Red blending shows that 2018 is every bit as good as the rest of the 2014-2017 run

Last week, after two full weeks of work, we finally got a chance to taste all 11 red wines we'll be making from the 2018 vintage.  It was impressive.  Esprit and Panoplie were rich and lush, with plenty of ripe tannin but also freshness provided by vibrant acids. The En Gobelet and Le Complice each spoke clearly of the idea behind why we created the wines: En Gobelet earthy, with plenty of concentrated red fruit, while Le Complice was dark, herby, and spicy, like Syrah and yet not quite. The MourvedreGrenache, and Counoise were intensely characteristic of each grape: Mourvedre meaty and chocolaty, Grenache fruity but also powerfully structured, and Counoise juicy and electric, translucent and fresh. Even the Patelin de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas were each, in their own way, remarkably expressive.  And, equally important, thanks to the relatively plentiful 2018 harvest, we'll be able to make solid amounts of most of our wines.  With our 2012-2016 drought still in our recent memory, that was a relief.

Blending components - 2018 reds

How did we get here? It was the result of a process we've developed over the decades, where we spend a week or more sitting around our conference table, schedules cleared so we can focus just on this. Around that table this year joining Neil and me was the rest of our cellar team (Chelsea, Craig, Amanda, and Austin), Claude Gouan (Beaucastel's long-time oenologist, recently retired) and, once he arrived mid-week for our 30th Anniversary celebration, Jean-Pierre Perrin. As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. As we typically do in years where we have decent crop levels, we split our varietal tasting into two days: Counoise and Grenache (plus our few lots of Terret Noir and Pinot) on Monday, and Syrah, Mourvedre, and Tannat on Tuesday. 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.

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade.  As you'll see, lots of good grades this year.  My quick thoughts on each variety:

  • Grenache (19 lots): The most powerful Grenache we've seen in years, although with the power came some lots that were tannic enough that we felt we had to be careful how we applied them in blending. Nine of the lots received 1's from me, with two others getting 1/2 grades (my intermediate grade that sits between a 1 and a 2). Only one 3. A combination of excellent fruit, good acids, and tannic structure.
  • Red Blending Notes May 2019
    The Syrah and Mourvedre portions of my notes. That's a lot of "1" grades!
    Mourvedre (17 lots): A really nice showing for Mourvedre.  I gave eight lots a 1 grade, there was only one lot I even thought about giving a 3 (I ended up giving it a 2/3, because while it was lighter, it was still pretty).  Lovely and classic, leaning more toward the loamy chocolaty Mourvedre side than the meaty, though there were a few of those sorts of lots too. Nice ripe tannins. A great core for the many wines we make that are based on Mourvedre.
  • Syrah (15 lots): Really outstanding, reminiscent in many ways of what we saw in 2016. Eight 1's, with three others that I gave 1/2 grades to. Dense, dark, creamy and mineral. And, like what we saw in 2016, we ended up liking the syrah's contribution in the blends so much that we didn't have any left over for a varietal. Sometimes, that's how it works.
  • Counoise (7 lots): A nice range of Counoise styles, from the translucent, juicy lots that remind us of Gamay to the rich, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we love to use in Esprit. Three 1's of the seven, on my sheet.
  • Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, but felt less focused and concentrated than it had in past years, and while it will make a nice contribution to Le Complice, we didn't feel it was worthy of bottling on its own. The portion that didn't make it into Le Complice will get declassified into Patelin, which is also fun to contemplate.
  • Tannat (3 lots): Massive, dense, and dark, and powerfully tannic. Chocolaty. Should be a Tannat-lover's dream vintage.
  • Cabernet (1 lot): Beautiful, classic Cabernet, but with only one barrel (from our old nursery block) not enough to bottle on its own. It will go into the Tannat, as it does most years.
  • Pinot Noir (7 lots): All these lots come from the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad planted outside my parents' house back in 2007, with different clones and levels of stem inclusion providing several small (in many cases, one-barrel) lots. The mix of the seven hit, for me, just the right note, with pretty cherry Pinot fruit given weight and complexity from the stems. A nice touch of oak. Should make for a delicious 2018 Full Circle Pinot.

We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the apparent strengths of all three of our main red grapes it only made sense to kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie and Esprit with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned. 

Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie. As always, we tasted our options blind, not knowing what was in each glass. Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. But in this vintage, we all agreed on the blend with the higher percentage of Syrah, which we felt offered great lushness and structure. After a brief discussion, we settled on a blend with 64% Mourvedre, 24% Syrah, and 12% Grenache.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit.  The first trial helped us narrow things down, as none of us picked the wine with the highest percentage of Mourvedre (50%). This was likely true for the same reason we saw last year: because although the Mourvedre was outstanding, we'd used all the lots that got near-universal 1 grades to get to 40% Mourvedre. Increasing that to roughly 50% forced us to include Mourvedre lots to which several of us gave 2 grades at the expense of 1-rated Grenache and Syrah, and our blind tasting confirmed that this was a mistake. That said, we split roughly evenly between camps favoring more Grenache (which produced wines with vibrancy and lift, nice saltiness and firm tannins) and those favoring more Syrah (which produced wines with more density and dark lushness) and decided to try some blends that split the difference.

The next day was a big one. We tasted the day before's Syrah-heavy Esprit against one with equal parts Syrah and Grenache, and again split pretty evenly between the two. In the end, we decided that yet another in-between blend was best, and ended up with an Esprit at 40% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 23% Grenache, and 10% Counoise. 

We next moved on to our two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice. Given the head-trained lots that we'd chosen for Esprit and Panoplie, we didn't have a ton of choice on En Gobelet, which is made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks. And given the relatively high tannins across the vintage, and particularly among the Grenache lots, we were leery of including too much Tannat in the blend. So, it was with some relief that we loved the blend that resulted: 36% Grenache, 28% Mourvedre, 27% Syrah, 6% Counoise, and 3% Tannat. It made for an En Gobelet that was juicy yet structured, with beautiful red-fruited power and the tannins to age.

Le Complice celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with Syrah, and particularly the Syrah lots fermented with stems or whole clusters. Both grapes share a peppery spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. Because both grapes tend toward high tannin, we've realized the past two years that we also need some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. That said, because we felt the Terret on its own was weaker than 2016 or 2017, we decided to try some blends with lower percentages of the grape and more Syrah and Grenache. But it was interesting to me that we still all coalesced around the blend with the highest percentage of Terret (15%), along with 60% Syrah and 25% Grenache, as the most characterful and balanced. It was a good reminder that grapes that might be lacking on their own that can be just what a particular blend needs.

After this, we had to break for our 30th Anniversary party, and Claude and his wife left for a driving tour of the desert southwest. So, the next Monday, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals. The main question this year with the Cotes was, given the relatively high tannins of the Grenache lots, what was the right blend (and the right choice of Grenache lots) to show off the grape's charm. We ended up spending more time on this question than I can ever remember, added a relatively high percentage of Counoise and swapped in some of the Grenache lots we'd originally liked less because their simple juiciness was just what the more tannic lots needed. In the end, we chose a blend of 45% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 10% Mourvedre. Even with our adjustments, it will be a serious Cotes de Tablas, with significant aging potential.

Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated how much of the varietal wines we could make: no Syrah, and not much Counoise (125 cases), but a nice quantity (680 cases) of Mourvedre, 1250 cases (our most-ever) of Tannat, and a glorious 1100 cases of what should be an amazing varietal Grenache. Although we'll miss having the Syrah, we should have plenty of great stuff to share with fans and club members over the next couple of years. And coming on the heels of bottling all four of our main red grapes from the terrific 2017 vintage I feel better about the selection of red wines we have in the pipeline than I can remember.

A few concluding thoughts.  First, although we're always looking for comparable vintages to the newest one we're wrapping our heads around, it's hard for me to make an easy vintage comp for 2018.  Maybe 2002, which was also a dark, serious, structured year, outstanding for Syrah, and the first dry year after a very wet one, but the vines were so much younger then. Or 1999, with the same big tannins around expressive fruit, but without the concentration we see now. The fact that I'm having to reach so far back into our history suggests that it was a year with its own unique character. It will be fun to get to know it over the coming months. 

Second, we saw more day-to-day variation in how the wines tasted this year than I can remember since at least 2011. The same wines would taste lusher and rounder one day and more powerfully tannic the next. This was a good reminder that it's important to leave yourselves the flexibility to come back and re-taste things a second or third time. Whether that's a function of what was going on with the weather (it still hasn't settled into our summer pattern, and we had a few rainstorms pass through while we were tasting), or the stages of the wines, or even (as much as I cringe to mention it) the Biodynamic calendar, it's a fact that wines do taste different on different days. Making decisions over the course of two weeks helps reduce the likelihood that those decisions will be based on a tasting day that is an outlier.

Finally, it was such a treat to have both Claude and Jean-Pierre around that blending table. It's pretty mind-blowing to think of the number of vintages, and arguments, and discoveries, they have made at Beaucastel sitting around blending tables like this, in the 40-plus years they've worked together. To have that accumulated experience on display will be my lasting memory of this year's blending.

Blending Table with Claude and Jean-Pierre


Blending the 2018 White Wines: Our First Look at the Strikingly Mineral 2018 Vintage

We spent most of last week around our conference table, making sense of the white wines from the recently concluded 2018 vintage. As usual, we started our blending week Tuesday morning by tasting, component by component, through each of the 32 lots we’d harvested this past year. Yeah, I know, tough life. Though, to be fair, these blending weeks are my favorites of the year. Not every week is this exciting.

IMG_0176

The first stage of blending is to look at the raw materials we have to work with, and decide whether that will constrain any of our choices. In 2018, it didn't seem like it would. Although quantities were down a bit from our near-record 2017 levels, they were still healthy:

Grape 2018 Yields (tons) 2017 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.2 18.9 -3.7%
Marsanne 11.8 13.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 43.6 46.4 -6.0%
Picpoul Blanc 9.1 9.7 -6.2%
Roussanne 32.6 41.7 -21.8%
Total Rhone Whites 115.3 130.5 -11.6%

Being down 10-ish percent still allowed us plenty of possibilities, with the reductions in crop more likely to constrain how much of our varietal wines we could make, rather than whether we would be able to make them at all. The once concern we had was Roussanne, which always forms the basis of Esprit Blanc, and which we've made as a varietal wine every year since 2001. Still, the first stage was as usual to go through the lots, variety by variety, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage:

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 ago). 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. As you'll see, lots of good grades this year. My quick thoughts on each variety:

  • Viognier (5 lots): A really good year for Viognier, with 2 of the 5 lots getting 1's from me and the others strong 2’s, marked down only because they were so dominant I wasn’t convinced that they would shine in blends. Overall, concentrated, tropical and deep, with surprisingly good acids. Of course, there were a few lots that hadn’t concluded malolactic fermentation. Those lots will soften as that finishes, unless we decide that we like them how they are.
  • Picpoul Blanc (2 lots): Not my favorite Picpoul vintage, with our largest lot getting a 2 from me because it was showing a little oxidative character and a ton of acid as it’s still going through malo. Still, plenty of salty minerality, and that nice tropicality that we’ve come to expect from the Picpoul grape.
  • Roussanne (9 lots): The barrel program here dominated my impression of these, with two lots showing beautiful (but dominant) oak, two others that were raised in foudre showing brightness and pungency and tasting very young, and five others in mixed but neutral cooperage showing solid, dense, mature Roussanne character, though with a touch lower acidity than I’d like to have seen. My grades: five 1’s (though two of those got asterisks for being oaky enough that we needed to be careful in blending), three 2’s, and one that bordered between 2 and 3 because it was so low in acid.
  • Grenache Blanc (10 lots): A pretty heterogeneous mix here, with four lots still sweet and five lots still going through malolactic. Like with the Roussanne lots, two that were fermented in foudre were noteworthy: finished with their fermentations but still very young and showing a hint of reduction, which masks their richness. The lots that were done with fermentation and malo, and had spent some time in smaller cooperage, were outstanding, which bodes well for the collection overall. My scores: four 1’s, three 2’s, one 3, and two “incomplete” grades.
  • Marsanne (3 lots): A spot-on showing for this grape, with all three showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One lot added a gentle creaminess and surprisingly good (for Marsanne) acidity, and seemed a cinch to bottle on its own. The other two will be lovely Cotes de Tablas Blanc components. My grades: one 1, and two 2’s.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 240 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, but it was pretty: lovely salty minerality, and a little tropical lychee character. Plenty of acid, and still not done with malo. A 1 for me.
  • Picardan (1 lot): Newer for us than Clairette, but we have a few more rows in the ground, so the lot was larger (528 gallons). This was a tough wine for me to evaluate. There was still a touch of sugar left, and lots of malic acid, muting the nose and leaving a somewhat primary, candied sweet-tart impression on the palate. Another wine that for me got an “incomplete” grade.
  • Petit Manseng (1 lot): Not really relevant to the rest of the week’s work, since we don’t blend Petit Manseng into the other Rhone whites. Still, this was a good chance to check in on how it was doing, and decide whether we wanted to push it along fermentation to a drier profile, or to leave it with more residual sugar [If this question seems interesting to you, check out the blog from a few years back Wrapping Our Heads Around Petit Manseng]. At the roughly 70 g/L residual sugar, I thought this was lovely: luscious like key lime pie, with the same hints of pithiness and acidity that suggests.

Wednesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. We always want the Esprit Blanc’s blend to be dictated by the character of the Roussanne, and in some years, that makes the choice easy. Not this year. The 2018 vintage produced both good lushness and higher acids than we’d seen the few years before, so it wasn’t obvious that we should include higher quantities of the high-acid grapes like Picpoul and Grenache Blanc. Plus, Picpoul this year didn't seem so obviously outstanding as to dictate a high percentage in the Esprit Blanc. Adding to the complexity of the challenge, some of the Roussanne lots we’d liked best were quite oaky, and while we feel that a touch of wood is appropriate on the Esprit Blanc, we don’t want it dominated by that character. So, we decided to focus on blends with moderate (60%-70%) proportions of Roussanne, but to vary the amounts of the oakier lots, and also to try blends that replaced a portion of Picpoul with Picardan and Clairette (as we did last year) and also others that didn’t (as we’d done through 2016).

As is often the case when we have lots of viable options, the Esprit Blanc blending took a while. The first flight of four options saw the table fail to come to consensus, although we did decide that we liked the lots that included some Clairette and Picardan. A second round, controlling for that and varying the amount of new oak, surprised us with the realization that even with all the oaky lots in the blend, it didn’t taste particularly oak-dominant. (Though, given that those lots only made up about 10% of the wine, that might not be surprising.) After we’d mulled on that for a while, the blend fell into place on our third trial, at 66% Roussanne, 21% Grenache Blanc, 8% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan, and 2% Clairette Blanche, with most but not all of the lots in the new barrels.

Once we'd decided on the Esprit Blanc blend Wednesday, the Cotes de Tablas Blanc came together quickly on Thursday. In this fairly scarce (and low-acid) Roussanne year, it was pretty clear that there wasn’t much need for it in the Cotes Blanc. And setting aside the Marsanne lot we loved for a varietal bottling meant we knew how much Marsanne we had for Cotes Blanc. So, that meant a blending trial mostly to determine the best relative proportions of Viognier and Grenache Blanc. As is often the case with a trial with only one variable, we all came to agreement on the first round: 40% Viognier, 35% Grenache Blanc, 20% Marsanne, and 5% Roussanne. That allowed the Viognier to show nicely (the Cotes Blanc is always designed to show off this most exuberant of our grapes) but with the Grenache Blanc giving it a nice acid backbone to play off. We talked for a while to see if we could think of anything to improve the blend, but couldn’t, so we all used the rest of the morning to clear some other work off our desks.

We had managed to make our two main blends without using up any of our grapes completely. So, the final step was to taste those two blends alongside the seven (yes, seven) varietal wines that this left us. Other than Grenache Blanc (1200 cases) and Roussanne (some 700 cases) we won’t have enough of these other varietal bottlings for a full wine club shipment, but it will still be a treat to have 400 cases each of Picpoul and Viognier, 275 of Marsanne, 125 of Picardan, and even 50 cases of Clairette Blanche. At this stage, the highlights for me were the Viognier, which was absolutely classic and luscious, the Marsanne, which showed the grape's signature honey and floral notes but also had great brightness, and Clairette, which had electric minerality and a lovely lemongrass character. If you’re fans of any of these, stay tuned to emails that announce their release as we get them into bottle later this spring and summer.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • I was struggling much of the week with a nasty head cold, and there was one day where I could barely taste. Thank goodness for a strong team, and a process which meant that things could move forward even without my full faculties. My head had cleared by the end of the week, and tasting the finished blends all together was a great chance to affirm the success of the week’s work.
  • The cold 2018-2019 winter has definitely had an impact on how far along things were in their fermentation. Normally by late March, most of the lots are done with sugar fermentation and largely done with malolactic. Not this year, despite the efforts of the cellar team in bringing barrels out into the sun, moving recalcitrant lots over the lees of those fermenting actively, and generally nudging things along as much as they could. Fermentation is a temperature-sensitive chemical reaction, and this year has been cold.
  • The vintage’s signature seems to be medium body with expressive aromatics, bright acids, and striking minerality. That’s a great combo. We can’t wait to share these wines with you!

IMG_0197


From Behind a Bar to Behind the Bottle: Q&A with Amanda Weaver, Cellar Assistant

By Linnea Frazier

As is tradition here at Tablas, I like to track down various members of our family and torture them with a peppering of questions so as to create a better understanding of who we are behind the Tablas Creek label. My next victim in this series is Amanda Weaver, who began in our tasting room and was so successful that she was promoted to overseeing our merchandise and running many of our events, but decided after a few years that her true love was production. So, after a couple of harvests working part-time in the cellar here, she jumped to full time with a harvest in Australia, and returned to a full time position as our newest cellar assistant. Not only do we love her for her tenacity in pursuing the world of wine production, but also she happens to be one of the more fearless women in wine I know (in the cellar as well as the dance floor if you're lucky). With that said, check this girl out. 

Amanda 2

Where were you born and raised?

I was born in Simi Valley California and lived there until I was 24. It was a cool smallish kind of town back when I was growing up. A pretty safe spot where you were bound to know someone no matter where you went, which was unfortunate when running to the store in your pajama pants at one o'clock in the afternoon. It'll be surreal to go home for Thanksgiving with all of the fire destruction.

What drew you to Central California?

You know, the usual life changes that pull you to new places. If I'm being honest, making wine was not really anything I thought I was interested in or qualified to do, so moving to the central coast was a move that ended up changing my whole life trajectory. 

How did you first hear about Tablas Creek?

I first heard of Tablas Creek when I caught wind of a possible job connection through a friend of a friend. There was this lovely French woman by the name Evelyne, I’m sure you know her, whom at the time had no idea who I was nor I her, well, she decides to put in a good word for me (again, not knowing anything about me) and stipulates that I should call a Mr. John Maurice at once and set up an interview. So I do as such, I send in my resume and promptly call Mr. Maurice who ends up being Mr. John Morris, the tasting room Manager. Funny part being that both of us had been expecting to be speaking to someone more... how do I put this... French! If you have had the pleasure of meeting Evelyne you would note her eloquent way of making everything and everyone just a little French. Well, so, I call and we talk a bit and set up to meet that Wednesday. I drive up, have the interview, and walk out with a job offer to be a part time tasting room attendant. I was PSYCHED! I agreed to start in two weeks with not a clue of where I was going to live. And you know, this story is always one of my favorites to tell, not only because I got a job at the end of it (which is amazing) but it is also extremely representative of the type of community that the Paso Robles wine industry has cultivated. Everyone is willing to help you out and make you a part of the family, and that is exactly what I have found here at Tablas, a family. Suffice to say, this is where I found my footing to really start my journey towards making wine.

Amanda

You started with us in the Tasting Room and now have transitioned into our full-time cellar hand which is an awesome evolution, could you describe what drew you to production? What’s your biggest challenge as a cellar hand?

Hah, it is an awesome transition I would have to agree. I learned so much from my time in the tasting room and was offered so many opportunities to expand my knowledge and even more opportunities to meet many of the people that make up our industry not only near but far as well. All of this knowledge is what spurred me and fueled my desire to at least give my hand a try at being the one behind the bottle instead of behind the bar. So, as harvest approached in 2016 I made myself a bug in the ear of Neil (Our Winemaker), Chelsea (Our Senior Assistant Winemaker), and Craig (Our Assistant Winemaker). Just constantly asking if there was room for me in their harvest team and flexing my arms to show I was strong enough. Well, it worked, not sure if they just wanted me to shut up or what, but I was in! I would say my biggest challenge in the cellar has been myself. That might sound strange, but I have found that I am my own worst heckler, and once I decide to silence that part of me that tells me I can't do something, I inevitably find that I am perfectly capable. Although, a close second would be my height, that tends to hinder me whether I am mentally game or not, but no worries, I have some awesome tall coworkers that help me out in those cases, or a conveniently placed ladder.

Now more than ever you see women winemakers in the industry and you see those numbers only growing every year. Is being a head winemaker your end goal?

I think it is awesome that women are making themselves more prominent in a role that men have dominated for so long. It is truly inspiring. Luckily, I have the honor of knowing a few of these, excuse the language, bad-ass women that are making strides in this rapidly growing region of wine making, not to mention that I work with one of them! As far as being head winemaker as an end goal, I would say I am in a position now that would give me all the tools necessary and support needed to get to a position like that in this industry, and that may be where I am headed once I feel as though I deserve it. But as of yet, I am stoked to be a part of such a rad crew that gives me so much knowledge and is patient with all of my inquiries.

What is it like to work harvest?

Oh man. I love this time of year because I feel like everything gets so much closer. We, as a team, get closer as we roll through our ridiculous highs together and pull one another out of our inevitable lows, while we as a vineyard get closer together as well. At harvest time, the gap between what we do in the cellar and what is happening in the vineyard converges into one functioning entity. And it’s beautiful, even at the end of a 12 hour day when you're dripping wet and have fallen into a drain or walked into a forklift, it's inspiring, cause no matter what, you're all in this together. Not to mention, we have some pretty fun traditions to keep us pumped throughout the harvest season like sabering champagne bottles to signal the start of harvest and various music themed days of the week. I would say the only thing I dread is the wrath of my dog. She's not a fan of my longer-than-usual work days....

You worked a vintage down in Australia earlier this year, and how did that experience compare to the culture of the American Harvests you’ve worked?

Uh, it is quite different, at least at the place I worked. It was more of just a job for most of my coworkers rather than a passion, which is fine and all, I just had to adjust my expectations. All together it was an experience that I am grateful for and would never trade, I met some really great people, hung out with a couple kangaroos, and gained invaluable knowledge to add to my wine-making handbook for the future. The one similarity that I found during my time in Australia was with the growers. I don't know what it is about raising grapes but it tends to produce larger than life personalities in those who take care of the vines. 

Which are your other favorite wines or wineries locally or around the world?

That is a loaded question. It’s a hard question to really articulate because finding a favorite wine is so sensory and indicative of a specific experience. However there are a few bottles that I have sought out recently that I came across during some of our wine nights in Australia. 

There is a super cool winery in Central Otago New Zealand called Burn Cottage that produces some amazing Pinot, their Estate named Pinot in particular is a favorite as well as their Moonlight Race Pinot. Then on the white side I would suggest getting your hands on a bottle of Gruner Veltliner from Nikolaihof, the orange label. Super crisp and smooth with notes of citrus and coursing with minerality. 

If you had to pick one red and one white to drink for the next month which would you choose?

Hmmm, at this moment I would probably choose our Vermentino and for the red Dutraive's Cap du Sud.

Amanda 1

What would people be surprised to know about you?

I don't know if anything about me is terribly surprising. I can rapid fire some facts and you can decide it they are surprising or not. Most people don't know that I took ballroom dancing lessons for 4 years, got pretty good I think. I believe the only reason I stopped was because the studio I was going to closed down. I was on the first ever womens Australian Football team. We were the Orange County Bombshells and our first legit game was on my 14th Birthday, we won (I think). Oooo.... Here is one most people wouldn't guess. I was in a sorority in college. Kappa Kappa Gamma. 

How do you define success?

Happiness. It's as simple as that. Growing up I was told that success was directly linked to your bank account and your status in the work force, and I totally believed it. I found myself slowly sinking into the stressful hamster wheel style of life that wasn't making me happy and I thought this was just how life was. But now that I am older I believe less and less in the idea that success is solely reliant on money. 


Harvest 2018 Recap: A Vintage Concentrated in both Time and Character

Last Thursday, we brought in the last lingering blocks of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise.  It wasn't as though there was a threat of imminent rain, or heat, or anything else. No, it was just that the grapes were ready. That made it a fitting end to the 2018 harvest, which unfolded under the best conditions I can remember in my 18 years here. No wonder our cellar crew was all smiles:

End of Harvest Lunch

Unlike many years, where the harvest comes in waves, 2018 was the harvest that never needed to hit the pause button.  From the first serious pick on September 10th, we picked nearly every day until we reached the 85% mark in mid-October. After giving ourselves a long weekend without picking to let the last few blocks finish ripening, we started right back up and picked steadily until we were done on October 25th. You can see steady workflow in the chart below.  It's not quite the classic bell curve, but it's as close as I ever remember seeing, at least on the estate side (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate grown fruit):

Harvest Chart through October 28th

Yields were slightly above average, although the picture varies quite a bit depending on the variety you focus on. Grenache, for example, had one of our best years ever in terms of yields, but Roussanne was down quite a bit. Overall, our yields were off somewhat from the near-record 3.6 tons/acre we saw in the 2017 vintage that had been fueled by the previous winter's near-record rainfall. The complete picture:

Grape 2018 Yields (tons) 2017 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.2 18.9 -3.7%
Marsanne 11.8 13.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 43.6 46.4 -6.0%
Picpoul Blanc 9.1 9.7 -6.2%
Vermentino 17.9 22.2 -19.4%
Roussanne 32.6* 41.7 -21.8%
Total Whites 133.2 152.7 -12.8%
Grenache 74.3 73.1 +1.6%
Syrah 44.7 41.5 +7.7%
Mourvedre 64.4 72.9 -11.7%
Tannat 19.8 20.5 -3.4%
Counoise 16.0 18.8 -14.9%
Total Reds 219.2 226.8 -3.4%
Total 352.4  379.5 -7.1%

*If you're wondering why Roussanne has an asterisk, there is still a little Roussanne concentrating in our greenhouses for our Vin de Paille program, to be added to the total. It won't amount to much (a ton, more or less) but it's there. 

Overall yields ended up at 3.32 tons per acre, about 10% above our ten-year average.  We only have two other years in our history in which we've seen yields between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre, which was a little surprising to me, given that this is both our target and our long-term average. But it's worth remembering that the data set includes a number of years just above 3.5 tons/acre (like 2005, 2006, 2010, 2012, and 2017 when ample rainfall combined with excellent growing conditions) as well as vintages reduced by drought to between 2.5 and 3 tons per acre (including 2003, 2004, 2013, 2014, and 2016) and those reduced by frost or shatter to levels around 2 tons per acre (2009, 2011, and 2015).  So, that suggests a narrative for 2018, which joins the 2007 and 2008 vintages in what we think of as a sweet spot: years that show evidence of solid vigor from the vineyard, likely from residual moisture and vine health from recent wet winters, but still reduced somewhat by water stress. Given that last winter was dry but not at crisis levels, and that it followed the ample rainfall in early 2017, this makes sense to me.

Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars. 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

You'll note that 2018's sugars maintained the rebound we saw last year (after lower average sugars in 2015 and 2016) while the average pH declined to something close to our long-term average. Those are both good signs: that the vines were healthy enough to achieve the sugar concentrations we wanted while maintaining their acids later in the season.  The decline in pH from 3.74 to 3.62 might not seem like much, but remember that pH is a logarithmic scale, so this year's grapes contained nearly 32% more acid than last year's.  We're excited about that, and feel that the better acids are a sign of the health of the vines, and the relative lack of stress that the vines were under at harvest time.

Looking back at the degree days that we measured this 2018 growing season provides confirmation for what we felt on the ground: most of the year has been moderate to slightly cool, except for the scorching 6-week stretch between the second week of July and the middle of August. July was our hottest month ever, and August warmer than normal thanks to the first half of the month, but the rest of the year was not. So, while the overall picture suggests a warm year, with about 7% more degree days than average, it's important to remember when and how the heat came, and just as importantly, when it didn't. The chart below shows the cooler spring (1% fewer degree days than normal) and harvest (1.5% fewer degree days than normal) surrounding the hot mid-summer (20% more degree days than average). Note that October's information is for the first 25 days, as we picked our last block on October 25th:

2018 Degree Days by Month

We picked 115 lots this year, with one more (the Roussanne that's a part of the Vin de Paille) still to come.  And we had just enough space on our harvest chalkboard!

Completed Harvest Chalkboard 2018

The duration of harvest -- 55 days -- was exactly at our average this millennium, and one day longer than 2017. But that raw number too is deceptive, given that the first 10 days of harvest saw us bring in just 10 tons of grapes. The next 45 days saw the remaining 527 tons, so it felt like a shorter, more compact harvest than 2017. If we consider September 10th our first "real" harvest day, that puts the duration at our second-shortest of the last 15 years, longer only than the 2013 vintage that was conducted almost entirely in temperatures around 90 degrees and which finished on October 7th.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi to sum up the vintage based on her tastings, and her response was, "I think it's going to be a really strong year for reds; the Mourvedre and Counoise are coloring up fast, which is usually an indicator of a good vintage, and the flavors are powerful and deep. And the whites are insanely aromatic and floral."  Given that Chelsea has been running on 60-hour weeks for the last two months, this is a pretty resounding endorsement.  We'll know more, of course, in coming weeks.

The last project for us for harvest 2018 is to make our first Vin de Paille since 2012.  This traditional dessert wine-making technique involves drying newly-harvested Roussanne clusters on straw, and only pressing and beginning fermentation when they have reached our desired level of concentration -- typically around 38° Brix -- after 2-3 weeks.  [For more details on how and why it's done, see our blog Vin de Paille: A Dessert Wine Making Technique for the Obsessed from a few years back]. The Roussanne we'll be using for this project is currently sitting on the straw, and we expect to bring it in and start fermentation next week. 

Roussanne on the straw

Although harvest is over, there's still plenty of work to do in the cellar; because we were harvesting pretty steadily up until the end, we have plenty of tanks still fermenting and on their skins. It's important to remember, should you see a winemaker emerging from his or her work-imposed exile in the next few weeks, that November is still a busy month for cellar work. Cellar Assistant Amanda Weaver got a great shot of a Grenache tank she was digging out late last week. Automated, this is not.

Amanda digging out Grenache

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time (although, to be fair, it doesn't look like there's any precipitation in the long-term forecast until the second week of November, and even that's uncertain. But whenever it comes, we'll be ready. And as for those "harvest hands"? December can't come soon enough.

Harvest Hand


Harvest 2018 at the 80% line: It looks like we won't see November grapes, after all

As often happens in early October, the bigger picture of harvest comes into focus and you have a chance to check which of your early harvest assumptions are turning out to be true, and which false. This year, we're receiving validation of most of our important assumptions. Quality has been very high. Quantity has been solid: at long-term averages, or a little above. But timing? It appears that my prediction of a late harvest (one that lasts into November) is looking increasingly unlikely.  As we begin the week of October 15th, we're somewhere around 85% done. And while we still have enough Mourvedre, Counoise and Roussanne hanging that we will have fruit to pick during our upcoming Paso Robles Harvest Wine Weekend festivities (hooray!) I think the chances that we'll still have grapes on the vines a week later are dwindling rapidly.

This isn't a bad thing. We've had such good conditions ever since we began in earnest on September 10th that we haven't really had to push the harvest pause button.  In fact, until this past weekend, we hadn't had consecutive non-picking days since September 6th-9th, at which point we were only 8 tons in, or 1.6% of what we've harvested to date. Our week-by-week harvest log shows the relatively steady intensity of the last five weeks. We didn't maintain the pace of our busiest-ever harvest week (September 10-16, at nearly 133 tons) but we also haven't seen any real pauses, with each week since then falling between 59 and 104 tons:

Harvest Chart through October 14th

The weather has provided ideal conditions for this sort of harvest, with plenty of cool to moderate, sunny days and a few modest, short-lived warm-ups embedded within. Looking at the weather since our mid-summer heat wave broke on August 20th shows that we've seen 38 cooler-than-normal days and just 18 whose highs topped out above our long-term averages:

Daily High Temps 2018 vs Normal

That first warm-up between September 4th and 8th goosed the harvest into gear and produced our incredibly busy week, including most of our early-season grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Vermentino. The second warm up (September 16-24) brought our mid-season grapes like Grenache, Marsanne, and Tannat into ripeness. Most of our late-season grapes like Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne stayed out until it warmed up modestly last week, and some upper-80s weather that's forecast for later this week should give them the nudge they need to come into the cellar.

It's worth noting that for all that the graph above looks pretty spiky and dramatic, we've really had a very consistent season.  Only 2 days (both early in the harvest season) have topped 100, with just 5 more topping 95.  And only 3 days topped out in the 60s, with just 3 others topping out between 70 and 75.  That means that 43 of the last 56 days have seen  highs between 75 and 95, which are temperatures at which grapevines do a very good job of photosynthesis.

All the remaining vineyard blocks look ready, and in reality nothing is very far away.  If we were facing an early-season rainstorm, or a stretch that was forecast to get up into the 100s, we could pick everything and be happy with it.  But it's a luxury knowing that grapes like the Counoise pictured below can get another week or so of ripening in ideal conditions, and then be picked without stress:

Counoise rows

In the cellar, the pause we've seen the past few days has allowed us to get ready for the final push. We've been pressing off one red lot after another, to free up fermentation tanks and allow the wines to finish their fermentations in barrel:

Pressing October 15th

That brings us to another October ritual: cleaning barrels into which we'll put all this new wine to complete its fermentation. I love this shot I got this morning, of Cellar Master Brad Ely steam-cleaning barrels that will become homes for the newly-pressed red wines. Note his hat: last night got down to 41.9°F out here and there's a chance that some of the coldest pockets of Paso Robles might even see frost this week:

Steam Cleaning Barrels

But a frost, even in the off chance that it happens isn't a big deal at this time of year.  We'd keep picking nonetheless.  And conditions are forecast to be just about ideal, so we're feeling good about things.  So, with 10 days or so of harvest to go, even if it's no longer a coin flip as to whether or not we'll be picking in November (as I thought it would be two weeks ago) we can still use that coin to predict whether or not we'll have enough lines on our harvest chalkboard to fit everything this year. Let's hope it comes down heads!

Chalkboard Oct 15th


Harvest 2018 at its mid-point: moderate to good yields and outstanding quality under ideal weather conditions

After two intense weeks, the cellar is pretty much full and we're in a bit of a lull. The early grapes (think Viognier, Vermentino, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Syrah and Pinot Noir) are done or largely done, and while we've made a start with the mid-season grapes like Grenache and Tannat, there's still more out on the vines than there is in the cellar. Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise are still a few weeks off. This ebb and flow is a good chance to let a few fermentations finish in what is a very full cellar: 

IMG_1555

The weather has been absolutely ideal, a bit cooler than normal, but with a few short warm-ups mixed in to give the grapes periodic nudges toward ripeness. And even during those warm stretches, the nights have been quite chilly, leading to some remarkable diurnal temperature swings. From the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance's weather stations this past Wednesday:

IMG_8272

The 48.5° swing that we saw at Tablas Creek was one of the smaller ones in the area. The Templeton Gap's swing was 57.8°, while the Adelaida West station, just a few miles away from us, was 62.3°.  That's remarkable, even here in Paso Robles where massive diurnal swings are commonplace. But it meant that even when it was hot, it was only hot for a few hours, with the vast majority of the day in the 85°-95° range which is ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. 

With the first handful of varieties harvested, we have the first chance to wrap our heads around yields.  It looks like yields are down from 2017, but still above the levels we saw during our drought. The varieties we've finished harvesting are down a total of 12.8%. Given that 2017 was up 21.8% over 2016's more or less average yields, we still seem like we're in good shape. The details on the grapes we've finished with:

Grape 2017 Yields (tons) 2018 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2017
Viognier 18.9 14.4 -23.8%
Marsanne 13.8 11.8 -14.5%
Grenache Blanc 46.4 33.7 -27.4%
Vermentino 22.2 21.7 -2.3%
Syrah 41.5 42.6 +2.7%
Pinot Noir 8.7 7.9 -9.2%
Total so Far 151.5 132.1 -12.8%

In terms of timing, as September moves into October, we're still about two weeks behind what we have grown used to in the 2012-2017 run, and haven't picked up any significant ground since the beginning of harvest. We picked Syrah this year between September 14th and 25th.  Last year, it came in between August 31st and September 20th. The 2018 Viognier came in between August 31st and September 20th. In 2017, its range was August 30th to September 4th. By the end of September last year, we'd picked 90% of our Grenache. This year, we're only 24 tons in, or about a third of what we expect to harvest.  I'd give us less than a 50/50 chance of being done by the end of October this year. That's not particularly scary; in the 2000's we harvested into November more than half the vintages. But it's been a while. 

The quality has been outstanding so far: terrific flavors and ideal numbers from fruit that has looked like it could have come of the table at our local farmers' market. And the fermentations have smelled wonderful. We've been wishing for scratch-and-sniff Internet, so we can share more than just how nice fermentations (like the Pinot Noir pictured below) look:

IMG_8211

Looking forward, we expect to see a lot of Grenache and Tannat the next week or two, and we'll likely start cherry-picking Roussanne and Mourvedre, to get the ripest clusters into the cellar so they don't raisin while we wait for the majority of the fruit to reach maturity. Scenes like Saturday morning's, where Tannat bins spill from the crushpad onto our staff parking lot, will be commonplace:

IMG_8278
There is a little uncertainty in next week's forecast; the interaction between a Pacific low pressure system and the remnants of Hurricane Rosa will likely cause some showers on Wednesday.  But with the forecast predicted to warm up and dry out after, that's not a big deal.  At worst, we may not pick for a couple of days.  But if you're in the desert Southwest, this is something to prepare for:

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the beautiful fermentation aromas in the cellar, and the colors of the grapes on the vines. And hope that the second half of harvest continues under equally good conditions as we've seen for the first half.


Yeah, that slow start to the 2018 harvest? That's history.

I walked into our lab today and Chelsea turned to me and said, "so, do you remember last week when I said I was bored"?  Yeah, not so much any more.  As often happens, even in years like this one that start slowly, there comes a day where you realize that everywhere you look you see grapes.  This year, today was that day.

Grapes Everywhere Sept 13th

What did I see?  Grenache, waiting in bins to be direct pressed for the Patelin de Tablas Rosé. Marsanne, waiting on the crushpad (there was more in the cellar) for the press to open up.  Our first Syrah arriving for the Patelin de Tablas red.  And that wasn't all.  We began the day with a night pick of the last of the Pinot Noir from my parent's house, and finished, 29 tons later, with eight bins of Viognier off our oldest block.

Those 29.68 tons, on top of twenty-eight tons yesterday and sixteen more on Tuesday, put us just over 77 tons for the week.  Yes, that's a lot of grapes, and there's more to come tomorrow, Saturday, and likely Sunday as well.  All told, we'll top 100 tons this week, which will make it one of our busiest weeks of the harvest.  Last year (our largest harvest ever at 642 tons, in 9 weeks) we saw three weeks top 100 tons, with the busiest tallying 126 tons.  We'll likely challenge that this week.

Happily, the fruit looks great, and the conditions are absolutely perfect. Today topped out at 83°F here, while last night dropped down to 40.7°F.  That means that any additional ripening is going to happen slowly, and it keeps the harvesting window open.  And the long-term forecast is benign, with similar weather expected for the whole outlook.  That's more like what we'd normally expect in late October, not mid-September.  But it's in keeping with the prolonged cool stretches that we've seen all year, at least outside of the six scorching weeks in mid-summer. 

So, we'll enjoy a cellar that is filling up with grapes:

Cellar with Bins

And that chalkboard, that just a few days ago was a literal clean slate? That's starting to fill up too. 

Chalkboard Sept 13th


Harvest 2018 Begins with a Whisper

A little more than a month ago, I predicted that the 2018 harvest would begin sometime in the first half of September.  I was almost right.  We actually got our first fruit -- a couple of tons of Viognier -- on August 31st.  About five tons of Viognier came in for our Patelin de Tablas Blanc on September 5th.  And then, this morning, we picked our first red grapes: 2.6 tons of Pinot Noir from my parents' vineyard:

Full Circle Pinot harvest - Team photo

How does this leisurely beginning to the 2018 harvest stack up against other recent years? Much slower. The first 11 days of the 2018 harvest saw 10.64 tons of fruit arrive in the cellar, which is just 16% of our average (67.34 tons in the first 11 days) this decade. The decade has included cool and hot vintages, early and late starts, and even in the years with the slowest starts we saw at least triple the amount of fruit arriving in the cellar during the first week and a half of harvest.  So, we really are seeing an outlier this year. The below chart will illustrate, and I've also tossed on the chart the date of our first Full Circle Pinot Noir harvest, for comparison:

Year Tons, First 11 Days Date of First Pinot Harvest
2018 10.64 September 10th
2017 156.06 August 29th
2016 83.41 August 23rd
2015 80.78 August 22nd
2014 40.48 August 28th
2013 81.67 August 23rd
2012 120.95 September 6th
2011 37.57 September 22nd
2010 32.03 September 28th

You can see, in addition to how unusual this slow start to harvest is, just how much later harvest has been this year than in other recent years. The first Pinot Noir pick is a good marker for us, because it always comes from the same small vineyard.  We're more than two weeks later than our 2013-2017 average, though not as far behind as what we saw the historically cool back-to-back 2010 and 2011 vintages.  

Although we've seen a brief warmup the last few days, it's been quite cool, overall, since mid-August, and we're forecast for more cool weather this and next week.  So, we may not see things catch up much.  That's not worrying, at least not yet.  Longer hang times are a good thing, as is the ability to pick at just the right moment, instead of being forced into a pick in the middle of a heat spike.  Of course, if we don't catch up at all, and finish harvest still two-plus weeks behind where we've been the last five years, there's a better-than-even chance we'll be harvesting in November. We wouldn't have thought that unusual a recently as a few years ago (between 2000 and 2011 harvest stretched into November six times) but it hasn't happened since 2011.  It does appear, as I wrote this summer, that we're looking at something of a throwback vintage

The slower start to harvest has meant that we've been able to get out and get good samples on most of our early blocks, and we like what we see.  Clusters are small but not tiny.  The vines appear healthy, recovered after the long mid-summer heat marathon.  Numbers are ideal for us at this stage.  And the fruit looks great.  A bin of Viognier looks fresh and clean:

Viognier cluster with Linneas hand

The fruit in the press smells great, like peaches and flowers, and the rich, yeasty scents of fermentation are beginning to permeate the cellar:

Viognier in press

And now that we finally have some red grapes in the cellar, we can really get things going.  Please join me in welcoming the 2018 harvest.

Full Circle Pinot harvest - bins and vines


Blending the 2017 reds confirms that we're looking at a vintage for the ages

Last week, after three weeks of work, we finally got a chance to taste all 12 red wines we'll be making from the 2017 vintage.  It was a treat.  Esprit and Panoplie were rich, lush, and intense, but with good structure and no sense of heaviness.  The Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah were each powerfully evocative of what we love about each grape: Mourvedre meaty and chocolaty, Grenache juicy and vibrant, and Syrah smoky and spicy. Counoise was ridiculously electric, with masses of purple fruit that in most vintages it only hints at.  The En Gobelet and Le Complice each spoke clearly of the idea behind why we created the wines: En Gobelet loamy and pure, with a great expression of place, while Le Complice was both dark and bright, like Syrah with an extra application of translucency. Even the Patelin de Tablas and Cotes de Tablas were each, in their own way, remarkably expressive.  And, equally important, thanks to the plentiful 2017 harvest, we'll be able to make solid amounts of all our wines.  After five drought-impacted years, what a relief.

2017 red blending components

How did we get here? It was, as they say, a process.  As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Thanks to the healthy crop levels that we saw in 2017, we had no choice but to separate our varietal tasting into two days: Counoise and Grenache (plus our few lots of Terret Noir and Pinot) on Monday, and Syrah, Mourvedre, and Tannat on Tuesday.  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.

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade.  As you'll see, lots of good grades this year.  My quick thoughts on each variety:

  • Grenache (20 lots): A very good showing for Grenache, although there was more diversity here than in some of the other grapes.  Eight of the lots received 1's from me, with three others getting provisional 1's (lots that I believe will become 1's with just a little cellar work).  Only one 3.  Pretty but powerful too, with excellent fruit and good acids that proved valuable in blending.
  • 2017 red blending notes
    The Mourvedre portion of my notes. That's a lot of "1" grades!
    Mourvedre (18 lots): The best showing I can ever remember for Mourvedre.  I gave eleven lots a 1 grade, and felt a little guilty that I didn't give a few of the 2's higher grades.  Only one lot I even thought about giving a 3.  Meaty and rich, great texture, lots of depth. A wonderfully powerful base for our many wines that are based on this grape, and thanks to the plentiful vintage, great prospects for an amazing varietal Mourvedre.
  • Syrah (19 lots): Really good here too, though because the other varieties were so strong, it didn't stand out as much as it did, say, in 2016. Seven 1's, with seven others that I gave 1/2 grades (my intermediate grade that sits between a 1 and a 2). Lots of smaller lots here as we experiment with different amounts of stem inclusion, which made for some fun and diverse expressions of the grape, from dark, inky, and plush to ones more marked by herby spice.
  • Counoise (7 lots): For the first time in years, multiple Counoise lots that seemed Esprit-weight. There were still some of the lighter pretty high-toned Gamay-style lots that lovers of our varietal Counoise bottling will recognize, but a greater quantity of rich, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise than I can ever remember.
  • Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, with tons of spice and nice tannic bite. It was the one grape that didn't increase its yield between 2016 and 2017, and there's not that much (2 puncheons) but it's enough to make a nice impact on the Le Complice.
  • Tannat (6 lots): Four of the six lots got 1 grades from me, and the others got 2's only because I thought they were so powerful they were a little one-dimensional. It's going to be a great Tannat year. Lots of black fruit, Tannat's signature tannic structure and acids, and a lovely little bit of violet floral lift.
  • Pinot Noir (4 lots): All these lots come, of course, from my parents' small vineyard in the Templeton Gap, but we were experimenting with different amounts of stems and whole cluster. The mix of the four hit, for me, just the right note, with pretty cherry Pinot fruit given weight and complexity from the herbal elements by the roughly 50% whole clusters we used in the fermentation. A touch of oak was nice too. Should make for a delicious 2017 Full Circle Pinot.

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 lack of evident weaknesses in the Mourvedre we weren't sure whether we wanted feature more Syrah, more Grenache, or a relatively equal amount of each in Panoplie and Esprit. And for the first time in several years, Counoise was powerful enough to include in the discussion for both wines.  So, we went into blending determined to try a range of options.  As always, we tasted these options blind, not knowing what was in each glass.

Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie.  Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre.  We've only added Counoise once.  We tried three blends and split pretty equally, with the only conclusion being that including Counoise sacrificed more in power than it gained in vibrancy.  After a second round of trials, we settled on a blend with a fairly high amount of Mourvedre (69%) and a roughly equal amount of Grenache (17%) and Syrah (14%).

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit.  Here came our first real surprise.  Given that the Mourvedre was so good, we decided to try two Mourvedre-heavy blends, one with more Syrah and the other with a roughly equal percentage of Grenache and Syrah, as well as something of a control wine: one that matched the percentages of our 2014 Esprit, with 40% Mourvedre, 35% Grenache, 20% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. To all of our surprise, we universally preferred the last blend, with the least Mourvedre and the most Grenache. After ten minutes of discussion where we tried to rationalize this determination and figure out if we could think of anything that would improve the blend, we decided to trust the process and go with what we all liked best.  Sometimes the wines surprise you in the glass, which is why we do things this way.  Looking back, I can see why this might have happened.  Knowing how good the vintage was, and how short our last two crops were, we decided to make a relatively high quantity of Esprit: 4200 cases. That's a lot of wine: roughly one-third of what we harvested. Even at 40% Mourvedre, we were committing nearly half of the Mourvedre we harvested.  As we increased that and approached 50%, we had exhausted our 1-rated lots and were having to start using some 2-rated lots.  But we could get to a full 35% Grenache with only 1-rated lots. So, increasing from 40% Mourvedre to 50% Mourvedre and decreasing from 35% Grenache to 25% Grenache meant that we were swapping out 1-rated Grenache for 2-rated Mourvedre.  And our blind tasting results (rightly) told us that was a mistake.

On Thursday morning, we tackled our two small-production wine club blends -- one in just its second vintage, and one we've been making for a decade. 

Our Le Complice 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.  Last year, when we first made this wine, we realized that the two wines benefit from some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. Given the limited amount of Terret from 2017, we knew that all of it would be going in this blend and account for about 13% of the 825 cases we were trying to make.  So our trials were to find the right ratio between Syrah and Grenache, and the right percentage of the Syrah that was fermented using whole clusters.  In the end, we picked the most dramatic example with the least Grenache (20%) and quite a high percentage of whole cluster Syrah (67%). It felt like a statement about what Syrah could be with a little added translucency: like a ray of sun shining through a deeply pigmented stained glass window.

For our En Gobelet, made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed lots, in early years we used a relatively high percentage of Tannat to give backbone to wines that were otherwise mostly Mourvedre and Grenache. In more recent years, as we got some head-trained Syrah in production, our Tannat percentage declined. Given how good the Tannat was, and how luscious the vintage was, we thought it might be an opportunity to build more Tannat into the blend. And that was the wine we chose in the blind trials: one with 11% Tannat to go along with 39% Mourvedre, 34% Grenache, 11% Syrah, and 5% Counoise. It's important to us that all our wines taste distinct from one another, and we felt like Tannat's dark spiciness would set this blend apart from the similarly Mourvedre-heavy Esprit. Club members are in for a treat, in a couple of years.

After this, Cesar had to drive back to San Francisco for his flight to France, and we tabled the plan for the week while we all set to work excavating what had landed on our desks while we were sitting around the blending table. The next Tuesday, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals.  Unlike some scarce years where the Cotes falls into place pretty quickly because of a lack of blending options, this year we had to answer some fundamental questions about what we wanted the Cotes to show.  More Grenache, or more power?  How much Counoise-driven vibrancy, or is that really lively Counoise more valuable as a varietal?  And how much Syrah is just enough?  Typically, Grenache without enough Syrah comes across with a candied edge. You keep adding Syrah until it cuts that edge, but add too much and it takes over and the wine loses the freshness and purity Grenache brings. In this vintage, we tried a couple of blends with around 50% Grenache and varied the Syrah and Counoise percentages, then one with less Grenache and more Syrah, and one with more Grenache and not much of the others.  This was the longest debate we had, and in the end picked something in the middle, with 53% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 10% Mourvedre. It's delicious, with just enough depth and structure to balance Grenache's graceful fruit.

Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated how much of the varietal wines we could make: no Terret Noir, but 450 cases of Syrah, 525 cases of Grenache, 550 cases of Counoise, 1100 cases (!) of Tannat, and a glorious 975 cases of the year's best grape, Mourvedre.  What a pleasure to be able to show off varietal bottlings of all four of our main red grapes from such a terrific vintage (and for the first time since 2010). What's more, I'm convinced, after having tasted through everything this week, that it will be our best varietal Mourvedre (and best Counoise, and best Tannat) we've ever bottled.

A few concluding thoughts.  First, although we're always looking for comparable vintages to the newest one we're wrapping our heads around, it's hard for me to make an easy vintage comp for 2017.  2005, which was also a plentiful vintage following an extended drought, and which made robust and appealing wines, seems to maybe be the best, but the vines were so much younger then, and the tannins more aggressive. 2014 had some similarities, but I think 2017 was across the board more expressive, and the Mourvedre was much better.  Just a great year overall, and so nice that it's plentiful too. 

Second, while it will be impossible to tease apart what contributed the vintage's noteworthy lushness and expressiveness, it's fascinating to speculate the role that our move to apply Biodynamic farming played.  Sure, the 43 inches of rain made a huge difference.  And we've been farming increasingly biodynamically for years.  But just as we noted in 2010 and 2011 the quality of the lots from the 20-acre swath we'd started farming Biodynamically in 2010, I think there's good reason to believe that at least a part of the quality of 2017 comes from the fact that we had finally extended those practices across the entire vineyard, not least that the early and plentiful rain allowed our flock to graze every vineyard block twice.  Will we see the same impact in a drier year like 2018?  Time will tell.

Third, it was great to have Cesar Perrin here for the blending.  In recent years, we've mostly seen Jean-Pierre and Francois Perrin during our spring blending sessions.  But Cesar, who spent a couple of harvests here during the string of internships that he took at great wineries around the world, has really come into his own.  He is the Perrin family personified, with a reverence for tradition tempered by a love of experimentation.  For me, one of the great advantages that we've always had with the Perrins' involvement is that they come with an outside perspective but also with generations of experience with these grapes.  As they move from 4th to 5th generation, it's clearer than ever that Beaucastel is in good hands, and with it Tablas Creek.

2017 blending group shot

Finally, this was the first red blending week without my dad in the room. I spent a lot of the week thinking about him, trying to think about what he would have thought about the wines in front of him as well as what I was experiencing. Every blending session, there was at least one moment where he approached a question from a different perspective than the rest of us, and even when we were convinced that our solution was right, the change in perspective took us in a direction that was worth exploring. It's a new world for us, doing this without him.  But at least I'm convinced with this 2017 vintage -- which he did taste when he came into the winery in February -- we'll do his memory proud.


Petit Manseng: A Royal French Heritage and a New Life in the New World

Mostly, we grow grapes from the Rhone Valley.  But there are exceptions.  Vermentino, although found in areas near the Rhone (think Cotes de Provence, or Languedoc-Roussillon) isn't allowed in Cotes du Rhone or Chateauneuf du Pape, but has done great here at Tablas Creek.  So too has Tannat, whose home in the French province of Pyrénées-Atlantiques can't even claim a border with the Rhone.  In fact, it was Tannat's success here that sparked my dad's interest, nearly two decades ago, in the other grapes from southwest France.  One of the most interesting of these was Petit Manseng, a grape which was, in its day, so admired that it made the only wine used to baptize a king of France.

Petit Manseng LithographPetit Manseng in the Old World
Petit Manseng's ancestral home is in Jurancon, in the French department of Pyrénées-Atlantiques.  This a mountainous region includes a small stretch of the rocky Atlantic coast and a larger stretch of the Spanish border, and most of it is high in the Pyrenees mountains.  Culturally, it is a part of the Gascon community of Bearn, and borders the Basque-speaking region of Pays Basque that shares many cultural and historical ties to the Basque communities on the Spanish side of the border. Madiran, the main French home for Tannat, is just to the north-east.

There are three permitted grapes in Jurancon (Corbu and Gros Manseng are the others) but it is generally agreed that Petit Manseng is the finest of the three, and the most suitable for making the sweet wines that made the region famous.  This character was so valued that Petit Manseng is noted as the only wine used to baptize a king of France: Henry IV, the founder of the Bourbon dynasty, in his native Navarre.

After several decades of disfavor, the sweet wines of Jurancon have returned to fashion since about 1970, and the acreage of Petit Manseng has increased correspondingly, from less than 90 hectares in 1968 (90 hectares was the combined plantings of Petit Manseng and Gros Manseng) to 1019 hectares in 2009.1

SudOuest_FranceA map of the vineyards of South-West France, from Les Vins de Sud-Ouest's press kit

In addition to its ancestral home in Jurancon and the neighboring Pacherenc, Petit Manseng can be found in small amounts in Languedoc, Uruguay (brought by Basque settlers), Spain, and Australia.  That said, its second-largest footprint worldwide is in Virginia, where its resistance to rot and tendency to achieve high sugars and retain acidity is valuable in the hot, often humid climate.

Petit Manseng at Tablas Creek
In the early years of Tablas Creek, we were looking for a method to make dessert wines. The success we'd had with Tannat, another French Basque grape, piqued my dad's curiosity, and he made a visit to the Jurancon in 2003 to speak with producers and see if one of the grapes they use for their renowned sweet wines might be a good fit.  He was struck by both the wines and the landscape, and arranged for Petit Manseng to be brought into USDA quarantine later that year.  We received the vines in 2006, spent the next year propagating cuttings, and planted our first small vineyard block in 2007.

Jurancon vineyardOne of the Jurancon vineyards my parents visited in 2003

We were sufficiently intrigued by Petit Manseng's success in the early years that we planted another small block in 2011, although together they make up just 0.78 acres. Even in a productive vintage this light-yielding variety struggles to get to three tons per acre; the 2.18 tons we harvested in 2017 was our most-ever.

Petit Manseng in the Vineyard and Cellar
Petit Manseng is so named for its small berries (Gros Manseng has larger berries).  In the vineyard, it shows moderate to low vigor, with upright growth, and produces small clusters of small, loose, thick-skinned berries. Its superpowers are its capacity to achieve high natural sugar content without the benefit of botrytis while still retaining remarkable acidity, and its resistance to rot. Although the second ability isn't particularly useful here, in France -- where Petit Manseng is often left on the vine until December to achieve its high sugars -- and in Virginia -- where thunderstorms are a regular summer occurrence -- it's invaluable.  In Paso Robles, where fall moisture and rot are rare and heat and sun are givens, its ability to maintain almost inconceivably high acidity even after months of hot, sunny days is more relevant.  As an example, our first tiny harvest of Petit Manseng came in 2009.  We had forgotten about the small block and when we rediscovered it in early November and measured the grapes -- three weeks after a 10-inch rainstorm rolled through -- they tipped the scale at an incredible 37° Brix (roughly 50% higher than our average sugar concentration at harvest) and a normal harvest pH of 3.3.   We only had a few buckets worth of grapes, and didn't make that juice into wine that year.

The harvest numbers in 2009 would be ideal for making a sweet wine, but by the time we got our Petit Manseng into production, we had mastered the vin de paille technique for dessert wines, and instead decided to experiment with using Petit Manseng to make off-dry (semi-sweet) wines, which it's also used for in the Jurancon.  To that end, in more recent years, we have picked our Petit Manseng at higher sugars than we would for a normal white (in the 26°-28° Brix range) while the wine still had very high acids (pH of around 3.0). We ferment it until it has about 50 grams/liter of sugar left, typically with an alcohol around 13.5%.  Although that sounds like a lot of sugar, the very high acidity makes it taste much drier than the sugar reading would suggest, and the wines taste balanced.  If you're interested in the ebbs and flows of how our thinking on this grape have evolved, check out the blog post Wrapping our heads around Petit Manseng, from last year.

2016 Petit MansengAromas and Flavors
The flavors of Petit Manseng wines are rich but tangy, perfumed and tropical.  It's possible to identify key lime, pineapple, mango, lychee and honey, as well as white flowers and green herbs.  Due to its residual sugar and high acidity, Petit Manseng wines have tremendous ability to age.  For food pairings, the literature nearly always suggests foie gras, which makes sense to me.  Foie gras is hard on dry wines due to its richness, but unless the chef makes some very sweet accompaniment the sweet wines it's typically paired with can be overpowering.  A semi-sweet wine with excellent freshness like Petit Manseng is a natural fit. We've also very much enjoyed it with salty cheeses and fruit desserts.

We are just releasing the 2016 Petit Manseng, if you'd like to try it for yourself.  We only made 125 cases, not enough to send out to our club members, so you'll need to order it or ask the next time you're in our tasting room.  If you do open a bottle (or have of a recent vintage), please share what you think.

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012