The original model for Tablas Creek was that we were going to make one red wine and one white wine, with the thought that when the vineyard had matured, we might make a reserve-level white and red as well. We named our first wines Tablas Creek Blanc and Tablas Creek Rouge.
Within a few years, we'd come to the conclusion that this simple model was a mistake, for two reasons. First, it didn't give the market much help in figuring out what the wines were. Sure, the Rouge was red. And the Blanc was white. But other than providing elementary French lessons, that didn't help a consumer trying to figure out what was in those wines, or what they would taste like. In an era where blends from California didn't yet have a category on most shelves or wine lists, that was two strikes against us at the start. Second, and more importantly, having just one red and one white didn't give us any flexibility in putting the wines together. If using everything threw off the balance between the varietals, or a lot didn't have the character we wanted, our only option was to sell off those lots. That's a painful choice to make, and although we did it from time to time, usually the blends ended up containing something close to the full production of that color from that year.
Things started to change for us in 1999. We made the decision during the blending of that vintage to pull out a couple of Grenache lots that were juicy but also quite alcoholic and tannic from our main blend, blended them with a little Syrah and Mourvedre, and called the wine "Petite Cuvée". That allowed us to shift our main red blend to be heavier on Mourvedre and feature a richer, lusher profile. We called that "Reserve Cuvée".
The next year, we added a third blend from three remarkable barrels, called it Panoplie, and renamed the two blends we'd made the year before. Petite Cuvée became Cotes de Tablas, referencing the usually Grenache-based wines of Cotes du Rhone, while the Reserve Cuvée became Esprit de Beaucastel, connecting its Mourvedre-driven profile with that of Beaucastel and making our connection with our partners more explicit. And with the 2001 vintage, we applied that same model to the whites, making our first vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. We were able to be selective with the Esprit tier, make better wines than before, and get recognition for that from press and collectors. We were able to sell the Cotes tier at a price that restaurants could pour by the glass, and get exposure to new customers. As I wrote last year in my reflections on our 30th anniversary, these changes were a big part of helping us get ourselves established in the marketplace. But as anyone who has counted the 25+ wines that we now make each year will realize, that's not the end of the story.
It turned out that each year there were some lots that were so evocative of an individual grape that it seemed a shame to blend that character away. The first time we acted on this nagging feeling was 2001, when my dad identified two Roussanne barrels while tasting through the cellar in advance of that year's blending. He made the executive decision that we should bottle them alone and we'd be able to figure out how to sell them. It was, after all, only 50 cases. And it turned out that with the opening of our tasting room in 2002, it was valuable having something that was not available in distribution for the people who made the trek out to see us, and even more valuable having a varietal bottling of this grape that was still new to most of our visitors, so they could start to wrap their heads around it. The label has my dad's typically dense, complete description of the selection process on its back:
And the wine itself has always been compelling. I have a vivid memory of a dinner I hosted in 2004 or 2005 where, when this 2001 Roussanne was opened on the other side of the room, the whole gathering stopped what they were doing and looked over because the room had filled with the aroma of honeysuckle. But it had been years since I opened one, and so I pulled a bottle out of our library yesterday to check in, and invited our winemaking team to join me. It was amazing.
My tasting notes from yesterday:
A lovely gold color in the glass, still tinged with Roussanne's typical hint of green. The nose shows sugar cookies and lemon curd, warm honeycomb and cinnamon stick. On the palate, dense and lush with flavors of spun sugar and candied ginger. Someone around the table called it "liquid flan". And as sweet as all those descriptors make it sound, it was dry, with just enough acid to keep it fresh without taking away from the wine's lushness. The finish had notes of graham cracker, dried straw, and vanilla custard. Neil called it "an exceptional moment for an exceptional bottle".
With this wine as the starting point, we added new varietals most vintages in the 2000's, each time when we found lots that evoked the grape particularly vividly. Syrah, Counoise, Tannat, Grenache Blanc, and Vermentino debuted in 2002. Mourvedre, Viognier, and Picpoul saw their first vintages in 2003. Grenache came on in 2006, and Marsanne completed the list of our original imports in 2010. Once we started getting the obscure Chateauneuf du Pape grapes out of quarantine and into production in the 2010s, those made their debuts as varietal bottlings: Clairette Blanche and Terret Noir in 2013, Picardan in 2016, and Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, and Cinsaut in 2019. These wines have proven to be fascinating for us, and great tools to share the potential and diversity of the Rhone pantheon with our wine club members and other visitors to the winery.
But it all started here, in 2001, with two barrels of Roussanne. To know that two decades later that first-ever Tablas Creek varietal wine is not just still alive but a shining testament to the potential of this grape in this place is pretty darn cool.
It's been an exciting couple of years for us getting to discover new grapes. Ten days ago, Muscardin became the fourteenth and final grape in the Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape collection to make it into the cellar at Tablas Creek. I wrote about it on the occasion of its grafting into the vineyard last June, and we're hoping to ferment maybe 10 gallons this year. I've written this summer about two red grapes that we harvested for the first time in 2019: Vaccarèse and Cinsaut. These are both sitting quietly in the cellar, awaiting bottling next year. But somehow I haven't yet written about Bourboulenc, which we've already put into bottle and even sent out to the members of our white wine VINsider club this fall. It's particularly egregious that I haven't taken up Bourboulenc given that it was the grape my dad was the most excited about when we decided to import seven obscure Chateauneuf du Pape grapes in 2003. So, let's dive in.
Bourboulenc's History The grape Bourboulenc first appears in the historical record in 1515 in a description of a vineyard near Cavaillon, an ancient village about ten miles south-east of Avignon.1 It appears to have been named after another vineyard near Avignon that was known as Barbolenquiera. Never very widely planted or exceptionally rare, Bourboulenc has seen a gradual decline in acreage since 1970, when it peaked at some 3,000 acres. Its decline is likely due to a fashion for richer white wines in the 1980s and 1990s and a shift in focus across the south of France from white to rosé in more recent years.
Today, Bourboulenc is the fourth-most planted white grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (after Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Roussanne) at nearly 85 acres2, making it roughly 1% of total plantings and 15% of white acreage. As of 2016, there were about 1,230 acres planted worldwide, all of it in France3 except the handful of acres that were planted from our clones here in California. It appears never to have gone far from where it originated, and today can be found in the regions surrounding Avignon, including Costières de Nîmes, Tavel, Cassis, Bandol, Languedoc, Corbières, Minervois, and (of course) Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Bourboulenc is pronounced boor-boo-lenk. Like nearly all French words, the syllables are emphasized equally.
Bourboulenc at Tablas Creek In our first round of grape imports, which we brought into quarantine in 1989 and were released in 1992, we focused on the main grapes at Beaucastel: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier. Shortly after, we brought in Picpoul Blanc.
By 2003, we were sufficiently convinced that the more obscure Rhone grapes could shine here that we decided to import the complete Beaucastel collection, which meant another seven grapes. Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche were the first two to be released to us, in 2009. Picardan was next in 2012. Cinsaut, Bourboulenc, and Vaccarese were released in 2015, propagated, and then planted at Tablas in 2017. Muscardin, the seventh and final of those grapes, was released to us in 2017.
We chose a small (0.66 acre) block with a west-facing slope at the far western edge of Tablas Creek for Bourboulenc, and harvested our first small crop in 2019.
Bourboulenc in the Vineyard and Cellar Bourboulenc vines are fairly vigorous, the berries relatively large, and the clusters loose, which makes it resistant to rot. In France, it is known as drought-tolerant and prized for its ability to retain good acids while still achieving above-average body, but can be a risk because it is late-ripening. We haven't found that to be true here. In 2019 (our first harvest) we picked 2.15 tons of Bourboulenc at 20° Brix (roughly 12.4% potential alcohol), and a pH of 3.38. In 2020 we harvested 3.05 tons at 19° Brix and a pH of 3.38. Both years we picked in September, at roughly the one-third mark of harvest. That puts the grape in synch with Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. The sugars were among the lower levels that we picked, and the acids toward the lower pH (higher acid) end.
In 2019, and to a lesser extent in 2020, we noticed a distinctive orange color in the Bourboulenc juice as it came out of the press. Much of that color dropped out during fermentation, but it remained a darker gold than most of our white wines. This is not mentioned in the literature anywhere that we've been able to find, nor is it a phenomenon that the Perrins have seen at Beaucastel. We're working on the tentative hypothesis that perhaps because the vines were young the clusters were exposed to too much sun, and worked in 2020 to leave more canopy to shade the clusters better.
In the cellar we have fermented Bourboulenc in a small stainless steel tank each of the last two years and then moved it to neutral barrels to complete its malolactic fermentation.
In the long run, we're excited to have Bourboulenc become a part of our blends. But we always prefer to bottle new grapes on their own the first few years so we can wrap our own heads around their character and share it with our guests and fans. So, it was exciting that it showed well in our blending trials this spring. We bottled some 145 cases of our 2019 Bourboulenc. 80 of those cases we set aside to go out to the members of our White Wine-Only VINsider Club this fall. We sold out of the other 65 in less than six weeks, as it quickly became a favorite among both our team and our guests.
Flavors and Aromas Our experience with Bourboulenc here is only one vintage long, but that debut vintage showed a nose of lychee and wet rocks, lightly floral, with an unusual and appealing fresh almond note. On the palate, it was richly textured and softly mineral, with pineapple and Seville orange fruit and a little mintiness, pretty and delicate and lovely. We have no idea how this will age, but given its slightly oxidative note even in its youth I'm guessing it might be best suited to drinking younger rather than older. We will know more in coming years.
Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)
On Friday, with the bin of Tannat pictured below, we completed the 2020 harvest. This capped a 45-day sprint: among our shorter harvests and earliest finishes in our history. What produced this sustained sprint? Our warmest-ever harvest season, with really no breaks in the heat, except for a couple of days where the atmospheric smoke was so thick that the sun never came out and the days topped out in the low 70s. That wasn't pleasant. But for all the unusual conditions and unrelenting pace, we're still happy with the quality of what's in the cellar. And that, in 2020, is reason to celebrate:
Many years, you expect to see a bell curve-shaped harvest graph. Not 2020. After a fairly gentle first two weeks, we brought in between 60 and 75 tons off the estate each week for five weeks, and then were done. The chart below shows the box-shaped curve (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit):
Yields were solid, up about 7% from 2019, but still in that 3-3.5 tons per acre that we see in many of our favorite vintages. This is somewhat of a surprise. We were expecting yields at or below last year even before the record heat waves impacted yields on sensitive grapes like Mourvedre and Roussanne. And those two grapes did suffer a bit. But other grapes, particularly the Grenaches, made up the difference. The complete picture:
2020 Yields (tons)
2019 Yields (tons)
% Change vs. 2019
Average yields ended up at 3.35 tons per acre, just slightly above our ten-year average, and almost exactly our average if you exclude the frost years of 2009 and 2011. Other years between 3 and 3.5 tons per acre include 2008, 2018, and 2019, all among our favorite years. It's perhaps unsurprising that our later-ripening grapes (like Mourvedre, Roussanne, Tannat, and Counoise) were the ones that were down (by just under 15%, on average) since the vines were starting to wear down under the relentless heat and dry conditions. Why we weren't down overall can be credited to Grenache, and that was up not because of the conditions in 2020, but because in 2019 both Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc suffered reduced yields due to shatter (incomplete fertilization of berries caused by cool weather or wind during flowering).
I am concerned that this is two years in a row of very low Mourvedre production. Both years came in under two tons per acre. Some of that is variety-specific (we know it's not a high-yielding grape like Grenache or even Syrah) but it came in at 2.6 tons/acre as recently as 2017, and in the mid-2000's averaged around 3.0 tons/acre. We know we have some missing vines in some of our older Mourvedre blocks, and we'll be replanting a Mourvedre block we pulled out a couple of years ago. Hopefully, between some additional focus on vine health and these new blocks, we'll be able to get our Mourvedre production back up. For this year, I'm expecting it to constrain the amount of Esprit de Tablas and varietal Mourvedre we can make.
We had 118 harvest lots, an increase of 23 over 2019. Most of that is multiple picks that we made with our late-ripening blocks (identified with Roman numerals in the chalkboard below) but it's also exciting to see our first-ever harvest of Muscardin:
That Muscardin, 130 pounds in total, is currently sitting in our smallest stainless steel microfermenter. We're hoping for maybe 10 gallons of wine, enough to taste and evaluate. Stay tuned!
Another way that you can get a quick assessment of concentration is to look at average sugars and acids. Since 2007, the average degrees Brix and pH:
You'll note that 2020's numbers are very similar to last year's, and in fact our average harvest pH has been steady for three years. Given how much we love the 2019's, that's a good thing. It also suggests that, as much as we know that the late-ripening grapes did suffer in the heat, our multiple picks allowed us to get the riper clusters off the healthier vines early enough to maintain solid acids.
In terms of weather, I feel like I invited disaster when in late July I commented that 2020's conditions had been, so far, benign. And almost from that moment, it got hot. Some of those days had noteworthy, record-breaking heat. But even the days that weren't noteworthy were mostly warmer than normal. Between August 10th and October 9th (our last day of harvest), we saw just 15 days cooler than seasonal averages, vs. 46 days above, often significantly so. You can see the two stretches that broke records in mid-August and early September, but it's worth also noting the third spike in late September and early October, with daytime highs some 15+ degrees above normal.
Looking at that information another way, our August degree day totals were 25% above the average of what is already our a very hot month. September was 21% above average. And the first 9 days of October (we finished picking October 9th) were 55% above our 20-year averages. No wonder harvest was short! The chart below shows our degree days by month, including the warmer-than-normal May and June, the cooler-than-normal July, and then the scorching August-October periods. Note that October's information is for the first 9 days, as we picked our last block on October 9th:
I mentioned in my introduction that the duration of harvest -- 45 days -- was on the short side for us. But it's in keeping with what we've observed with all our vintage markers since August, that the durations were compressed by the heat. That includes the duration between veraison and harvest, and between first harvest and last harvest. But individual grapes often stretched across the harvest, as we went through in multiple passes to get what was ripe off the vines while it still had good acidity, knowing we would come back a second or third time if necessary. So, the sequencing we often talk about, with harvest beginning with grapes like Syrah, Vermentino, and Viognier, moving to mid-ripening grapes like Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Grenache, and finishing with late grapes like Roussanne, Counoise, Picpoul, and Mourvedre is more complex in 2020. Here's the spread in harvest dates for our principal grapes. We picked four different grapes on our last harvest day (October 9th). The first pick of those grapes were September 4th, September 15th, September 23rd, and September 29th!
Viognier: August 25-September 12
Counoise: September 4-October 9
Vermentino: September 9-11
Syrah: September 9-October 8
Marsanne: September 10-11
Grenache Blanc: September 14-28
Grenache Noir: September 15-October 9
Roussanne: September 16-October 8
Mourvedre: September 23-October 9
Tannat: September 29-October 9
Picpoul: October 2-7
In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and he was unusually enthusiastic, commenting that all the lots showed lots of character, better acids than he'd been expecting, and savory, spicy personalities. We've been tasting lots to try to find any that might have even a hint of smoke taint from the California wildfires earlier in the season, but haven't found even one. That's a relief. As for the vintage's personality, we'll know more in coming weeks.
Of course, just because we've finished picking doesn't mean that we're done with our cellar work. There are still plenty of lots to be pressed off, tanks to be dug out, and fermentations to monitor. But it feels different than it does earlier in harvest, when you're emptying tanks to make room for the next pick. Now, when we press something off and clean a tank out, that's the last time of the season. We've already put a couple of our open-top fermenters outside, where they'll winter over without taking up space. And everything smells amazing, the rich aroma of young red wines spreading throughout the cellar with every press load:
Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time. There was a chance of some rain this past weekend, though as often happens with early-season systems, it petered out without providing any precipitation here. And, there's nothing wet in the long-term forecast. But that gives us time to put the vineyard to bed, get the animals out into the vineyard to eat any second crop clusters before they rot, spread their manure and jump start the winter soil microbial activity. It also means that we don't have to worry about grapes on the vine being impacted by any other extreme weather that we might see. It is 2020, after all.
And yet, despite all the challenges, in this craziest year that any of us have experienced, we're feeling cautiously optimistic that the 2020 wines might provide something we want to remember.
As I write this, we've passed the 90% mark of the 2020 harvest. But that doesn't mean we're on the gentle tail end of things, just waiting for the last few lots to finish as we cruise into autumn. No, this harvest is more like a sprint to the tape at the end of a race. Today, we have harvested two different blocks of Mourvedre, three different blocks of Counoise, plus Roussanne and Picpoul. We are pressing off red lots, washing barrels to put those newly-pressed wines into, and washing out the tanks they came from so they're ready for more. It's a beehive of activity. I thought it would be fun to give a visual tour of what this, one of the busiest days of the year, feels like. First, the crushpad, littered with bins and barrels:
Our main cellar room, looking toward the crushpad, shows closed tanks around the outside and open-top fermenters down the middle. They're all full, except a few of our largest blending tanks and the one open-top that is clean and ready for some of the Mourvedre that arrived today. Each tank has to be punched down or pumped over at least twice a day:
The room where we have our white fermentations going looks deceptively quiet, but each of the barrels gets measured each day so we know its progress through fermentation. You can see some of that work going on in the back of the room, between the foudre stacks:
We've moved as many barrels as we can out of our red barrel room to make room for macro-bins, each with a small-lot fermentation going:
The room that's full of upright tanks (below left) is quiet now, but five of the six big tanks are full of fermenting red lots. The sixth? It was drained and washed this morning, and will be filled this afternoon. For now it's empty, so you can see (below right) the warm color stained inside by generations of red fermentations, as well as the stainless steel tubing that allows us to control the temperature (and therefore the speed) of the fermentations inside:
The only room that's not seeing any activity is our foudre room, where the 2019 red blends are sitting quietly, aging and mellowing, in preparation for next summer's bottling:
On the crushpad, we have twin presses going. In the left we have newly-harvested Roussanne. In the right is Mourvedre that has been fermenting and macerating on the skins for about two weeks:
Where does the newly-pressed wine go? Into barrels. Most of these barrels have been sitting empty the last few months, so we need to make sure they're clean and that the staves haven't dried out. Steam is a very water-efficient way of doing both:
In the vineyard, it's getting hard to find blocks with grapes still on the vines. After today, those blocks will be limited to Mourvedre and Counoise, and even most of those blocks have been picked once already. A couple of blocks with fruit still on them include the Mourvedre just south of the winery (left) and a low-lying head-trained Counoise block toward the western edge of our original parcel (right). Everything is ready; it's just a question of sequencing to make sure we have space for what arrives.
Finally, one piece that it feels appropriate to end on. I talk a lot about the importance of continuity in our vineyard crew, who we've given year-round employment to since the mid-1990's. We rely on that crew to do most of our sorting out in the field, so underripe or damaged grapes don't even make it to the sorting table. I loved this photo of our lowest-lying Grenache block, which was picked Monday, with rejected clusters left on the ground to decompose and return their nutrients to the soil:
With the fruit nearly all in, the chance of rain that's in the forecast for this weekend would have only positive consequences. We'll keep our fingers crossed for that, and enjoy the last few days with grapes on the vine and the cellar a beehive of activity.
There's not much that's more fun for us here at Tablas Creek than getting to explore new, rare, and little-known grapes. So last year, when we harvested three grapes for the first time ever, was a bonanza for us. Two of these grapes (Bourboulenc and Cinsaut) are fairly well known in France, with Cinsaut even achieving enough success to have been brought to regions as diverse as Spain, South Africa, Australia and California. But much less is known about the last of the three new grapes, Vaccarèse. One of the rarest grapes in Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation at just over 10 acres1, Vaccarèse accounts for just 0.3% of the appellation's acreage. There is little more outside Chateauneuf, with just 28 acres recorded in France as of 2016 and none, until we brought in ours, elsewhere in the world2. We've now picked two vintages of this grape, and while we don't know a ton yet, we're excited enough that I thought it would be fun to take a deep dive into what we have learned.
Early History The grape Vaccarèse appears to have been named after the village of Vaccarès, in the Camargue region just south-west of Avignon. As Vaccarèse, it has a long history in the Rhone, with its first historical mention coming in 1538 as a grape planted in a village outside Avignon (coincidentally, in a document with one of the earliest-ever mentions of Bourboulenc too)3. As you would expect of a grape at least five centuries old, it's known by a few other names, with Camarèse (apparently named after another southern French village, Camarès) and Brun Argenté (which translates to "brown silvered" for its dark bark and silvery look of the underside of its leaves) being the two most common. Despite this long history, it does not appear to have ever been planted far from the Rhone Valley, or been a dominant grape even in its homeland.
Vaccarèse is pronounced vɒk-ɜ-rɛz. (vock-uh-rez). Even though it looks like an Italian word, the final "e" is silent. Like nearly all French words, the syllables are emphasized equally.
Vaccarèse at Tablas Creek In our first round of grape imports, which we brought into quarantine in 1989 and were released in 1992, we focused on the main grapes at Beaucastel: Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier. Shortly after, we brought in Picpoul Blanc.
By 2003, we'd been sufficiently convinced that the more obscure Rhone grapes could shine here that we decided to import the complete Beaucastel collection, which meant another seven grapes. Terret Noir and Clairette Blanche were the first two to be released to us, in 2009. Picardan was next in 2012. Cinsaut, Bourboulenc, and Vaccarese were released in 2015, propagated, and then planted at Tablas in 2017. (Muscardin, the seventh and final of those grapes, was released to us in 2018 and grafted into the vineyard last year.)
We chose a small (0.66 acre) block with a west-facing slope at the far western edge of Tablas Creek for Vaccarèse, and harvested our first small crop in 2019.
Vaccarèse in the Vineyard and Cellar There's not a ton of literature on Vaccarèse because of its scarcity, but in look and growth it seems similar to Counoise and Cinsaut, with large berries and large clusters, except that the colors of the berries are darker, more blue-black than the translucent purple of the others. It is reputed to be highly susceptible to bunch rot, which is not a problem in Paso Robles but may explain its scarcity in the Rhone.
In 2019 (our first harvest) we picked 2.61 tons of Vaccarèse at 22.4° Brix (roughly 13.8% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.50, and total acids of 4.76. The sugars were very near the median for our red grapes in 2019, while the pH was one of the lower (higher acid) readings we saw.
In the cellar we were limited in our choices because we harvested so little, but we fermented it in a small stainless steel variable-capacity tank and then moved it to neutral barrels to complete its malolactic fermentation.
Although in the long run we're expecting Vaccarèse to become a part of our blends most years, we try to bottle new grapes on their own, so we can wrap our own heads around them and share them with our colleagues and fans. So it was exciting that in our blending trials this spring we were excited enough about the Vaccarèse that we think it will stand on its own proudly. We produced seven barrels, enough to bottle about 175 cases. The initial vintage will go into bottle late spring of 2021 and be released to wine club members later that year.
Flavors and Aromas In his seminal Ampelographie, Pierre Galet praises Vaccarèse for "an indisputable aromatic floral originality, a very fresh and very elegant flavor, particularly interesting for moderating the alcoholic character of Grenache in the rosés of Chusclan and the red wines of Chateauneuf du Pape."4
My experience with Vaccarèse is limited to a single vintage, but that initial vintage reminded me more of a Loire-style Cabernet Franc than it did anything from the Rhone. It was a lovely deep purple color, with a nose of pine forest and minty juniper. The mouth showed notes of tobacco and spice, medium body, some tannic grip, and fruit flavors playing a secondary role. It seems like its dark color, solid acidity and its spice and herbal notes will be useful counterpoints to fruitier, paler, lower-tannin Rhone grapes like Grenache, Counoise, or Cinsaut, but we will see. As for the wine's ageworthiness? We have no idea. Stay tuned!
Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)
Sometime early last week, Neil walked into the office we share to report that we've hit the halfway point based on our projections. We're done with all our whites except Roussanne and Picpoul. Syrah and Cinsaut are all in, as is much of our Grenache. We're beginning to turn our attention to the late trio of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. 167 tons in, I thought it would be a good time to step back and assess what we've learned so far. It seems appropriate to start with the requisite photo of bins all over the crushpad:
Another sign our harvest has hit the midpoint: we've completed the left column of our harvest chalkboard:
With our early-ripening grapes complete, we have an opportunity to wrap our heads around the vintage's yields. Of the already-picked grapes, it looks like we're very close to the numbers we saw in 2019: Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne, Clairette Blanche, Picardan, Pinot Noir, and Syrah are all within 10% of their 2019 totals. We did see a little less Vermentino (down about 15%) and a little more of our new grapes that are now on their fourth leaf (Vaccarese, Bourboulenc, and Cinsaut). Overall, of the grapes we're done picking, our 2020 yields are 1.3% less than 2019. Given that 2019 finished at 3.02 tons per acre, nearly exactly at our ten-year average, and that other years right around 3 tons per acre read like a litany of our favorite-ever vintages (2003, 2007, 2014, and 2016, as well as 2019) that's encouraging.
It's even more encouraging that we've seen zero evidence of any smoke taint in the grapes we've harvested so far. That's consistent with our belief that the smoke that was here in August wasn't thick enough or around for long enough to cause damage, but it's still very good news. Our thoughts are with our neighbors in regions to our north who have been dealing with the fallout from earlier fires, and now have the Glass Fire to deal with. The photos I've seen are just heartbreaking.
The last couple of weeks have seen perfect ripening conditions, with days topping out in the upper-80s to mid-90s, and cool nights down in the 40s and 50s. It's supposed to warm up a bit this week, but nothing extreme, so it seems like we're going to roll right through the end of harvest uninterrupted. To figure out what comes next, we're sampling the remaining blocks on a near-daily basis. In the below photo, Vineyard Manager David Maduena has Roussanne and Grenache samples he's starting to crush to get a representative sample for measurement:
I thought it would be fun to take a look at the main grapes that are still out in the vineyard, roughly in the order in which they're likely to arrive in the cellar. First, two photos of Grenache, which is likely to be all picked by the end of the week. I'll be sad, because it's always the most beautiful grape in the vineyard to photograph:
Next, Roussanne. We've made a few "cherry picks" of this notoriously uneven ripener, going in to get the ripest clusters off the healthiest vines while they still have good acids, while leaving the bulk of the fruit out for some more ripening time.
Mourvedre is likely to be our last grape picked, sometime in mid-October, but because we have so much of it planted it shows a range of ripenesses. We brought in our first Mourvedre lot last Wednesday, from a head-trained block at the extreme western edge of our property, but more of it looks like the below photo:
We haven't harvested any Tannat, but we expect to start getting some into the cellar later this week. This photo, from a head-trained block in the middle of the vineyard, is looking terrific. It seems like all the head-trained, dry-farmed blocks are looking strong this year.
Finally, Counoise. We did bring in just a little for our Dianthus rosé last week, but most of it just finished veraison and won't be in until mid-October. Perhaps you can see in this cluster why it was so prized as a table grape before the development of seedless grapes: the berries are large and juicy, with good acids:
While there are still plenty of grapes out in the vineyard, there are more and more blocks that are done, like the Cinsaut vines below. Those will get another month or two of photosynthesis, to store energy for the winter.
Harvest even in a normal year can feel like it passes in a blur. You wait anxiously for its beginning. When it starts, it's often slow at first, and you're waiting for things to heat up. Then, you're in the thick of it, and suddenly you're on the downside. It seems like 2020, with its bending of time from the pandemic, has only increased this sense. At the end of this week, we'll be roughly two-thirds done, and in three weeks, likely finished. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the sights and smells of a cellar full of grapes. We know that soon enough, we'll be washing equipment and putting things to bed for winter.
Early History The precise origin of Cinsaut (often spelled Cinsault) is unknown, but it likely evolved in the south of France. It is distantly related to Picpoul, and has been planted widely enough to be known by different names in Spain (Sinsó), Italy (Grecaù and Ottavianello), South Africa (Hermitage), Australia (Black Prince), and California (Black Malvoisie). As Cinsaut, it also plays significant roles in Lebanon, Morocco, and Turkey.1
Cinsaut is pronounced sæ-soʊ. The first syllable is like the "San" in San Francisco if you just stop just before the lingual "n". The second syllable is very close to the English "so". The syllables are emphasized equally.
The roughly 51,000 acres of Cinsaut in France make it the ninth-most-planted grape there, but that is just a fraction of the more than 120,000 acres there at its peak in the 1970s. Now, while much of the production is still used in red blends, an increasingly large share of this acreage goes into the region's many rosés.
Cinsaut is the fourth-most planted red grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (a distant fourth, after Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre) at 205 acres, 2.6% of total acreage.2
There is a long history of Cinsaut in California, though it has never been particularly widely planted here. As early as 1867, it was listed as "deserving of planting" in Thomas Hyatt's viticulture handbook.3 In 1990, there were 90 acres in California (it was called "Black Malvoisie" in the Grape Acreage Report), all but 3 planted 1980 or earlier and all but 10 in the Central Valley. By 2019, there were 99 acres in California, split roughly equally between the Central Valley, Central Coast, North Coast, and Sierra Foothills regions.
Cinsaut at Tablas Creek Although French grapegrowers have generally preferred Cinsaut over Counoise (to which it is often compared, because they play similar roles in Rhone blends) because it ripens earlier, the Perrins have long preferred the extra depth and brighter acids that Counoise contributes. Given our confidence that we could wait as long as we needed to ripen Counoise in Paso Robles, we chose to focus on Counoise in our original imports, back in 1989. But we always planned on eventually working with Cinsaut as well.
We included Cinsaut in our second wave of imports in 2003. It spent 9 years in quarantine at UC Davis before being released in 2012, along with Bourboulenc and Vaccarese. It took four years of propagation before we were able to plant our first quarter-acre block in 2017. The 2019 harvest was our first.
We added a second roughly half-acre head-trained block in 2019. The 0.82 acres we have accounts for 1% of California's 82 acres as of 2018.
Cinsaut in the Vineyard and Cellar In the vineyard, Cinsaut is vigorous and productive, with large clusters of large, dark-skinned berries. It thrives in drought conditions, and ripens roughly one-third of the way through the harvest cycle. In 2019 (our first vintage) we harvested on September 26th, at 22 Brix and a pH of 3.64, both near the median for our red grapes last year.
We only have limited experience with Cinsaut in the cellar, but it is known to be prone to oxidation, so we are treating it like Counoise and fermenting it in closed stainless steel fermenters.
We made the decision to bottle our small 2019 production (two barrels, or roughly 50 cases) on its own. In the long run, we think it could be a useful contributor to many of our red blends, and a lovely addition to our rosés.
Flavors and Aromas Cinsaut produces wines with medium red color, spicy raspberry, violet, and black tea aromas, and flavors of tart cherry, redcurrant, and new leather. They tend to be relatively low in alcohol, with moderate to slightly above-average acidity and moderate to slightly below-average tannins. The wine's juicy acidity and low alcohol point to its appeal in blends, where it can help moderate the lower-acid, higher-alcohol, and more tannic Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.
We are very much looking forward to experimenting with Cinsaut as a rosé grape as well. Stay tuned!
Footnotes (all highly recommended for those interested in further reading)
Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009, p 78
Patrick Comiskey, American Rhone, UC Press, 2016, p 26
Last week, we brought in our first two lots of Viognier and our first lot of Syrah. It wasn't a furious start to harvest, but it was still a beginning. The cellar smells like honeysuckle and nectarines from the Viognier, there's the energy that always comes from the beginning of the harvest season, and the harvest chalkboard is no longer a literal clean slate:
[Editor's note, congratulations to Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi and her husband Trevor on the arrival of their little girl Bohdi on our second day of harvest!!!]
We typically mark the beginning of harvest as the day the first fruit comes off the estate. So, in 2020 that meant the August 25th arrival of grapes from our oldest Viognier block. In my verasion post last month, I predicted a start time sometime between August 26th and September 5th. These dates are calculated by adding 36 to 48 days from our veraison date (the range we've seen over the last 15 years between first veraison and first harvest). 2020 produced an interval of just 35 days. If you've been following weather reports from California, you can probably guess why. After a moderate summer that had produced just three 100 degree days as of late July, the last month has seen ten days top the century mark and another ten top 90. Nighttime temperatures were warm too. In late July we hadn't had a single day all summer not drop into at least the 50s. Between August 15th and August 24th, we had nine of the ten nights get down only into the 60s.
Happily, the heat wave broke just as harvest was approaching, and since August 22nd we've seen an average high of 90 (with nothing higher than 95) and an average low of 55. The wildfire smoke we saw between August 19th and 22nd has cleared. And the picks we've done so far have been in ideal conditions. I love the photos that Viticulturist Jordan Lonborg took during that night pick, beginning 3am on August 25th. Here are two; you can see the rest on our Instagram feed:
Although we've started harvesting, it's important to remember that most of the vineyard is still some time off. The family of Rhone grapes is diverse enough that we typically figure a two-month stretch for harvest. In fact, there are some grapes that are still only in the middle of veraison (like this Counoise, below) as others are being picked:
Looking through our other red grapes shows the range of ripeness levels. Counoise is farthest out, likely six weeks or more, but others still have a ways to go. This Mourvedre is mostly red, but still likely won't be picked for more than a month:
Grenache is still as much pink as red, with the range of colors and jewel tones characteristic of this, our most beautiful grape. It too is at least a month out.
There are grapes that are getting close, most notably Syrah, already dark and starting to soften, and showing its classic conical cluster shape:
The other grape that is getting fairly close is Cinsaut. We're only on our second harvest, but one of the reasons why it is more planted than Counoise in France (despite that Counoise is more intense, and they serve similar roles in most blends) is that it ripens a month earlier, before or with Grenache instead of after:
Finally, Terret Noir, which looks fairly dark at this point but is still quite acidic, and on which we will wait another month or so:
On the white side, Viognier is obviously first in line. But there are others like Vermentino, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc (pictured below) that are getting close. Vermentino might come as soon as the end of this week, and the other two should arrive sometime in the first half of September.
The weather is supposed to warm up again as we get to the end of this week, but seems unlikely to reach the heights of two weeks ago. That's fine. We're ready. Meanwhile, we'll enjoy the new sights and smells of the cellar as fermentations get going. This lone upright tank (filled with our first Syrah, picked Friday) will soon have plenty of new company.
On Friday, after a full week of work, we finally got to sit down and taste the ten key red wines from the 2019 vintage we'd been blending since Monday. It drove home just how good the 2019 vintage is. Several of these wines will, I think, vie for the best examples we've ever made, including the Esprit de Tablas, rich and lush, with deep purple fruit and a creamy texture we only get in great years. Other standouts included Le Complice, dark, herb-laced, but with density and texture to match; Grenache, exuberantly juicy, with vibrant acids enlivening it and yet more plushness and density than we expect from this fruity grape; Syrah, the proverbial iron fist in a (black) velvet glove; and even Cotes de Tablas, spicy and fruity, mouth-filling and lush, with creamy texture and the structure to age. That's not to say that the other wines weren't also terrific, but those were the standouts to me. But for all that, it wasn't an easy blending week.
More about that in a bit. But first, let me take you through how the week played out.
Our blending process is one we've developed over the decades, built on how they work at Beaucastel. Of course, with Coronavirus mitigating against international travel, we had to make a few changes this year. But it's still the same process, of building consensus around a table of participants, starting from individual fermentation lots and moving through our hierarchy of wines.
As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Because it's too much to ask to keep your palate fresh to taste 59 separate lots of young red wines, we divided this stage up between two days. Monday saw us tackle Mourvedre, Syrah, and our one lot of Pinot Noir, while Tuesday we tasted Grenache, Counoise, Tannat, one co-fermented lot, and our oddballs: Terret Noir, Cabernet, and our two new red grapes, Vaccarese and Cinsaut. Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending. Here's a quick tour of Tuesday's lineup:
We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. This year we saw the most "1" grades and the fewest "3" grades I can remember. How I graded each variety, in the order in which we tasted them:
Mourvedre (14 lots): Less Mourvedre (in both quantity and number of lots) than recent years, after a short Mourvedre crop in 2019. But amazingly powerful and representative of what we love about this, our most important grape. I gave seven lots a 1 grade, and three others intermediate 1/2 grades. Even the 2 grades I gave out were pure, juicy, and classic, and will make for a tremendous varietal Mourvedre. As for the blends that are based on Mourvedre, wow.
Syrah (15 lots): If possible, even stronger than the Mourvedre. Of course, Syrah is the most consistent grape that we grow, but we loved the varietal purity that it showed, and its structure without any sense of hardness. Eight 1's, with five others that I gave 1/2 grades to. If you're doing the math, that leaves only two "2" lots, and no "3" lots. Great syrahs have a creamy, minerally texture equal to their black fruit and structure, and these did, in spades.
Pinot Noir (1 lot): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad decided to plant outside my parents' house back in 2007, with a mix of different clones. This year they produced a Pinot that was on point for me, lighter in body than the Rhones we tasted that day, but with plenty of flavor, classic cherry and cola notes, and just a touch of oak. Should make for a very nice 2019 Full Circle Pinot.
Grenache (14 lots): Typically, Grenache shows the most diversity at this stage, because it takes longest to ferment and many lots are still settling into final form. The couple of weeks that Coronavirus delayed our blending this year probably helped this more than any other. Four 1's from me, with six others getting 1/2 grades. Only four 2's and no 3's. Plenty of Grenache's signature fruit and spice, with great acids across the board. Less of the sometimes drying front-palate tannins than we sometimes see at this stage. A few lots that seemed high enough in alcohol that we needed to be careful.
Counoise (6 lots): A nice range of Counoise styles, from the translucent, juicy lots that remind us of Gamay to the richer, spicy, purple-fruited Counoise that we look to use in Esprit. The acids here seemed likely to come in particularly useful in this vintage where Mourvedre and Syrah were so luscious. Two 1's, two 1/2 grades, one two, and my only 2/3 of all the lots (though even this found a good home in the Cotes de Tablas later in the week).
Cinsaut (1 lot): Our first Cinsaut, and only two barrels. A nose of dusty grape candy, with a fresh, appealing, spicy purple-fruited palate. It didn't seem to have Esprit-level depth, but will introduce itself very nicely to the Tablas Creek audience as a varietal wine.
Vaccarese (1 lot): A new experience for most of us around that table, as it's our first harvest of a grape with only about 30 planted acres worldwide. It showed a lovely deep purple color, with a nose of pine forest and minty juniper. The mouth was more Loire red than Rhone-like, to me, with notes of tobacco and spice, medium body, some tannic grip, and fruit flavors playing a secondary role. As we do with new grapes, we're planning to bottle it on its own so we can wrap our own heads around it and share it with all of you. Exciting!
Terret Noir (1 lot): Terret was as usual zesty and bright, but felt more polished than it has in recent years, with more floral character and less aggressive tannins than we've seen the last few years. Plenty pretty enough to bottle on its own, but since we'd reduced crop levels to try to tame the tannins and had seen a mildew outbreak further depress our harvest, we didn't think we'd have enough to use in Le Complice and bottle on its own. It turns out we will... more on that below!
Tannat (4 lots): Massive, dense, spicy, dusty, and dark. Tannic but not overbearing. Three of the four lots showed some oak, and I preferred the one without for En Gobelet, but the remainder should make a powerful, ageworthy, chocolaty varietal Tannat.
Cabernet (1 lot): Typically, the few rows of Cabernet in our old nursery block go into our Tannat, but in years where we get two barrels, and it's so powerfully expressive of Cabernet that we can't bear to blend it away, we contemplate putting it in bottle. It turns out that 2019 will be the first year since 2013 that we do. A tangy, green peppercorn and eucalyptus nose, with powerful black fruit and cigar box flavors, and a lurking minerality that I absolutely loved. I'm not a big fan of the low-acid, high-tannin style that most Napa Cabernets show (and most other Cabernet regions try to mimic). But this Cabernet, with its minerality and freshness... this, I'm looking forward to drinking.
We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the apparent strengths of all three of our main red grapes it only made sense to kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie and Esprit with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned. We also noted that with our relatively small Mourvedre crop this year, we needed to set our expectations for quantity lower.
Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out the two blends, starting with the Panoplie. As always, we tasted our options blind, not knowing what was in each glass. Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. But in this vintage, we split between a blend with roughly equal Syrah and Grenache percentages and one that had 30% Syrah, which would have been our most ever. (A third option, which was closest to our "normal" Panoplie blend, with 26% Grenache and only 8% Syrah, was no one's favorite, seeming a bit thinner by comparison.) When we get an equal split around the table between two wines, our first approach is to try to hit the mid-point between the two wines, to see if we can get everything we all liked in a single blend. It doesn't always work, but it did for this wine, so we settled on a blend of 62% Mourvedre, 22% Syrah, and 16% Grenache.
Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Unlike with the Panoplie, we got nearly universal agreement on the first round, with a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, and 10% Counoise. The relatively high percentages of Grenache and Counoise seemed to polish the deeper flavors of Syrah and Mourvedre, producing something deep, spicy, and creamy, with warm spices and a lovely loamy earthy umami character. Just outstanding. I wouldn't have predicted the high Counoise number, but this is similar to what we often find in blending our whites: that in richer, more structured years, a little higher percentage of the brighter grapes makes for a more complete wine.
Thursday, we moved on to our two small-production wine club blends, En Gobelet and Le Complice. Because of the high quality of the vintage overall, even with all the lots that we'd chosen for Esprit and Panoplie, we had quite a bit of choice on En Gobelet, made entirely from head-trained, dry-farmed blocks. And this turned out to be the most difficult decision of the week. All three of our first round options received at least one first place vote, and the two favorites were quite different, one with twice as much Grenache as Mourvedre, and the other with nearly equal parts of the two. Complicating things, neither favorite had much Tannat, and we were worried that the wine that got the most first place votes, with just 2% Tannat, might end up too similar to the Esprit. We decided to try another blend that replaced some of the Mourvedre in our favorite with enough Tannat to get to 10%. This ended up only muddying the waters, as that Tannat-heavy version got three first place votes, but also four last place votes from people who felt that the added darkness and tannin overwhelmed the terroir character that En Gobelet expresses at its best. And this time, splitting the difference didn't please anyone, as it felt less deep and dark, but still less terroir-driven than the starting point. In the end, we decided that we needed to taste the favorite from round one against Esprit to know whether we'd made the right decision.
It was a relief that, after that, Le Complice came together in one round. The wine celebrates the kinship we feel Terret Noir shows with Syrah, and particularly the Syrah lots fermented with stems or whole clusters. Both grapes share a peppery spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. Because both grapes tend toward high tannin, we've realized that we also need some Grenache, to provide flesh to the bones and spirit of Syrah and Terret. Last year, we didn't end up using all the Terret we produced, but with this year's small crop, we thought we would. Still, given how much we liked the Terret in the lot tasting, we were delighted when it was revealed that our universal favorite was 67% Syrah, 27% Grenache, and just 6% Terret... leaving half our Terret to make a varietal wine. The resulting wine was dark, smoky, and spicy, with just enough of that green peppercorn stem spice to balance the wine's ample black fruit and mineral. Just delicious, and should be fascinating to watch age.
Friday, we started early in the morning to tackle the Cotes de Tablas. Even though we'd already used about two-thirds of our lots with our higher-end wines, all three of our options were delicious. We knew we didn't have much Mourvedre left, and had some Counoise lots we knew we wanted to use as a varietal. That left us exploring options for the relative quantities of Grenache and Syrah. In the end, although we settled on a middle ground, rejecting the wine with 49% Grenache and only 26% Syrah as nice but a touch simple, while the wine with 40% Grenache and 35% Syrah was serious and structured, perhaps too much so for Cotes de Tablas. Our final blend was 44% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 17% Counoise, and 9% Mourvedre. We're making less Cotes de Tablas as we shift the focus of our middle tier (between Patelin and Esprit) in the national market toward varietal wines, but the roughly thousand cases we'll make this year will, I feel sure, be one of our best ever.
That afternoon, we sat down to taste the finalized blends alongside the four main varietal wines that we hadn't yet tried. It turned out that the En Gobelet differentiated itself from the Esprit with no trouble, showing more lift and translucency, and clearer expression of saline minerality, while the Esprit showed darker, plusher tones, and a creamier texture. So, issue solved. Sometimes all it takes is a little time, and perspective.
For our varietal wines, we identify lots during the first stage that express that grape's character the most clearly, and then try to avoid using them in the other wines. Of course, if one of our top blends needs a lot, it gets it, but there's usually enough leeway (and enough difference between what's great for Esprit and what would be great in, say, a varietal Mourvedre) that it works out. And in a year like this, it's a pleasure to see how clearly the character of both the grapes and the vintage shine through. My quick notes on the varietal wines:
Grenache (400 cases): Exuberantly juicy on the nose. In the mouth, our most powerful Grenache in years, yet still vibrant. Quite dark. A baby.
Syrah (725 cases): Nose is dark, with black olive, black pepper, blackberry, and smoke. The mouth is plush, with the iron fist of Syrah tannins cloaked in dark fruit. After no Syrah in 2018, will be a treat to send to club members.
Mourvedre (300 cases): Nose of pure red fruits. The mouth is creamy, with Mourvedre's ability to walk the line between red and black raspberry fruit, a little loamy earth. Good acids and tannins. Classic.
Counoise (325 cases): A brambly purple-fruited nose. The mouth is zesty with more cherry fruit, refreshing acidity and medium body. Should be a crowd pleaser.
In addition to these wines, we'll have 50 cases each of varietal Terret Noir, Cinsaut, and Cabernet, 175 cases of Vaccarese, 475 cases of Full Circle Pinot, and a glorious 1250 cases of Tannat. Lots of fun things to share, for sure.
A few concluding thoughts. First, in looking for a comparable vintage to 2019, the closest one would probably be 2017, but top to bottom, 2019 had a touch more concentration and polish (though lower quantity). In particular, Grenache was stronger than it was in 2017. Maybe a vintage like 2007, which was outstanding across the board, but we were picking riper then, and this 2019 shows, for me, more minerality and less of the super-ripe character that I get now when I drink a 2007. And I like the whites from 2019 a ton -- more than I did either 2007 or 2017. Still, given that we rank these vintages pretty universally as among our top ever gives a sense of how exciting we think 2019 is. It will be fun to get to know it over the coming months and years.
Second, a vintage this strong, with such terrific raw materials across the board, in some ways complicates the blending process, because we're having to make stylistic judgment calls in addition to quality rankings. In an average year, the limited volume of top-rated lots of our main grapes can constrain the percentage we use in Esprit. In a year like this, we could have chosen quite a bit more top-ranked Grenache, Syrah, or Mourvedre than we did, if we'd wanted. That means that we weren't just having to decide what our best lots were, and whether they fit together properly, but which stylistic direction we wanted to take the wines. And while there's almost always good agreement about what grade a lot should have, as you can tell from my description of the process, what people like best is a more sticky question. Still, in a year like this, we do have the reassuring thought (which came through as we got down to the Cotes de Tablas) that our third- and fourth-choice lots are still really, really good. So, we know that with such good raw materials it's unlikely we can go too far astray.
Finally, given that we weren't able to have a Perrin here, it's great that this vintage was so strong. We're used to having decades of experience tasting Beaucastel around our blending table. We didn't this year, although between Neil, me, Chelsea, Craig, Amanda, Austin, and Jordy, we did have more than 120 Tablas Creek blending sessions under our belts. I'm confident that when the Perrins do get to taste what we made, we will have done them proud.
Last week, six of us emerged after two weeks at home to put together the white wines from the 2019 vintage. This was a smaller group than normal, a blending with no Perrin in attendance and the Tablas Creek participants reduced to a core six (Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Austin, Jordy, and me) in the interest of maintaining social distance. Still, it was a relief for all of us to have some social contact and I know it felt great for me to get out of crisis management mode and immerse myself in the familiar intellectual challenge of taking the 37 different white lots we had at the end of the 2019 harvest and turning them into Esprit de Tablas Blanc, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, and a collection of varietal wines.
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, as it always is, 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 it's got the richness, elegance, and balance to be worth of consideration for Esprit Blanc. A "2" grade means we like it, but it's not right for 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.
My quick thoughts on each variety are below. For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. As you'll see, lots of good grades this year.
Roussanne (12 lots): Some of the best Roussanne lots I can remember in my 18 years doing this. Overall, powerful and concentrated, but not overripe or alcoholic, with better-than-usual acids. Oodles of Roussanne character, across a range of different barrel treatments and vineyard blocks. My grades: five 1’s, a 1/2 that I loved but thought might be too oaky for Esprit, three 2’s, two 2/3 lots that in a weaker year probably would have been solid 2's, and one 3 that will be declassified.
Grenache Blanc (7 lots): Some really nice Grenache Blanc, but a little out of the Grenache Blanc mainstream, tending more toward power than brightness. A lot of intermediate grades from me, as I wasn't sure that these powerful, textured Grenache Blanc lots would be needed in Esprit Blanc this year, with Roussanne so powerful and textured on its own. My scores: two 1’s, three 1/2 grades, one 2, and one 2/3.
Viognier (7 lots): Like the first two grapes, plenty of power. Since we don't use Viognier in Esprit Blanc, a "1" grade just means that it's as good and expressive as Viognier gets, with freshness to balance its plentiful fruit and body. One "1", two 1/2 lots, three 2's, and one 3 that will be declassified.
Picpoul Blanc (4 lots): A great Picpoul vintage, with every lot showing both power and brightness. Two 1's that I thought would be perfect for Esprit, a 1/2 that I wasn't sure whether would be best on its own or in a blend, and one beautifully fresh and lively 2 that was maybe my favorite to drink on its own and which will be the core of our varietal Picpoul this year.
Marsanne (3 lots): A terrific showing for this grape, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm, a little extra concentration beyond what we're used to seeing in this famously restrained grape, and better acids that usual too. One 1, one 1/2, and one 2. This will be a great Cotes Blanc component, and plenty worthy as a varietal wine too.
Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 180 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, but it was pretty: lovely salty minerality, with lemon pith and citrus leaf flavors. Clearly capable of contributing to the Esprit Blanc, but also excellent on its own. I gave it a 1/2. See below for how this played out.
Picardan (1 lot): Not quite as scarce as Clairette, at 384 gallons, and for me the best Picardan we've had to work with in the four years we've had it in production. Pure, spicy, and rich, with great acids. A "1" for me.
Bourboulenc (1 lot): The first harvest for our newest grape. It's been a crazy orange color since it came out of the press, and even as it dropped clear, it's still got that caramel tinge to it. The nose too was a little caramely, with orange pith and a textured, phenolic character. I gave it a "2" because it didn't seem like Esprit Blanc material, but it will be a fun varietal wine that we're excited to introduce to you later in 2020.
Petit Manseng (1 lot): Not really relevant to the rest of the week’s work, since we don’t blend Petit Manseng into the other Rhone whites. Still, this was a good chance to check in on how it was doing, and decide whether we wanted to push it along fermentation to a drier profile, or to leave it with more residual sugar [If this question seems interesting to you, check out the blog from a few years back Wrapping Our Heads Around Petit Manseng]. At roughly 100 g/L residual sugar, it felt closer to Vin de Paille than the off-dry profile we prefer, masking the electric acids that make Petit Manseng so fascinating. We decided to let it continue to ferment, until it gets to our 50-60 g/L target.
We finished Wednesday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc. The relative shortage of higher-toned Grenache Blanc suggested that we try some Esprit blends with more Picpoul and less Grenache Blanc than usual. As for Cotes Blanc, Viognier always takes the lead, but we weren't sure whether we wanted Marsanne's elegance or Grenache Blanc's density and acid to play second fiddle. So, we decided to try one blend with more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne, one with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc, and one where we increased both to nearly as much as we had Viognier.
Thursday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. In our first round, the consensus favorite was a blend with 60% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc (on the low side for us), 14% Picpoul Blanc (on the high side for us), and 3% each of Picardan and Clairette Blanche. A blend with 25% Grenache Blanc and just 10% Picpoul felt too monolithic, a little heavy, which I suspected would happen given the Grenache Blanc lots we had to add to get to 25%. And the blend where we increased the Roussanne percentage to 75% felt flat, which in retrospect shouldn't have been surprising as to get to that quantity we'd exhausted the consensus "1" Roussanne lots and had to start pulling from lots that received more "2" grades.
We were happy with the result, but not quite done with Esprit Blanc. Given the small Clairette harvest, if we used 3% in Esprit Blanc that would mean we wouldn't have any left over for a varietal bottling. Before we made that determination, we wanted to make sure that the addition of the Clairette made for a meaningful improvement in the Esprit Blanc. If it did, great. That's our primary goal: make the best Esprit we can, and why it gets first dibs on everything. But we wanted to see. So, we decided to taste our favorite against a similar wine that removed the Clairette in favor of more Roussanne. Lo and behold, we all preferred the wine without the Clairette as a little longer, a little more intense, and beautifully pure. Even better! We get a great Esprit Blanc, and a small Clairette Blanche bottling. Final blend: 63% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 14% Picpoul Blanc, 3% Picardan.
Next we tackled the Cotes Blanc. Tasting the wines, it was clear that the solution with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc was superior to the others, and we were blown away with how much we liked the resulting wine. It's got the power of a Roussanne-heavy Cotes Blanc vintage like 2011 or 2015, but with more Viognier generosity and sweeter fruit. Just a beautiful wine, and one we're excited to share with you all. Final blend: 44% Viognier, 29% Marsanne, 19% Grenache Blanc, and 8% Roussanne.
We had managed to make our two estate blends without using up any of our grapes completely. So, the final step was to taste those two blends alongside the Patelin Blanc and the eight (yes, eight) varietal wines that this left us. Our principal concerns here are to make sure that the varietal wines are differentiated from the blends that lead with the same grape (so, our Esprit Blanc is different from Roussanne, our Cotes Blanc different from the Viognier, etc) and to make sure that the blends fall into the appropriate places in our hierarchy. My brief notes on each wine, with the rough quantity we'll be bottling this summer:
2019 Picpoul Blanc (250 cases): A nose of pineapple upside-down cake. Lovely in the mouth with flavors of fresh pineapple and green herbs. Saline. Long. Great texture.
2019 Grenache Blanc (900 cases): Color is gold, darker than usual for Grenache Blanc. Nose is burnt sugar and citrus peel. The mouth shows lots of texture, preserved lemon flavors, and great acids. Salty. Long.
2019 Marsanne (325 cases): Pretty honeysuckle nose. Mouth is soft, mineral, peaches and cream, with a little honeydew. Nice acidity (for Marsanne) on the finish.
2019 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2200 cases): Nose of Haribo peaches and lemongrass, nice. The mouth is softish for Patelin Blanc, more Viognier than Grenache Blanc right now, medium weight with apricots and gentle acids on finish.
2019 Viognier (400 cases): Intensely peach on the nose, freshened with mint and a sweet almond brittle note. The mouth shows rich texture, more peaches, creamsicle, and marmalade. Good acids and length, with a welcome pithy bite providing balance on the finish.
2019 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1500 cases): Straw, dried apricot, and lemon zest on the nose. The mouth is terrific, balanced between a fruitier peaches & cream note and a yeastier shortbread note. Nice acids and length on the finish.
2019 Roussanne (1300 cases): Honeycomb and cedar on the nose. Mouth is very Roussanne: honey and bay and Indian spices, lots of texture, dry and long on the finish.
2019 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (2200 cases): A sweeter tone to the nose than the Roussanne, sweet oak and jasmine. The palate is lovely: refined green pear fruit, creamy texture, and long, long, long.
2019 Bourboulenc (125 cases): Orange in color and flavors. The nose is shy, a little cola sweetness. The mouth is zesty with a little pithy bite and flavors of orange peel and Seville oranges. Bright acids on the long finish.
2019 Clairette Blanche (75 cases): A nose of clean mineral, sea spray, and lemongrass. The mouth is similar, but with more texture than the nose promises, flavors of watermelon rind, white gummy bear, and a clean finish.
2019 Picardan (75 cases): A richer nose than Clairette, spicy, minty sarsaparilla. The mouth is gorgeous, both bright and rich with flavors of quince, yellow apple, and sweet spice. A little citrus flower note comes out on the yeasty finish. Chelsea described it as "like a really good Champagne you've let go flat".
A few concluding thoughts:
The 2019 vintage seems to have a well defined character already. The 2018 vintage was a terrific year for white wines because of its brightness. Whites like Patelin Blanc, Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and Picpoul Blanc were all electric. 2019, by contrast, seems great for the denser, more powerful whites, and particularly good for Roussanne. It will be fascinating to see these wines as they get cleaned up and prepped for bottling. This process tends to brighten up wines, and I'm hopeful that they'll keep their texture and richness while getting a little more translucency. If that happens, I think we'll have 2019 in the conversation for the best whites we've ever made.
Of all the varieties, I was least convinced by Grenache Blanc. We felt like we had overcropped Grenache Blanc a little in 2018, and so reduced its yield by around a third in 2019. Tasting these wines, I'm not sure that the decision was a good one. We got more texture and power than I can remember tasting in our Grenache Blancs, but I'm not sure that this was a positive tradeoff for less vibrancy. To what extent was it vintage, and to what extent yields? I don't think we know. But we're going to try to figure this out.
The process of working together while still maintaining distancing was educational. With six people spaced around our big conference table, we all had plenty of space. We all pulled and washed our own glasses and dump buckets. The sample bottles were wiped down before they were poured, and only one person picked up and poured each bottle. We kept doors and windows open so there was air moving in the room. We'd all been quarantining at home the previous two weeks, and everyone was healthy. Even though wineries are agricultural businesses and therefore considered essential, that doesn't mean we're operating as though the business environment were normal. And as we start physically blending the wines over the coming weeks, we'll be limiting our cellar team to two people at a time, and making sure they're able to maintain their distance. It will mean a slower process, but we'll get it done.
This week, most of us will go back to sheltering at home. But we'll do so knowing that we've hit one of the milestones of the winemaking year. And that the wines we make have the potential to be memorable. That will be one of the positive memories I'll have of Quarantine 2020.