With Cesar Perrin back, we welcome Muscardin to the blending table and build a 2021 red vintage that looks outstanding

On Wednesday we finally got to sit down and taste the thirteen red wines from the 2021 vintage we'd built over the past two weeks around the blending table. It was one highlight after another. From the tangy watermelon and blood orange flavors of the Terret Noir to leather, teriyaki, and redcurrant of Mourvedre, the warm spices and elegant minerality of the En Gobelet, and the intense black licorice and olallieberry of the Panoplie, each wine was somehow both supremely itself and clearly reflective of the low-yielding, intensely flavored 2021 vintage. Sure, we wished there were more of many of the wines. And there were some wines we just couldn't make in this scarce vintage. But as we thought after our white blending last month, what there is will be exceptional. 

After a two-year absence, it was great to have Cesar Perrin join us at the table. But while his voice was welcome, our process isn't dependent on any particular participant. Instead, like the Perrins' own system at Beaucastel, we take the blending process in steps and build consensus rather than relying on one lead voice to determine the wines' final profiles. When you have nine family members involved in a multi-generational business, as they do at Beaucastel, it's a good policy and good family relations to make sure everyone is on the same page before you go forward. The same is true with a partnership like Tablas Creek where both founding families have equal ownership. More importantly, we're also convinced it makes better wines.

With the welcome return of Hospice du Rhone in the middle of Cesar's visit, we spread out our tastings more than we often do, beginning by splitting the tasting of the 59 different red lots between the Friday of Hospice and the Monday after. On Friday we tackled Grenache, Counoise, and Pinot Noir. Monday we dove into the more tannin-rich grapes: Mourvedre, Syrah, Tannat, Terret Noir, Vaccarese, Muscardin, Cinsaut and our tiny Cabernet lot. We keep our different harvest lots separate until they've finished fermentation so we can assess their quality and character before we have to decide which wines they make the most sense in. And that's our goal at this first stage of blending: to give each lot a grade that's reflective of its overall quality, and to start to flag lots that we think might be particularly suited to one wine or another. This component tasting is also an opportunity for us to get a sense of which varieties particularly shined or struggled, which helps provide direction as we start to brainstorm about blends. Here's some of the lineup of components:

2022 red blending components in lab

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with "1" being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). We also give ourselves the liberty to give intermediate "1/2" or "2/3" grades for lots that are right on the cusp. For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see three or four "1" grades, five or six "2" grades and one "3" grade. This year we saw a lot of "1" grades and very few "3" grades. How I graded each variety, in the order in which we tasted them:

  • Grenache (16 lots): Grenache is often a challenge in this first tasting, as it is slow to finish fermentation and some lots are just rounding into form. But it was a highlight in 2021, with the generous fruit and spice we always expect from the grape, and several lots that also had the density and plushness that we get in our best vintages. I gave more than half the lots (nine in total) "1" grades, with one other getting a "1/2". Four "2" lots and two "2/3" lots rounded out the best Grenache showing I can ever remember at this stage. 
  • Counoise (6 lots): A solid showing for Counoise, with all the lots having the lively, spicy Gamay-style juiciness that our varietal Counoise bottling typically reflects. One lot also added the richer, more structured Counoise that we look to use in Esprit. Grades: one "1", two "1/2" grades, two "2"s, and one "2/3".
  • Pinot Noir (1 lot): From the small vineyard in the Templeton Gap that my dad planted outside the house he and my mom built in 2007, where we live now. It's planted to a mix of different Pinot Noir clones, and while in some years we have fermented each clone separately, they all always end up in the Full Circle Pinot Noir. In 2021 we fermented them together, and had just one lot to taste, which balanced Pinot's classic dark cherry and cola flavors with just a little oak. There weren't many choices to make here, but it will be a compelling 2021 Full Circle.
  • Mourvedre (15 lots): Mourvedre was strong as well in 2021, with more powerful structure than we often see, and the meatiness and red fruit that it contributes to our flagship blends on full display. Six lots got "1"s from me, with three others getting "1/2". Only five "2"s and one "3" that will get declassified into Patelin.
  • Cinsaut (1 lot): Our third vintage of Cinsaut, and the largest quantity (and strongest showing) to date. Richer and more structured than the Counoise, with enough grip to think it could contribute to some of the wines we intend for people to lay down. I gave it a "1/2".
  • Syrah (12 lots): Syrah at this stage is easy to appreciate, with its plush dark fruit, spice, and powerful structure. The main question we have, beyond identifying the extraordinary lots from the merely good ones, is in evaluating the different winemaking choices we made and deciding where to best deploy the lots with noteworthy oak or stemmy herbiness. I gave out five "1"s, five "1/2" grades (these included most of those lots with notable stem or oak character, as I felt they weren't necessarily slam dunks for Esprit or Panoplie), just two "2" lots and nothing lower than that.
  • Vaccarese (1 lot): Maybe the surprise of the tasting for most of us, with dark, rich fruit, solid tannic structure, a little floral lift, and a lovely salty minerality on the finish. Less plush and more vibrant than Syrah, but similarly dark. We all found it plenty good enough for consideration for Esprit. I gave it a "1".
  • Terret Noir (2 lots): I felt like Terret is coming into its own, with the high-toned wild strawberry balance of fruitiness and herbiness that we've come to expect, but a little more plushness and better-integrated tannins than we've seen in the past. I gave the denser, more structured lot (which seemed a natural for Le Complice) a "1/2" and the other fresher, prettier lot (which felt on point for a varietal bottling) a "2". 
  • Muscardin (1 lot): 2021 marked the first year we've had enough of our newest grape to include in our blending trials. Exciting! Even better, we liked the wine a lot: spicy and red-fruited, with a minty/herby/juniper note, good acids, and nice saltiness on the finish. Reminiscent of a more refined Terret Noir. I gave it a "2" and we all thought it would be a nice addition to the Le Complice. Just 30 gallons in one half-barrel, so not enough to bottle on its own. Next year, we hope.
  • Tannat (3 lots): Plush, tannic, and chocolatey, yet with the acids that always surprise me in such a powerful grape. Not a lot of decisions to be made here, except for how much oak we wanted in the blend and how much Tannat we feel is the right addition to En Gobelet. I gave two lots "1" grades and another, whose oak felt a little dominant, a "2".
  • Cabernet (1 lot): Typically, the few rows of Cabernet in our old nursery block go into our Tannat, but we always taste it and have a few times decided to bottle it on its own when we had enough to make that viable and such well-defined Cabernet character that we couldn't bear to blend it away. In 2021 we only had one barrel, so even though we loved it we didn't have enough for a solo bottling. It will go into Tannat and be happy. 

We finished Monday with our normal round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days. Complicating the decision was the overall scarcity of the crop. With the reds down 18% off a relatively small base we realized if we made our preferred quantity of Esprit and Cotes (3500 cases and 1500 cases, respectively) we wouldn't have much left over, and critically wouldn't have enough different wines to send out to our wine club. So we made the decision to cut back to the absolute minimum we need, 2800 cases of Esprit and 1200 cases of Cotes. It's painful to do that in such a strong vintage, but we didn't feel we had any choice. As for the composition of the flagship blends, the strengths of all three of our main red grapes suggested we kick off the blending trials for both Panoplie and Esprit with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varieties, and see what we learned. We also loved the minor varieties this year, and decided to try adding some Vaccarese and Cinsaut (along with Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah, and Counoise) to Esprit to see if we liked their contributions.  

Tuesday morning we convened 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 around 60%) and typically more Grenache than Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often threatens to overwhelm the Mourvedre. This dynamic held true in our first three-wine trial, with the Panoplie with the most Syrah (28%) being no one's favorite, while we split between a high-Grenache/low-Syrah (31%/11%) option and one that held them both in the low 20% range. In a second round, we tried splitting the difference between those two wines while adding some Counoise, as well as a blend where we used more Syrah, displacing Mourvedre. Each had their advocates, with the Counoise blend showing elevated fruit and vibrancy (but a little less density) and the higher-Syrah, lower-Mourvedre blend showing remarkable density but somehow losing a little of the elegance that Mourvedre brings even to powerful wines. In the end we came back around the option in our first flight that got the most first-place votes: 54% Mourvedre, 24% Grenache, and 22% Syrah. It showed both powerful fruit and serious richness, but still felt appropriately elegant for Panoplie.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit. Like the Panoplie, we started off with a high-Grenache/low-Syrah option, a high-Syrah/low-Grenache option, and one that had them in roughly equal proportions. Unlike with the Panoplie, we had near-universal agreement around the table on the first round, coalescing on the third option, which was a wine with both powerful fruit and noteworthy lift, structured but fresh. When the numbers were revealed, we also learned that this blend had the year's full production of both Cinsaut and Vaccarese in it: 35% Mourvedre, 26% Grenache, 23% Syrah, 7% Vaccarese, 5% Cinsaut, and 4% Counoise. That means we won't have those two grapes as varietal bottlings this year, but that's OK. Our rule is that if the Esprit needs something, it gets it. Just a heads up to anyone who loves (or is just curious about) those two new grapes. If you want to try one, snag some 2020 before they're gone. It also cemented our decision to plant more of both Vaccarese and Cinsaut this year!

Wednesday, we tackled our remaining wine club blends, starting with En Gobelet. Because we used a relatively high number of head-trained lots in Esprit and Panoplie, we didn't have much wiggle room on Syrah or Counoise, and our blending decisions came down to what the right proportions were of Grenache and Mourvedre, and how much Tannat we wanted. In the end, there was clear consensus in the first round, and we ended up with a blend of 39% Grenache, 29% Mourvedre, 16% Syrah, 11% Counoise, and 5% Tannat. The wine was complex, with red-to-purple fruit and good structure alongside the signature elegance we see from our head-trained blocks.

For Le Complice, we had a more fundamental question. 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, sage-like green spiciness, although Syrah is very dark and Terret quite pale. In order to make the wine more friendly, particularly in the mid-palate, we've always added about 20% Grenache. Our question for ourselves was how much of that spicy, herby character makes the best wine. Being distinctive and intriguing are important and valuable, but so is drinking pleasure. And with those thoughts in mind, our favorite blend in the first round was one that de-emphasized the stemmy character for something a little lusher, with a greater contribution from Grenache. But it seemed a little too far from what we'd done in previous vintages of Le Complice. So we decided to try a fourth option, leaving the percentages the same but swapping in a two-barrel 100% whole-cluster Syrah lot that we'd initially held out because we thought it might be too dominant for one of the more traditional Syrah lots. And we all loved that final wine, with both richness and lift, meatiness and herbiness. It should be a stunner when it's released. Plus, this will be the home for our 30 gallons of Muscardin! It may only make up 1% of the wine, but it seems happy there. Final blend: 59% Syrah, 32% Grenache, 8% Terret Noir, and 1% Muscardin. 

At this point, after a prowl through the wines aging in the cellar, Cesar had to head back to France, but we soldiered on the next morning, building the Cotes de Tablas. Because we'd held down the quantity of Esprit, and because the solutions we'd come to in most of our blends had leaned into Grenache (our most plentiful grape) we had more options than we often do. The Cotes is always led by Grenache, but that total has been anywhere from 35% to 60% in recent years. In our first round, we eliminated one blend that leaned a little heavier into Mourvedre as lacking in the vibrancy we love in Cotes, but split between a juicy, lively option that had 56% Grenache and 25% Syrah, and a more structured, tannic wine that with 42% Grenache and 30% Syrah. After some table blending, we decided that essentially splitting the difference between the two made everyone happy: 47% Grenache, 30% Syrah, 15% Counoise, and 8% Mourvedre.

We took another break to prep for this week's bottling, but on Wednesday we reconvened to taste the finalized blends alongside all the varietal wines that we ended up making. We won't have quite the lineup that we had last year, but it's still a substantial one. Even better, we were thrilled by what we tasted.

Around the blending table 2022

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

  • Full Circle (305 cases): A very Pinot nose of dark cherry, green herbs, and sweet cola. The mouth is vibrant, with flavors of cranberry and baker's chocolate, sweet earth and a little hint of sweet oak. 
  • Terret Noir (70 cases): A watermelon and blood orange nose, with a buttery pie crust note offering surprising richness. On the palate, peppered citrus and baked red apple, lovely lift, a little of Terret's signature grip but in beautiful balance with the fruit. Pretty, lively, and fun.
  • Counoise (265 cases): A juicy bramble patch nose, raspberry and leafy herbs. The mouth is exuberantly juicy, with plum and earth and vibrant acids. Fresh and refreshing, like a glass of springtime.
  • Mourvedre (515 cases): A more serious nose than the three previous wines, with leather, teriyaki, and redcurrant notes. The mouth shows lovely loamy earth, dark red berries, and a little hint of chocolate. It promises to continue to deepen and gain texture with its time in barrel.
  • Grenache (975 cases): An amazing vibrant nose of red licorice and grape, deepened with peppery spice. The mouth is exuberant, with sweet red fruit held in check with vibrant acids and some serious tannins. The finish shows sweet spice and more licorice. My favorite varietal Grenache we've made in a long time. 
  • Syrah (425 cases): A dark nose, not very giving right now: black licorice, iron, and molasses. The mouth is friendlier than the nose suggests, with blackberry and a little sweet oak, a return of that iron-like minerality, and substantial tannins. The classic "iron fist in a velvet glove" of young Syrah.
  • Patelin de Tablas (3900 cases): Dark chocolate and soy on the nose, with additional potpourri, black raspberry and white pepper notes. The mouth is in a nice place, seemingly evenly balanced between Syrah and Grenache with black and purple fruit, nice grip, and a lingering brambliness that reminded us of a walk in our local oak woodlands. The blend ended up 43% Syrah, 28% Grenache, 23% Mourvedre and 6% Counoise.
  • Cotes de Tablas (1100 cases): A nose poised between red (Luxardo cherry) and black (blackcurrant), with noteworthy sweet spice. On the palate, Grenache comes to the fore, with flavors of elderberry and licorice, and a little tannic grip keeping control at the end.
  • En Gobelet (885 cases): A nose of warm spices, dark cherries, and chocolate. The palate is gentle after the exuberance of the other wines we tasted, with vibrant plum skin and cocoa powder notes, chalky minerality, and dusty tannins at the end. As we hope the En Gobelet will be, more about elegance and terroir than density or power.
  • Le Complice (870 cases): A nose of menthol and dark chocolate, chaparral and soy marinade. The mouth shows flavors of iron and black plum, lots of chalky minerals and sage-like herbs. Then a little sweet oak wraps around the finish like a warm blanket. Intriguing and memorable.
  • Esprit de Tablas (2820 cases): The nose is on point for Esprit: sweet dark redcurrant fruit, loamy earth and anise, all classic expressions of Mourvedre here. On the palate, currant and plum fruit, new leather and anise, with good structure and finishing tannin. Already delicious, with lots more time to continue to flesh out. 
  • Panoplie (865 cases): A powerful nose, olallieberry and black licorice, minty coolness and spicy herbs. The mouth is plush and powerful, rich in fruit and tannin, deep loamy earth and baker's chocolate. Long and opulent but with lovely minty lift.  
  • Tannat (720 cases): Dark on the nose but somehow chalky and mineral as well, with a little mint chocolate note. The mouth is a different beast, like a dark berry pie with firm tannins and a little sweet oak. All this gets cleaned up on the finish by Tannat's signature acids and violet florality. 

A few concluding thoughts. 

  • What a pleasure having Cesar around the table again. His ability to step in after being gone so long, to offer context from his decade of experience at Beaucastel yet understand the uniqueness of Tablas Creek, makes him an amazing addition to the blending team. Yes, I feel great about our process, and am proud of the wines that we made in the two pandemic years when a Perrin visit wasn't possible. But it was great to have him back, and to see his excitement about what we were tasting.
  • I came out of that blending session really excited at the degree to which the strength and character of the vintage showed through in these many wildly different grapes. You wouldn't think that the same things that early grapes like Syrah and Cinsaut need would be great for late grapes like Mourvedre and Terret Noir. You can't assume that the conditions in which a vigorous grape like Grenache and a low-vigor grape like Counoise each would thrive would be the same. And yet all were good, and many were outstanding. That's the sign of a truly great vintage.  
  • In looking for a comparable vintage to 2021, I continue to think that 2007 was as close as we've seen. The wines we're making now are a bit different in style than they were then, a little less ripe, a little more elegant. But the conditions that produced the blockbuster 2007 vintage were pretty close to what we saw in 2021: intensity, from a very dry, cold winter that didn't reduce the cluster counts much but gave us smaller clusters of smaller berries. Freshness, from the relatively moderate harvest season, each hot stretch relieved by a cooldown immediately after. The yields, right around 2.5 tons per acre, were also similar in both vintages. Given that those 2007's were some of the best, longest-lived wines we've made, if I still think the same in another year I'll be very happy.

I'll let Neil have the last word, as I thought a comment he made in our final tasting summed it up nicely: "All these wines have a lovely force behind them. Not big, not heavy, but intense in personality."

Cellar Team tasting with Cesar


A Report from the Blending Table: the 2021 Whites May Be Scarce, But They're Exciting

We've spent the last four days around our blending table, working to turn the 36 different lots we made from our white grapes in 2021 into the blends and varietal bottlings we'll be releasing to you in coming months. With the ongoing challenges of international travel, we again convened without a Perrin in attendance, though Cesar will be visiting for red blending next month and we'll have a chance to get his thoughts before anything goes into bottle. After four days immersed in these wines, I feel confident that he'll love what he tastes. And that's great! After the painfully short 2021 harvest (white grapes down 36.5% overall) we knew our options might be constrained. But the reward in scarce vintages is typically noteworthy intensity. That (spoiler alert) definitely holds true with 2021. 

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

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

2021 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. When we think a lot is right on the cusp between two grades, we can note that with a slash ("1/2", or "2/3"). As you'll see, the Roussanne in particular got a ton of good grades this year. In rough harvest order:

  • Viognier (4 lots): A really strong Viognier vintage, with good richness but also better-than usual acidity. 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" lot, two "1/2" lots, and one "2".
  • Marsanne (3 lots): If possible, an even stronger Marsanne showing than Viognier, with all three lots showing Marsanne’s classic honeydew and chalky mineral charm. One lot was still unfinished and got a "1/2" from me. The other two I gave "1"s to. With yields off more than 40% I was worried that despite how good it would surely be we wouldn't be able to showcase this with a varietal Marsanne, but as it turned out, we will, and it should be terrific.
  • Picardan (2 lots): Neither lot was quite finished fermenting, which made it difficult. Both had nice herbiness and good acids, but neither had as much richness as we've found in our favorite Picardan lots. One "2" and one "2/3". While there won't be Picardan in the Esprit Blanc this year, we have good confidence it will finish up and make a delicious varietal bottling.
  • Bourboulenc (3 lots): After our issues in 2019 with our debut vintage of Bourboulenc having a crazy orange color when it came out of the press the cellar team separated out the press fraction this year. That lot, while it had interesting aromatics, was low in acid and had an almost amber color. I gave it a 2/3 and it got declassified into Patelin. The other two lots had lots of good texture with solid acids. I gave them both "1/2" grades.
  • Clairette Blanche (1 lot): We only had 192 gallons of this, our scarcest white grape, and it was spicy and tropical, with lots of texture. I gave it a "1/2".
  • Grenache Blanc (8 lots): Grenache Blanc is often tough to evaluate in this first tasting because it's always the last to finish fermentation, and this year was no exception. I gave out two "1" grades to lots with brightness, richness, and the grape's characteristic pithy bite, two "1/2" grades to lots with classic flavors but a little leaner, two "2" grades to lots that were in the final stages of fermentation and showing some oxidation but seemed promising, a "2/3" to a heavy press lot with an amber color and some bitterness, and a "3" to a lot with dark color and notable oxidation. I have confidence that even these last two lots will become something good with a little cellar attention, but they weren't there yet.
  • Picpoul Blanc (2 lots): One 708-gallon "1" lot that we all loved, with sweet tropical fruit and bright citrusy acidity, and a 120-gallon "2" lot that we thought would end up just as good, but was still a bit sweet and showing a little oxidation.
  • Roussanne (13 lots): Although there were plenty of strong lots among the other grapes, there was also unevenness. So it was a relief to have our strongest collection of Roussanne lots I can remember. I gave seven lots "1" grades, which would gave us plenty of Roussanne options for Esprit Blanc. Three others got "1/2" grades due to their oak, which we liked but thought had the potential to be too dominant in Esprit Blanc. Three "2" grades to pretty, classic Roussanne lots without quite the level of texture and richness our top lots got. And nothing lower than that.

We finished Tuesday by brainstorming ideas for the Esprit Blanc. With plenty of Esprit-caliber Roussanne, good acids across the board, and the relative unevenness of Grenache Blanc, we thought this might be a good year to lean into Roussanne and Picpoul. But which of the higher-acid whites should be included, and just how much we would reduce Grenache Blanc from the roughly 25% we have most years, we didn't know. That's what our blending trials are for! Complicating matters was the overall scarcity of the vintage, which meant that we knew we would struggle to make enough lots big enough (600+ cases) to send out to our VINsider wine club members. We needed four whites from this vintage in quantity and quality to send out, and that meant at least one varietal bottling, plus the three blends, or two varietal bottlings plus Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc. To give us enough options, we made the decision to make somewhat less Esprit Blanc than usual, something more like 1,600 cases than our usual 2,200 cases. That's 600 cases of top-quality fruit available to other wines.

Wednesday morning, we started on our blending work by tasting three possible Esprit de Tablas Blanc blends. Our least-favorite had the most Grenache Blanc (18%) while our favorite had the least (12%) and instead got lovely tropicality from 16% Picpoul. But even our favorite felt like it could lean heavier into Roussanne than the 64% that it contained, and had plenty enough acid that we could swap that in for portions of the brighter Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Bourboulenc lots that it contained. The cost would be making less Roussanne and not having enough for a full club shipment, and having to use the Patelin de Tablas Blanc instead, which we would prefer to avoid since wines that don't make it into distribution feel more special to include to club members. But our rule is that the Esprit wines always get first dibs on what they need to be great, so in a second round we tasted that wine against a new one which upped the Roussanne percentage to 70% and added the rest of the top Picpoul lot (17%), with 10% Grenache Blanc, 2% Bourboulenc, and 1% Clairette. That gave the wine a deeper, more honeyed profile, with exceptional richness and length. It should be impressive young, but feels to us like it's got a long life ahead of it. Consider yourselves forewarned that because of its scarcity it may go fast.

That afternoon we tackled the Cotes Blanc. Viognier always takes the lead, but we weren't sure whether we wanted Marsanne's elegance or Grenache Blanc's density and acid in the primary support role. So, we decided to try one blend with more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne, one with more Marsanne and less Grenache Blanc, and one where set them to roughly equal levels. As sometimes happens, there was a clear favorite, which to our surprise was the one with the most Grenache Blanc. That at first was surprising, but given that we used so little Grenache Blanc in Esprit Blanc we had some truly outstanding lots available for Cotes Blanc, which produced a wine that we loved: luscious but structured, persistent and appealing. As a bonus, it also gave us the chance to make a varietal Marsanne, which I'd almost given up hope of doing. Final blend: 44% Viognier, 32% Grenache Blanc, 14% Marsanne, and 10% Roussanne.

In making the quantity of Esprit Blanc and Cotes Blanc we wanted, we hadn't used all any of our grapes. Even after declassifying one Bourboulenc lot and two Grenache Blanc lots into Patelin Blanc, we'll still have a great range of options from 2021. And that's how we finished up the blending week: tasting the three blends alongside the eight varietal wines that we'll be bottling from 2021. 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:

2021 Whites after Blending

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

  • 2021 Bourboulenc (200 cases): Medium gold. A nose of orange bitters, green herbs, and citrus blossom. On the palate, the citrus note continues with Seville oranges, sweetgrass and chamomile, with nice texture and a long finish.
  • 2021 Picardan (175 cases): A complex, savory nose of lime, peppery citrus leaf, and briny oyster shell. Super bright on the palate with lemon and fresh green herbs, zippy acids, and a mineral finish.
  • 2021 Clairette Blanche (50 cases): Scarce, because we just don't have much Clairette in the ground. But after not making one at all in 2020 I'm happy to have even 50 cases. A high-toned nose of wintergreen, preserved lemon, and limestone. A hint of sweetness on the palate (this isn't quite done fermenting) then turning creamy with a lemon drop zippiness and little lemon pith bite that emphasizes the grape's signature minerality.
  • 2021 Picpoul Blanc (50 cases): Scarce, because we used so much Picpoul in Esprit Blanc. A pretty nose of ripe apple, with a hint of oxidation from the fact that this Picpoul lot hasn't finished fermenting yet.  That's clear on the palate too with some remaining sweetness and notes of crystallized pineapple, lemon drop, and wet rocks. Should be outstanding by the time it's done. 
  • 2021 Grenache Blanc (750 cases): A classic Grenache Blanc nose, pithy, briny, and vibrant. A great combination of acids and richness on the palate, with a long finish where that pithy note comes back to the fore. Should be a great wine club shipment wine.
  • 2021 Viognier (190 cases): A high-toned nose of peaches and white flowers with a little bit of tarragon-like sweet herbiness. Nicely fruity on the palate, with nectarine and mineral character and solid acids. Medium-bodied, which I loved, given that Viognier can have a tendency toward heaviness. Not this one.
  • 2021 Marsanne (230 cases): Quite polished already, with a nose of honey, petrichor, and white flowers. The mouth is clean and spare, with gentle flavors of white tea, honeydew melon, and chalky minerality. Lovely.
  • 2021 Roussanne (480 cases): A notably rich nose with flavors of beeswax, lemongrass, and cedary oak. Similar on the mouth, with the honey flavors given lift by a nice lemony brightness. We're going to put this in neutral barrels and have high hopes for something amazing as the oak integrates.
  • 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (2900 cases): A lovely floral, fruity, buttery nose, orange blossom and white peach, seemingly dominated more by Viognier than Grenache Blanc right now even though there's twice as much of the latter than the former. Good balance on the mouth, with flavors of pineapple and preserved lemon (there's the Grenache Blanc!) and good acids coming out on the peachy finish. Charming already, and exciting that we were able to make this in good quantity.
  • 2021 Cotes de Tablas Blanc (1215 cases): A nose of caramel and brioche, with a little minty lift. The palate is lovely, with good richness held in check by good acids. The ripe peach and lime flavors seem equally balanced between the Viognier and Grenache Blanc components. A creamy texture emphasizes the stone fruit flavors on the finish.
  • 2021 Esprit de Tablas Blanc (1610 cases): The nose is very Roussanne, with poached pear, crystallized pineapple, honeysuckle and sweet oak. The mouth is luscious and textured, with honey, green apple, and graham cracker flavors, solid acidity, and the little dancing mango-like tropicality that I think comes from the Picpoul. This, like the Roussanne, will go back into foudre to let the oak integrate.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • The vintage's character, if I had to distill it down to one word, would be power. Not alcoholic power; the average Brix reading of our whites was just 20.35, which translates to a potential alcohol of around 12.6%. And I don't mean heavy; the wines all had good acids. But the textures were rich. The flavors were deep and intense. I don't think at this stage one would describe the wines as playful, though that often comes out with a little time. But I have confidence that these will be wines with well-defined character and intense flavors. Given that our yields were so low, that's what we'd have expected, though (see 2015) it doesn't always work out that way. 
  • The impact of blind tasting was on full display. It's tempting to write the story of a vintage early, and decide what's going to fit together best as a part of that narrative. But as is demonstrated to us every year, the reality of tasting blends is that you don't know what's going to fit best together until you try it. As evidence, the Cotes de Tablas Blanc and its high percentage of Grenache Blanc, in a year when at the component stage we thought we preferred Marsanne. But it turned out that Marsanne wasn't what Viognier needed this year to show its best self. I am proud of the process that we use, which guarantees that the wines we make reflect the specifics of each vintage. 
  • The scarcity of 2021 is going to have impacts across our business. Even though we managed to make enough different wines in enough quantities, there in many cases won't be much left over after we send them out to club members. If there are wines that you know you love, I would pay attention to the release announcements and plan to get them at release. The days of having a wine like Grenache Blanc, or Picpoul, or Viognier available for several months are likely a thing of the past. We do have more vines in the ground from last year's planting, but that help is still a few years away. 
  • This is the stage where I often try to reach for what vintage(s) in our history might be good comps for what we've been tasting. And yes, it's early to make these sorts of judgments. But in recent years, it seems like 2016 might provide a pretty good comparison. At the end of our five-year drought, 2016 produced powerful components and seemed particularly strong for Roussanne. In the Cotes Blanc we came to a similar conclusion, using more Grenache Blanc and less Marsanne to better play of Viognier's richness. The solution we came to for the 2016 Esprit Blanc tied for our highest-ever percentage of Roussanne at 75%. That's similar to this year, though we've never before had more Picpoul than Grenache Blanc. But it's at least a starting point. We will see in coming months if I'm right.

It's important to note that while we've decided on blends, it's not like the wines will go into bottle next week. There are lots that need some time to finish fermenting, and everything needs to be racked, blended, and let settle and integrate. The Roussanne and the Esprit Blanc will go into foudre and have another 9 months to evolve. And even the varietal wines are three months from seeing a bottle. But still, this is our first comprehensive look at our most recent vintage. So far, so good.


Tract Home Guerilla Winemaking - The Sequel

By Darren Delmore

(For those of you who didn’t read part one about how you can make wine from a single vine, I once made 2.5 bottles of varietally correct and quaffable Roussanne from my mom's oceanside vine, hand bottled and labeled in time for Mother’s Day.)

As harvest 2021 was ripening along, my mother kept texting me photos of the crazy Roussanne vine taking over her backyard. At random hours, spaced out among days, sometimes well after 2 am, a photo would come through, often with a simple question mark, or “I think these grapes are going bad," even the simple "HELP.” The main complaint used to be that the vine, purchased in a pot at Tablas Creek back in 2007, had blossomed to prolific proportions and obstructed the ocean view from her bathroom window. At 74 years of age, she still runs the oldest Italian restaurant in SLO County, yet the backyard vine seemed to be of a much higher importance. 

Big vine
Roussanne grapes

Then a texted photo came my way, showing a big Roussanne cluster with some bunch rot happening in its center, so I stopped by her gated community by the beach and had a look. A second vine that I’d put in the ground in 2009, from a simple hard pruning, was having its Coachella moment. Thirty gorgeous clusters raging beneath a healthy green, head trained canopy. I hadn’t sprayed the vines with sulfur or done anything but a timely winter pruning, and perhaps the dryness of this vintage kept the coastal mildew and rot mostly at bay. “Yes mom, we are going to have a vintage!” I announced. Together, my mother and I pulled bird netting over the vines and tied it to the trunks. The clusters on the original vine were already showing the classic gold and rust-spotted freckles of Roussanne, and I cut off the cluster that had the documented rot, leaving the rest to ripen.

Cut to the third week of October, and after taking my son to a gymnastics session in SLO, I had one hour to spare, so I hauled down to Shell Beach with shears and two buckets.  I texted from her driveway: “I’m here for the grapes." She came out into her backyard five minutes later adorned with new fabric gloves, a hat, shades and even sunscreen on, to pick these mere two vines. We pulled the netting off and saw that the extra hang time allowed the second vine’s fruit to catch up. “This is the best these have looked in years,” I said.

“Look at these grapes, Darren!” She was excited.

“You take that vine, mom, I’ll get this one.”

Roussanne - Mom - Harvest

We filled two buckets and a tote with coastal Roussanne, tidied up the netting for next year, and I sped off to pick up kids and prepare my lower back for “the fun part” of making small batch white wine at home.

I’ve met avid home winemakers in Paso Robles with all kinds of custom contraptions to make the pressing process easier, but perhaps the stubborn, hard working side of my mother is fully alive within me, and I chose to hand crush and press in the buckets, till a good portion of the juice was visible, then poured the buckets nearly upside down, holding the skins in, through an appropriate pasta screened funnel, into a glass carboy.

Crushing Roussanne

I’m sure drilling holes into the bottom of one bucket and pressing downward over a second bucket or larger funnel is probably the smarter way to go. But in the dark in my backyard, sweating, grunting, cussing, promising never to do this again, and surely raising suspicions from my new neighbors, I filled a 3 gallon carboy and part of a one gallon growler, putting on the plastic air locks and tucking them away in the garage. The skins went into the green waste bin. My wife thought I was insane. 

One gallon

Days later, the tell tale “Bloop bloop bloop” sounds from the corner of the garage proclaimed that natural fermentation had begun.

After a few weeks, the bubbling stopped, and a thick layer of white sediment had formed at the bottom of each glass container. I elevated the glass up on some cases of wine to settle overnight, then the next morning, using a simple food grade hose, I siphoned the clear wine into a clean 3 gallon carboy, and chucked the sediment. There was a small amount of the wine in the hose, so I drained it into a glass and tentatively smelled it, expecting a bouquet of formaldehyde and kerosene at best. But lo and behold, there was honeysuckle and some ginger… it was Roussanne all right!

Mama Del Old Vines Estate Roussanne 2021 was happening.

As temperatures were forecasted to dip to 27 degrees on December 11th, I added a pinch of sulfur to the wine and put the glass carboys of wine outside on a towel. Cold stabilization done the natural way. The cold temps would in theory precipitate some crystals out of the wine to cling to the glass, hopefully adding a touch of clarification.

December 13th, using the hand corker I’d bought years ago at Doc’s Cellar in SLO, I hand corked 10 bottles of my mom’s Roussanne, labeling the back accordingly. Just in time for her 75th birthday on December 16th.

Rouss bottle

The big reveal came at the Madonna Inn, where we took her for dinner. I pre chilled the first bottle and agreed to a corkage fee that was a bit flattering for such a homemade wine. The server poured it into the inn's trademark goblets. I watched my mom for her reaction. 

“What grape is this again?” she asked, swirling the white wine and looking a bit concerned.

“It's still Roussanne.”

She swirled it again, put her glasses on, and studied the custom back label. Then she lowered her nose in the glass. “It’s oaky, isn’t it?”

“Impossible. Do you like it?”

“It’s… it’s... I don't know." She sipped it and scowled. Maybe I'd rushed things. The acids were omnipresent, though it still smelled varietally sound. Besides, here it was, the fruit of her backyard vine, turned into a clear, packaged and labeled wine in less than two month's time.

"It's... it's different, Darren." 

"Different?"

"I don't know."

I shotgunned the entire glass and resigned myself over the Gold Rush Steakhouse menu.


Harvest 2021 Recap: It May Be Scant, But It Should Be Outstanding

On Tuesday, with the bin of Roussanne pictured below, we completed the 2021 harvest. It went out in the same leisurely fashion that it began, low stress and spread out, as a below-average quantity of fruit distributed itself relatively evenly across an above-average 56-day harvest. And after some eye-openingly-low yields on some of our early grapes, the somewhat better results from grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise gave the cellar reason to celebrate. Our rock star harvest crew, with the last bin of the year (which turned out to be Roussanne):

Last Bin of 2021 Harvest

Graphing the harvest by weeks produces about as perfect a bell curve as you're likely to see. In the chart below, blue is purchased fruit for the Patelin program, and orange estate-grown fruit:

Harvest by Tons 2021 Final

Yields were down 26% overall off the estate vs. 2020, just below 2.5 tons/acre, trailing this century only the extreme drought year of 2015 and the frost years of 2011, 2009, and 2001. And yet that number was actually somewhat of a relief, as some early grapes, particularly whites, were down by nearly 50%. The complete picture:

Grape 2021 Yields (tons) 2020 Yields (tons) % Change vs. 2020
Viognier 11.9 18.8 -36.7%
Marsanne 7.6 13.0 -41.5%
Grenache Blanc 23.4 46.7 -49.9%
Picpoul Blanc 5.2 8.7 -40.2%
Vermentino 11.4 21.1 -46.0%
Roussanne 28.1 34.8 -19.3%
Other whites 8.3 7.9 +5.1%
Total Whites 95.9 151.0 -36.5%
Grenache 54.7 74.9 -27.0%
Syrah 37.6 43.8 -14.2%
Mourvedre 44.4 46.9 -5.3%
Tannat 11.1 17.6 -36.9%
Counoise 12.5 15.9 -21.4%
Other reds 8.4 7.2 +16.7%
Total Reds 168.7 206.3 -18.2%
Total 264.6 357.3  -25.9%

While it looks like our "other" grape varieties (which include Muscardin, Picardan, Bourboulenc, Vaccarese, Terret Noir, Clairette Blanche, and Cinsaut) bucked the trend of lower yields, that's mostly because so many of those blocks are in just their second or third harvest, and we always minimize their yields their first few years to allow the vines to focus on building trunks and cordons, and only gradually allow them to carry a full crop.

The yields picture is something of the reverse of 2020, when our early grapes came in high and then our later grapes lower as the vines started to wear down under the relentless heat and dry conditions. So the discrepancy between early and late grapes might be an echo of 2020's quirks as much as a statement about something unusual in 2021. But the low early yields do tend to support my hypothesis that it wasn't the drought as much as the late cold weather that we received that played the largest role in our low crop levels.

For whatever reason, we don't have many years with yields like these. Typically there's something catastrophic (like a frost) that pushes our yields around two tons per acre, or there isn't and we're somewhere between 3 and 3.5. The low yields without a direct cause has spurred us to take a harder look at some of our oldest blocks of Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Counoise. Even though they weren't down much this year, that's more because they were low last year too; these three grapes averaged just 2 tons per acre. We have planted some new acreage of all three this year (mostly on Jewel Ridge) and as those acres come into production we'll be looking to selectively choose weaker blocks to replant. I'll share more news on that as it happens. But for now, the lower yields on these key grapes will likely constrain our choices in blending; we will likely have to choose between making a normal amount of Esprit de Tablas and Esprit de Tablas Blanc but perhaps no varietal Mourvedre or Roussanne, or reducing Esprit quantities to preserve more gallons for varietal bottlings. We'll know more when we sit down with everything this spring, but I at least feel confident that what we have will be more than good enough to make the amount of Esprit we choose.

We had 110 harvest lots, a decline of just eight vs. 2020. The even ripening (and lighter quantity) meant we had to do fewer picks than last year, but we made up for part of that by purchasing more lots that will go into Patelin de Tablas. The estate lots are in fuchsia, while the purchased lots are green in our completed harvest chalkboard:

Harvest Chalkboard Final

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

Year Avg. Sugars Avg. pH
2010 22.68 3.51
2011 22.39 3.50
2012 22.83 3.65
2013 22.90 3.63
2014 23.18 3.59
2015 22.60 3.59
2016 22.04 3.71
2017 22.87 3.74
2018 22.80 3.62
2019 22.30 3.62
2020 22.14 3.62
2021 22.12 3.55

While 2021's sugar numbers are very similar to 2020's, we saw a noticeable bump in acids, with our lowest average pH since 2011. That's a great sign of the impact of the cooler harvest season, and of the health of the vines. In terms of weather, we saw something very different from 2020's sustained heat. Sure, we had warm stretches, most notably August 26th-30th (all highs between 98 and 102), September 4th-13th (ten consecutive 90+ days), September 21st-25th and finally September 30th-October 3rd. But our last 100+ day was September 8th, and we didn't even hit 95 after September 23rd. Most importantly, you'll notice that after every hot stretch we got a cool one. This allowed the grapevines to recover, kept acids from falling out, and gave us time to catch up in the cellar and sample widely so we knew what to expect next. 

Daily High Temps August-October 2021

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 enthusiastic. That's significant, as winemakers are famously cautious in the aftermath of most harvests, with the memories of the challenges and frustrations fresh: "Sometimes a vintage comes along that is special, a bit beyond just different. Vintage 2021 is a special one. Varietals ripened out of their normal order, clusters were smaller lighter, so many oddities. Whites will be bright and yet rich, reds will be deep of character, complex and structured. But then I am just guessing!" Senior Assistant Winemaker Chelsea Franchi had a similar take: "While the harvest was mild in tonnage and intensity, the fruit we brought in is anything but. We’ve seen beautiful color and aromatics from the reds and the whites feel luxuriant even at this early stage." We're looking forward to getting to know the wines of 2021 even better 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, along with our sorting table and destemmer. That opens up space for barrels, which is great, because that's where the pressed-off red lots are going: 

Austin Taking Barrels Back into the Cellar

It seems like we got the fruit in just in time. Unlike the last few years, that saw late October and November mostly or entirely dry, we're looking at a forecast for a real winter storm on Sunday night into Monday. That would be an amazing way to start off the winter, and the earliest end to fire season we've seen in years.

With the rain in the forecast, we've been hurrying to get cover crop seeded and compost spread. The animals have been out in the vineyard for a few weeks, eating second crop clusters before they rot and spreading their manure, jump starting the winter soil's microbial activity.

All this feels strangely... normal, like something we'd have expected a decade ago. After the challenges of the crazy 2020 growing season, we're grateful. I'll let Chelsea have the last word: "There may not be a lot of fruit in the cellar, but what we have seems to be stellar."


The 2021 harvest winds down as it began, with outstanding quality but low yields

As the clock winds down on the 2021 harvest, the bigger picture is coming into better focus. My hopes that we would see a significantly improved yields with our later grape varieties don't seem to have come to pass. Mid-season grapes like Picpoul (down 40%), Grenache (down 28%) and Marsanne (down 42%) are showing results similar to the grapes we finished earlier. Mourvedre does look like we'll get close to our numbers from 2020, but Roussanne and Counoise both seem to be lighter. We won't have a full accounting of where we finished for another week or so, but we've passed the 90% mark, and there aren't many significant blocks left still unpicked. 

End of Harvest Chalkboard

On the positive side, we're becoming more convinced than ever that this year will produce memorable wines. The colors on the reds are deep and vibrant. The flavors are intense. The numbers are textbook. And it's not like we're totally bereft of grapes. We've harvested some 380 tons between our estate and the grapes we purchase for the Patelin de Tablas wines. Scenes like this one, with bins of Mourvedre spilling out of our crushpad onto what in other seasons is our staff parking lot, are everyday sights: 

2021 Bins of Mourvedre

Meanwhile, in the vineyard, it's getting harder and harder to find a block with fruit on it. The vines are starting to change colors, and the scene definitely feels more like fall than summer. That is only exacerbated by the chilly nights (down into the 30s!) and occasional clouds (very rare in summer) that we've been seeing the past few weeks.

Tractor in front of colorful Mourvedre

The only grapes still out are Roussanne (below left) and Mourvedre (below right). We should be done picking both by the end of next week.

Roussanne cluster Mourvedre clusters

Even in this lighter year, early October is the cellar's busiest time. But the steady pace of the harvest has meant that we've never felt overwhelmed. Looking at the weekly tonnages, you can see why; we haven't had a single week hit 90 tons, and we got a little break in mid-September that allowed us to press off most of what was in the cellar at that point and get ready for the final push:

Tons by Week Thru Oct 3rd

Although the work in the vineyard is winding down, it's still prime time in the cellar. Each day sees us measuring fermentations in every barrel and every tank (Chelsea, below left, is measuring Roussanne barrel ferments). We're also draining tanks that have reached the level of extraction we want, and then pressing off the berries (Craig, right, is draining a tank of Grenache). That work, plus the punchdowns, pump-overs, and Pulsair cap management that all our fermenting red tanks get twice daily, will go on for a few weeks even after we're done picking.

Chelsea tasting Roussanne from barrel vertical Craig draining a tank of Grenache

So, we'll enjoy the changing colors of the vineyard, and the changing feel of the season. There's a chance of some showers tonight, as our first winter storm makes its way down the California coast. We're not expecting anything significant, but we're hoping that it means that more and wetter storms are on the horizon. Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying the last few days of grapes on the vines, and storing up these sights and scents for the winter ahead.

Last of head-trained Mourvedre on the vine


We reach the peak of the 2021 harvest... and it doesn't feel like a peak

Sometime in the next week, we'll pass the midpoint of the 2021 harvest. In terms of timing, that's pretty normal. Figure we start the last week of August (this year, August 24th). Harvest usually lasts about two months. So, it makes sense that we're just about at its midpoint. In terms of varieties, that's pretty normal too. We're done with the early grapes (Viognier, Vermentino, Syrah, Pinot Noir). We're largely done with the early-mid grapes like Grenache Blanc, Cinsaut, and Marsanne. We've made a start on the mid-late grapes like Grenache, Tannat, Picpoul, and Roussanne. And we're continuing to wait on the perennial stragglers like Mourvedre and Counoise. There have been days where we've been stashing grapes wherever we could find space because all three of our presses were in use at the same time.

Grenache bins in the cellar

So why doesn't it feel like we're in the thick of things? Blame the scarcity of the 2021 vintage, and the lovely weather we've been getting.

For yields, we now have two more data points beyond what we had two weeks ago, when I shared that Viognier, Vermentino, and Pinot Noir were down between 32% and 46%. With Syrah done, we see that our yields declined less than they did with the first three grapes, down 14% to about 37.5 tons. That's good news. But Grenache Blanc, with a few tons still to go, is currently down 52%. Assuming we get the couple of additional tons Neil is estimating, we'll end up down in the neighborhood of 47%. That's not good news.

As for our weather, it's been just about ideal both for people and for grapevines. Over the last two weeks, we haven't hit 100 once (max temp 96F). Seven days have topped out in the low 90s. Four more have hit the 80s. Three never made it out of the 70s. Our average nighttime low has been in the upper 40s. Those temperatures are a luxury for us. September can be scorching here in Paso Robles, and very hot temperatures force us to pick grapes to keep them from dehydrating or having their acids plummet. That has meant that we've been able to sequence out the harvest in an ideal way, without overwhelming our team or our cellar space. We actually have a bunch of empty tanks in the cellar right now, which feels like an unexpected treat. A few snapshots of what is going on. First, the daily work measuring the progress of fermentations (Kayja, left) and emptying tanks that have completed their fermentations (Gustavo, right):

Kayja measuring fermentations Sept 2021 Gustavo digging Syrah tanks Sept 2021

In the vineyard we're currently working on harvesting Tannat. Two of our three blocks got picked yesterday, with the third on tap for today. The photos below were taken on adjacent rows. The row on the left had just been picked, while that on the right was picked just after I snapped this photo. 

Tannat Picked 2021 Tannat on the Vine 2021

One more photo of the harvest, with the crew hard at work under the watchful eye of Pedro Espinoza, a 25-year veteran of our team here and current crew foreman:

Harvest Sept 2021

The Tannat looks amazing, dark and in beautiful condition in bins on our crushpad:

Tannat in Bins Sept 2021

The lovely condition of the fruit is also consistent with what we've been seeing in 2021. The combination of our second consecutive dry winter and our most frost nights since 2012 meant that all our varieties are coming in with smaller berries and thicker skins. The benign weather we've seen this growing season has meant that they're coming in with ideal numbers, with both sugars and acids a bit higher than we've seen in most recent years. That's a recipe for outstanding quality, and reminding me more and more of 2007.

We took advantage of the recent cool stretch to do some vineyard-wide sampling. It looks like we'll continue to see things sequence nicely. There's more Grenache and Marsanne on tap after today's Tannat. Then we'll finish up some of the blocks we've picked selectively. Then we'll dive into Roussanne in a serious way. I'm still hopeful that the later grapes, which suffered most from 2020's heat and which are likely to benefit most from this year's moderate temperatures, will be down less than what we've seen so far. Meanwhile we're going through those later varieties and dropping any second-crop clusters or grapes that don't appear to be coloring up as well as we'd like. You can see evidence of this work throughout the vineyard. This is in one of our Counoise blocks:

Dropped clusters Sept 2021

One good piece of news: we've been able to secure some really nice additional fruit for our Patelin de Tablas wines. That's always been one of the primary benefits for us of the Patelin program. In years where our own crop is plentiful, we use more Tablas fruit in those wines. In years where it's scarce, we reach out to the big network of growers who have our clones in the ground in Paso Robles and secure some more fruit to purchase. That should mean that even if many of our estate wines are scarce or can't be made in 2021, we'll at least have some wines for the pipeline. And all of that fruit has looked outstanding.

So, now we wait. We keep our fingers crossed that conditions remain good (the next week looks ideal). And we watch the harvest chalkboard fill up. Will the second half of harvest provide a new narrative? Stay tuned.

Harvest Chalkboard Sept 21 2021


Harvest 2021 at the Quarter Pole: Seriously High Quality but Major Alarm Bells on Yields

This year feels very different than last. In 2020, it got hot in early August and didn't relent for three months. The starting point was actually on the later side, historically, because of our relatively late budbreak and cool June and July. But once harvest got started, it was one wave after another. I felt like we were buried by fruit.

2021 hasn't felt this way so far. Some of that, for sure, is because our temperatures have been downright idyllic for this time of year. I mentioned in my harvest kickoff blog two weeks ago that we'd had quite a cool leadup to our first picks, with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than seasonal norms. It's warmed up a bit since then, but we had another cool three-day cool stretch last week where we didn't get out of the 70s, and our average high so far in September has been 92.2F, which is right at our 30-year seasonal average. This has meant that the grapes have taken a little more time to get from almost-ripe to ready-to-pick than they did last year. But some of it is because all our picks have been lighter than the same picks last year, sometimes alarmingly so. Our harvest chalkboard so far:

Harvest chalkboard through September 9th

We expected that crop levels would be light this year given that it was a dry, chilly winter, with most of our rain coming in one storm (which means that as absorbent as our soils are, we lose more to runoff than we would if the rain were distributed more widely) and some cold temperatures coming late (which tends to reduce berry size). But we were all taken by surprise by just how light some of these first picks turned out to be. We've finished picking three grapes so far, and all three look like they're down significantly. Viognier is down least, off by about 32% compared to last year. The Pinot Noir from my mom's that we use for our Full Circle Pinot was off by 33%. And Vermentino, which usually hangs a big crop, was off 46%. What's more, the berries are smaller, so the yield of juice per ton of grapes is likely to be lower. Yikes. 

A few caveats to those numbers. Cold or frosty spring weather tends to impact the earliest-sprouting grapes most, because they're the first out. Viognier and Vermentino are among our earliest to see budbreak. We haven't harvested any of our head-trained, dry-farmed blocks yet, which tend to be less affected by dry conditions, and those blocks look great this year. And in our Pinot, we made the decision to try to cut down our cluster counts a bit after feeling like we've pushed the vines a little too hard the past few years. So, I'm not expecting us to finish the harvest down 35%. But still, I'm expecting something more in the realm of between 2 and 2.5 tons per acre rather than the 3.35 that we saw last year. Those numbers might not seem like a massive difference, but each ton of grapes translates into 60-65 cases of wine, so across our 115 producing acres, that means we're looking at something like 17,000 cases of estate wine rather than last year's 24,000. That's going to constrain what we can do for sure.

There are two saving graces here that I see. First, quality looks amazing. The numbers look ideal, with higher sugars and higher acids than we've seen in recent years. The red grapes are deeply colored, with small berries and thick skins. Check out how dark these Syrah grapes are, in one of our open-top fermenters being foot-stomped in preparation for a whole cluster fermentation:

Foot treading syrah

For another view, check out the small size and dark color of the Syrah cluster I'm holding:

Syrah in bin and hand

The second saving grace is that the vineyard looks really healthy. Last year, our early varieties saw increased yields over 2019, but as the cumulative impact of three months of uninterrupted heat mounted, our later-ripening grapes saw lower yields as we lost Roussanne, Mourvedre, and Counoise crop to raisining and vine exhaustion. I'm hopeful that we won't see the same this year, as the weather has been much friendlier. The lower yields are likely to help the vines stay healthier longer too. Here's a side-by-side of Mourvedre (left) and Counoise (right), both looking good still with grapes on the vine: 

Mourvedre on the vine Counoise on the vine


It is something of a maxim in vineyard analysis that when you see evidence of yields being light, they end up even lighter than you were thinking, while when you see evidence of heavier yields it ends up being even heavier than you expect. The difference this year is that instead of seeing lower cluster counts, we've just seen smaller clusters with smaller berries. That's a little harder to quantify before harvest begins. But it's been validated by the numbers we've been seeing in our harvest measurements, and by the vines' evident health. 

With our estate fruit, we don't have much we can do about lower yields until we get to blending time. There will almost certainly be some wines we don't make this vintage, and others we make in significantly lower quantities than usual. We'll figure it out once we get to blending in the spring. But meanwhile, knowing things look light, we have been on the phone to make sure we can source a little more fruit for our three Patelin wines. We know that a wine like Patelin Rosé isn't a perfect substitute for our Dianthus, but if we can make an extra 750 cases to show and sell here at the winery, and make a little less Dianthus to conserve fruit for our red wines, that's the sort of tradeoff we have control over now... and a lot better than being out of rosé entirely next July.

More and more, this year is reminding me of 2007. That too was a vintage that followed a cold, dry winter, where we saw smaller clusters with remarkable intensity. It also surprised us with reduced yields, particularly in early grapes like Viognier and Vermentino. But the payoff was some of the greatest wines that we've ever made. If in two months I am still talking about how 2021 reminds me of 2007, I'll be thrilled. If a vintage is going to be scarce, it had better be outstanding. Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, we'll be starting to bring in Grenache, both for red wines and for our rosés. And enjoying crushpad scenes like this one.

Crushpad with Grenache


Harvest 2021 begins slowly after an unusually cool August stretch

On Monday, we brought in our first purchased grapes, just over nine tons of Viognier from Derby Estate destined for our 2021 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. On Tuesday, we got our first estate fruit, three and a half tons of our own Viognier and (surprise!) half a ton of Roussanne that we cherry-picked off the ripest vines to keep from losing it to birds, squirrels, or raisins. Vineyard Manager David Maduena, starting his 30th harvest here at Tablas Creek, brings in the last few clusters:

David bringing in Viognier clusters

And with that, the 2021 harvest began. No wonder our cellar team was ready to celebrate, first in the winery:

Cellar Crew Celebrating Beginning of Harvest 2021

And later, with our annual beginning-of-harvest sabering and toast:

Toast after Harvest 2021 Sabering

And now, we wait. This feels very different than last year's harvest, even though it started just one day earlier. Unlike 2020, when it got hot in early August and really never cooled down until we were done picking, after six more-or-less average weeks between early July and mid-August, we've eased into a period of more than a week with high temperatures 10 to 20 degrees cooler than average for this time of year:

Daily High Temperatures July-August 2021 vs Normal

I'll share a few photos of the unusual weather. First, one photo of the fog sitting thick above some head-trained, dry-farmed syrah vines in our "Scruffy Hill" block:

Syrah in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Or this long view looking down through a trellised Mourvedre section, grapes already deep red though we're at least six weeks away from harvesting them:

Long View of Mourvedre on Nipple Flat in Harvest Fog
If you're used to seeing pictures from wine regions more open to the Pacific (think the Sonoma Coast, or Santa Maria Valley, or Carneros) then fog while grapes are ripe on the vine may not seem surprising. But Paso Robles is different. The Santa Lucia Mountains are unbroken to our west at around 3,000 feet, meaning that fog has to travel 100 miles south up the Salinas Valley to even reach town (elevation 700 feet). That happens a few mornings each month. But we're not in town. To get those additional 10 miles west to us, the fog has to either come from town across a 2,000 foot ridge, or be so thick that it just comes over the coastal mountains. That happens just a few days each summer, and typically burns off within a few hours of sunrise. Over the last week, we had two separate days where the marine layer was so thick that it never burned off, and several others where it took until late morning. That is the first time since 2011 that I can remember this happening. One more photo, looking up through the grenache vines on Scruffy Hill: 

Looking up at Grenache in the Fog on Scruffy Hill

Before you start worrying, this cool weather is not going to have any negative impacts on the 2021 harvest. To the contrary, this pause allows the vines to muster strength for the finishing push. It also delays the point at which the vines have been under so much stress that they show signs of virus or other maladies. Now if we thought that it was going to stay like this for another month, we might start to worry. But that's not going to happen. We'll be back into the upper 80s today, and 90s over the weekend before it's forecast to cool back down early next week. All this is a more normal pattern than the unbroken heat that we've seen the last couple of vintages. And it sets the stage for a more spaced-out harvest than we saw in 2020, when we took just six weeks to finish what normally comes in nine. That's something all of us are looking forward to.

Whats next? We're using this time to do a thorough sampling of all our early blocks. It seems like we might get a little more Viognier next week. We'll be looking at Vermentino, the Pinot Noir at my mom's, and maybe even some Syrah, though that's probably not going to start coming in until week-after-next. And we'll be enjoying the lovely harvest aromas of fermenting Viognier in the cellar, and thinking back on this unusual August respite where we had to break out the long sleeves two months before we'd normally expect to. It's just the beginning, but it's been a good beginning.

Owl box in harvest fog


A Winery Carbon Footprint Self-Assessment: Why I Can't Give Us an "A" Despite All Our Progress

When you consider a winery's environmental footprint, what do you think of? Their vineyard certifications? Whether they're using recycled materials? How well insulated their winery building is? If so, you might be surprised to learn that the largest contributors to a winery's carbon footprint1 are the source of their energy, the weight of their bottles, the production of fertilizers and other inputs that go onto the vineyard, the transportation of the bottled wine, and the cover cropping and tillage decisions the vineyard makes.⁠

This fact was driven home to me by a series of really interesting conversations about wine and sustainability over on Twitter recently which barely touched on wineries' vineyard practices. Kathleen Willcox published a great article on liquor.com titled Why Packaging Is Wine’s New Sustainability Frontier in which she highlights what a large piece of the total environmental footprint of wine comes from its packaging. The same day, Johan Reyneke, the South African winemaker whose commitment to organic and biodynamic farming has made him an example in his homeland and around the world, shared a review by Jancis Robinson, MW which praised his Sauvignon Blanc but called him out for the dissonance of using a notably heavy bottle for a wine made with such environmental sensitivity:

Reyneke's owning of the criticism and pledge to do better produced a lot of questions from other posters wondering what the relative importance of inputs like bottles, vineyard practices, winery design, and transportation each produced. In response, Jancis shared the below graphic, taken from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance's 2011 assessment of California Wine's Carbon Footprint

Carbon Footprint of CA WineThe graphic shows the huge importance of the glass bottle in a winery's overall carbon footprint, but also highlights other areas where a winery seeking to improve should look. It spurred me to go, category by category, and examine how we rate. In each case, I've estimated our own footprint compared to the "average California winery" benchmark noted in the CSWA graphic, with an explanation of how I got to my assessment. Our goal, in a perfect world, would be to get to zero, which would represent a 100% savings vs. the benchmark. It's good to have goals!

Note that these are self-assessments; we will be looking to do a third party carbon audit sometime in the next year. I'll be interested to know how my own assessments are contradicted or confirmed by the official ones. But this is at least a start. If you're interested in how I've assigned grades, I've given us an "A" if our own footprint in a particular category represents a better than 40% savings over the benchmark average. I've given us a "B" when our practices produce a savings between 15% and 40%. As it would in real life, a "C" represents an "average" performance, between a 15% savings and 15% extra footprint. A "D" represents between 15% and 40% extra footprint, while an "F" grade would be a footprint more than 40% greater than the benchmark.

In the Vineyard: Overall Grade A- (Benchmark: 34; Our use: 17; Savings: 50% vs. benchmark)

  • Bio-geochemical field emissions: B- (Benchmark: 17; our use: 13) The CSWA's footnote defines this category as "Footprint associated with greenhouse gas emissions that are a result of natural bio-geochemical processes and impacted by local climate, soil conditions, and management practices like the application of nitrogen fertilizers." As we do not apply any nitrogen fertilizers, our impact here is likely smaller than average. We know because of our Regenerative Organic Certification audit that our soils are adding carbon content to the soil. The reduction in tillage and the resulting deeper root systems and more complicated microbial systems that we have been able to accomplish in recent years thanks to our flock of sheep likely also puts our total below average. On the negative side, sheep are themselves sources of methane, which likely mitigates some of the other positive contributions they make. I will be interested to learn the balance here when we get our formal audit. Does being carbon-negative outweigh the environmental impact of the flock's methane? I am less certain of this grade than any other in this list. Are we doing "A" work? Maybe! Is it actually a "C"? I hope not!
  • Fuel production and combustion: D+ (Benchmark: 3; our use: 4) Although the sheep have allowed us to reduce tractor passes, organic farming still requires more tractor work than conventional chemical farming. We also use propane in the spring to power our frost fans, though we've been lucky that we haven't had many near-freezing spring nights in recent years. Our reduced tillage in recent years is a positive factor. But I'm guessing we're at or below average in this one category compared to the average California winery. Luckily, it's a small factor overall. 
  • Electricity consumption: A (Benchmark: 4; our use: 0) About the only use of electricity in the vineyard is to power our well pumps. Given that we irrigate minimally compared to most wineries and that more than a third of our vineyard is dry-farmed, I'm guessing our power draws are well below average. But, most importantly, we expect that the installation of our fourth bank of solar panels last month will get us to 100% solar powered. So, this (and our winery power needs) should be near zero.
  • Raw materials production: A (Benchmark: 10; our use: 0) Because we've been farming organically since our inception, our carbon footprint for the production and transport of materials like fertilizer and pesticides has always been low. What's more, we have been working to eliminate one outside input after another in recent years. Our sheep have allowed us to eliminate even the application of organic fertilizers or outside compost. Our cultivation of beneficial insect habitat has reduced our need to intervene against pests to near zero. We've even been producing our own Biodynamic preps on site. I think we've basically eliminated this category of carbon input at Tablas Creek.

In the Winery: Overall Grade A (Benchmark: 15; Our use: 2; Savings: 87% vs. benchmark)

  • Fuel production and consumption: A (Benchmark: 7; our use: 1) We've moved entirely to electric-powered forklifts in the winery, which means they're fueled by our solar array. Same with our refrigeration. Really the only fuel we're using in production now is the transport of grapes to the vineyard, and with our estate vineyards located at the winery and our purchased grapes representing only about 30% of our production, I figure that our use of fuel is 80%-90% less than the California average.
  • Electricity consumption: A (Benchmark: 7; our use: 0) The fourth bank of solar panels here, as in the vineyard, should reduce this to zero this year. I've said for a long time that if there is a natural resource that Paso Robles has in abundance, it's sun. This feels like an area in which every winery should be investing; there are good tax credits available to help with the up-front costs, and the return on the investment even without them is in the 15-year range.   
  • Other winery: C+ (Benchmark: 1; our use: 1) The CSWA footnote lists "transport of grapes from the vineyard to the winery, raw material production, refrigerant losses, and manufacturing waste treatment" in this category. We don't use much in the way of raw materials compared to the average winery (no yeasts, nutrients, etc., very few new barrels, no chemicals or additives). And our winery wastewater treatment is done using a wetland area that likely has positive carbon offsets from the water plants compared to an average winery wastewater facility. But I'm sure we have some refrigerant losses.

In our Packaging: Overall Grade B+ (Benchmark: 38; Our use: 25; Savings: 34% vs. benchmark)

  • Glass bottle: A-. (Benchmark: 29; our use: 17) I wrote a few years back about how our switch to lightweight bottles in 2009 saved more than 1.3 million pounds of glass in nine years. I'm proud of the analysis that led to that choice, and also of the aesthetics of the bottle that we chose. And bottles make an enormous difference. In the CSWA's analysis, they published a graph (below) showing that the switch to a lightweight bottle would save 10% on a winery's overall carbon footprint, all by itself. That is because glass bottles are energy-intensive to produce and add significant weight to the product, which increase transportation costs later. Our bottles are also produced in America, at a factory outside Seattle. Given how many bottles are produced either in Europe, China, or Mexico, with the added costs of transport to California, I feel good about this. I also give us a little bump in our grade for this metric because we have for the last decade been selling a significant percentage (roughly a quarter most years until 2020) of our Patelin de Tablas in reusable stainless steel kegs, which Free Flow Wines (our kegging partner) estimates results in a 96% reduction in that package's CO2 footprint. So why don't we get an "A"? Even though our bottles are quite light, there are now even lighter bottles available than our 465 gram bottle. And we don't use the bag-in-box 3 liter package (the best available package, in terms of CO2 footprint) at all. I'm investigating that more seriously, although a move to that format would come with some significant challenges... not least that we'd be a wild outlier in terms of price; even our Patelin de Tablas would be double the price of the most expensive 3L bag-in-box at our local supermarket. But still, while there is more to do, I feel good about how we score in this, the most impactful of categories.

    CO2 Impact by Bottle Weight
  • Corrugate case box: B- (Benchmark: 6; our use: 5) We do use corrugated cardboard case boxes, and haven't really dug into this as a potential source of savings. We do, however, use entirely 12-bottle case boxes, unlike many higher-end wineries. There were a few years in the late 2000s where we switched our Esprit de Tablas tier of wines into 6-bottle cases, which essentially doubles the amount of cardboard needed per bottle. We made the decision back in 2012 to go back to all 12-bottle cases, and I'm happy we did. 
  • Other packaging: C+ (Benchmark: 3; our use: 3) We don't do anything particularly unusual with other packaging. We use labels, capsules, and either corks or screwcaps. Our ratio of corks to screwcaps is probably about the industry average. At least we aren't using any synthetic corks, made from plastic in a manufacturing process. I feel like we can find some savings here with a little harder look.

Transport of Bottled Wine: Overall Grade D+ (Benchmark: 13; Our use: 16; Extra footprint: 23% of benchmark)

  • Transport of bottled wine: D+ (Benchmark: 13; our use: 16) I wish that the CSWA had broken this out in more detail. On the one hand, our lighter bottles give us savings here. On the other hand, the 65% of our production that we sell direct-to-consumer (DTC) means that a higher percentage of our wine than the industry average is shipped via UPS and FedEx. Those DTC shipments require extra cardboard in the form of sturdy pulp shippers, and are in many cases being shipped via air rather than ground. We don't feel we have a choice here given that wine is perishable and fragile, and it needs to get to our customers in good condition. But I worry about the environmental costs. We have started, for our wine club shipments, sending the wine that will go to customers east of the Rockies via truck to staging warehouses in Missouri and New York, from where they can be packed into shipping boxes and shipped ground. But that hasn't proven feasible for our daily shipping. I do give us some credit for eliminating styrofoam packaging more than fifteen years ago, but I think it's likely that any winery that sells two-thirds of their production direct is going to have an above-average carbon footprint from wine transport given that DTC sales made up just 10% of total sales of California wine pre-pandemic. 

Adding up my back-of-the-envelope assessments leads to a total footprint estimate of 60% of the baseline (18+1+25+16). Our lighter bottles and solar arrays account for most of that improvement.2 That's pretty good, but it's clear that we have additional work that we can be doing across our business. My biggest questions, which I hope that our audit will help answer, revolve around whether we can sequester enough carbon with better viticulture to offset a significant amount of what happens after the wine gets bottled. If we're going to get our carbon footprint really low, can we do that with our own property? Or have we made most of the improvements we can already, and will we need to look toward offsetting the carbon in a different way?

I don't know the answer to this yet, but I'm committed to finding out.

Final Grade: B+/A- (Benchmark: 100; Our use: 60; Savings: 40% vs. benchmark)

Footnotes:

  1. It is important to recognize that carbon footprint is just one measurement of care of the environment. Others, which I feel we do well on, include fostering of plant, animal, insect and microbial biodiversity; reduction of non-biodegradable waste; protection of habitat; and elimination of chemicals and toxins.
  2. If I were a winery starting fresh at looking at my carbon footprint, installing solar arrays and reducing the weight of my bottles would absolutely be my first avenues of attack. Both offer immediate returns on investment both environmentally and financially. 

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

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

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

As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Because it's too much to ask to keep your palate fresh to taste 66 separate lots of young red wines in one day, we divided this stage up between two days. Monday saw us tackle Grenache, Counoise, Cinsaut, and Pinot Noir. Tuesday we dove into the more tannin-rich grapes: Mourvedre, Syrah, Tannat, Terret Noir, Vaccarese, and our tiny Cabernet lot. Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending. Here's some of the lineup of components:

Blending bottles on patio - 2020 reds

We grade on a 1-3 scale, with 1's being our top grade (for a deep dive into how we do our blending, check out this blog by Chelsea from a few years back). We also give ourselves the liberty to give intermediate 1/2 or 2/3 grades for lots that are right on the cusp. For context, in a normal year, for every 10 lots we might see 3-4 "1" grades, 5-6 "2" grades and 1 "3" grade. This year we saw the most "1" grades and the fewest "3" grades I can remember. How I graded each variety, in the order in which we tasted them:

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

We finished Tuesday with a round-table discussion about what we wanted to try in the blending the next few days, and decided that given the apparent strengths of all three of our main red grapes it only made sense to kick off the blending trials for Panoplie with three different blends, each one emphasizing one of the varietals, and see what we learned. For the Esprit there was a different concern. With our small Mourvedre crop, we didn't really have the option of a Mourvedre-heavy Esprit unless we wanted to drastically reduce our production. Even with a normal Mourvedre percentage, we were looking at a production level closer to 3,000 cases than the 4,000 that we normally make. So, we decided to try a blend higher in Grenache than Syrah, a blend higher in Syrah than Grenache, and a third blend where we increased them both to almost the same amount as Mourvedre. 

Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out the two blends, starting with the Panoplie. As always, we tasted our options blind, not knowing what was in each glass. Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically more Grenache than Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre. But in this vintage, the Mourvedre was so luscious that we felt it was able to handle a larger-than-usual Syrah component without losing its essential Panoplie-ness, and we settled on our first try on a blend of 59% Mourvedre, 28% Syrah, and 13% Grenache. This is the most excited I've been for a Panoplie since maybe 2007.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A few concluding thoughts. 

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

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

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

Blending bottles on patio from above - 2020 reds