Report from the distanced blending table: 2019 is a vintage of remarkable power and texture

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.

2019 white blending notes

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.

2019 white blends post-blending


Introducing a New Idea: Seasonal Pour Wine Kegs

Readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of offering wine in keg. There are lots of reasons. It's great for the customer because every one of the roughly 130 glasses in a 19.5L keg is as fresh as the first (unlike wines served by-the-glass from bottle, where the last pours are often oxidized). It's great for the restaurant and wine bars that serve it because there's no wasted wine from ends of bottles, and no empty bottles to deal with. It's great for wineries because they're not paying for the bottles, capsules, corks, and labels. And it's great for the environment because the packaging that would otherwise be created for short-term storage of wine, and then (ideally) recycled never gets created in the first place. We were proud indeed in 2018 to get a "Keggy" Award from our kegging partner Free Flow Wines for having kegged enough wine over the years to eliminate 100,000 bottles from being created, shipped, and destroyed again: 

Keggy award in the cellarYes, that mini-keg is the Keggy award. No, there was never any wine in it.

For the last decade, we've had the same lineup of wines available in keg, and we've worked hard to keep these wines -- our Patelin de Tablas red, white, and rosé -- in stock year-round. As those three wines form the core of what of ours gets poured by the glass in restaurants around the country, that makes sense to us. And the growth has been impressive, from just a few hundred kegs (still replacing thousands of bottles) in the early years to the roughly 1000 kegs we sold in 2019. We're planning to continue that program, and look forward to seeing it grow.

At the same time, we felt that we could be doing more with our keg program. While the majority of accounts still are using keg wines as their principal by-the-glass options, by-the-glass programs themselves have changed over the last decade. Printing costs used to be higher, reprinting wine lists used to be rarer, and accounts prioritized wines that they knew would still be available in three, six, or nine months. While there are still plenty of restaurants who value stability, more and more treat their by-the-glass lists as a treasure hunt, reprinting on an office laserwriter whenever necessary, or (more and more) just erasing a chalkboard and writing in something new. Far from it being a disincentive that only a few cases of something cool are available, it's become a selling point in many restaurants and wine bars.

The same impetus has spilled over into the world of keg wines. Accounts looking to change up their lists regularly have been reaching out to us and other wineries asking if we'd do custom kegging for them, small-production things that aren't available elsewhere. That's not really feasible for anything other than local accounts, and it's not ideal for the wines, as a single barrel produces roughly twelve kegs, most accounts don't want twelve kegs for programs like this, and what to do with remnant wine at less-than-barrel quantities is a real challenge. We don't just have wine sitting around waiting for someone to ask us to keg it up. Some wineries do, I know, but that's not us. But we have a new idea we're excited about. We've decided to do three small-batch keggings this year, each in 45-65 keg quantities. These will go up to the warehouse we share with our national marketing partners Vineyard Brands, and be available for any of our distributors to order. When they run out, we'll be ready with something else.

What, you ask, will we start with? Vermentino! Vermentino has always been a grape that we've felt would do well in keg because of its freshness and how well it drinks young. We actually did a custom Vermentino kegging several years ago, and it was delicious and well-received (at least until the restaurant we did it for changed wine directors, the new director took the program in a totally different direction, and we had to scramble to find new homes for the kegs we made). We kept 250 gallons out of our recent Vermentino bottling, and sent it up to our partners at Free Flow, who filled 47 kegs. The first 25 kegs are in stock in California, with the balance waiting to go out to some other key markets.

2019 Vermentino in tank

What's coming next? Counoise, we think. Of all our reds, Counoise seems best suited to kegging because of its light body and refreshingly bright flavors. We only had 250 gallons of Counoise after blending the 2018 vintage, and we're planning to put it all in keg sometime in May.

After that, we'll see. We need to get through blending this year before we know what will suggest itself. But I'd love to do another obscure white in early fall, maybe something like Clairette Blanche or Picardan.

We're excited about this new program. If you run a wine-on-tap program and are interested, grab them while they exist. And if you see one in your favorite restaurant or wine bar, order a glass and let us know what you think. Just don't get mad at us if the next time you go back, something else is available. After all, when they're gone, they're gone. And that's a big part of the fun.


Can rosé wines age? It depends on the grapes they're made from.

Over the weekend, I saw a really nice review of our 2017 Dianthus Rosé on Kerry Winslow’s Grapelive blog. I found it interesting that Kerry, although he loved it, felt like he needed to address it being a 2017, adding the comment that it "is last years wine, but still vibrant and the maturity hasn’t slowed down this fabulous wine". I don't think you'd find a caveat like this for a white wine, and a 2017 would be considered maybe even too young to drink for most reds. But it gets at a common perception of rosés: that they need to be drunk the year that they’re released.

Is it true? There are definitely some, maybe even many, rosés for which I'd say yes. But, and this is important, like reds and whites, the grape(s) that the wine is made with matters. The dominant model for rosés is that of Provence, which is based on Grenache, always an oxidative grape, and they tend to have very pale colors from minimal time in contact with the skins. In the cellar at Tablas Creek, we are careful to keep even red Grenache away from too much oxygen. We ferment it in stainless steel or large wooden tanks, and avoid 60-gallon barriques (what you probably think of as a “normal” wine barrel) for aging. And you'd expect a rosé made from Grenache to have a shorter aging curve. Tannins act as a preservative in wine. So, if you start with Grenache, already an oxidative grape, and pull it early off the skins, which are the source of a wine’s tannins, you're likely to end up with something that’s even less resistant to oxidation. My experience with most Provence rosés (and the American rosés that are modeled off them) bears that out. The wines are at their best the summer after they’re made. The best ones are still good the next summer, but they’ve already started to fade.

But it’s equally important to remember that Provence is not the world’s (or even France’s) only rosé tradition. Bandol, arguably the source of the world’s greatest rosés, uses Mourvèdre as the lead grape. And Mourvèdre is a very different beast from Grenache. In our cellar, we do everything we can to make sure we get Mourvèdre air. We ferment it in open-top fermenters. We age it in oak, and still have to make sure to rack it fairly often so it doesn’t get reductive. Some of that comes from Mourvèdre’s skins, but not all does. And it's worth mentioning that, depending on how your rosé is made, it's going to get at least some of the tannins (and their powers of preservation) from the skins. In the case of our Dianthus, the juice spends between 24 and 36 hours on the skins, giving it a deep pink color and providing a hint of tannic bite that brings counterpoint to the wine's lush fruit.

Two roses for Nov 2019 feature

I remember learning, to my surprise, that as recently as a decade ago many Bandol estates didn’t even release their rosés until the fall after harvest, because they felt that the wines took that much time to really open up and come into their own. I don't think that happens much any more. Producers in the (dominant) Provence model compete to be first into the market in the springtime to lock up the lucrative summer rosé placements, which has created a market and consumer expectation that you want the newest, freshest rosé you can find. That means that for a tradition like Bandol, even if the wine is better in the fall, a producer is likely to make a market-driven calculation that they should release the wine early.

Although the growth of the rosé market has meant that it's more of a year-round item on wine lists, there is still definitely a rosé high season in the spring and summer, and restaurants and retailers all look to feature the newest vintage. So, there are three significant disincentives against fall releases. First, you're releasing a wine into a market that is saturated with earlier releases (many of whom are likely looking to close out any remaining inventory with deep discounts). Second, you're releasing a wine into a category that is going off season. And third, by the time the season opens back up in the springtime, you look like old inventory compared to the new crop of the next year's rosés.

But those market realities don't change the fact that the fall release tradition gets at something important about rosés made from these oxidation-resistant grapes. They improve in bottle, are likely just reaching their peak in the cooler fall and winter seasons, and can be just as good or even better the next summer. Their deeper flavors also make for better matches with the richer foods of chillier seasons.

Dianthus in the snow

That’s why seeing a review like this for this wine makes me happy. It recognizes that these rosés can improve with time in bottle, and can be great winter wines. In our tasting room, we switch in October from showcasing our Patelin Rosé (which we poured for guests in spring and summer) to our Dianthus, which we'll continue to feature through the fall and into the winter, as long as it lasts. It also helps people learn that rosés are not a uniform category, and different base grapes produce different profiles and different life paths, like with reds and whites. For all the growth of the rosé category, the idea that rosés can be diverse is still something that’s not well enough understood.


Harvest 2019 Recap: What's Usually a Marathon Turns Out to Be a Sprint

Last Wednesday, as I was on the road heading to the (remarkable) New York Wine Experience, the cellar team brought in the last lot of grapes from the 2019 harvest, some head-trained Counoise from our Scruffy Hill block. This capped a 40-day sprint: our shortest harvest in 18 years, and longer only in our history than the tiny frost-reduced crop of 2001. That 40 days is a full two weeks shorter than our average this millennium. But unlike in some of the other attenuated harvests, we didn't have to pick because there was a threat of imminent rain, or heat. No, it was just that the consistently warm, sunny weather that we've seen since early August meant that everything was ready. No wonder our cellar crew was ready to celebrate:

Cellar team with last pick of 2019

Because the weather never forced us to pause, the breakdown of our workflow was nearly constant. After a slow start the last week of August and first two weeks of September (after which we sat at only 10% complete) starting September 16th we picked nearly every day until the end of harvest. You can see steadiness of the vintage in the chart below (in the chart, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit):

Final Harvest Graph

Yields defy an easy explanation. We ended up down overall about 8% from 2018, but while overall we were almost exactly at our long-time average, the picture depends a lot on which grape you look at. I'll dive into that below. But what stood out to me was that although we had great rainfall last winter, and exceptional vine health all summer, we didn't see the high yields that typically come with that. The complete picture:

Grape 2019 Yields (tons) 2018 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2018
Viognier 17.4 18.2 -4.4%
Marsanne 12.3 11.8 +4.2%
Grenache Blanc 28.3 43.6 -35.1%
Picpoul Blanc 8.6 9.1 -5.5%
Vermentino 24.7 17.9 +38.0%
Roussanne 46.1 32.6 +41.4%
Other whites 7.8 6.1 +27.9%
Total Whites 145.2 139.3 +4.2%
Grenache 51.4 74.3 -30.8%
Syrah 42.5 44.7 -4.9%
Mourvedre 49.6 64.4 -23.0%
Tannat 19.0 19.8 -4.0%
Counoise 20.0 16.0 +25.0%
Other reds 5.6 3.8 +47.4%
Total Reds 188.1 223.0 -15.7%
Total 333.3 362.3  -8.0%

Average yields ended up at 3.02 tons per acre, nearly exactly at our ten-year average. Other years right around 3 tons per acre read like a litany of our favorite-ever vintages: 2003, 2007, 2014, and 2016. As to why we saw only average yields despite the ample rainfall that we saw last winter, I blame a handful of small things: we saw some shatter in our Grenache blocks due to cool weather at flowering; we decided that we'd been hanging too much crop on our Grenache Blanc and were more aggressive in thinning, and (the only one of these which is troubling) Mourvedre, which didn't suffer from shatter, still hung a small crop. We'll be spending some time in the slower season to come trying to come up with a program to reverse this development, as we've done successfully in recent years with Roussanne. Speaking of Roussanne, it's clear from the increased Roussanne crop that the health that we noticed all growing season in our Roussanne was reflected in the quantity we harvested. It was also reflected in the fact that we didn't need to make nearly as many passes through our Roussanne blocks. It's the first time in a while that we've had extra lines on our harvest chalkboard, as we picked 95 lots this year (20 fewer than 2018). And that's including our first-ever picks of Bourboulenc, Cinsaut, and Vaccarese, noted in all-caps and with extra stars on the board:

Finished 2019 Harvest Chalkboard

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

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

You'll note that 2019's sugars saw a small decline from the past two years while the average pH maintained the level we were very happy with last year. The main culprit on the lower harvest sugars were Marsanne and Roussanne, both of which came in, on average, below 20° Brix. That's not a problem with Marsanne -- we typically love it around 12% alcohol -- but it suggests that we'll have a range of Roussannes, including those riper lots that are more likely to be appropriate for Esprit Blanc, and those that may be better suited for the Cotes Blanc or Patelin Blanc. I wouldn't be surprised to see both those wines with a higher than normal percentage of Roussanne in 2019.

The continued lower average pH is a great sign of the health of the vines, and the relative lack of stress that the vineyard was under at harvest time.

I had a sense, from living here and evaluating what I felt week by week, that we were really looking at two distinct weather patterns: a fairly cool one that lasted until the end of July, and then a consistent, warm pattern that took over in early August and lasted until mid-October. And the degree days that we measured this 2019 growing season support that, more or less. The chart below shows the unusually chilly May, the moderate June and July, and then the warmer-than-n0rmal (but not scorching) August and September. Note that October's information is for the first 16 days, as we picked our last block on October 16th:

Degree Days 2019 vs Normal

I mentioned in my introduction that the duration of harvest -- 40 days -- was our shortest since 2001. That's noteworthy enough. But just as unusual was the sequencing of the different grapes. The cool weather in May seems to have set back the early grapes somewhat. Viognier -- which started coming in September 7th -- and Vermentino, Syrah, and Grenache Blanc -- all of which saw their first estate picks September 16th -- were delayed about two weeks compared to our average this decade. This delay in our early grapes led me to conclude mistakenly that we were looking at a later-than-normal harvest. But the late grapes, which flower in June and do the bulk of their ripening in the August-September period where we saw ideal conditions, were actually picked early. We saw our first picks of Roussanne on September 6th and Counoise on September 12th, both three weeks or so before we'd normally expect them. Grenache Noir, which usually lags behind Syrah by a couple of weeks, came in right on its heels, just one day later this year. And we were totally done with Roussanne by October 7th, which is really unusual.

In character, it's early to tell what things will be like, but so far, we're excited. I asked Winemaker Neil Collins to sum up the vintage based on what he's seen so far, and his response was, "the ferments have been wonderfully slow and measured. It is early for me to say just what to expect from the wines themselves but the whites seem aromatic and quite showy, pretty and delicate wines. Reds have nice rich color and are solid in structure while yet being quite plush and rich in texture." Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi added that it's "a vintage marked by balance." We'll know more, of course, 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 the late-season sun shining through the presses make the afternoon warmth that much sweeter: 

Mourvedre in the press

Now that the fruit is in, it's welcome to start raining any time (although, to be fair, it doesn't look like there's any precipitation in the long-term forecast). Meanwhile, we're putting the vineyard to bed, seeding cover crop, and getting the animals back into the vineyard, to clean up any second crop clusters still on the vines and start spreading manure in preparation for the rainy season. Even in years like this when there's no inclement weather during harvest, it's still a relief when everything is in tanks and barrels, and you just don't have to worry about rain, or frost, or anything else. Whenever winter feels like coming, we'll be ready. And that's something to celebrate, in and of itself.


What it Feels Like to Spend a Day in the Cellar During Harvest

The 2019 harvest will go down in our history as one of the most intense, compressed seasons ever. After a slow beginning, things ramped up the week of September 15th, and they really haven't stopped. We've picked at least 60 tons off of our estate each of the last four weeks, and suddenly, all that's left out there are little clean-up picks. We'll be done sometime this week.

I'll have a more detailed analysis of how the vintage compares to other recent years in my harvest recap blog either next week or the week after. But for now, what I wanted to do was give you a feel for what a day in the cellar feels like, not least because it's suddenly almost done. And harvest feels like that. You wait all year for it to begin, once it starts it feels like it will go on forever, and yet when the end comes, it comes suddenly, and marks the end of the intense camaraderie that comes with long hours, close quarters, and shared goals.

Our talented Shepherd/Videographer Nathan Stuart chronicled one day in the cellar, October 8th, turning in his crook for his GoPro, adding a soundtrack and editing it all down to two minutes. Definitely turn up the volume on this one.

What did we pick that day? Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Grenache. But the sorting, destemming, and pressing of those lots wasn't all that was happening. We were filling barrels and digging out tanks of Grenache and Syrah harvested in previous weeks, punching down and pumping over a cellar full of wine, sampling vineyard lots to schedule upcoming picks, and cleaning. Lots and lots of cleaning. And playing with the winery dogs, sharing one of Marci Collins' famous cellar lunches, keeping the espresso machine humming, and snacking on the leg of jamon in the lab, of course.

It was just one day, one long day, but also one pretty great day. 

Harvest Video October 8th 2019


We welcome Cinsaut (new to Tablas Creek), Bourboulenc (new to Paso Robles) and Vaccarese (new to America) all in one week!

It's been a momentous last week for us here at Tablas Creek. In three days, we added three grapes to our pantheon, bringing our total of Chateauneuf du Pape grapes to 13 and our total of Rhone varieties to 15. See if you can spot the new ones:

New Grapes on Chalkboard

These three grapes are numbers four, five, and six of the seven new varieties that we imported in 2003. All of them took twelve years to be released from quarantine, and we planted them in the vineyard in 2016. This is the first year we've gotten a harvestable crop. As they're all just starting to ferment, we can't say much about what they'll ultimately be like, but I thought it would be interesting to summarize what we know about them so far, and speculate a little on what we expect. Here goes. Historical and planting information are summarized from Jancis Robinson's authoritative "Wine Grapes" (HarperCollins, 2012) and Harry Karis's "The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book" (Kavino, 2009) so planting information may be a few years out of date.

Bourboulenc
The fourth-most planted white grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (after Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Roussanne) at nearly 85 acres, making it roughly 1% of total plantings and 15% of white acreage. It's also found elsewhere in the south of France; Chateauneuf-du-Pape makes up just over 5% of the 1,537 acres reported in France in 2008. Bourboulenc is an ancient grape, first mentioned in the literature in the early 16th century, and from its earliest times identified with the south of France, particularly the area around Avignon. The vines are fairly vigorous, the berries relatively large, and the clusters loose, which makes it resistant to rot. It is known in France to make wines with citrus aromatics and a distinctive smoky character, with fairly good acids and relatively low alcohol.

We picked 2.15 tons of Bourboulenc at 20° Brix (roughly 12.4% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.38, and total acids of 3.53. Unfortunately, it was a night pick and went into the press before anyone remembered to take a photo, but it had a remarkable orange color coming out of the press:

Bourboulenc in beaker

Cinsaut (or Cinsault)
Cinsaut is the fourth-most planted red grape in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation (after Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre) at 205 acres, making it 2.6% of total acreage and 2.8% of reds. Cinsaut (officially spelled without the "l" in American literature, and typically used interchangeably) is grown around the Mediterranean, with more than 51,000 acres in France, and significant plantings in Italy, Spain, Morocco, and South Africa. There are also 82 acres of mostly old vines in California as of 2018. Similar in many ways to Counoise, with large berries and large clusters, producing medium-to-light-bodied wines with floral and spice notes. Although Cinsaut has generally been preferred over Counoise in France because it ripens earlier, the Perrins have long preferred the extra depth and brighter acids that Counoise contributes, which is why in our more reliable climate we chose to focus on Counoise in our original imports, back in 1989.

We picked our Cinsaut (all 0.55 tons of it) at 22° Brix (roughly 13.6% potential alcohol), a pH of 3.64, and total acids of 4.23. You can see the distinctive large berries clearly:

Cinsaut cluster and bin

Vaccarèse
One of the rarest grapes in Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation at just over 10 acres, Vaccarèse accounts for just 0.3% of both total and red acreage. There is little more outside Chateauneuf, with just 30 acres recorded in France and none elsewhere in the world. Also known as Brun Argenté (which translates to "brown silvered") for its dark bark and silvery look of the underside of its leaves. In look and growth it seems similar to Counoise and Cinsaut, with large berries and large clusters. As it's generally not fermented on its own even at Beaucastel, we don't have a ton to go on here.

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. We knew, given that this had never been harvested before in California (or America, or the New World) that we needed to document the milestone, so we got better photos of this than the first two:

Vaccarese Cluster in Bin

Vaccarese Cluster in Hand

So, what next for these new grapes? First, we'll get them through fermentation. There's going to be enough to make roughly five barrels (125 cases) of Bourboulenc and six barrels (150 cases) of Vaccarèse, so our tentative plan is to bottle these both as varietal wines. We prefer to do this, as long as we like them, in early years, so that we can begin the process of wrapping our heads around what the wines are like, and so we can share them with other interested customers and winemakers. With less than two barrels worth of Cinsaut, I'm not sure we'll have enough to keep separate, but we'll see.

In France, these three grapes are all typically blended. In the long run, that might make sense here. But the first step is to guide them through fermentation and get to the point where we can taste and evaluate what we've got. They are well on their way!

Three new grapes


Harvest 2019: Things heat up and produce our busiest-ever day (and second-busiest-ever week)

At the beginning of last week, three weeks after we'd seen our first grapes arrive in the cellar, Chelsea estimated that we were only 10% of the way done. By the end of the week, 132.4 tons later, we sat at 35% done. We saw our first Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Noir, and estate Syrah. We direct-pressed 2700 gallons (over 1000 cases) of Grenache for our 2019 Patelin de Tablas Rosé. Our staff parking lot became parking for bins on their way into the cellar:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Parking Lot Panorama

We're seeing some unusual timing this year, with grapes that are normally ripe later (like Roussanne and Counoise) ready to pick alongside earlier grapes like Viognier and Syrah. We're attributing this to the exceptional vine health we've seen this year, which has allowed those grapes that normally struggle with vigor as we get toward harvest season to remain green and photosynthesizing efficiently. But we're really not sure; we'll learn a lot more as we get deeper into harvest. For now, we'll enjoy seeing our harvest chalkboard fill up:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Chalkboard

The unusual overlap of varieties is a great opportunity to see the different colors of our different grapes side-by-side. For example, the dark, opaque Syrah (left) is a great counterpoint to the more translucent amethyst of Grenache (right):

Mid-Sept Harvest - Bins of Syrah 2Mid-Sept Harvest - Bins of Grenache

The samples we're taking on a daily basis are an even clearer illustration of the many hues in the vineyard, determined both by the grapes' inherent pigment and how close each is to harvest:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Samples

The peak of the week was Thursday, where estate Vermentino, Grenache Blanc, and Syrah combined with Patelin Syrah and Patelin Rosé Grenache (those 2700 gallons I mentioned) to total over 51 tons, the most we've ever harvested in one day and more than 10% of what we're estimating we'll see the entire harvest. Chelsea pointed out how nice it was to get a day like this early in the harvest when everyone was still feeling fresh, rather than in mid-October, when everyone's already ragged.

What does it take to process 51.3 tons of grapes in a day? It begins around 1am with lights, Jordy, David, and our harvest crew arriving out in the Vermentino block. Neil arrives in the cellar at 3am to get the first press load of white going. By the time the rest of the winemaking team gets there around 6, that press is ready to empty, rinse, and refill with the next load. The first Grenache bins destined for Patelin Rosé have arrived, and our second press gets loaded with those. These two presses will cycle through press runs every 3 hours until evening. Meanwhile, bins of red grapes are unloaded from trailers as they arrive, labeled and stacked. We use a highly technical labeling system called "post-it notes":

Mid-Sept Harvest - Grenache D

One at a time, red bins are forklifted off their stacks, weighed, then dumped into the hopper and vibrated down the sorting table, where our team picks out any leaves or unripe or raisined clusters. The grapes then get de-stemmed and pumped into tanks to ferment. Amidst all this, all our red tanks (thankfully, not much yet) have to be pumped over, punched down, or otherwise mixed twice each day. You can see the last of the 103 bins that our rock star cellar team processed that day, in the hopper and on the sorting table:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Last Bin of Busiest Ever Day

Thankfully, the rest of the week wasn't quite at Thursday's pace, but it still resulted in a second-busiest-ever week, just a fraction of a ton less fruit than September 10-16, 2018. You can see how dramatically the harvest accelerated compared to its first three weeks:

Mid-Sept Harvest - Graph

I mentioned a few weeks ago that we felt harvest's wave building, but that it hadn't broken yet. Now it has, and we spent last week paddling fast. Everything looks great in the vineyard, and the flavors and numbers on the fruit we've been picking have been ideal. So, if I can push the analogy a little further, we're up on the board, and going to ride this one as long as we can.


A New Winery Wastewater Wetlands Area

Back in 2005, the state of California passed a law requiring wineries to treat their wastewater rather than releasing it to a normal septic system. This made a lot of sense to us because the lees and other winery by-products can be acidic enough that they impact the normal microbial function of leach fields. But, what sort of water treatment system was an important question. Most wineries chose a contained treatment unit, basically a small version of the treatment plants that cities or industrial operations install. We chose to go a different way. One available option was to build a wetland area where the roots of water plants would filter the winery wastewater as it passed through a series of gravel-filled lined ponds, until it was clean enough to be applied as irrigation water or to keep dust down on the roads. This solution creates wetland habitat for water-loving birds, amphibians, and insects. We were the first winery in the Central Coast to choose this (at the time novel) solution, and completed the construction of our first iteration of this project in 2006. We have enjoyed the benefits (including getting visits from this great blue heron) ever since.

But we're processing more grapes than we were in 2006, between the winery expansion we completed in 2011 and the growth of our Patelin de Tablas program, and in busy periods in recent years we've been pushing more water through those wetlands than they could really process. So, one of our big projects for this year was to expand the wetland area to the appropriate scale for our production. If you've driven into (or by) the winery in the last six weeks, you've likely seen the work going on:

New wetland construction

As of last week, the ponds are filled and the plants are planted. You can see in the foreground how the wastewater is distributed across the surface of the pond.

New wetlands with plants 2

I think the whole thing looks glorious. This next photo shows off the flowers a little better. It also shows a view of the holding pond in the background. We'll make good use of this water, likely to keep the animal enclosure that's right next to this green and growing all summer long:

New wetlands with plants 1

All wineries (and all businesses) are faced with problems to solve, whether they be inherent in the business or mandated by regulation. Finding solutions like this, that fit into our larger goals and ethos, is one of the real pleasures of running this particular business. The next time you come out to see us, look left as you turn into our gate and you'll see it. Maybe our heron will even make an appearance for you.


The delayed 2019 Harvest begins slowly, but we can feel the wave building

This is the time of year when everyone in Paso Robles begins every conversation with "so, how's harvest coming for you?" Typically, they're asking if you've begun, and if so, if you're far enough in to have a sense of how things will look. And we have begun, although only a little, and just two grapes. But even these grapes give us useful data points as we look to compare the 2019 harvest with other recent vintages. And one thing is clear: there's a lot more on the way, soon.

We began harvest on August 29th with a pick of about five and half tons of Pinot Noir from my parents' place in Templeton. As we typically do for the first pick, the whole cellar team goes out and works alongside the vineyard crew. Perhaps that's why Vineyard Manager David Maduena, overseeing his 26th(!) harvest here at Tablas Creek, is looking amused:

DSC09594

The grapes look amazing. It's remarkable how little stress the vines appear to be under, at a time of year when they're usually starting to look a bit ragged. That's a testament to the ample and distributed rainfall we got last winter, and to the relatively moderate summer we've seen. Even with the past four warm weeks (average high temp: 92.4°F), we've only seen eight days this summer top 100°F, with a high of 103.5°F. That may sound like a lot, but it's well below the average here, and the nights have remained cool: the average nighttime low over the last four weeks was 54.9°F, and every one of the seven 100+ days saw nighttime temperature drop into the 50s. A few photos should help give you a sense of the health of the vines. First, the Pinot block. Everything is green, not a hint of red or yellow to be seen in the leaves:

DSC09499

And it's not just Pinot. Check out this photo looking out over two blocks that would normally be showing signs of stress in early September: a hilltop Grenache block in the foreground (still only partway through veraison) and the dry-farmed "Scruffy Hill" block on the other side of the creek. Both are still vibrantly green:

Looking over Grenache to Scruffy Hill

But for all that we're still recovering from the delayed beginning to the growing season, we're making up time fast. The conditions (mid-90s highs and mid-50s lows) have been absolutely ideal for grapevine photosynthesis to proceed with peak efficiency. And we've definitely caught up. In my veraison post on August 6th, I looked at the 36-49 day range that we've observed between first veraison on the estate and first harvest and made a prediction that we'd start between September 4th and September 17th. As it turned out, 2019 will tie for our shortest-ever duration between veraison and harvest, and at 3am yesterday (September 4th) the team convened at our oldest Viognier block to kick off the 2019 harvest. Shepherd/Videographer Nathan Stuart was there to capture it. Definitely turn on the soundtrack for this one:

If you haven't been a part of a night pick, it's a memorable experience. There's a camaraderie in the shared work, the early start, and the silence that surrounds you. Until, of course, the lights go on and the tractors rev up, and then it's go time.

DSC03376

We didn't pick that much, just eight bins (a little under four tons) from the top of the block. The bottom of the same hill was enough behind the top to make it worth waiting until next week. But after having run numbers on most of the early-ripening grapes, we know that things have moved enough that it's likely we'll see more Viognier as well as our first Syrah and Vermentino next week. And then, we'll be in the thick of things.

How does this compare to last year? With only two data points, it's hard to say. We picked Pinot quite a bit earlier this year than last (August 29th vs. September 10th) at similar numbers. But we picked the first Viognier from here bit later than last year (September 4th vs. August 31st). Yes, the regions are different, but not wildly so. Instead, I think that the Pinot vines were delayed last year by the swings between cool and hot which we largely avoided this year. In 2019, the two regions have accumulated almost exactly the same number of degree hours compared to average: Templeton Gap 2249 (0.4% above average) and Adelaida District 2430 (1.2% above average). By contrast, to this point last year, we were 9.6% above average here at Tablas Creek, and 5.9% above average in the Templeton Gap. So, why are many of our grapes coming in earlier despite the cooler year?

To understand why, it's important to know what degree days (or degree hours) is measuring, and how it does and doesn't correlate with how grapevines ripen. Degree days measure the number of hours that temperatures spend above an arbitrary line, which corresponds roughly to the point at which plants start photosynthesizing. But in a year like 2018, when we had cool stretches interspersed with one long scorching hot stretch it's important to remember that neither cool nor very hot temperatures are ideal for grapevine photosynthesis. Instead, grapevines photosynthesize optimally in consistent very warm (but not hot) weather. And we've almost entirely avoided those hot days this year. Last year? Not so much. We saw 25 days that topped 100°F, including ten hotter than our hottest day this year (103.5°F). At those very hot temperatures, grapevines close the pores in their leaves to protect themselves from dehydration, slowing their photosynthetic capacity. This year, it's been all systems go.

It may be early in the harvest season, and we may only have brought in two grapes, but all signs point to it getting busy soon. If you see a winemaker out at a restaurant in the next few days, you might want to wish them well. Because you may not see them again until November.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Muscardin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Footnotes

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