wonder harvest was short! The chart below shows our degree days by month, including the warmer-than-normal May and June, the cooler-than-normal July, and then the scorching August-October periods. Note that October's information is for the first 9 days, as we picked our last block on October 9th:

Degree Days vs Average 2020 Growing Season

I mentioned in my introduction that the duration of harvest -- 45 days -- was on the short side for us. But it's in keeping with what we've observed with all our vintage markers since August, that the durations were compressed by the heat. That includes the duration between veraison and harvest, and between first harvest and last harvest. But individual grapes often stretched across the harvest, as we went through in multiple passes to get what was ripe off the vines while it still had good acidity, knowing we would come back a second or third time if necessary. So, the sequencing we often talk about, with harvest beginning with grapes like Syrah, Vermentino, and Viognier, moving to mid-ripening grapes like Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Grenache, and finishing with late grapes like Roussanne, Counoise, Picpoul, and Mourvedre is more complex in 2020. Here's the spread in harvest dates for our principal grapes. We picked four different grapes on our last harvest day (October 9th). The first pick of those grapes were September 4th, September 15th, September 23rd, and September 29th!

  • Viognier: August 25-September 12
  • Counoise: September 4-October 9
  • Vermentino: September 9-11
  • Syrah: September 9-October 8
  • Marsanne: September 10-11
  • Grenache Blanc: September 14-28
  • Grenache Noir: September 15-October 9
  • Roussanne: September 16-October 8
  • Mourvedre: September 23-October 9
  • Tannat: September 29-October 9
  • Picpoul: October 2-7

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and he was unusually enthusiastic, commenting that all the lots showed lots of character, better acids than he'd been expecting, and savory, spicy personalities. We've been tasting lots to try to find any that might have even a hint of smoke taint from the California wildfires earlier in the season, but haven't found even one. That's a relief. As for the vintage's personality, we'll know more in coming weeks.

Of course, just because we've finished picking doesn't mean that we're done with our cellar work. There are still plenty of lots to be pressed off, tanks to be dug out, and fermentations to monitor. But it feels different than it does earlier in harvest, when you're emptying tanks to make room for the next pick. Now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, where they'll winter over without taking up space. And everything smells amazing, the rich aroma of young red wines spreading throughout the cellar with every press load: 

2020 Press Load in the Sun

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time. There was a chance of some rain this past weekend, though as often happens with early-season systems, it petered out without providing any precipitation here. And, there's nothing wet in the long-term forecast. But that gives us time to put the vineyard to bed, get the animals out into the vineyard to eat any second crop clusters before they rot, spread their manure and jump start the winter soil microbial activity. It also means that we don't have to worry about grapes on the vine being impacted by any other extreme weather that we might see. It is 2020, after all.

And yet, despite all the challenges, in this craziest year that any of us have experienced, we're feeling cautiously optimistic that the 2020 wines might provide something we want to remember.


What the cellar and vineyard look and feel like at harvest's peak

As I write this, we've passed the 90% mark of the 2020 harvest. But that doesn't mean we're on the gentle tail end of things, just waiting for the last few lots to finish as we cruise into autumn. No, this harvest is more like a sprint to the tape at the end of a race. Today, we have harvested two different blocks of Mourvedre, three different blocks of Counoise, plus Roussanne and Picpoul. We are pressing off red lots, washing barrels to put those newly-pressed wines into, and washing out the tanks they came from so they're ready for more. It's a beehive of activity. I thought it would be fun to give a visual tour of what this, one of the busiest days of the year, feels like. First, the crushpad, littered with bins and barrels:

Crushpad with bins and barrels

Our main cellar room, looking toward the crushpad, shows closed tanks around the outside and open-top fermenters down the middle. They're all full, except a few of our largest blending tanks and the one open-top that is clean and ready for some of the Mourvedre that arrived today. Each tank has to be punched down or pumped over at least twice a day:

Main cellar room

The room where we have our white fermentations going looks deceptively quiet, but each of the barrels gets measured each day so we know its progress through fermentation. You can see some of that work going on in the back of the room, between the foudre stacks:

White cellar room

We've moved as many barrels as we can out of our red barrel room to make room for macro-bins, each with a small-lot fermentation going:

Barrel cellar room

The room that's full of upright tanks (below left) is quiet now, but five of the six big tanks are full of fermenting red lots. The sixth? It was drained and washed this morning, and will be filled this afternoon. For now it's empty, so you can see (below right) the warm color stained inside by generations of red fermentations, as well as the stainless steel tubing that allows us to control the temperature (and therefore the speed) of the fermentations inside:

Upright cellar room Inside an upright tank

The only room that's not seeing any activity is our foudre room, where the 2019 red blends are sitting quietly, aging and mellowing, in preparation for next summer's bottling:

Foudre room

On the crushpad, we have twin presses going. In the left we have newly-harvested Roussanne. In the right is Mourvedre that has been fermenting and macerating on the skins for about two weeks:

Roussanne in the press

Mourverdre in the press

Where does the newly-pressed wine go? Into barrels. Most of these barrels have been sitting empty the last few months, so we need to make sure they're clean and that the staves haven't dried out. Steam is a very water-efficient way of doing both:

Washing barrels

In the vineyard, it's getting hard to find blocks with grapes still on the vines. After today, those blocks will be limited to Mourvedre and Counoise, and even most of those blocks have been picked once already. A couple of blocks with fruit still on them include the Mourvedre just south of the winery (left) and a low-lying head-trained Counoise block toward the western edge of our original parcel (right). Everything is ready; it's just a question of sequencing to make sure we have space for what arrives.

Mourvedre clusters Counoise head trained

Finally, one piece that it feels appropriate to end on. I talk a lot about the importance of continuity in our vineyard crew, who we've given year-round employment to since the mid-1990's. We rely on that crew to do most of our sorting out in the field, so underripe or damaged grapes don't even make it to the sorting table. I loved this photo of our lowest-lying Grenache block, which was picked Monday, with rejected clusters left on the ground to decompose and return their nutrients to the soil:

Grenache cluster on the ground

With the fruit nearly all in, the chance of rain that's in the forecast for this weekend would have only positive consequences. We'll keep our fingers crossed for that, and enjoy the last few days with grapes on the vine and the cellar a beehive of activity.

Crushpad October 2020


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Vaccarèse

There's not much that's more fun for us here at Tablas Creek than getting to explore new, rare, and little-known grapes. So last year, when we harvested three grapes for the first time ever, was a bonanza for us. Two of these grapes (Bourboulenc and Cinsaut) are fairly well known in France, with Cinsaut even achieving enough success to have been brought to regions as diverse as Spain, South Africa, Australia and California. But much less is known about the last of the three new grapes, Vaccarèse. One of the rarest grapes in Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation at just over 10 acres1, Vaccarèse accounts for just 0.3% of the appellation's acreage. There is little more outside Chateauneuf, with just 28 acres recorded in France as of 2016 and none, until we brought in ours, elsewhere in the world2. We've now picked two vintages of this grape, and while we don't know a ton yet, we're excited enough that I thought it would be fun to take a deep dive into what we have learned.

VACCARESE LithographEarly History
The grape Vaccarèse appears to have been named after the village of Vaccarès, in the Camargue region just south-west of Avignon. As Vaccarèse, it has a long history in the Rhone, with its first historical mention coming in 1538 as a grape planted in a village outside Avignon (coincidentally, in a document with one of the earliest-ever mentions of Bourboulenc too)3. As you would expect of a grape at least five centuries old, it's known by a few other names, with Camarèse (apparently named after another southern French village, Camarès) and Brun Argenté (which translates to "brown silvered" for its dark bark and silvery look of the underside of its leaves) being the two most common. Despite this long history, it does not appear to have ever been planted far from the Rhone Valley, or been a dominant grape even in its homeland.

Vaccarèse is pronounced vɒk-ɜ-rɛz. (vock-uh-rez). Even though it looks like an Italian word, the final "e" is silent. Like nearly all French words, the syllables are emphasized equally.

Vaccarèse at Tablas Creek
In our first round of grape imports, which we brought into quarantine in 1989 and were released in 1992, we focused on the main grapes at Beaucastel: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier. Shortly after, we brought in Picpoul Blanc.

By 2003, we'd been sufficiently convinced that the more obscure Rhone grapes could shine here that we decided to import the complete Beaucastel collection, which meant another seven grapes. Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche were the first two to be released to us, in 2009. Picardan was next in 2012. Cinsaut, Bourboulenc, and Vaccarese were released in 2015, propagated, and then planted at Tablas in 2017. (Muscardin, the seventh and final of those grapes, was released to us in 2018 and grafted into the vineyard last year.)

We chose a small (0.66 acre) block with a west-facing slope at the far western edge of Tablas Creek for Vaccarèse, and harvested our first small crop in 2019.

Vaccarèse in the Vineyard and Cellar
There's not a ton of literature on Vaccarèse because of its scarcity, but in look and growth it seems similar to Counoise and Cinsaut, with large berries and large clusters, except that the colors of the berries are darker, more blue-black than the translucent purple of the others. It is reputed to be highly susceptible to bunch rot, which is not a problem in Paso Robles but may explain its scarcity in the Rhone.

In 2019 (our first harvest) we picked 2.61 tons of Vaccarèse at 22.4° Brix (roughly 13.8% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.50, and total acids of 4.76. The sugars were very near the median for our red grapes in 2019, while the pH was one of the lower (higher acid) readings we saw.

Vaccarese Cluster Square

In the cellar we were limited in our choices because we harvested so little, but we fermented it in a small stainless steel variable-capacity tank and then moved it to neutral barrels to complete its malolactic fermentation.

Although in the long run we're expecting Vaccarèse to become a part of our blends most years, we try to bottle new grapes on their own, so we can wrap our own heads around them and share them with our colleagues and fans. So it was exciting that in our blending trials this spring we were excited enough about the Vaccarèse that we think it will stand on its own proudly. We produced seven barrels, enough to bottle about 175 cases. The initial vintage will go into bottle late spring of 2021 and be released to wine club members later that year.

Flavors and Aromas
In his seminal Ampelographie, Pierre Galet praises Vaccarèse for "an indisputable aromatic floral originality, a very fresh and very elegant flavor, particularly interesting for moderating the alcoholic character of Grenache in the rosés of Chusclan and the red wines of Chateauneuf du Pape."4

My experience with Vaccarèse is limited to a single vintage, but that initial vintage reminded me more of a Loire-style Cabernet Franc than it did anything from the Rhone. It was a lovely deep purple color, with a nose of pine forest and minty juniper. The mouth showed notes of tobacco and spice, medium body, some tannic grip, and fruit flavors playing a secondary role. It seems like its dark color, solid acidity and its spice and herbal notes will be useful counterpoints to fruitier, paler, lower-tannin Rhone grapes like Grenache, Counoise, or Cinsaut, but we will see. As for the wine's ageworthiness? We have no idea. Stay tuned!

Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)

  1. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
  2. Kym Anderson and Signe Nelgen, Which Wine Grapes Are Grown Where, University of Adelaida Press, 2020
  3. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins, 2012
  4. Pierre Galet, Cepages et Vignobles de France, Imprimerie Charles Dehan, 1990

The 2020 Harvest at its Midpoint: Yields, Intensity, and Pacing Much Like 2019

Sometime early last week, Neil walked into the office we share to report that we've hit the halfway point based on our projections. We're done with all our whites except Roussanne and Picpoul. Syrah and Cinsaut are all in, as is much of our Grenache. We're beginning to turn our attention to the late trio of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. 167 tons in, I thought it would be a good time to step back and assess what we've learned so far. It seems appropriate to start with the requisite photo of bins all over the crushpad:

Crushpad Sept 2020

Another sign our harvest has hit the midpoint: we've completed the left column of our harvest chalkboard:

Harvest Chalkboard Sept 25 2020

With our early-ripening grapes complete, we have an opportunity to wrap our heads around the vintage's yields. Of the already-picked grapes, it looks like we're very close to the numbers we saw in 2019: Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, Clairette Blanche, Picardan, Pinot Noir, and Syrah are all within 10% of their 2019 totals. We did see a little less Vermentino (down about 15%) and a little more of our new grapes that are now on their fourth leaf (Vaccarese, Bourboulenc, and Cinsaut). Overall, of the grapes we're done picking, our 2020 yields are 1.3% less than 2019. Given that 2019 finished at 3.02 tons per acre, nearly exactly at our ten-year average, and that other years right around 3 tons per acre read like a litany of our favorite-ever vintages (2003, 2007, 2014, and 2016, as well as 2019) that's encouraging.

It's even more encouraging that we've seen zero evidence of any smoke taint in the grapes we've harvested so far. That's consistent with our belief that the smoke that was here in August wasn't thick enough or around for long enough to cause damage, but it's still very good news. Our thoughts are with our neighbors in regions to our north who have been dealing with the fallout from earlier fires, and now have the Glass Fire to deal with. The photos I've seen are just heartbreaking.

The last couple of weeks have seen perfect ripening conditions, with days topping out in the upper-80s to mid-90s, and cool nights down in the 40s and 50s. It's supposed to warm up a bit this week, but nothing extreme, so it seems like we're going to roll right through the end of harvest uninterrupted. To figure out what comes next, we're sampling the remaining blocks on a near-daily basis. In the below photo, Vineyard Manager David Maduena has Roussanne and Grenache samples he's starting to crush to get a representative sample for measurement:

David sampling Roussanne and Grenache

I thought it would be fun to take a look at the main grapes that are still out in the vineyard, roughly in the order in which they're likely to arrive in the cellar. First, two photos of Grenache, which is likely to be all picked by the end of the week. I'll be sad, because it's always the most beautiful grape in the vineyard to photograph:

Grenache from Below Sept 2020

Grenache gemstones cropped

Next, Roussanne. We've made a few "cherry picks" of this notoriously uneven ripener, going in to get the ripest clusters off the healthiest vines while they still have good acids, while leaving the bulk of the fruit out for some more ripening time.

Roussanne Sept 2020
Mourvedre is likely to be our last grape picked, sometime in mid-October, but because we have so much of it planted it shows a range of ripenesses. We brought in our first Mourvedre lot last Wednesday, from a head-trained block at the extreme western edge of our property, but more of it looks like the below photo:

Mourvedre Sept 2020

We haven't harvested any Tannat, but we expect to start getting some into the cellar later this week. This photo, from a head-trained block in the middle of the vineyard, is looking terrific. It seems like all the head-trained, dry-farmed blocks are looking strong this year.

Tannat Sept 2020

Finally, Counoise. We did bring in just a little for our Dianthus rosé last week, but most of it just finished veraison and won't be in until mid-October. Perhaps you can see in this cluster why it was so prized as a table grape before the development of seedless grapes: the berries are large and juicy, with good acids:

Counoise Sept 2020

While there are still plenty of grapes out in the vineyard, there are more and more blocks that are done, like the Cinsaut vines below. Those will get another month or two of photosynthesis, to store energy for the winter.

Picked Cinsaut Sept 2020

Harvest even in a normal year can feel like it passes in a blur. You wait anxiously for its beginning. When it starts, it's often slow at first, and you're waiting for things to heat up. Then, you're in the thick of it, and suddenly you're on the downside. It seems like 2020, with its bending of time from the pandemic, has only increased this sense. At the end of this week, we'll be roughly two-thirds done, and in three weeks, likely finished. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the sights and smells of a cellar full of grapes. We know that soon enough, we'll be washing equipment and putting things to bed for winter.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Cinsaut (aka Cinsault)

Last year, we harvested three grapes for the first time ever. The one white among them (Bourboulenc) has already been bottled and released to our wine club members. The two reds (Cinsaut and Vaccarese) are sitting quietly in the cellar after our decision this spring to bottle this first vintage on its own. But as we get ready to pick the 2020 Cinsaut, I thought it was time to take a deep dive into what we know about it. 

CINSAUTEarly History
The precise origin of Cinsaut (often spelled Cinsault) is unknown, but it likely evolved in the south of France. It is distantly related to Picpoul, and has been planted widely enough to be known by different names in Spain (Sinsó), Italy (Grecaù and Ottavianello), South Africa (Hermitage), Australia (Black Prince), and California (Black Malvoisie). As Cinsaut, it also plays significant roles in Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey.1

Cinsaut is pronounced sæ-soʊ. The first syllable is like the "San" in San Francisco if you just stop just before the lingual "n". The second syllable is very close to the English "so". The syllables are emphasized equally.

The roughly 51,000 acres of Cinsaut in France make it the ninth-most-planted grape there, but that is just a fraction of the more than 120,000 acres there at its peak in the 1970s. Now, while much of the production is still used in red blends, an increasingly large share of this acreage goes into the region's many rosés.

Cinsaut is the fourth-most planted red grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (a distant fourth, after Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre) at 205 acres, 2.6% of total acreage.2

There is a long history of Cinsaut in California, though it has never been particularly widely planted here. As early as 1867, it was listed as "deserving of planting" in Thomas Hyatt's viticulture handbook.3 In 1990, there were 90 acres in California (it was called "Black Malvoisie" in the Grape Acreage Report), all but 3 planted 1980 or earlier and all but 10 in the Central Valley. By 2019, there were 99 acres in California, split roughly equally between the Central Valley, Central Coast, North Coast, and Sierra Foothills regions.

Cinsaut at Tablas Creek
Although French grapegrowers have generally preferred Cinsaut over Counoise (to which it is often compared, because they play similar roles in Rhone blends) because it ripens earlier, the Perrins have long preferred the extra depth and brighter acids that Counoise contributes. Given our confidence that we could wait as long as we needed to ripen Counoise in Paso Robles, we chose to focus on Counoise in our original imports, back in 1989. But we always planned on eventually working with Cinsaut as well.

We included Cinsaut in our second wave of imports in 2003. It spent 9 years in quarantine at UC Davis before being released in 2012, along with Bourboulenc and Vaccarese. It took four years of propagation before we were able to plant our first quarter-acre block in 2017. The 2019 harvest was our first.

We added a second roughly half-acre head-trained block in 2019. The 0.82 acres we have accounts for 1% of California's 82 acres as of 2018.

Cinsaut in the Vineyard and Cellar
In the vineyard, Cinsaut is vigorous and productive, with large clusters of large, dark-skinned berries. It thrives in drought conditions, and ripens roughly one-third of the way through the harvest cycle. In 2019 (our first vintage) we harvested on September 26th, at 22 Brix and a pH of 3.64, both near the median for our red grapes last year.

We only have limited experience with Cinsaut in the cellar, but it is known to be prone to oxidation, so we are treating it like Counoise and fermenting it in closed stainless steel fermenters.

We made the decision to bottle our small 2019 production (two barrels, or roughly 50 cases) on its own. In the long run, we think it could be a useful contributor to many of our red blends, and a lovely addition to our rosés.

Cinsaut 1

Flavors and Aromas
Cinsaut produces wines with medium red color, spicy raspberry, violet, and black tea aromas, and flavors of tart cherry, redcurrant, and new leather. They tend to be relatively low in alcohol, with moderate to slightly above-average acidity and moderate to slightly below-average tannins. The wine's juicy acidity and low alcohol point to its appeal in blends, where it can help moderate the lower-acid, higher-alcohol, and more tannic Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.

We are very much looking forward to experimenting with Cinsaut as a rosé grape as well. Stay tuned!

Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009, p 78
  3. Patrick Comiskey, American Rhone, UC Press, 2016, p 26

Harvest 2020 Begins Slowly, After a Record-Short Interval from Veraison

Last week, we brought in our first two lots of Viognier and our first lot of Syrah. It wasn't a furious start to harvest, but it was still a beginning. The cellar smells like honeysuckle and nectarines from the Viognier, there's the energy that always comes from the beginning of the harvest season, and the harvest chalkboard is no longer a literal clean slate:

Harvest Chalkboard August 2020

[Editor's note, congratulations to Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and her husband Trevor on the arrival of their little girl Bohdi on our second day of harvest!!!]

We typically mark the beginning of harvest as the day the first fruit comes off the estate. So, in 2020 that meant the August 25th arrival of grapes from our oldest Viognier block. In my verasion post last month, I predicted a start time sometime between August 26th and September 5th. These dates are calculated by adding 36 to 48 days from our veraison date (the range we've seen over the last 15 years between first veraison and first harvest). 2020 produced an interval of just 35 days. If you've been following weather reports from California, you can probably guess why. After a moderate summer that had produced just three 100 degree days as of late July, the last month has seen ten days top the century mark and another ten top 90. Nighttime temperatures were warm too. In late July we hadn't had a single day all summer not drop into at least the 50s. Between August 15th and August 24th, we had nine of the ten nights get down only into the 60s.

Happily, the heat wave broke just as harvest was approaching, and since August 22nd we've seen an average high of 90 (with nothing higher than 95) and an average low of 55. The wildfire smoke we saw between August 19th and 22nd has cleared. And the picks we've done so far have been in ideal conditions. I love the photos that Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg took during that night pick, beginning 3am on August 25th. Here are two; you can see the rest on our Instagram feed:

Night Harvest 1 Night Harvest 2

Although we've started harvesting, it's important to remember that most of the vineyard is still some time off. The family of Rhone grapes is diverse enough that we typically figure a two-month stretch for harvest. In fact, there are some grapes that are still only in the middle of veraison (like this Counoise, below) as others are being picked:

Counoise pre-harvest 2020

Looking through our other red grapes shows the range of ripeness levels. Counoise is farthest out, likely six weeks or more, but others still have a ways to go. This Mourvedre is mostly red, but still likely won't be picked for more than a month:

Mourvedre pre-harvest 2020

Grenache is still as much pink as red, with the range of colors and jewel tones characteristic of this, our most beautiful grape. It too is at least a month out.

Grenache pre-harvest 2020

There are grapes that are getting close, most notably Syrah, already dark and starting to soften, and showing its classic conical cluster shape:

Syrah pre-harvest 2020

The other grape that is getting fairly close is Cinsaut. We're only on our second harvest, but one of the reasons why it is more planted than Counoise in France (despite that Counoise is more intense, and they serve similar roles in most blends) is that it ripens a month earlier, before or with Grenache instead of after:

Cinsaut pre-harvest 2020

Finally, Terret Noir, which looks fairly dark at this point but is still quite acidic, and on which we will wait another month or so:

Terret pre-harvest 2020

On the white side, Viognier is obviously first in line. But there are others like Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc (pictured below) that are getting close. Vermentino might come as soon as the end of this week, and the other two should arrive sometime in the first half of September.

Grenache Blanc pre-harvest 2020

The weather is supposed to warm up again as we get to the end of this week, but seems unlikely to reach the heights of two weeks ago. That's fine. We're ready. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the new sights and smells of the cellar as fermentations get going. This lone upright tank (filled with our first Syrah, picked Friday) will soon have plenty of new company.

Syrah in wooden upright Aug 2020