Celebrating 25 years of Dianthus… and the return of rosés with color

A couple of weeks ago, I got an email from two of my wine writing heroes, Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, long time wine columnists for the Wall Street Journal, creators of “Open that Bottle Night” and authors of Love by the Glass1. They had brought a bottle of our Dianthus to New York’s Central Park to enjoy with the recent solar eclipse. They were sufficiently intrigued with the wine to reach out to learn its story. We talked for a half-hour, and our conversation became a really fun article on their site Grape Collective.

There’s a lot to talk about with regards to the Dianthus, not least because it is an anomalous rosé, at least according to current style. Much more popular and commonly seen are the rosés from or inspired by Provence, typically very pale copper-pink. These are rosés that are made essentially like white wines, where the character is determined by the flesh of the grapes with only minimal influence from the grape skins. Our Patelin de Tablas Rosé follows this model. But not the Dianthus.

Two 2023 Roses

Instead, the Dianthus looks to a different model, which also originated in the south of France. Just across the Rhone River, to the west of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, lies the rosé-only appellation of Tavel. Tavel’s wines, made from a list of grapes very similar to that of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, typically receive 24 hours or more on the skins and have a deeper pink color than anything you’d find in Provence. After all, the Tavel region is warmer than the more coastally-influenced Provence, and with that warmth comes weight and richness. To balance that richness, wineries traditionally leave the grapes on the skins for longer, to take advantage of the tannic bite present in skins but not the grape flesh. This skin contact produces a different suite of flavors, typically more red fruited and with richer texture than Provence-style dry rosés, which tend toward citrus fruit and lighter body. That textural complexity also lends itself to pairing with food2, while Provençal rosés tend to be enjoyed more solo. 

We began making the Dianthus 25 years ago, back in 1999, thanks to my mom. She decided that it was crazy that we were growing these grapes that made such lovely rosés in France and not at least making some to drink ourselves. This was before there was any significant market in the United States for dry rosé. The whole category had been so thoroughly kidnapped by white Zinfandel that the baseline assumption was that if a wine was pink, it was sweet. I remember pleading with guests who visited our tasting room in those early days to just try the rosé, that it wasn’t going to be sweet, and that it was included in the tasting. I usually had to tell the whole story about how we started making it (thanks, Mom) and how rosé was as important a part of the production of the wines of the Rhone region as whites or reds. Gradually, over the course of the 2000s, dry rosés from France started to make inroads into the American market, and by the early 2010s the Provençal model was dominant, in part because its exceptionally pale color signified to people that it was dry and not sweet. Darker pink rosés became rarer and rarer. We introduced our Patelin de Tablas Rosé in 2012, and within a few years its production had outstripped that of the Dianthus. But we kept making Dianthus, which I think more than a few people thought was crazy. Making one dry rosé in California was progressive enough. I’m not aware of any other California winery that has a decade of history making two.

I myself can go months without spending much time thinking about Dianthus. It gets a flurry of my attention around our spring VINsider Wine Club shipment, when we typically release it to members. We allocate a little for wholesale as well, but that quantity is so small (this year, it was just 112 cases) and it tends to sell out so fast that I don’t often overlap with its presence on my trips to work with distributors in our key markets. But it happened that I spent a lot of time with the 2023 Dianthus over the last week. I started the week with three days of market work in and around Seattle and finished it at Hospice du Rhone, which was held in Walla Walla this year. Our Washington State distributor chose to bring in a few of those 112 cases, so we were showing it alongside the 2023 Patelin de Tablas Rosé. At Hospice du Rhone, the Dianthus was one of the six wines Neil and I chose to pour:

Jason and Neil at Hospice du Rhone 2024

The reactions that the Dianthus received were fascinating. During my three Seattle days, it generated more questions than any other wine in the lineup we were showing, and we had to pull it out of what we were presenting on Thursday because we’d already taken enough pre-orders on Tuesday and Wednesday to exhaust what the distributor had ordered. The general consensus was that it would be a hand-sell to customers, but the restaurants and wine shops were so intrigued by the wine’s food-pairing possibilities that it was a wine that they wanted to make the effort to get into people’s hands (and mouths). At Hospice du Rhone, which included a master class and rosé lunch featuring the wines of Tavel, the color and style of the Dianthus didn’t even raise much commentary. For that audience – always a bellwether for where the most committed Rhone lovers are going – the deeper color and richer flavors were taken in stride. If someone did ask about it, a quick reference to Tavel and a reminder that Tavel is a lot closer to Chateauneuf-du-Pape than Provence is usually helped the taster wrap their head around what we were going for. And I think that the Dianthus got the most re-tastes of anything on the table except the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel.

What does this all mean? I think it’s both a great piece of evidence in the cyclical nature of the wine market and a sign that the American rosé market may be getting to be mature enough to accept some stylistic variation. I’ve been preaching to the restaurants that I visit this spring that there is enough sophistication among rosé-lovers that they should offer multiple rosés by-the-glass. Sure, have your Provence standby. But also offer something that is a contrast, either because of its region or its style. After all, a wine-focused restaurant would never have just one white wine by the glass, or just one red. At our tasting room, we’ve been pouring our own two rosés in our Spring Tasting Flight for the last several weeks, and it’s fascinating seeing how different people gravitate toward one wine or the other.

I love both. But it’s been a while since I spent this much time thinking about them both. Cheers to 25 years of Dianthus, and an American wine market that continues to grow in sophistication. We’re finally back to a place that a rosé wine can be… pink.

Chelsea and two roses

Footnotes:

  1. I had one of my favorite Instagram Live conversations with Dorothy and John last May. If you missed it, it's in our archive, no Instagram account necessary.
  2. The Dianthus has provided some memorable pairings when I've hosted wine dinners. A particularly mind-blowing match was when, roughly a decade ago, Chef Julie Simon at Thomas Hill Organics paired it with a Moroccan spice-rubbed quail served alongside a salted watermelon and feta salad. 

2023 white blending trials suggest that we're looking at a truly special vintage: "each grape was clearly itself, but more so"

We spent four days last week around our blending table, working to turn the 37 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2023 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. Overall, we were really happy at the end of the week; the quality of what we tasted was uniformly outstanding, and quantities a lot better than what we saw in 2022. However, 2022 was so scarce -- due to the combined impacts of drought, frost, and our decision to pull out one underperforming Roussanne block -- that even with quantities of estate white grapes 55% higher in 2023 the wines will still be in short supply. So we still had some constraints on our blending this year that meant we entered the blending week with some fundamental questions. Would there be enough outstanding lots to give us choices with the Esprit de Tablas Blanc? Would the improved yields allow us to make a Cotes de Tablas Blanc? Would we have anything left to make varietal wines, and which ones? For the answers to these questions and more, read on.

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. And for a different behind-the-scenes glimpse, Neil recorded and posted little video updates of what we were working on and what we were thinking each day, which I enjoyed watching a lot at the time and found great fun to look back on now that we're done. If you missed them, they're on his Instagram feed.

Our first step 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. Then, we start from the top of our hierarchy (with the whites, that's the Esprit de Tablas Blanc) and brainstorm possible blends, taste those blind against one another, rank our favorites, and come to consensus, sometimes through multiple iterations. Once we've determined the blend and quantity for the Esprit Blanc, we set aside the lots needed and look at what we have left for possible Cotes de Tablas Blanc and varietal bottlings. Finally, we taste everything we're going to make to be sure that each feels complete and individual. A snapshot of my notes is below. If you look closely, you'll see just how many 1's there are and how few 3's:

2023 White Blending Notes

The team which assembled for the entire week included Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Amanda, Austin, Kaitlyn, and myself. We had a few days when Gustavo and Erin joined us. I'm conscious of the fact that these blending weeks are like final exams for the cellar team, where their work is suddenly made public and evaluated. The high quality across the board is a great testament to their work over the last six months. I'm also grateful for the work that goes into these tastings, including pulling hundreds of individual lots, careful measuring and assembly, and then the lab work to get the samples clean and ready to taste. I captured this photo of Amanda, Craig, and Austin on Wednesday morning, tools of the trade in hand:

2023 White Blending Team

As usual, we took the first two days to taste through all the individual lots, with the core varieties we use for Esprit Blanc (Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul) on Monday, and everything else on Tuesday. My quick thoughts on each variety are below. For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see three or four "1" grades, five or six "2" grades and one "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"). In rough harvest order:

  • Roussanne (10 lots): The quality of the Roussanne was outstanding, with excellent richness and texture across the board, and surprisingly good acids for this usually low-acid grape. I gave six lots, with characters spanning the spectrum between focused and mineral-driven, and opulent with a kiss of sweet oak, "1" grades. One other, to which I gave a "1/2", was less vibrant but pretty, while three others got "2" grades for various reasons, two were a touch softer than I'd like for the Esprit (but will be delicious in a varietal Roussanne) while one (which ended up going into Cotes Blanc) was high toned with great acids but without the characteristic Roussanne breadth.
  • Grenache Blanc (9 lots): A great Grenache Blanc showing, with six lots getting "1" grades, one "1/2" and two "2" lots that in other years could have been 1's. Everything was mouth-filling but electric with green apple and key lime acids, long finishes, and good minerality. The two that I gave "2" grades to were still sweet enough I was reluctant to earmark them for Esprit, but in all likelihood will when they're dry be just as good as the ones I gave "1" grades to.
  • Picpoul Blanc (4 lots): A little like the Grenache Blanc, I had trouble not giving all four lots "1" grades, as they all showed what we like best about Picpoul: its tropical fruit, creamy texture, and electric acids. I ended up marking one lot down to a "1/2" because it was a little less expressive than the others, but in reality it could have been a "1".
  • Viognier (4 lots): A Viognier vintage with good richness and good acids, but with a little less Viognier character than I was expecting. The two lots that had that luscious tropicality along with the richness and acids got "1" grades, while the other two got a "1/2" and a "2".
  • Marsanne (4 lots): Although I gave the same grades I did to Viognier (two 1's, a 1/2, and a 2) I felt like it was a really good Marsanne vintage, and I feel like in retrospect I was grading a little harshly. The top lots had pretty luscious honeydew character with nice texture and a salty mineral note. The "1/2" was still a little sweet but heading in the right direction, while the "2" lot was a touch on the dense side, more like Roussanne than Marsanne.
  • Picardan (1 lots): Only one Picardan lot this year, but it was lovely, with kiwi and pear fruit, nice minerality, and a little pithy bite on the finish. I gave it a "1".
  • Bourboulenc (3 lots): Three lots, all quite different from one another. My favorite, textured with nice cantaloupe fruit, rich texture, and salty minerality, I gave a "1". Another that was darker and nuttier, but still within the boundaries of what we consider characteristic for Bourboulenc, got a "2". And the third, which was still sweet and unfinished, had an unusual coffee grounds character that I wasn't sure what to make of. I gave it a "2/3" but am sure it will in the end become something worthwhile. This tasting also suggested that it was to Bourboulenc that we would look to find the small Tablas Creek component for Patelin de Tablas Blanc in 2023.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): Just one two-barrel lot of Clairette Blanche in 2023, with classic peppered citrus character and a clean minerality that I loved. I gave it a "1".
  • Cotes Maduena Blend (1 lot): From a newly replanted block, we made a small field blend of Clairette Blanche (61%) and Roussanne (39%). It was still sweet, seemingly at this point more dominated by Clairette than Roussanne and without a super well-defined character though pretty enough. I gave it a "2". 

We finished Tuesday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. We've figured that our bare minimum of Esprit Blanc that we need to sell here and around the country and world is around 1700 cases, and that's what we've made the last two years. But given that we're already sold out of our 2021 Esprit Blanc, six months before the 2022 will be released, I wanted to increase our production back up to around 2100 cases. At that quantity, we didn't have infinite options (so, for example, we couldn't make a blend that was 70% Roussanne or 25% Picpoul because the quantities just weren't there) and we decided to make one blend that used our maximum possible Roussanne (around 55%), another that used our maximum Grenache Blanc (around 25%) and another that leaned more heavily into the brighter varieties like Picpoul and Bourboulenc and see where that took us. All three blends were going to use our full production of Picardan and Clairette, which were only going to amount to 5% and 2%. It's a bummer knowing that we won't have either of those as varietal wines, but with so little it didn't make sense to split up what there was. 

Wednesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. To my surprise, our least favorite was the one that leaned most heavily into Grenache Blanc. It had good texture and plenty of acids, but felt less expressive than the other two glasses. Our second-favorite was the one that maxed out Roussanne. It had the deepest flavor, and lots of length, but felt a little one-dimensional. Our consensus favorite turned out to be the glass with the least Roussanne (still, at 48%, 15% more than we were able to use last year) which left more room for Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and Bourboulenc. It was the most charming on the nose, with the most evident fruit, great acids, and plenty of texture and length. And thinking about it, I can understand why. The difference between 48% and 55% Roussanne doesn't sound huge, but at 48% we were using roughly the top 60% of the Roussanne that we produced this year. The additional Roussanne required to get to 55% meant that we were using some Roussanne lots that received "2" grades instead of just the consensus "1" lots. It isn't surprising that replacing that "2" rated Roussanne with "1" rated Picpoul, Grenache Blanc, and Bourboulenc made for a better wine. And the concentration of the vintage meant that we didn't have any worries about it not having sufficient presence to stand proudly in the historical lineup of Esprit Blanc. Final blend: 48% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 13% Picpoul Blanc, 10% Bourboulenc, 5% Picardan, and 2% Clairette Blanche. Side note: I love that it again includes all six of the white grapes legal in Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

In 2022, it was clear that we didn't have the quantity to both make a Cotes de Tablas Blanc and the number of varietal wines we needed to satisfy our wine club and tasting room. So, we made the difficult choice to sacrifice Cotes Blanc for a year. I'd been hoping that quantities would rebound to the point that making Cotes Blanc again would be an easy choice, but instead it was a difficult choice. We need about 1300 cases of Cotes Blanc for the various uses we make of it (wine club, tasting room, and wholesale sales) and if we made that quantity, that would leave about 1750 cases of varietal wines in some combination. In that mix, we needed one wine of at least 800 cases (to go out to our wine club in the "classic" mix) and at least three others at 150+ cases (to go out in our "White Wine Selection" mix). Add those up and it works... but leaves only a little wiggle room. Given our post-Esprit quantities, the only variety with enough gallonage to include in a classic shipment was Grenache Blanc. So for our Cotes Blanc trials Chelsea put together three options, one using our maximum amount of Viognier and Marsanne, another using our maximum amount of Viognier and Grenache Blanc, and another reducing our Viognier a bit and making room for a little more of everything else. If we didn't love any of the options, we could bail on the Cotes Blanc and just make varietal wines.

Happily, all three of the test blends were good, and we truly loved the last one, which reduced Viognier to 34% and included more Marsanne (31%), Grenache Blanc (20%), Roussanne (13%), and a little Clairette Blanche (2%) that came along for the ride because it was in the Cotes Maduena field blend. The Viognier-heavier blends both felt rich and dense, perhaps a bit too much so despite their bright acids, while the blend we chose showed more elegance and translucency to its flavors while still being mouth-filling and luscious. It felt like just what we wanted for this lovely vintage. Added advantage: we're able to make a varietal Viognier, which I hadn't been expecting.

On Thursday, we convened to re-taste the blends we'd decided on as well as the varietal wines that our blending decisions resulted in and the two non-estate wines that weren't included in the blending. Our main goal in this tasting is to make sure that there is definition between the different wines that share a lead grape (say, our Viognier and our Cotes de Tablas Blanc, or our Roussanne and our Esprit de Tablas Blanc) as well as the estate and non-estate wines (like our estate Grenache Blanc and the Lignée de Tablas Grenache Blanc that we made from Zaca Mesa Vineyard grapes this year). To make these comparisons easier, we tasted in two flights of five wines, in the order below. My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:

  • 2023 Bourboulenc (175 cases): A pithy nose, but rich, with mineral, almond, and mango notes. One the palate, quite rich, still a little sweet, with flavors of cumquat and baked apple, marmalade and toasted graham cracker. There's a nice pithy bite at the end. But when it's bottled, this is going to taste quite different than it does now.
  • 2023 Picpoul Blanc (175 cases): A high-toned nose of kiwi, honeydew melon rind, crushed rock, and lemon verbena. On the palate, fresh pineapple and green apple fruit, creamy texture, and lovely acids that reveal a wet stone minerality on the finish. Lovely. 
  • 2023 Grenache Blanc (900 cases): A classic Grenache Blanc nose of baked green apple, chalky minerals, anise, and sage butter. On the palate, flavors of lemon drop and apple galette, lovely rich texture kept in check by vibrant acids and Grenache Blanc's phenolic architecture that offers a hint of tannin on the finish.
  • 2023 Lignée de Tablas Grenache Blanc Zaca Mesa Vineyard (220 cases): A nose reminiscent of sauvignon blanc, with notes of gooseberry and sea spray, elderflower and ripe pear. Similar in the mouth, with white grapefruit and green herb flavors like lemongrass and thyme. Fresh and lively, lighter in body than our estate Grenache Blanc. Pretty and fun.
  • 2023 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (4300 cases, plus some wine for boxes and kegs): A plush nose equally balanced between Grenache Blanc and Viognier right now: apricot and ripe pear, oyster shell minerality, and a little pithy note. On the palate, white grapefruit and honeycrisp apple, anise, chamomile, orange oil, and a chalky mineral note on the finish. Lovely acids. Exciting that we have a solid supply of this! Final blend: 50% Grenache Blanc, 23% Viognier, 10% Roussanne, 8% Marsanne, 8% Vermentino, 1% Bourboulenc.
  • 2023 Marsanne (100 cases): A lovely nose of grilled peach, honeycomb, sweet green herbs, warm straw, and petrichor. In the mouth, gentle but persistent, with flavors of cantaloupe and preserved lemon, lovely texture, and a little gentle minty lift.
  • 2023 Viognier (150 cases): So very young on the nose, with high-toned mandarin peel and pear blossom aromas, a little pepper spice, and some barely-ripe apricot. The mouth is lush with flavors of nectarine, cumquat, and Meyer lemon. The finish is long, with a pithy bite and a lingering saline note.
  • 2023 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1300 cases): A plush nose of buttered popcorn, white flowers, melon, and salted caramel. On the palate, a burst of sweet bright fruit like baked lemon squares with additional notes of honeydew melon and crushed rock. The long finish shows lemongrass and mineral notes.
  • 2023 Roussanne (260 cases): Absolutely characteristic of Roussanne on the nose, with aromas of honey and cedar and lanolin. On the palate, notes of vanilla custard, white flowers, a little kiss of sweet oak, and surprisingly bright acids maintaining order on the long finish.
  • 2023 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (2100 cases): A nose equally poised between Roussanne and brighter notes, including kiwi, honeycomb, baked apple, lemongrass, and toasted pine nuts. On the palate, mouth-filling with flavors of quince and pear, rich texture, lovely acids, and notes of jasmine and salty minerals on the lingering finish. We can't wait to see where this goes with the additional 8 months of barrel aging it will get before its December bottling.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • It was very nice to be out of the painfully scarce 2022 vintage, but the tasting drove home that white wines are still going to be in short supply in 2023. And I noted that in my 2023 harvest recap: that while white yields were up 55% in 2023, they were so low in 2022 that we still ended up below our historical averages. Once you set aside what we need for wine club shipments and our wholesale commitments, we're still looking at releases of most of our varietal wines in the 50-150 case quantities. If these are wines you look forward to, keep an eye on your emails. They will go fast.
  • Why were things low? I think a lot of it can be attributed to the toll taken on the vineyard in the 2020-22 drought and the 2022 frost. The buds for a growing season are set the year before, so a grapevine that's under extreme stress one year will usually not set a big crop the next year even if it gets ample rain and no frosts that winter. But with the ideal 2023 growing season and the lovely wet-but-benign winter we've gotten so far, I have high hopes for 2024. Fingers crossed, please, that we dodge frost.
  • In terms of what vintage in our history might be a good comp for what we saw in 2023, I feel like we need to go back to 2011 to get something that reminded me of what we saw in 2023. That 2011 vintage was historically cool (cooler even than 2023) with yields reduced by spring frosts. The result was a late-ripening vintage with both concentration and vibrancy, a lot like what we saw around the blending table last week. Sure, there are differences; we've got more grapes in production now than we did then, I think our farming is stronger; and we didn't get the disruption of a spring frost. But those 2011 whites were outstanding, and if that's our baseline I think we'll be happy.
  • I asked everyone around the table at Thursday's tasting to give a brief overview of their thoughts on 2023, and wanted to share a few of the answers. Chelsea contributed, "Everything is so perfectly poised with florality, minerality, and acidity. There's a great balance between fruit and non-fruit elements." Austin added, "Purity. Each component was clearly unique and varietally characteristic." Craig said, "Elegance and acidity. That's the throughline." Amanda called them "Confident and stately." Kaitlyn called the lineup "super delicate and pretty." Neil praised the wines' "great balance and intricacy, especially the blends." I'll end with Gustavo's contribution, which I thought captured my own thoughts well, that each grape was clearly itself, but more so, almost the platonic ideal of Rhone whites: "Each wine is what it is and I enjoyed that."

Now that the blending decisions have been made, we can move forward in getting the wines racked, blended, and given time to settle and integrate. The Patelin Blanc will be the first to go into bottle, in May. The Cotes Blanc, Lignée de Tablas Grenache Blanc, and all the estate varietal wines except Roussanne will be next, in June. And the Esprit Blanc and Roussanne will go into foudre and have another nine months to evolve before their scheduled December bottling.

It's not always easy coming into a blending week with high expectations. But it was exciting that the wines exceeded even what we'd been hoping for them. There wasn't a single "3" grade given out by anyone around the table all week. And the finished wines that we made showed all the promise of their components, and more. We can't wait to share them with you. We do apologize that while better than 2022, quantities are still scarce and these wines will go fast. We promise, they're worth making an effort to secure.

2023 White Blending Wines


2023 Harvest Recap: Late, but Worth the Wait

On Thursday, with the bin of Roussanne pictured below, we completed the 2023 harvest. Well, mostly, at least. We completed the last pick. There's still some of that pick that is sitting on straw in one of our greenhouses, working to get that last little bit of concentration. This last pick was a full month later than the last pick in 2022. If you've been following along with the growing season, that won't be a surprise. But it's still a relief. 

Last Bin of Roussanne

2023 was our coolest year since 2011. That cool weather, combined with a late start thanks to our record rainfall last winter, meant that we came out of dormancy late, hit every marker late, and harvested late. At the beginning of October we were only 10% done, and with El Nino looming in the Pacific, had real worries as to whether or not we'd get the crop in before it started to rain. But we got lucky. The weather warmed up in October, the rain (and frosts) held off, and we were able to pick everything. Check out the degree days trend for the year. 2023 is the bold, red dotted line. The key inflection point is at the beginning of October, at which it bends back up and since we've seen more-or-less average heat accumulation:

Cumulative Growing Degree Days through November 9th

Another way of looking at the cool year is going month by month compared to normal. We've had two months that were slightly warmer than average (July and October), three that were slightly cooler than normal (April, May, and August), and two that were significantly chillier than normal (June and September):

Degree Days by Month 2023 vs Average

As you would suspect, the cool September didn't exactly cause fruit to come tumbling in. But once it warmed up in October, things shifted into high gear. That month included our busiest-ever week of over 140 tons between October 8th and 14th. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin or Lignée programs, and orange estate-grown fruit. While the timing of the arrival of our purchased grapes is more variable, the estate fruit forms an almost perfect bell curve:

2023 Harvest tons by week

Yields were up 39.9% overall off the estate vs. 2022, which sounds amazing, but it's more a reflection of how low 2022 was than that 2023 was some crazy windfall. We also have some new acreage in production, which means that even with all those new grapes we averaged 3.04 tons/acre. A list of our other vintages that saw crop levels right around 3 tons per acre reads like a "greatest hits" collection and includes 2003, 2007, 2014, 2016, and 2019. But it's worth noting that there's a lot of variation in how different grapes did this year. The grapes that were up sharply were either the whites that were impacted by last year's frosts (Grenache Blanc, Vermentino, Picpoul, and Roussanne) plus Grenache Noir, which saw the most significant increase in producing acreage. Other grapes were flat or even (in the cases of Viognier and Cinsaut) down a bit:

Grape 2023 Yields (tons) 2022 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2022
Viognier 10.1 11.9 -15.1%
Marsanne 9.0 8.3 +8.4%
Grenache Blanc 29.3 14.2 +106.3%
Picpoul Blanc 7.2 4.2 +71.4%
Vermentino 13.0 8.7 +49.4%
Bourboulenc 7.2 5.9 +22.0%
Roussanne 26.2 10.5 +149.5%
Other whites 3.2 4.1 -22.0%
Total Whites 105.2 67.8 +55.2%
Grenache 97.1 52.5 +85.0%
Syrah 41.7 39.9 +4.5%
Mourvedre 47.4 42.9 +10.5%
Tannat 15.3 13.5 +13.3%
Counoise 22.4 14.4 +55.6%
Cinsaut 3.6 3.8 -5.3%
Other reds 7.1 8.0 -11.3%
Total Reds 234.6 175.0 +34.1%
Total 339.8 242.8  +39.9%

In trying to pull out trends that aren't just reflections of 2022's weirdness, it seems to me that early grapes (like Viognier, Marsanne, Cinsaut, and Syrah) were pretty much flat compared to last year's low levels, so below-average historically. Vermentino and Grenache Blanc look like exceptions to that rule, but they were frozen last year and even their healthier yields this year are a little below our long-term norms. The grapes that flowered and ripened in the middle of the cycle (think Grenache Noir, Tannat, and Bourboulenc) all saw above-average yields and in many cases were up notably from last year. And the late-sprouting grapes like Counoise, Mourvedre, and Roussanne were somewhere in the middle, up from last year but still around our long-term averages.

Ideally, the outstanding vine health this year pays us off in two ways. First, all that leaf area combined with relatively modest yields should translate into great intensity in the wines. That's consistent with what we're seeing with the deep colors and dramatic flavors in the wines we're tasting so far. But the second payoff is that the cane growth and this year's lack of frosts should put the vines in position to produce well next year too. The buds that will produce next year's growth, after all, are already formed. They're just waiting for the arrival of spring to show themselves.

We had 129 harvest lots, an increase of 14 vs. 2022. These included 12 more estate lots (94 instead of 82), two more Lignée lots (4 instead of 2) and the same number of Patelin lots (31). The combination of the increased fruit off the estate and some larger Patelin lots meant that we processed 35% more fruit this year than we did in 2022. No wonder the cellar team was ready to celebrate! In the photo below of our harvest chalkboard, estate lots are in white, while purchased lots are green. Each line represents one pick. And yes, we have five more lots that we're going to have to figure out how to fit into those last three lines:

Harvest chalkboard nearly done

One way that you can get a quick assessment of a vintage is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2010, our average degrees Brix and pH at harvest:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
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
2021 22.12 3.55
2022 22.14 3.70
2023 22.77 3.51

It's been a long time since we saw sugar and (especially) pH numbers like this. In fact, you need to go back to 2010 to find a comparable year. How big a difference does 0.19 pH points make? A lot more than you might think. pH is measured in a logarithmic scale, so a pH of 3 has ten times the concentration of acid ions as a pH of 4. So the average pH of 3.51 is 55% more acidic than the average pH of 3.70 we saw last year. That's why Chelsea described what we were seeing as "dream chemistry" in an Instagram Live we recorded mid-harvest. We can thank this year's cooler weather and lack of heat spikes for the vibrant acids, but I also think it points to the health of the vineyard thanks to the ample rain last winter and the years of regenerative farming that have allowed it to hold that water in a zone where the vines' roots can find it. 

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. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, along with our sorting table and destemmer. And now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season: 

Joanna digging out Mourvedre

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi to sum up the vintage, and she was enthusiastic: "the long ripening really helped us out with the depth and intensity. Even this early the aromas are so nuanced, layered, and complex. If this is a sign of things to come I think we've got a really exciting vintage ahead of us." We're all looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2023 even better in coming weeks.

Mourvedre in the press

With rain in the forecast for later this week, we've been pushing to get the vineyard prepped for winter. We've been spreading compost, seeding cover crop, and laying straw on our vineyard roads:

Straw on the farm road

Just as this year has gone since the beginning, it looks like we'll get it done just in time. We've been telling ourselves, for what feels like months, that we'll have a rest when we get to Thanksgiving. It looks like that's about right. And there will be plenty to give thanks for.

Jordy on quad


Harvest 2023 update: a deep exhale as warm weather brings the finish line in sight

Three weeks ago we were all pretty nervous. We'd had the coolest September in our history, and not just by a little. High temperatures were more than 7.5°F cooler than average, which on top of the delayed growing season meant that as the calendar flipped to October we'd only finished about 10% of the harvest off the estate. With el nino brewing in the Pacific, we were facing a real risk of serious rain coming while significant quantities of our fruit were still out on the vine. We were hoping that the warmer weather that began with the onset of October would stick around long enough to have a real impact on the ripening of our grapes and the timeline of our harvest. Spoiler alert: it did.

Harvest chalkboard October 24th

Not only have the last three weeks been warmer than normal, they've been nearly as warm as we'd expect September to be. In essence, the months have flipped places. While September's average high was 80.9°F, since October 1st our average high has been 84°F. This has reversed the trend in Growing Degree Days and brought 2023 back up away from the record-cool years of 2010 and 2011:

Growing Degree Days 2010-2023 thru 10-23

Even better, that warm weather has come just the way we prefer it. Although we've had eight days in the 90s, the highest high temperature was just 96.4°F. Both of the warm stretches (October 4th-8th and October 18th-20th) were followed by at least three days that topped out in the 70s. That meant that the grapevines could continue to build sugars without losing their acids and without being under an unhealthy amount of stress. And as often happens when a delayed harvest finally gets some heat, the fruit came rolling in. Most days we've had a lineup of bins in our parking lot, waiting to be processed, as we're running presses of newly-harvested whites and newly-fermented reds. The dance of the forklifts is something to behold.

Bins of grapes everywhere

These harvest days start before sunup and finish after dark, with what seems like endless rounds of washing in between. After all, every tank we have will get used five or six times this year. Every press gets used three or four times each day. And all the equipment gets cleaned up and put away every night. I love this photo I got of Gustavo cleaning the red press today as the sun was setting:

Gustavo washing the press

The fruit that we've been getting, and the young wines that we've been tasting, look tremendous. We're seeing some of the deepest colors we can remember. The grapes have lovely freshness and lift. I spoke to Chelsea last week for an Instagram Live harvest update, and she described what we were seeing as "dream chemistry". Now maybe you have to work in a winery cellar to dream about chemistry at this time of year, but it gives you a sense of the lovely balance of sugars and acids that we're seeing.

We don't have to look far to know that the clock is ticking. The fall foliage colors on the vines, like this Counoise block below, are telling us that the end is near: 

Fall colors in Counoise

Still, the grapes that are still out on the vines are there because they need this time. The two clusters below (Counoise, left, and Roussanne, right) are looking and tasting great, but they're sitting only at about 20° Brix and will benefit from another week or two out in the sun:

Counoise cluster cropped Roussanne cluster

The mornings are usually starting with a little low-lying fog:

Fog lifting between Counoise rows

Walking around the vineyard, there are more blocks where the grapes have already been picked than there are with crop still hanging. That gives us the chance to give some of the younger vines (like this three-year-old Syrah) a little post-harvest drink:

Post-harvest irrigation

We're also giving a little sigh of relief because it looks like yields are significantly recovered from last year. It's most dramatic in the varieties that were frozen last year; we've harvested double the quantity of Grenache Blanc that we did last year and Vermentino is up 49%. But even grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Syrah, none of which were impacted by last year's frosts, are seeing crops something like 10% higher than last year. We've already picked 30 more tons of Grenache than we did in 2022, with a couple of blocks still to come. And it seems clear that Roussanne will come in with higher quantity than last year, when it finally gets ripe. Now our biggest unknown is Mourvedre, and when I saw Neil today he sounded more relaxed than he has in weeks. We're no longer worried about whether the fruit will be good, or whether it will get ripe. Now we're just worrying about where we're going to put it. And that's a huge relief.


Harvest Update: After a Record-Cool September, Things Heat Up (Thankfully)

This week, we got our first Grenache off of Jewel Ridge, from an early morning pick. The fruit was lovely, as was the view west over the lines of hills:

IMG_5825

Even a few days ago, a view like this would have been hard to come by. We've had consistently chilly, often foggy nights, and a string of days where temperatures have been well below average. For the month, 25 days were below average, with only two above our norms and three others almost exactly average:

High Temperatures September 2023 vs Average

And it's not like it was only a little cooler than normal. The daily highs in September were a full 7.5°F cooler than average, meaning that this September has seen temperatures about what an average October would bring. A good way of measuring heat accumulation is Growing Degree Days (GDDs). The average year 2010-2022 saw September accumulate 558 degree days, with a high of 655 in 2020 and a low of 505 in 2013. September of 2023 looks like it's a data error: just 393 GDDs. This has meant that our overall heat accumulation (the dotted red line) is trending away from average, back down toward the very cool years of 2010 or 2011:

Growing Degree Days 2010-2023

All this explains why, two days before we finished harvest last year, we're only about one-third of the way done, and still working on early-ripening grapes like Viognier, Syrah, and Vermentino:

IMG_5821

Still, at around 200 tons picked (roughly one-third of our projected total) there's still lots of activity in the cellar. All that Syrah is getting processed, with the portion that's being fermented whole-cluster needing to be foot-treaded twice daily:

Cellar 3

Samples are being pulled in all our blocks that look like they might be getting close, with sugars and acids measured and flavors and colors evaluated:

Cotes Maduena - Sample

Once Neil and the team in the cellar have decided that something is ready to pick (in this case, the first Grenache from Jewel Ridge) we cue up our crew and get them out early in the morning so that the pick is comfortable and the fruit is cool when it goes into the bins:

Jewel - Bins

Its next stage brings it to the sorting table, where any leaves or other unwanted material is removed before the grapes are de-stemmed and sent to a tank to ferment:

Sorting Table

So even though we haven't reached harvest's peak, there's still plenty going on. But we're still grateful for the warmer weather we got this week. If we continue on at the pace we've seen so far, we will surely be picking into mid-November, and with el niño building out in the Pacific, that gets risky. Plus, with the moisture in the ground and the lack of hot weather, we're seeing little pockets of botrytis, a form of rot typically rare in California. While some regions (most notably Sauternes) have harnessed botrytis to make sweet wines, we would definitely prefer to get our fruit in unaffected. And the last few days have delivered. It hit 90 yesterday for the first time since September 10th, surpassed that today, and is supposed to stay warm over the weekend. Typically, if it's been cool late in the growing season, even a short warm-up has a big impact on grapes that are nearly ready. We're expecting a wave of Grenache Blanc, Syrah, Viognier, and even Muscardin off our estate next week, as well as more Patelin components for red, white, and rosé.

If you'd like the detailed version, I decided to change things up with my semi-weekly Instagram Live broadcast and instead of bringing in a guest from outside, to sit down with Neil and have him share what he's seeing. That half-hour conversation is on our Instagram feed or embedded below:

One thing that I thought was memorable in my conversation with Neil was his comment that a cool harvest and long hang time is great... until it isn't, because you get rain. Everything that we've gotten in so far looks outstanding. We should hit harvest's midpoint next week. The forecast going forward looks great. Still, that only takes us about 10 days. Harvest will likely last another five weeks. We're optimistic, but still, it's been a while since we had a year that pushed us into November and even longer since it did so in conjunction with an el niño. If you see any winemakers out there looking nervously over their shoulders, that's why. Fingers crossed, please, everyone.


Harvest 2023 begins. What a difference a year makes!

On Tuesday, we brought in our first two lots, both for Patelin: a little less than seven tons of Viognier from a vineyard called New Creations and a little more than six tons of Syrah from Tofino. Both looked great. Yesterday, we brought in the Pinot Noir from the vineyard my dad planted. Today we got the first picks off the estate, seven bins of Vermentino and two bins of (surprise) Roussanne, as well as another Patelin de Tablas lot of Roussanne from Nevarez. And we're off:

Harvest Chalkboard - First 3 days
All this is a far cry from last year, when sustained heat pushed us to one of our earliest-ever harvests. We started bringing fruit in off the estate on August 17th, and by the 14th of September we were nearly three-quarters done:

Finished Harvest Chalkboard

I'll share some thoughts at the end of the blog as to what this all means, but first I want to set the scene for you and share some of the images of these early days of harvest. I'll start with the first bins of Viognier, from Austin Collins' viewpoint on the forklift:

First Patelin Viognier from Forklift

Neil got a photo of the first bin of Syrah, waiting in front of the sorting table for de-stemming. He pointed out that it just happened to be in bin #1:

First bin of Syrah in Bin #1

The pick of Pinot Noir from our place is always a milestone, and the cellar team traditionally joins the vineyard crew for it. Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg got some great photos. First, the scene as dawn broke:

Picking Pinot at Dawn - JL

Next, a view of the bins on the back of the trailer. That's Vineyard Manager David Maduena overseeing things... the beginning of his 30th harvest here at Tablas Creek!

Bins of Pinot with David

The fruit looked great. Those are Jordy's boots:

Looking down on Pinot bins - JL

And finally the whole crew, all smiles at the end of the pick:

Harvest crew at Haas Vineyard Cropped

After those two mellow starting days, today is starting to feel like harvest is getting into full swing. We're pressing Vermentino and Roussanne, which made a surprise early appearance here thanks to the higher elevation and healthy young vines on Jewel Ridge. We've had perfect conditions, with chilly nights and warm but not hot days. The last wisps of fog were still lifting as Neil snapped this shot at the end of the Roussanne harvest:

Harvesting Roussanne on Jewel Ridge

The Roussanne was textbook; note the classic russet color of the berries, one of the signifiers that they've reached ripeness:

Roussanne looking russet

We're also doing a wide sampling across all the relatively early-ripening varieties, including this Syrah. The color is amazingly dark given that this is just a sample and it hasn't been left to macerate:

Sampling

If you're wondering why we're so much later than last year (OK, the last several years) you need look no further than the cumulative growing degree days, a common measurement of heat accumulation during the growing season. Although July was warm enough that we jumped ahead of the 2010-2011 vintages that we'd been tracking, it cooled back off in August and we're still significantly cooler than any year since 2011. What's more, we're a whopping 23% cooler as measured in growing degree days (dotted red line) than we were last year (dotted pale blue line):

Cumulative Growing Degree Days through September 13th

It's too early to say much about yields. The Pinot Noir harvest came in roughly where last year's did, but conditions in the Templeton Gap are different than they are out at the winery, and it didn't suffer any frost damage last year. Neil is thinking that we'll likely see healthy crops, up measurably from last year and maybe even a bit above our long-term averages. Jordy is thinking a little more conservatively, predicting that the combination of plentiful but small clusters, small berries, and some loss due to shatter and millerandage is likely to combine to produce yields above last year but still below our long-term averages. We'll know more in a few weeks, once we've completed the estate harvest of a few more grapes. 

One thing that is clear is that we're looking at a harvest that seems more like a marathon than last year's sprint. There isn't any major heat in the forecast, with most of next week supposed to top out in the 70s and low 80s. That's ideal for quality, and likely to give us the flexibility to bring things in gradually and in multiple passes. But it does mean that we will almost certainly still be harvesting in November. That wouldn't have been unusual in the 2000s, but it's been a while since it's happened. With el nino building in the Pacific, our current worry is whether we'll be done before we get our first winter rains. That's likely a ways off, but anyone who has a line to the weather gods, please put in a good word.

Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the sights, aromas, and energy of harvest. Stay tuned for updates.


2022 Red Blending: The Big Three Grapes Shine and the Vintage Surprises with Its Combination of Structure and Vibrancy

On Tuesday we finally got to sit down and taste the sixteen (!) red wines from the 2022 vintage we'd built around the blending table over the past two weeks. The tasting showed all the promise that we'd hoped in assembling the wines. From the vibrant sweet spice and brambly cherry flavors of the Counoise to the salty minerality, loamy earth, and pure raspberry of Mourvedre, the dark soy and blackcurrant depth of the Le Complice, and the reverberating red and black fruit and licorice of the Esprit, each wine was both deep and focused, expressive and pleasurable. And what a relief. 2022 was one of our most challenging vintages, with the cumulative impacts of a three-year drought, two spring frosts, two punishing heat waves, unexpected rain, and a compressed harvest season. The white blending that we finished a month ago was so constrained by low yields that there were several wines we couldn't make, and the Roussanne so scarce that we had to blend an Esprit Blanc unlike any other we've done before. While I think the white wines we made will be excellent overall, I don't think it's a great white vintage. But on the red side? I think this will go down with some of the best vintages in our history. 

For the first time in a decade, we had the pleasure of having both Cesar and Francois Perrin join us around the blending table. Together, they bring five decades worth of vintages at Beaucastel, and dozens of weeks spent evaluating lots and making blends here. And their perspective is always valuable, bringing deep experience with these grapes and outside opinion unbiased by previous knowledge of the year. But while their voices are always heard and their opinions noted, these are not "flying winemakers" coming in to make pronouncements on our direction and then leave us to execute their wishes. Instead, like the Perrins' own system at Beaucastel, we take the blending process in steps and build consensus rather than relying on one or two lead voices to determine the wines' final profiles. After all, when you have nine family members involved in a multi-generational business, as they do at Beaucastel, it's a good policy and good family relations to make sure everyone is on the same page before you go forward. The same is true with a partnership like Tablas Creek where both founding families have equal ownership. More importantly, we're also convinced it makes better wines. And the discussions around the lunch table after each day's critical tasting are wonderful:

Blending 2022 Reds - Lunch Table

We began the first two days by tasting the 62 different red lots. On Monday we tackled Grenache, Counoise, Cinsaut, Tannat, and our trace varieties: Terret Noir, Vaccarese, Muscardin, and our tiny Cabernet lot. Tuesday we dove into the more tannin-rich grapes: Mourvedre, Syrah, and Pinot Noir. We keep our different harvest lots separate until they've finished fermentation so we can assess their quality and character before we have to decide which wines they fit best in. After all, a Mourvedre lot could potentially go into any of six wines: Panoplie, Esprit, En Gobelet, Cotes, Patelin, or the varietal Mourvedre. So our goal at this first stage of blending is to give each lot a grade that's reflective of its overall quality, and to start to flag lots that we think might be particularly suited to one wine or another. This component tasting is also an opportunity for us to get a sense of which varieties particularly shined or struggled, which helps provide direction as we start to brainstorm about blends.

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with "1" 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 three or four "1" grades, five or six "2" grades and one "3" grade. As you can see from my notes, this year we saw a lot of "1" grades and very few "3" grades:

Blending 2022 Reds - Notes

How I graded each variety, in the order in which we tasted them:

  • Cinsaut (3 lots): Our third vintage of Cinsaut, and the largest quantity to date, nearly double what we got in 2021. Overall pretty and medium-bodied, with nice fruit and vibrant acids. I gave two of the lots "2" grades and one with more fruit and density a "1".
  • Counoise (7 lots): Many of these lots were notably pale, with lifted red fruit character, good acids, and nice salty minerality. But there weren't any obviously Esprit-level lots with the darker blueberry fruit and richer texture. Plenty of the pretty spicy Gamay-style juiciness that our varietal Counoise bottling typically reflects. The lack of lots with greater density made it a challenge to identify top lots, but I gave out two "1" grades to the lots with the most intense fruit, four "2" grades, and one "3" that came across a touch medicinal.
  • Grenache (15 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. But this was a strong showing, with plenty of richly fruited, spicy lots with the density to carry that fruit. I gave nearly half the lots (seven in total) "1" grades, with two others getting "1/2" and my hopes that they would form the core of our varietal Grenache. Two "2" lots, two "2/3" lots, and one "3" (which I felt a little guilty giving out, since even it felt like it was going through a stage) rounded a strong Grenache showing. 
  • Muscardin (1 lot): It was exciting that we finally had a barrel of Muscardin to blend, but I wasn't a huge fan of the wine. Last year's was pale but carried a minty/herby/juniper note that reminded us of Terret Noir along with great acids and salty minerality. This year's was just as pale but didn't have the same vibrancy, with gentle watermelon flavors and a short finish. I gave it a "2/3" and we agreed it wasn't distinguished enough to release as our first-ever varietal bottling. It will end up, like last year, in Le Complice.
  • Terret Noir (2 lots): Like the Muscardin, we felt we wanted more from Terret this year. Typically it's been pale but had high-toned wild strawberry fruit, herby lift, and grippy tannins. Not for everyone, but distinctive and interesting. This year's felt tamer, missing the herbiness and tannic grip from past years. I gave both lots "2/3" grades, flagging one lot with more structure as likely ideal for Le Complice
  • Vaccarese (1 lot): Compared to the ethereal nature of the previous two wines, the darker color and powerful aromatics of the Vaccarese stood out like a rocket. This tasting served as a reminder of why we're so excited about this grape, and I felt fortunate that we had enough to both include in Esprit and make into a varietal bottling. I gave it a "1".
  • Tannat (3 lots): Dense, yet with the vibrant 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 feel is the right addition to En Gobelet. I gave two lots "1" grades and another, in which I found a little oxidation, a "2".
  • 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 to bottle it on its own when we had enough to make that viable and it showed such well-defined Cabernet character that we couldn't bear to blend it away. In 2022 we only had one barrel, so even though we loved its classic flavors and dusty minerality we didn't have enough for a solo bottling. It will go into Tannat and be happy. 

This marked the end of day one. If I'd had to give a grade at this point, it would have been a B/B+. We saw some very nice Grenache lots, but also some weaker ones. Tannat was strong, but it's always like that. Cinsaut and Counoise came across as pretty but not particularly serious. The trace varieties were a mixed bag. But then came day two:

  • Mourvedre (12 lots): Given the mixed results from the day before and the comparatively pale colors, I wasn't prepared to be blown away by Mourvedre. Typically, in lighter-weight vintages, it's Syrah that shines. But the Mourvedre lots went from strength to strength, and at one point I gave five lots in a row "1" grades. Overall the wines had intense varietal character, with deep red fruit, lovely leathery, loamy notes, and good structure. Six lots got "1"s from me, with three others getting "1/2", three "2"s and nothing lower than that. The best Mourvedre showing I can ever remember at this stage.
  • Syrah (12 lots): Syrah at this stage is easy to appreciate, with its plush dark fruit, spice, and powerful structure. Given that consistency, our main goals are to evaluate the different winemaking choices we made (too much or not enough stems? too much or not enough new oak?) and decide which lots feel like they can play well enough in Mourvedre- or Grenache-based wines to be blending partners. I gave out five "1"s, five "1/2" grades (these included most of those lots with notable stem or oak character, as I felt they weren't necessarily slam dunks for Esprit or Panoplie), and just two "2" lots that in another year could have been graded higher.
  • Pinot Noir (5 lots): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad planted outside the house he and my mom built in 2007, where we live now. It's planted to a mix of different Pinot Noir clones, and while we ferment each clone separately most years, they all always end up in the Full Circle Pinot Noir. So in this tasting we're just making sure there aren't lots that might cause issues in the blend, and evaluating the percentage of stems and whole-cluster. All five felt on point, and the total of about one-quarter whole cluster provided nice herbal lift. It should make a compelling 2022 Full Circle.

So while day one was a mixed bag, we all were ecstatic about day two. We finished the day with our normal round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the next day's blending of Panoplie and Esprit and came to the conclusion that it probably wasn't a year to lean heavily into the more minor grapes and that we should start the blending trials with three test blends, each one leaning a little heavier into one of the big three of Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah, and see where that took us. In terms of quantity, while yields on reds had recovered a bit from the punishingly low 2021 vintage, we were still constrained by supply, and if we wanted enough different varietal wines to send out to the wine club we needed to cap our Esprit production around 3000 cases and our Cotes production around 1200. 

Wednesday morning we reconvened to work out our two top 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 around 60%) and typically more Grenache than Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often threatens to overwhelm the Mourvedre. This dynamic held true in our first three-wine trial, with the Panoplie with the most Syrah (29%) being no one's favorite, the one with the most Grenache (31%) the consensus second choice, and the glass with the most Mourvedre (67%) and roughly equal parts Grenache (18%) and Syrah (15%) receiving every first place vote but one. As sometimes happens when we have such overwhelming consensus in an early wine, we spent a while discussing around the table whether there was anything we could do to make the wine better, but couldn't come up with anything more compelling than that first blend. Done, and done.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Like the Panoplie, we started off with a high-Grenache/low-Syrah option, a high-Syrah/low-Grenache option, and one that had them in roughly equal proportions. Unlike with the Panoplie, instead of near-universal agreement around the table, we were able to eliminate one Esprit option (the one with the most Grenache, which was pretty but didn't carry the density of the other two options) but split between the other two. After talking through what we liked in each, and encouraged by the Perrins who both chose it as their clear favorite, we ended up deciding on the blend that leaned into Mourvedre (40%) with Grenache (28%) and Syrah (22%) playing roughly equal roles, and smaller amounts of Vaccarese (4%), Counoise (3%), and Cinsaut (3%). That choice was less overtly powerful than the option with less Mourvedre and Grenache but 31% Syrah, but also more expressive, with a lithe energy that we thought would broaden into lovely depth and richness over the next year-plus in foudre.

On Thursday we tackled our remaining wine club blends, starting with En Gobelet. It seems we often don't have a ton of options with this wine. In the early years, we just didn't have many head-trained, dry-farmed lots to choose from. Now, we have more, but we also used some of our favorite head-trained lots in Esprit and Panoplie, leaving only a few options for Mourvedre, Grenache, and Syrah. So the big question was how much Tannat and Counoise we wanted to add to the core made by our "big three" Rhone reds. We ended up settling on the least Counoise (6%) and the middle amount of Tannat (also 6%) as the right complements to the expressiveness of the Grenache (43%), Mourvedre (27%) and Syrah (18%). Too much Tannat and it started to stick out, and too much Counoise thinned the wine down too much.

For Le Complice, which celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with whole cluster Syrah, we needed to decide how much Terret Noir we wanted in this relatively simple Terret year, how much Syrah we felt we could put in without it just tasting like Syrah, and how heavily we wanted to lean into the stemmy character we get from whole cluster fermentation. Like with the Panoplie, there was near-total consensus around the table around an option that included our most Syrah (67%) and least Terret (5%) along with 25% Grenache and 3% Muscardin. That wine felt the longest and most structured, but still had a pretty herbal lift that differentiated it from the straight Syrah lots we'd tasted. I think it's the best Le Complice we've ever made, and it should be a pleasure to watch evolve in the cellar. 

At this point, with the Perrins headed back to France, we took a couple of days off to catch up on other work. But on Monday we reconvened to build the Cotes de Tablas and check back in on some of our previous week impressions. As is usually the case at this stage in the blending, we were down to a handful of Counoise and Mourvedre lots, making the central question on Cotes de Tablas blending the ratio of Grenache and Syrah. We generally prefer the blends that have more Syrah to those that have less, but there's also a tipping point where the wine stops tasting like Cotes de Tablas and starts tasting like Syrah. This year, that point came whenever we increased the blend to more than one-third Syrah. Final blend: 44% Grenache, 33% Syrah, 19% Counoise, and 4% Mourvedre.

The final choice that we had to make was on the lots we'd flagged for possible declassification into Patelin. One two-barrel Terret Noir lot was an easy choice, but we were uncertain as to the rest of the Terret that didn't go into Le Complice, and on a two-barrel Counoise lot to which most of us gave a "3" grade. Tasting the Terret again gave us confidence that it would do well as a 75-case varietal bottling, and tasting the two Counoise barrels revealed that one was pretty and could go into our varietal Counoise, while the other would be declassified. Those decisions made, all that was left was to taste the varietal wines from the lots we hadn't blended, and to taste the blends against them to make sure everything slotted where we wanted. We don't want, for example, a Grenache-dominated wine like Cotes de Tablas to taste too much like our varietal Grenache, or the Esprit and Panoplie, both of which are based on Mourvedre, to feel too close to each other or our varietal Mourvedre. That was Tuesday's work. The wines:

Blending 2022 Reds - Wines

My quick notes on each of the sixteen wines we made, and their rough quantities: 

  • Counoise (380 cases): Vibrant with sweet spice and plum skin on the nose. Clean, pure, and bright on the palate with flavors of cherry juice, white pepper, more sweet spice, and a little brambly wildness on the finish. Fresh and appealing, like a glass of springtime.
  • Cinsaut (150 cases): A nose of fruitcake, new leather and olallieberry, plush and spicy. The mouth is more lifted than the nose suggests, with flavors of elderberry and red plum, a sprinkling of dusty tannins, and a spicy blueberry note on the finish.
  • Terret Noir (70 cases): A nose of watermelon and mint, sweet green herbs and a little menthol spiciness. The mouth is similarly lifted, like all the parts of a wild strawberry (fruit, flower, leaves), a little fresh oregano herbiness, and a clean finish with notes of sagebrush and cranberry and a little tannic bite. A tamer version of Terret than in the past, but clean, pretty, and fun.
  • Full Circle (285 cases): A serious, obviously Pinot nose of cherry cola, leather, eucalyptus and a little sweet oak. The mouth shows cherry skin, bittersweet chocolate, and sweet cola. The finish is long, with some noteworthy tannic grip. Maybe the most impressive and (I think) ageworthy Full Circle we've made. 
  • Mourvedre (330 cases): Medium color, with a nose that leaps from the glass with redcurrant, new leather, black plum and mocha notes. The mouth is lovely: salty minerals, black raspberry, loamy earth, and cocoa powder. The finish is long, and I expect this to continue to gain depth with time in barrel.
  • Syrah (630 cases): A nose with all black and mostly savory elements: iron, soy, blackberry, and pepper steak. The mouth is juicier than the nose first suggests, with flavors of blackberry and minty spice, more of the iron-like mineral note, and some serious tannins at the end. Very young, but with tons of potential.
  • Vaccarese (165 cases): Notes on the nose of licorice, grape candy, soy marinade, and tobacco leaf. The mouth is vibrant with flavors of blackberry and sweet butter, good acids, plenty of tannin, and a finish full of brambly spice. After using all our Vaccarese in the 2021 Esprit, it will be great to have this as a varietal bottling again.
  • Tannat (720 cases): A generous nose of black cherry and blueberry, sweet thyme and cocoa powder. The mouth shows more dark berries and a rich, earthy mocha note. The finish shows Tannat's characteristic good acids, grippy tannins, and a lingering rose petal floral note.
  • Grenache (890 cases): A high-toned nose of cherry candy, tarragon, and strawberry shortcake, from the fruit to the buttery biscuits to the whipped cream. The mouth is pretty and medium-bodied, with sweet flavors of strawberry jam and meringue, vibrant acids that reminded me of blood orange, and lots of chalky minerality on the finish.
  • Lignee de Tablas Grenache Hahn Vineyard (1300 cases): Dark for Grenache. Initially a bit reduced on the nose (after all, this hasn't had to be blended and was pulled straight out of tank) but that opened up to savory notes of meat drippings, ripe plum, and potpourri. The mouth is generous with flavors of black pepper and licorice, purple olallieberry fruit, and some tannic grip. A smoky, floral note like rose hips comes out on the finish. Very different than our estate Grenache, which was fun. More on this wine soon. 
  • Patelin de Tablas (4500 cases): A somewhat quiet nose right now, savory with notes of black olive, dried strawberry, white pepper, and leather. The mouth seems evenly balanced between Grenache's red plum and Syrah's blackberry fruit. There's nice mouth-filling texture and a finish showing some youthful tannic grip and lingering savory notes of soy, iodine, and black raspberry. It's exciting that we were able to make this much of this wine. The blend ended up 54% Syrah, 29% Grenache, 13% Mourvedre, 3% Counoise, and 1% Terret Noir.
  • Cotes de Tablas (1160 cases): An impressive nose, both juicy and spicy, with a little minty lift over notes of strawberry hard candy and sweet leather. The mouth shows tangy salty raspberry fruit, red licorice, and milk chocolate. The finish brings out a nice bite of tannin reminiscent of plum skin and more sweet, minty spice.
  • Le Complice (790 cases): A nose both dark and inviting, with notes of leather, soy, blackcurrant liqueur and black licorice. The palate is a blockbuster, with lovely black fruit, a little sweet oak, and a clean mineral note like wet stone. The long finish shows both sweet and savory herbs, and significant tannic grip cloaked in waves of black fruit. Memorable and impressive.
  • En Gobelet (800 cases): A pretty Mourvedre-inflected nose of redcurrant, new leather, loamy earth and wild herbs. The mouth is generous, with raspberry and plum fruit, sweet spices, chalky minerals, and a Grenache-like combination of strawberry compote and red licorice on the finish. Elegant and expressive.
  • Esprit de Tablas (3050 cases): A deep nose poised between red (redcurrant and red licorice) and black (black plum and cracked black peppercorn) with an additional loamy earth element that felt very Tablas Creek. The palate is mouth-filling with flavors of sugarplum and black raspberry, cocoa powder and newly-turned earth. The long, youthfully tannic finish with a hint of sweet oak suggests there's more to come both in barrel and in bottle. A serious, delicious Esprit
  • Panoplie (800 cases): A dense nose of plum compote and baker's chocolate, forest floor and juniper spice. The mouth is more open and higher toned, featuring flavors of red plum and chalky minerality, with notes of mocha and sweet spice. Good vibrancy on the palate and Mourvedre's characteristic chewy tannins complete the picture. This should be a great Panoplie to lay down, though it may be so tasty that it will be hard to keep away from it in its youth.   

A few concluding thoughts. 

  • What a treat to have both Cesar and Francois around the blending table, and to see their excitement with what we were tasting. That's one of the benefits of having them participate: their combination of outside observer and experienced partner gives us a great check on our own reactions. Although we taste each flight blind, we still come into the blending week with preconceptions about what we think the vintage is like. The Perrins haven't mostly been here to develop those biases, and so their reactions are uninfluenced by things like knowledge of the vintage's weather or how tired we were in mid-October. It's not that they always agree with each other (they don't, both because each has his own preferences and because blind tasting is inherently difficult) but seeing their excitement as the vintage comes together, and getting their feedback on things we think we know is so welcome, and so valuable.
  • It's amazing how one day can chance your feeling about an entire vintage. I think it's fair to say that after our experience of the white blending and our first day where some of the less-structured grapes were a mixed bag, we thought we had the narrative on 2022. Then we tasted some of the best Mourvedre and Syrah ever to come off the Tablas Creek property, and maybe the best Pinot Noir ever to come off the Haas Vineyard, and we were suddenly in a different place. I guess this is a positive "don't count your chickens before they hatch" moment, and a good reminder to wait until we have the full picture before coming to conclusions.
  • If there's a defining character of the vintage, it's the combination of intense structure, ample fruit, and powerful spice and mineral notes. Some vintages bring two or three of those, but having all four is rare. 2021 did. So did 2019, 2016, 2009, 2007, and 2005. There are other vintages that came close (I felt bad leaving out 2017 and 2003) but it's a great sign. I think this will be a vintage that will produce wines that will have great early appeal, but will really shine with time. At least I feel that with wines that are based on Mourvedre and Syrah. It's probably a slightly less strong Grenache vintage, and mixed on the trace varieties. But for those grapes that we rely on to make cellar-worthy wines, and the wines that are based around them, this will be a vintage to seek out.
  • Last year I wrote a blog post diving into vintage comps. I didn't include 2022 because we hadn't tasted the wines yet, but I speculated that what we were seeing reminded me of 2009, the last year we were impacted by both frost and drought. Then, as we blended the whites, I was leaning more toward 2015. Now, with the reds, I'm back to 2009. The wines we're making now are a bit different in style than they were then, a little less ripe, a little more elegant. But the intense structure and concentrated fruit of 2022 is reminiscent of the 2009 vintage. I'm hoping (and expecting) that the evolution in our own approach will make wines that I will be able to enjoy earlier than I did the 2009s. But if structured, intense wines with powerful aromatics and spice notes are your thing, 2022 should make you happy.

I'll let Chelsea have the last word, as I thought she summed up the experience we had during blending perfectly: "They're just so intensely structured, but honestly the balance is surprising given it was such a hot, weird year. They're wonderful. And I don't mean to sound so surprised, but it's been a pleasant surprise."


Blending table report: we piece together a smaller lineup of white wines from the painfully scarce 2022 vintage

We spent four days last week around our blending table, working to turn the 30 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2022 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. The good news is that we were excited about the lots we tasted and what we made looks like it will be good. The bad news is unlikely to be a surprise if you've been following this blog. The 2022 vintage was painfully scarce, particularly on whites, whose yields were down 29.3% from 2021 and a heartbreaking 55% from 2020. That meant that we were faced with some difficult questions before we even sat down to blend. With Roussanne lots most affected of all (down 63% from the combined impacts of lingering drought and a May frost) would we be able to find enough lots we loved to make an Esprit de Tablas Blanc? If we did, what would it look like, and what would it leave us? Read on.

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 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. Then, we start from the top of our hierarchy (with the whites, that's the Esprit de Tablas Blanc) and brainstorm possible blends, taste those blind against one another, and come to consensus. Once we've determined the blend and quantity for the Esprit Blanc, we set aside the lots needed and look at what we have left for possible Cotes de Tablas Blanc and varietal bottlings. Finally, we taste everything we're going to make to be sure that each feels complete and individual. A snapshot of my notes:

Blending whites 2023 - notes

In a normal year it takes us two days to taste through all the white lots. Not this year; we finished in one day. My quick thoughts on each variety are below. For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see three or four "1" grades, five or six "2" grades and one "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"). In rough harvest order:

  • Blending whites 2023 - BottlesViognier (6 lots): An above-average Viognier vintage, with classic flavors, good richness, and respectable acids. Since we don't use Viognier in Esprit Blanc, the best grade I was giving out was a "1/2". Three "1/2" lots, two "2" lots, and one "3" that ended up being more useful in blending than I expected.
  • Marsanne (4 lots): An outstanding Marsanne vintage, with all four lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeyed charm, creamy textures, and mineral-laced finish. I gave all four lots "1/2" grades, and we included Marsanne in our blending trials for Esprit Blanc for the first time since 2001 (!).
  • Picardan (3 lots): A strong representation of what we find appealing about Picardan: peppered citrus notes, good minerality, and solid acids. I gave two lots "1/2" grades and one (a single barrel of our heavy-press component, which was darker in color and lower in acid) a "2/3".
  • Bourboulenc (3 lots): The most challenging of the varieties we tasted, at least for me, the three lots were all quite different from one another. One four-barrel lot showed the combination of honeyed aromatics, rich, nutty texture, and bright acids we've come to expect from this grape. Another, which was fermented in concrete egg, was higher toned and less expressive, with some reductive notes. And a third two-puncheon lot from our heavy-press component had the deep orange color we saw back in 2019, a lacquer-like savory note, and very bright acids. I gave the first lot a "1", the second a "2/3", and the third a "3".
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We nearly doubled last year's production and it was outstanding: citrusy and minerally, with lemon curd notes and great finishing brightness. I gave it a "1".
  • Grenache Blanc (4 lots): Our fewest Grenache Blanc lots in my memory. But what there was was outstanding: citrus and brine on the nose, lovely peach and grapefruit pith on the palate, and the combination of brightness and texture that we look for. I gave three lots "1" grades and even the fourth, which I gave a "2", was appealing: just softer and less vibrant.
  • Picpoul Blanc (3 lots): Only three small lots totaling just 648 gallons. Luckily all were strong: pithy pineapple and salty minerality, still just a touch sweet. I gave two lots "1" grades and the third, which had a little more texture but a little less brightness, a "1/2".
  • Roussanne (6 lots): All the best options for making Esprit Blanc involved using all or almost all of the Roussanne we had. So it was a relief that the quality of the six Roussanne lots was so high. I gave four of them "1" grades for their classic, rich, honeyed pear noses, the kiss of sweet oak emphasizing their rich texture, and their long finishes. One other, to which I gave a "1/2", was less rich but brighter, while the last, which I gave a "2" sat at the other end of the spectrum: darker in color, rich and nutty, but a touch low in acid.

We finished by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. Our minimum amount of Esprit Blanc that can cover the different needs we have for it with our wine club, tasting room, wholesale and export is about 1700 cases. Given the scarcity of Roussanne, using all of it only made up about 36% of a possible Esprit Blanc blend at that minimum quantity. Given that our least-ever Roussanne in the Esprit Blanc was 45%, and it's more typically around 65%, we first needed to make sure that what we could make would feel at home in the history of Esprit Blanc bottlings. Knowing that we wanted to keep our Grenache Blanc percentage below the Roussanne percentage, again to preserve the link with our established tradition, limited our options further.

We ended up deciding to make up three different potential Esprit Blancs. One would use all the Roussanne, Picpoul, and Clairette, the best Grenache Blanc lots, and the top lots of Bourboulenc and Picardan, at our minimum total quantity. In my mind, this was the baseline Esprit Blanc, closest to what we'd done in the past. The second would make about 100 more cases of wine by increasing the Grenache Blanc to the maximum we could use while keeping just below the Roussanne percentage, and adding the rest of our Picardan. And a third modified the baseline blend by replacing the least-strong Roussanne lots with Marsanne. If we'd chosen this, it would have been the first time since 2003 that we'd have used a grape outside of the six white grapes legal for use in Chateauneuf-du-Pape. So even the decision to try a blend that included Marsanne caused a certain amount of hesitation. But given the strength of the Marsanne this vintage and the scarcity of Roussanne we thought if there were ever a year to break with tradition this would be it.

Wednesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. To my surprise, our least favorite was the first glass (which upon revealing, was the one I'd been thinking of as our baseline Esprit Blanc). While it was pretty, with good texture and weight, it just wasn't as exciting as the other two. We split pretty evenly between the other two options, with some preferring the elegance and openness of the second glass and others the extra texture and brighter acids of the third glass. When we revealed what was in the two glasses, and realized that the third option was the one that eschewed Marsanne for extra Grenache Blanc and Picardan, and made us 100 more cases of the Esprit Blanc, we had our winner. The final blend was 33% Roussanne,  32% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 8% Picardan., 8% Clairette Blanche, and 5% Bourboulenc. Our rule is always that the Esprit wines get first dibs on whatever lots they need to be great. This year, that means it got all of the Roussanne, Picpoul, Picardan, and Clairette. It will hurt not having any of those for a varietal bottling, but at least we have an Esprit Blanc that we love.

Looking at what we had left after setting aside the Esprit Blanc lots made it clear that if we made a Cotes Blanc in anything like our normal 1,000 case quantity, that would use most of what was left and mean essentially no varietal bottlings for the year. That didn't seem to be a great choice, and would likely leave us short of wines to send out to our wine club. So we decided that the next step was to try varietal bottlings of what was left (Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Bourboulenc) and get down into the barrel-by-barrel decisions of what felt varietally appropriate and what we wanted to instead declassify into Patelin.

All four lots of the Marsanne were strong, and a blend of the four was expressive, classic, and lovely. Perfect. The remaining Grenache Blanc lots fit together beautifully, with the softer, richer lot providing depth and counterpoint to the citrusy brightness of the base. Done, and done. For Viognier, it was really a question of how much of the lot that I gave a "3" to we wanted to use. It had deep gold color, rich texture, and very bright acids. We tried a blend using both barrels, with neither barrel, and with one barrel and ended up deciding like Goldilocks that the one-barrel addition was just right. The other will become a useful part of the Patelin Blanc. Finally, with the Bourboulenc, we all decided that we preferred it as a varietal bottling without the two heavy-press puncheons. That finished off our varietal decision-making. 

On Thursday we got together to taste the wines we'd decided on and make sure that the Viognier and Bourboulenc lots that we hoped to declassify into the Patelin Blanc fit stylistically. We also tried for the first time a new 100% Grenache Blanc we're calling "Lignée de Tablas" about which I'll be sharing details a little later in the spring. The Patelin Blanc absorbed the declassified lots seamlessly, which was great, giving us a blend of 49% Grenache Blanc, 22% Viognier, 10% Marsanne, 10% Vermentino, 4% Roussanne, 3% Picpoul Blanc, and 2% Bourboulenc. That left us with seven white wines from 2022, and a feeling of relief around the table:

Blending whites 2023 - table cropped

My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:

  • 2022 Bourboulenc (275 cases): Medium gold. A nose of orange bitters, lacquer, and nuts. On the palate, the orange note continues, with rich texture, bright acids, and a long finish.
  • 2022 Grenache Blanc (350 cases): A pretty nose of peaches and cream, crushed rock, and lemongrass. The mouth has Grenache Blanc's signature mouth-filling texture and white grapefruit flavors, bright acids, chalky minerality and a little pithy bite of green apple skin tannin on the finish.
  • 2022 Marsanne (475 cases): Quite polished already, with a nose of honeydew melon, sweetgrass, and briny minerality. The mouth has gentle but persistent flavors of lemon curd and cantaloupe, nice texture without any sense of weight, and a creamy mineral note that comes out on the long, clean finish. Lovely.
  • 2022 Viognier (700 cases): A charming nose of honeysuckle and Haribo peach. The palate is long, pure, and textured, with more stone fruit and a tarragon-like note of sweet green herbs. Rich texture is balanced by some structural weight and unusually good acids for Viognier. Should make a great wine club shipment wine.
  • 2022 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (4080 cases, plus some wine for boxes and kegs): A nose more driven by Grenache Blanc than Viognier right now: white grapefruit and petrichor, pepper spice and a little nutty depth. On the palate, flavors of stone fruit and lemon custard, persistent chalky minerality, fairly rich texture and vibrant acids. Exciting that we have a solid supply of this!
  • 2022 Lignée de Tablas Grenache Blanc (825 cases): A pretty lifted nose nose of white pepper and citrus pith. On the palate, more citrus, with a green citrus leaf element adding complexity. With solid texture, good acids, and a little sweet spice on the finish, this should be a nice addition to the lineup!
  • 2022 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (1850 cases): Despite its comparatively low percentage, a nose clearly expressive of Roussanne in its notes of beeswax, jasmine, and sweet spice. On the palate, good weight and texture, with flavors of peach pit, lanolin, a little kiss of oak, and a clean minerality that got described as rainwater and river stone. This will have another several months in oak, and should develop additional caramel notes and nutty depth before bottling.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • Given that we've never had so few options in our blending, it was a relief that the puzzle pieces fit together. All sorts of options were potentially on the table. Would we maybe not make an Esprit Blanc? It was possible. Would we have lots that didn't fit into the estate wines but also didn't work in the Patelin Blanc? Also possible. In the end, sacrificing the Cotes Blanc made the other puzzle pieces fit. With all the lovely rain we've been getting this winter, I hope we'll have a very different picture next year. Fingers crossed, please, that we dodge frost.
  • This is the stage where I often try to reach for what vintage(s) in our history might be good comps for what we've been tasting. And yes, it's early to make these sorts of judgments, but the vintage that this reminded me of most was 2015, at the nadir of our previous drought cycle. Like 2022, 2015 produced uneven results across different varieties, and that unevenness keeps me from thinking of it as a truly great vintage. But I love the 2015 Esprit Blanc, which reduced our quantity of Roussanne and used all our Picpoul and a healthy amount of Grenache Blanc. I think that the solution that we came to for the Esprit Blanc this year, with less Roussanne and more of the higher-acid, earlier-ripening varieties, will end up resembling the 2015 stylistically. If you like your Esprit Blancs on the fresher, more minerally side, while still carrying the essential honey and mineral flavors of Roussanne, this should be one you'll love.
  • For all that, I'm not sure we yet have a great handle on what the character is of the 2022 vintage. Each variety seemed to handle the year in its own way. That's a good thing, I think, and suggests we were able to keep up with the terrible heat wave that hit us in the beginning of September. Talking to some friends and neighbors, it seems not everyone was as lucky and that there were vineyards without the monitoring and labor capacity to get all their grapes off when they wanted. I don't think that the wines we tasted felt like they came from a hot vintage. No raisiny heaviness. No volatility. I hope to have a clearer sense of how to describe the year after we dive into the reds next month. 

Now that the blending decisions have been made, we can move forward in getting the wines racked, blended, and given time to settle and integrate. The Patelin Blanc and Lignée de Tablas will be the first to go into bottle, in May. The varietal wines will be next, in June. And the Esprit Blanc will go into foudre and have another 9 months to evolve before its scheduled December bottling.

But in a year where all sorts of difficult options were on the table, I'm not sure our first blending week could have gone much better. We look forward to sharing these 2022 whites with you, and apologize that many of them will go very fast because of their scarcity. When they come out, don't blink.


Harvest 2022 Recap: We Emerge Cautiously Optimistic

On Friday, with the bin of Counoise pictured below, we completed the 2022 harvest. The combination of our earliest-ever start and a (roughly average) 51-day duration meant that we tied with 2013 for our second-earliest-ever finish, with only the frost impacted 2001 vintage finishing earlier. Our rock star harvest crew deserved to celebrate, as they powered through our busiest-ever week on their way to a 9% increased amount of fruit compared to 2021 in a harvest that was five days shorter:

Last Bin of Harvest 2022 - Cropped
2022 will likely always be defined by the ten-day heat wave that began on August 31st. You can see it clearly in this graph of high temperatures by day, as well as the cool stretch that followed, culminating in our unusual September rainstorm September 18th-19th:

Daily High Temperatures 2022 vs Average - Revised

We were already harvesting before that heat wave hit, thanks to warm early-August weather and relatively light crop levels, but that definitely kicked it into high gear. It's remarkable (though hardly surprising) how closely the harvest by week tracks the temperatures, most notably in our busiest-ever week of over 130 tons between September 4th and 10th. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit:

2022 Harvest by Week

Because of the heat-induced sprint in early September, this seems to me to be the kind of year which will separate the wineries with a secure source of labor from those without. When you get an extreme event (typically heat or rain) it impacts an entire region. All the growers and wineries, faced with needing to pick at an increased pace, are competing for the same finite number of field crew. If you can't get the crew, you can't pick. Sugars can spike, acids can tumble, and the cells of grape skins can start to break down, opening the door for insect damage or rot. But we've given our core field crew year-round employment since 1996, which means that we're able to keep up with what's going on in the vineyard. Sure, it's more hours of overtime and more expense. But it's within your control. That's why it's the challenging vintages that shows the true quality of a winery's team. In a year like 2021, everyone should make great wine. That won't be the case this year. But I feel good about our prospects.

Yields were down 8.2% overall off the estate vs. 2021, and averaged 2.37 tons/acre. That's the lowest that we've seen this century except for the extreme drought year of 2015 and the frost years 2009 and 2001. And yet that number could have been worse. Like 2009, we had the twin impacts of drought and frost. But the most serious frost, which came late on May 11th, was localized in an 11-acre section of the vineyard we call Nipple Flat. I'd estimate that this one below-freezing night cost us three-quarters of our production from that section, which includes our largest block of Roussanne and additional sections of Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, and Vermentino. Lo and behold, those were the grapes that were seriously down:

Grape 2022 Yields (tons) 2021 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2021
Viognier 11.9 11.9 none
Marsanne 8.3 7.6 +9.2%
Grenache Blanc 14.2 23.4 -39.3%
Picpoul Blanc 4.2 5.2 -19.2%
Vermentino 8.7 11.4 -23.7%
Roussanne 10.5 28.1 -62.6%
Other whites 10.0 8.3 +20.5%
Total Whites 67.8 95.9 -29.3%
Grenache 52.5 54.7 -4.0%
Syrah 39.9 37.6 +6.1%
Mourvedre 42.9 44.4 -3.4%
Tannat 13.5 11.1 +21.6%
Counoise 14.4 12.5 +15.2%
Other reds 11.8 8.4 +40.5%
Total Reds 175.0 168.7 +3.7%
Total 242.8 264.6  -8.2%

Complicating year-over-year calculations is our decision to start regenerating some of our weaker blocks by pulling out the vines and building up the soils before planned replanting this winter. Last year, we pulled out vines in two areas,. each about three acres: a block of Mourvedre down on Nipple Flat (which turned out to be good timing, since it would have gotten clobbered by frost anyway) and our second-largest block of Roussanne at the north-east edge of the property (which turned out to be a bummer, since our largest Roussanne block was on Nipple Flat). So we have about six fewer acres in production in 2022 than we did in 2021. All this means that the yields picture looks better that it might appear, as despite our third drought year in a row, the non-frozen sections of the vineyard generally saw yields slightly above what we saw in 2021. That's evidence that the early rain that we got last winter, and the work we've been doing with our flock of sheep to build up our soils' water-holding capacity, helped give the vines the reserves they needed to withstand the stresses of the August and September heat. It also bodes well for quality. 

Help is on the way. In the last couple of years we've planted nearly 30 new acres, including blocks of Mourvedre, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, and Clairette Blanche. Much of that is on Jewel Ridge and based on the quality of the first tiny picks we did off those blocks this year seems likely to be the gem its name suggests. And this and next winter we have plans to plant an additional dozen or so acres of Picpoul, Vermentino, Cinsaut, and Roussanne. I'll share more news on that as it happens. It does mean that for the second year in a row our choices in blending are surely going to be constrained. I'm particularly concerned with what we're going to do with the Esprit de Tablas Blanc from this vintage; the wine has never been less than 45% Roussanne, and even if we assume all the Roussanne we harvested is good enough to go into the Esprit Blanc, which isn't a guarantee, that would cap our production of that wine at 1,500 cases, which isn't really enough for the many things we use it for. So, we'll have a challenge on our hands at blending time. The low quantities also preclude us having enough of any single white grape to do a varietal wine in the quantities we'd need to send it out to our 8000 VINsider Classic Club members. But I have faith that we'll figure out something fun and creative to do. Stay tuned on that too.

We had 115 harvest lots, an increase of five vs. 2021. These included three fewer estate lots (82 instead of 85) and eight more Patelin lots (33 instead of 25). That will be a silver lining to this harvest: we were able to source some great, new vineyards for Patelin, and our quantities of these wines should be assured. In fact, we were able to get enough Patelin that our overall quantity of fruit that we processed this year is up about 9% vs. 2021. In the photo below, the estate lots are in yellow, while the purchased lots are purple on our completed harvest chalkboard:

Finished Harvest Chalkboard

One way that you can get a quick assessment of a vintage is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2010, our average degrees Brix and pH at harvest:

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
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
2021 22.12 3.55
2022 22.14 3.70

While 2022's sugar numbers are very similar to 2021's, we saw lower acids due to the heat and drought. The result were numbers remarkably like 2016, which was culmination of the five-year 2012-2016 drought in California. The 2016 vintage was an outstanding one in terms of quality, so that's good. But eventually, we really do need some rain. Fingers crossed for this winter. 

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 the first thing he mentioned was the pace: "It was an insanely hectic month which beat us all up. I think we scared the interns a bit." But he's happy with what he's seen in the reds so far: "The Pinots and Syrahs are tasting super. Not massive, but complex, with good depth of color." Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi had a similar take on the whites: "they feel a little more luscious because of the high-pH year. They're sultry, I think." We're looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2022 even better in coming weeks.

Now that we're done picking, it can rain any time, though there's nothing in the immediate forecast. We've already returned our flock of sheep to the vineyard, where they're eating second crop clusters before they rot and spreading their manure. This should give the soil's microbial activity a boost as soon as it rains:

Sheep reentered into the vineyard

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, along with our sorting table and destemmer. And we're going through the white barrels one by one and making sure that they're topped off. A little head space is necessary when it's bubbling away actively, but once fermentation slows down we need to make sure each barrel is full: 

Chelsea topping barrels

After the challenges of the growing season, we're grateful for the return of a slower pace. And we're excited that it looks like quality will be good. I'll let Chelsea have the last word: "Everything is tasting really beautiful. I just wish there was more."


We reach (and pass) the peak of the 2022 harvest... that escalated quickly

By Ian Consoli

We passed the midpoint of the 2022 harvest sometime last week, and what a week it was. In terms of timing, that's pretty early. This would make sense since this harvest was our earliest start (August 17th). But when you take into consideration our early estimation that it would be a prolonged, drawn-out harvest, this past week threw us for a loop. Harvest usually lasts about eight weeks, so passing the midpoint in three and exceeding it in the fourth is an outlier like we haven't seen. The 10-day heat wave will go down as something of a winemaker legend. I can already hear the stories from individuals who worked in cellars in Paso Robles in 2022 talking about "the heat wave of September 2022." With all the bins, fruit, and heat, our vineyard and cellar teams continue to smile and enjoy the rush of harvest 2022.

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the Press Bins of fruit waiting on the crushpad

Harvest Intern Louisa Cleaning the PressHarvest intern Louisa cleans the press

 

So what did the heat wave look like?

Daily Max temp at Tablas Creek during heatwave

In this graph, you can see the max daily temperatures during the 10-day heatwave were consistently over 100, topping out just shy of 110 on three of those.

The heat caused a rapid ripening of fruit, bringing an avalanche of berries into the cellar. When the team left on September 2nd for the holiday weekend, we were ~35% of our way through harvest, based on our estimates of the tonnage we expect by the end. By the end of September 9th, that number had jumped all the way to 63% of the way through harvest. Winemaker Neil Collins and Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg noted they'd never seen a week like this in their decades in the industry. Multiple varieties jumped 6 Brix in a single week. Varieties that we typically harvest late (Bourboulenc, for example) came in at this early-mid harvest stage. Terms like "madness" and "bonkers" became the go-to when trying to explain what was going on.

Fruit Raining into the cellar 2022

Realizing what an anomaly this past week was, I thought it would be fun to look at the last three harvest chalkboards to see how many lots we had picked by the end of September 9th. In 2020 we had harvested 19 lots; in 2021, 32 lots; this year, we are already at 65 lots. Bonkers indeed.

Chalkboards side-by-side

In terms of varieties, we have picked a bit of everything. In fact, on Tuesday and Wednesday of last week, sequential picks off the estate brought in Vermentino, Roussanne, Picardan, Syrah, Counoise, Viognier, Mourvedre, and Grenache, grapes that normally encompass a 6-8 week range. We’re done with a few varieties, including Viognier, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and (just today) Syrah and Marsanne, while we're continuing to wait on the bulk of perennial late-ripeners like Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all of our presses are in use simultaneously, and all our tanks are full. As soon as a lot finishes fermentation, we're pressing those tanks off and washing them out to make room for that day’s fruit. The cellar is so full, we had to move the sorting table outside to make room for the fruit. It's a flurry of activity in the cellar.

Cellar team on sorting table

It is important to note that while we are seeing a record number of lots come in for this time of year, yields are a little all over the place. Varieties like Syrah, Viognier, and Marsanne (none of which were much affected by our May frosts) are seeing totals equal to or slightly higher than last year's. Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino (all of which have blocks in our low-lying Nipple Flat section, which was hit hard by May’s frost) are all down significantly from last year. This is particularly bad for Grenache Blanc and Vermentino, which were already down 40%-50% from 2020. Roussanne, whose most extensive planting is on Nipple Flat, is sure to be down sharply as well. For the rest, we’ll see.

Frost Damaged Grenache Blanc VineA normally vigorous Grenache Blanc vine in Nipple Flatt showing the effects of frost damage

In the vineyard, it feels like we came out of the heatwave mostly unscathed. Some pre-emptive irrigation on our more sensitive grapes like Mourvedre helped minimize raisining, the vines’ self-defense mechanism of pulling the moisture they need to survive from the clusters. There was some very limited damage, but nothing like we'd feared. Most of the remaining signs of the heatwave are what you see on the sun-kissed Marsanne cluster below: healthy and ready for harvest.

Sun kissed Marsanne Cluster

We also hit an important milestone last week with our first significant harvest of Jewel Ridge, the 35-acre dry-farmed block on the parcel we purchased in 2011. We let it lay fallow for six years, grazing our sheep there and building organic matter in the soil before beginning planting in 2017. ⁠The nearly five combined tons we picked of Roussanne, Counoise, Mourvedre, and Grenache represent a big piece of the future of Tablas Creek.

First Pick of Jewel

We continue to see lovely fruit concentration in 2022. The combination of yet another drought year and frost-reduced yields means that all our varieties come in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The fact that both sugars and acids were at ideal levels is good evidence that we were able to keep up with the heat spike. The similarities Jason drew to the 2009 vintage in his most recent blog seem to be ringing more and more accurate.

In addition to the Mourvedre, Tannat, and Counoise still hanging on the vine, there are a couple more obscure varieties we look forward to bringing in, including Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche, a personal favorite. Most exciting of all is our block of Muscardin, the 14th and final Chateauneuf du Pape variety from the Beaucastel collection. We are hopeful this year could be the year we can finally get enough to bottle on its own. If the look of the clusters is any indication, it seems we're set to make history in 2022!

Muscardin Cluster in Fall 2022

Another good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines, including 10 tons of Grenache Blanc contracted just last week. That's always been one of the primary benefits for us of the Patelin program. In years where our own crop is plentiful, we use more Tablas fruit in those wines. In years where it's scarce, we reach out to the big network of growers who have our clones in the ground in Paso Robles and secure some more fruit to purchase. That should mean that even if many of our estate wines are scarce or can't be made in 2022, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now it's a question of how much longer harvest will last. Winemaker Neil Collins predicts another 3 weeks of fruit, which opens the possibility of being fully harvested before October even begins! That would certainly mark the first time in our history that happened. Either way, we are challenging our earliest end to harvest ever of October 3rd, set in 2001. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.