A Vertical Tasting of Every Vintage of Esprit de Beaucastel and Esprit de Tablas, 2000-2015

Some of the best days at the winery are the days when we open up back vintages of a specific wine, for the dual purposes of better understanding how it ages over time and better advising our fans which vintages to open if they're looking for peak drinking1. Somehow, the last time we'd done this with our flagship Esprit de Tablas/Beaucastel wines was December of 2014. So, it was with significant anticipation that we assembled each vintage of Esprit we've made, from our first (2000) to the 2015 that is going into bottle this week:

Esprit Vertical June 2017

An additional goal of this particular tasting was to choose a selection of Esprits to show at a public retrospective tasting. Fifteen wines would have been too many, but we figure we can pick a representative sample that will give guests a great sense of how the wine develops in bottle, as well as how the vintage affects the wine's composition and flavor profile.  If this sounds like fun, we'll be hosting that tasting on August 27th.  Details are here.

I thought it would be fun to share my notes on each wine. I have linked each vintage to that wine's page on our Web site, if you'd like to see production details or what the tasting notes were at bottling. Note that we didn't make an Esprit red in the frost-impacted 2001 vintage.

  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2000: A meaty, leathery, minty and smoky nose, very appealing, with dark red currant fruit lurking behind. On the palate, consistent with the nose: deep and meaty, with tobacco leaf and dark chocolate savoriness, and lots of texture. Chewy, with enough tannins still to suggest it's nowhere near at the end of its life. This is the best showing I can remember for this wine, and notably improved from that tasting in 2014.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2002: Smells younger and also more powerful than the 2000; menthol and crushed rock and brambles and meat drippings. The mouth is still quite tannic but also shows sweeter fruit than 2000: milk chocolate, plum skin, juniper, and black cherry, with a finish that turns spicy, tangy and floral among grippy tannins. Still on its way up, we thought. We're looking forward to trying it again in a few more years.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2003: An incredibly inviting nose, my favorite of the tasting: toffee and leather and milk chocolate and malt and black cherry. The mouth shows a mix of sweet dark fruit (plum jam, chocolate-covered cherry, figs), nice acids keeping things fresh, and a little minty lift on the finish. The wine is a little less dense than either 2000 or 2002, with tannins that are fully resolved, and I can't imagine this getting any better. Drink up.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2004: On the nose, showing density reminiscent of the 2002: menthol, roasted meat, sage, anise, and red currant. The mouth shows a mix of sweet fruit and big tannins: milk chocolate, dates, and candied orange peel, and a chalky, powdered sugar texture to the tannins that becomes more pronounced on the licorice-laced finish. I get a little alcohol sweetness on that finish, a pastis-like character, that seems heightened by some still substantial tannins. A big wine, with life left.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2005: A very meaty nose, gamy, with tobacco leaf and mint, and pine forest undergrowth. Savory, not fruity. On the palate, all that savoriness is leavened by dark red fruit, tangy acids, and bold but integrated tannins. The finish shows plum skin, black cherry, and an iron-like minerality alongside bold but integrated tannins. Neil's comment was that it was great now but would be even better in 10 years. I thought it on a similar path as the 2000.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2006: Smells less dense and more integrated/evolved (and more refined) than the earlier wines: cassis and mint and cherry candy and malt and meat drippings, with a pretty rose petal note coming out with air. On the palate, beautiful sweet red fruit, but great acids too: rose hips and ripe plums. A minty eucalyptus note comes out on the finish. Beautiful texture: just the right amount of tannin for the fruit, young and supple, and in a great place.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2007: A meaty, minty, dense nose: like a leg of lamb roasting with garlic and juniper, with notes of baker's chocolate and crushed rock. On the palate, more dark chocolate, creme de cassis, rich and mouth-coating, with chalky tannins that will help this go out another decade at least. It tastes like a special occasion. What a pleasure to have this wine out of its closed phase and firing on all cylinders, though it's still a little youthfully thick and blocky. It has plenty of complexity and richness to gain elegance without losing its fruit.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2008: This vintage is in the unenviable position of being squeezed between two blockbusters, but it showed nicely, if quieter than its brethren: a nose of mint and marinating meat and rosemary and soy. The mouth is gently delicious: raspberry and mint chocolate and clean, piney brambles. Seemed very Grenache dominated, with strawberry preserves and baking spices coming out on the finish. Not a dramatic wine, but a very pretty one.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2009: Bold on the nose, spicy and minty with garrigue and raspberry liqueur. The palate is still quite tannic, with plum skin, crushed rock minerality, and both red and black licorice flavors. The wine is showing very youthfully both in its relatively high toned fruit and its tannic structure. I'm looking forward to seeing what it's like when it turns the corner into maturity; my guess is that it will deepen in tone.
  • Esprit de Beaucastel 2010: A very different nose than the last several, clearly reflective of the cool 2010 vintage: soy and sage, but not much fruit. The palate is almost Nordic in its tone: elderberry and crushed rock and charcuterie and wild herbs. The texture shows nice chalky minerality, and the tannins are modest. I feel like this is still quieted by being in a closed phase, and will get more expressive in the next year or so, but there were several around the table who gave it votes as their favorites. Note that this doesn't mean either of us is wrong.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2011: Love this nose of spicy juniper and blackberry, with deeper notes of chanterelles that I'm guessing will turn meaty with a few more years. On the palate, nice poise and cool dark fruit, but lighter in body than the nose suggested to me. The finish is nicely balanced but shorter than I remember it, with chalky tannins and some lingering dark fruit. I suspect this is entering its closed phase, and will likely become less expressive over the next 6-12 months before reopening sometime next year.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2012: An appealingly brambly nose with both red and black components: soy and spice and plum and menthol and new leather. On the palate, mostly red: tart cherry, red licorice, sweet baking spices. Medium weight, some youthful tannins, good acids.  A baby, still.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2013: Dark on the nose, more like 2010/2011 than 2008/2009/2012, with soy and eucalyptus predominating. Not hugely giving. The mouth is tangy with blackberry fruit and baker's chocolate, black licorice, and good acids. Structural elements come out on the finish, with a spiciness to the tannins that Chelsea pegged as "Mexican hot chocolate". Still very, very young.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2014: So youthful on the nose: like cherry pie (both the fruit and the buttery crust), red licorice, and sweet spice. Beautiful on the palate, with red currant, rhubarb compote, and big, chewy tannins that show the wine's youth. Pure and primary right now, but with an exciting future ahead of it.
  • Esprit de Tablas 2015: At the time that we tasted it, this was about 2 weeks from bottling. A really appealing nose of blackberries in a pine forest. Deep. On the palate, beautiful dark fruit, tobacco leaf, black plum, and soy marinade.  Great structure and weight on the palate, with a finish showing black raspberry, black licorice, and lingering tannins. I am very excited to start showing this to people this fall.

I asked people around the table to offer a few of their favorites, and the wines that got votes included the 2000, 2003, 2006, 2010, and 2015, with the 2003 pretty universally among everyone's top picks.  There were other wines (notably 2005, 2007, and 2014) that got lots of positive comments for their structure and their potential, and which I think will end up in the next round's top picks.

We ended up choosing the following vintages for August's public tasting: 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, 2015.

A few concluding thoughts:

  • These wines really do reward patience. If we have consistently underestimated the wines' ability (and need) to age, I'm sure that most of our customers have. Look at a wine like the 2000: three years ago, I commented that it was the best showing for that wine I'd ever seen. This year's was better yet. Nearly every one of the older wines was better now than it was at the last tasting in 2014. This long aging curve wouldn't be a surprise for Mourvedre-heavy Chateauneuf, and I think we need to be recasting our expectations along those lines.
  • The degree to which the wines showed primarily red fruit vs. primarily black fruit was -- somewhat to my surprise -- not exclusively tied to the relative proportions of Grenache and Syrah.  Sure, some of the wines that show more red fruit than black (like 2006, 2008, and 2014) did have high percentages of Grenache. But others (like 2003 and 2012) didn't. And the cool 2010 and 2011 vintages both show mostly black fruit, despite their high percentage of Grenache. Variety matters, but vintage matters at least as much.
  • The tasting reaffirmed my belief that the 2014 and 2015 vintages are the best back-to-back showing we've had in some time, probably since 06 and 07. Both 2014 and 2015 Esprit de Tablas wines were beautiful examples of how this blend can have power without excess weight, fruit without sappiness, and structure without hardness. Both offer lots of pleasure now, but will age into something remarkable. And each shows its vintage's signature in an expressive way: the warm 2014's generous juiciness, and 2015's alternating cool and hot months in its tension and complexity.
  • Those of you coming out for the tasting in August are in for a treat.

Footnote

  1. We update a vintage chart at least quarterly with the results of these tastings.

43" Of Rain: The Good, The Bad, and What It Means for the 2017 Vintage

By Jordan Lonborg

As of now I am sure you are all aware of the phenomenal winter we experienced in California. The snow pack in the Sierras is record setting. Lakes and reservoirs are at capacity in the northern two-thirds of the state. Mammoth Mountain is expecting to be open through July (and possibly the entire year). Lastly, our beloved Senior Assistant Winemaker, Chelsea Franchi, will reach her personal goal of skiing 40 days this season (you read that right) even as a weekend warrior.

The Rain

Lake Ramage
The lake on our new property has been dry since 2012... but has water now.

At Tablas Creek, we received close to 43" of rain this year. There are reservoirs that are still full in our Adelaida region that I didn't even know existed. Until April, there were spots in the vineyard where water was literally bubbling out of ground squirrel burrows. Las Tablas Creek, the seasonal watershed from which we get our name, hadn't flowed since 2012, but started in December and didn't stop until three weeks ago. It was a rain season that will be remembered by those who live and work in the Adelaida for years come. After 5 years of intense drought, what does this mean for our vineyard?

Amazing Vigor in the Vineyard

Viognier
The bushiness of this Viognier block is out of control!

This is only my second summer as Tablas Creek's Viticulturist, so my history here is limited. That said, vigor is vigor. It is unmistakable. Schooled or not, novice or expert, anyone could walk into the glorious property that I am fortunate enough to call my office and recognize the extreme growth that is occurring at this moment. If you were to stretch out some of the shoots in our Viognier, Syrah, and even our head trained Grenache, they may remind you of NBA Finals hero and the Warriors' own Kevin Durant and his wingspan (if you are unfamiliar with my line of reasoning, I urge you to look him up. He defies human anatomy). Some canes are easily ten feet long. We have pulled wires up twice in some blocks and still it feels as if you are walking in downtown NYC and its endless sky scrapers. This is true even with varieties (like Viognier, pictured right) where you're normally thrilled with modest vigor.

Jordy Vermentino Leaf
A Vermentino leaf, with baseball cap for scale. Normally leaves are barely half this size.

One of my favorite quotes is from a local vineyard consultant: "as vineyard managers we aren't farming vines or even fruit, to be successful, we farm leaves." Forty-three inches of rain makes growing leaves easy. During the growing season, the canopy acts like a solar panel. As the vines go into dormancy post harvest, the chlorophyll within those leaves is drawn back into the plant and is stored as energy for the following season. But until harvest, these leaves are the engine that drives the vines' ability to ripen fruit.

Fruit Set Looks Good
I was worried that the cool spring we've had would mean that the fruit clusters wouldn't develop properly. Physiologically, a grapevine relies on many factors to develop the pollen tube required for proper fertilization of each berry. But in general, cold weather is bad news. A chilly May -- when most of our early grapes are in bloom -- in 2015 produced painfully low fields in some varietals. Pollen tubes were not able to develop quickly enough, and the result was widespread shatter: berries that were not fertilized and therefore fell off the rachis (stems). But it looks like we largely avoided shatter this year, as we apparently tiptoed above the temperature line that can be so disastrous during that crucial period in May. Fruit set looks good.

Unusually High Mildew Pressures
So, vine vigor is through the roof, we have had had a great fruit set, all is good right? If only farming was that easy! With the good comes the bad. Extreme vigor in a vine means extra shoots and leaves (canopy), and all this growth can create the perfect environment for a fungal disease known as powdery mildew. Mildew isn't usually a huge problem for us, because by the time we have significant canopy growth, our daily high temperatures are above the range (70-85F) where mildew thrives, and it's usually so dry that all fungal diseases struggle to get established. Unfortunately, these are the exact temperatures that we have seen in the Adelaida since bud break, and all the moisture in the ground has meant that evaporation has given the mildew spores enough moisture to get established.

Powdery mildew can  affect both leaves and fruit. Some varieties such as Syrah, Tannat, and Mourvèdre are fairly resistant. Others like Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Grenache Noir are fairly susceptible. Heavy infestations require fruit drop to prevent the disease from spreading. Realizing the conditions were perfect, we knew the threat of powdery mildew was on our doorstep and we have been diligent in protection. As a certified organic property, we have used all available tools allowed (various oils and forms of sulfur) to protect and have been extremely successful in doing so.

As of now, we have found only a couple of very small pockets of of the fungus and have treated accordingly. Here's an area where the longevity of the team at Tablas Creek pays off. David Maduena, Vineyard Manager at Tablas Creek since the 1990's, has such a deep understanding of where the outbreaks occur, literally to the vine, that he can know with confidence where to look. It's an amazing asset.

More Shoot (and Cluster) Thinning Required
Just because the vine has lots of vigor and wants to set lots of crop doesn't mean that we will let it. If we were to just let the vines go, we would be allowing a micro-climate to form within the canopy creating a breeding ground for the aforementioned fungus. Vines will always push non-count buds that are in between positioned spurs. More often than not, the shoots will not have fruit on them. It is imperative that we go back through the vineyard as early as possible to remove these shoots to create space and airflow through the canopy. There has been so much vigor this year (read: so many extra shoots) that the removal of this growth is taking twice as long as it should in some blocks. This sets off a chain reaction. By spending more time in one block, we are delayed from entering another block that needs to be thinned. The longer you wait to thin, the more energy each vine wastes on shoots that will be removed. In another year, we could have hired extra crew to supplement our full-time team. Unfortunately, with this year's labor shortage in California, our ability to do so has been limited, and we're still playing catch-up.

Shoots are not all we are removing. We will have to thin more fruit this year as well, in order to make sure the grapes the vines produce have good concentration, and in order that vineyard blocks ripen as evenly as possible. (A vine with 20 clusters will ripen them more slowly than a vine with 10 clusters, which makes picking decisions difficult.) Typically, we like to limit our vines to two clusters for each shoot, or 12 clusters per vine for most of our trellissed blocks. For vines that may be diseased and have shorter shoots, we may thin to 1 cluster per shoot. This year, there are blocks on the ranch that are carrying three clusters per shoot! We are in the process of removing the clusters, which is easily one of the hardest decisions for any farmer.

The Future: Groundwater
Up until this point, the vines are largely working with the water that's in the topsoil. And that's been plentiful. But as the summer progresses, what will be important will be how well the water has made it down into deeper layers. This is our own small reflection on the importance of groundwater, which is hands-down the biggest ongoing water issue in California. Are the basins recharging? I cannot speak for California or our neighbors, but as far as Tablas Creek is concerned, our water table has jumped from 48 ft. when we first dug one of our wells in the middle of the drought to 27 ft. as of today. That is a considerable jump. Water has clearly percolated.

Prognosis
We are excited about the prospects of an extremely wet year. Yes, it has its challenges. We will need to be more diligent in controlling our yields, and in watching for mildew. We are a bit behind in getting the cover crop turned under and the vineyard looking manicured. But it's a pleasure to have these be the challenges we're facing, instead of the challenges of the last five years, where we were wondering how to keep the vines going until they can finish ripening their grapes. With three months to go until harvest, we have every expectation that it will be an excellent vintage.

Long View From Head-Trained Grenache
Just look how healthy everything is!

Tasting the newly-bottled 2016 whites

This is an exciting time of year. The vineyard is growing (enthusiastically, this year). The grape clusters are forming on the vines. The long days mean more evenings spent outside, and more cookouts. It's also the time of year when most of our wines are being bottled. Bottling happens in phases; we start in February with our rosés and Vermentino from the most recent vintage, and the Cotes de Tablas from two vintages before. In April, we bottle the rest of our estate reds, minus Esprit de Tablas and Panoplie. In May, it's our Patelin de Tablas Blanc. In June, our non-Roussanne estate whites. All that remains at this point are Esprit and Panoplie from two years before (typically bottled in July), our Patelin de Tablas from the most recent vintage (typically bottled in August) and our Roussanne and Esprit Blanc (typically bottled in December).

So, June means lots of recently bottled wines that we have the opportunity to get to know. I needed to open some of these because we'll be releasing them soon and wanted tasting notes for the wines' Web pages. I figured blog readers might like a preview. The lineup:

2016 whites

As a whole, the 2016 vintage is turning out to be even better than I'd expected. The reds (as documented during our blending week) show a great balance between lush, juicy notes and deep, savory notes. The handful of whites (and rosés) we've bottled are electric in their vibrancy, without sacrificing richness. So it was with some anticipation that I sat down to taste these five new wines. My notes: 

  • 2016 Clairette Blanche: Just our third bottling of this relatively obscure white Rhone grape, and I'm still wrapping my head around what it's like. On the nose, reminiscent of a Picpoul with pineapple, key lime, and mint on the nose, a palate poised right on the edge between sweet and tart, with flavors of kaffir lime, green plum, and lemongrass. The finish is clean and slightly nutty, with a lingering anise note. 100 cases made.
  • 2016 Picpoul Blanc: Spicy and powerful on the nose, with Meyer lemon, watermelon, crushed rock, and a rich yeasty note. On the palate, richer than the nose suggests (and richer than the Clairette) with flavors of grilled lemon, fresh mango, sweet baking spices, and saline minerality. The acids (which are cloaked initially by the richness) build in the mouth and the wine finishes with lingering flavors of wet rocks and lemon zest. 250 cases made.
  • 2016 Grenache Blanc: An explosively mineral nose with petrichor, citrus blossom, green apple and white pepper. Rich on the palate, with flavors of pineapple, lychee, orange peel and crushed rock. The finish is generous and long, with more rocky minerality and a candied grapefruit note. 715 cases made.
  • 2016 Viognier: Our first Viognier since 2013, and gratifyingly typical of the varietal: peaches and mint and coconut and tangerine and more peaches on the nose. On the palate, a beautiful expression of stone fruit, more nectarine in its restraint than the cling peaches some Viogniers can suggest. Nicely rich on the palate despite its just 12.9% alcohol, and the peaches and cream on the finish are undercut by a welcome touch of citrus pith. 175 cases made.
  • 2016 Cotes de Tablas Blanc: Fascinating to taste after Grenache Blanc and Viognier, as it sets a course right down the middle between the two: a nose of honeydew melon, sweet spice, mint, and green apple. The mouth shows richer than the nose, with flavors of peach pit, cream soda, and bright mandarin orange acids that clean up the long finish. Quite different than the Roussanne-dominated texture of the 2015 Cotes Blanc, and a beautiful summer-weight wine. 1790 cases made.

It's worth noting that we were one wine short in this tasting. The 2016 Picardan hadn't quite finished fermenting in time for its bottling date, and so will go into bottle a little later in the summer. Still, it's a pleasure to taste the almost-complete set, and get confirmation that the wines from 2016 are consistently striking that middle ground where they show fruit and richness without -- any of them -- coming across as heavy or monolithic. And those acids! The electricity that these 2016 whites are showing will make them welcome dining companions in the warm months ahead. We are looking forward to sharing these wines with you over the summer; club members should watch their emails for their release announcements.


Should a Vermentino ever get 98 points?

Yesterday, we posted to our Twitter feed a great review that our 2016 Vermentino received from the trade publication BevX:

I then had a brief exchange on Twitter with Sean Ludford, who runs BevX:

This got me thinking.  What is it about certain grapes or styles that allows them to be great?  I wondered how many Vermentinos had received 90+ scores from larger publications, so I looked in the Wine Spectator's database. They've scored 430 Vermentinos over the years. Of those, 17 have received 90+ scores, including just two 91s and one 92.  That's less than 4% of the Vermentinos reviewed (which, presumably, are the better ones) that received an "outstanding" or "classic" score.

Thinking about other grapes that fit a similar profile (bright, crisp, generally best drunk young) I looked up Picpoul. Of the 60 that they tasted, only one (from our neighbors here in Paso Robles, Adelaida Cellars) got a 90.  That's 1.7%.

Going more into the mainstream, Chardonnay returns 25,485 results in the Wine Spectator database.  Of these, 5,206 have received 90+ ratings (20.4%).   Sauvignon Blanc returns 10,706 results, with 935 (8.7%) receiving 90+ scores. Pinot Grigio returns 2,204 results, but only 82 90+ scores (3.7%).

Rhone whites as a whole score well.  Take Roussanne, for example.  Of the 456 Roussannes reviewed by the Wine Spectator over the years, 70 (15.4%) received 90+ ratings, with our 2014 Roussanne being one of three that topped the list at 93 points. Viognier has 362 90+ wines out of 2,404 (15.1%).  Marsanne has 33 90+ scores out of 269 wines (12.3%). And Grenache Blanc, which only returns 212 results, has 24 90+ scores, four of them ours (11.3%). Only Picpoul is an outlier here.

So, what does it mean that 20+% of Chardonnays can be "outstanding" or "classic", 11-15% of most of the Rhone whites, but only 4% of Vermentinos?  I think there are a few factors at play.

  • Ageworthiness. I do think that reviewers put a premium on wines that can be aged into something greater than they were in their youth. This makes some sense to me. A truly great wine should be interesting over time, and assume different personalities. Just as a great book is something that you want to return to at different stages of your life, and from which you can gather different insights depending on your own life experiences. Vermentino, as beautiful as it can be, is not a wine that we think improves with time in bottle.
  • Richness. There also seems to be a correlation between a wine's body and high scores.  Most Rhone whites (with the possible exception of Grenache Blanc) show a lot of body. And even Grenache Blanc can have plenty of body; it's just balanced by high acids.  But grapes that are lighter in body, like Picpoul or Pinot Grigio (or Vermentino) tend not to be treated the same way.  Sauvignon Blanc, which can be made richer but is typically bright and lean, falls somewhere in between.  If we were able to taste the styles of the highest-rated wines in the category, I would guess that they'd tend toward the richer side of the grape's spectrum. Here is a case where I think there's room to debate. Is there a place for rich wines? Of course. But I know that I value refreshment in wine as much as I do power. And yes, great wines should offer at least some of both.
  • Oak. What else distinguishes white wines with more body from those with less? The more substantial wines are more likely to have been fermented in oak, and to have a higher percentage of that oak be new. Does this mean that a category that typically isn't made with oak has to be oaked to get high scores? I hope not. You're starting to see this with some luxury rosé cuvées, most visibly Chateau d'Esclans, whose top-of-the-line Garrus rosé, aged in new and one-year-old French oak, has on its Web page a litany of reviews calling it the "best rosé in the world". But is the wine better, or is it the oak that tells people they should value it more? I think it's at least partly the latter. I tasted Garrus along the other three tiers from Chateau d'Esclans, and I preferred the freshness of the less expensive wines to the creamy oakiness of the elite levels, not least because the oak to me worked against the freshness and charm that I look for in rosés. That said, the richer style clearly has its adherents. A grape like Vermentino is not likely to be put into new barrels, and thank heavens for that. But the sweet spice and weight that new oak brings to a wine is at least a part of what cues reviewers to identify wines as elite.
  • Provenance. Looking at the scores, the percentage of high scores is correlated with the percentage of each wine that is made in California. Now, before I dive into this potential land mine, let me make it clear that I do not believe that California wines are held to a different (lower) standard, that the Wine Spectator is biased in favor of California, or that all California wines are better than wines from the Old World.  That said, I do believe that California winemakers have taken a new look at many grapes which in the Old World were made in a certain way by tradition.  Take Picpoul:
    • In France, the Picpouls (mostly from the Pinet region, in Languedoc) are generally produced plentifully, harvested early with modest sugars, fermented fast and bottled young to showcase the wines' bright acids.  And they are all so cheap (generally under $10 retail) that there is little opportunity or incentive to innovate.
    • At Tablas Creek, we farm the same grape at lower yields, in a climate with colder nights, and those combine to produce wines with just as much acidity, but more concentration and texture than the French versions.
    • It's noteworthy that just 9 of the 70 Picpouls are from California, and yet most of the ones that received the high scores were. Same with Vermentino: just 9 of the 430 reviews are for California wines (6 of these are ours).
    • Are the wines principally different because of climate? Sure, in part. But I think it's at least as much in the freedom that we have from tradition, and the higher price point of most California wines, that has encouraged and rewarded a new approach to these formerly unfashionable grapes.
    • The wines with longer histories in California have more reviews but tell the same story; thirty of Roussanne's seventy 90+ scores come from California.

Ultimately, the ceiling score for wines is determined by the accumulated reputation of a category over the years.  And I don't think this is a bad thing, or that all grapes are created equal. Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir command the world's highest prices and the lion's share of many magazines' top scores because the market has decided that their best examples are worth the high prices they command. Is there an extent to which this is tradition? Sure. But these are great grapes, which have proved their value and reputation over generations. There is a reason why I reach for a Chardonnay a lot more often than I do for a Pinot Grigio, and I don't want to suggest that the same percentage of every grapes should receive 90+ scores.

That said, remember that loving unfashionable grapes is a tremendous opportunity to enjoy a category's great examples on the cheap.  What the best Chardonnays from Montrachet or Cabernets from Napa Valley will set you back can be measured in hundreds or thousands of dollars.  This 98-point Vermentino?  $27, and less since June is the month it is our featured wine.

In the end, I find it refreshing to think that a grape can be celebrated for being outstanding in its own right and not bump up against some glass ceiling of worthiness. Is there really no such thing as a "classic" Vermentino"? Maybe not, if the definition of a classic is one that will stand the test of time; I know I'm going to try to drink all my 2016 Vermentino before the 2017 is even picked. But I hope there is the opportunity to identify a wine that is outstanding at a moment in time, even if (especially if) it's now the best it will ever be.  And as Sean Ludford said in his last tweet, "excellence is excellence".  Amen to that.


Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Terret Noir

I'm pretty sure I'm not the only one here at Tablas Creek who thinks that one of the most fun things I get to do is to work with new grapes. In some cases, these grapes are ones that are pretty well known in France, but new to California. There, we have a frame of reference, and what's fascinating is where our versions do (and don't) line up. Vermentino and Picpoul Blanc would fit that category. In other cases, we start working with new grapes that have been little used in France in recent decades, and we get to make discoveries without really knowing whether what we're making is true to what the grape "should" be like. That's a different sort of fun. Terret Noir, which we planted in 2010 and have been harvesting since 2013, fits into that category.

Terret noir lithoHistory
Terret Noir is an ancient grape from the Languedoc, one that like Grenache or Picpoul has three color variants (Terret Blanc and Terret Gris are the others). It is first noted in the historical record in 1736, when it was noted for generous production ("Terret noir: produit beaucoup")1.  Never very widely planted (unlike Terret Gris, which a half century ago showed more than 20,000 acres in Languedoc, much of it used to distill into vermouth) Terret Noir's acreage has declined in recent years, down to some 460 acres in 2008, nearly all in Hérault, the French département that surrounds the university town of Montpellier. Even in Hérault, Terret Noir produces less than 2% of the 900,000 hectoliters of wine the region produces annually2, and is typically blended into the more-planted Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Grenache, and Mourvedre.  Although it is one of the permitted varieties in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, it is barely planted there, with just over two acres planted as of 20093.

The grape was valued for its productivity, its freshness, and its moderate alcohols. In his authoritative ampelography from 1910, P. Viala writes of Terret (translation by my dad), "it produced an abundant harvest that could reach 80 hectoliters per hectare [6 tons per acre]. It was prized on the hillsides because, aside from its fertility, it brought qualities of lightness and freshness of bouquet to the strong and acid varietals (Grenache, Espar, etc.), and to which it married perfectly".

In 2003, we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties, and took field cuttings from Beaucastel of the seven grapes we had not yet imported. Terret was one of these.  It spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in 2009, propagated, and in 2010 planted in a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property.  Our first production off of these vines came in 2013.

Terret Noir in the Vineyard and Cellar
Terret Noir is valuable in part because it is late-budding, and therefore less vulnerable to the spring frosts that are the chief weather hazard we deal with each year.  It grows vigorously, and produces large, oval, pinkish red grapes that look more like table grapes than they do like a darkly pigmented grape such as Syrah or Mourvedre. Its upright growth pattern means that it can be head-trained (and typically is in France) but we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis.  It ripens relatively late in the growing season, about a week before the very end of harvest each of the last three years. This puts it in timing in synch with grapes like Mourvedre and Counoise.  

At harvest, it is relatively modest in sugars (we've picked it between 21.0° and 21.6° Brix each year) and mid-range high in acids (pH between 3.6 and 3.9). The skins are light in pigment and the berries large, so it is not a grape that picks up much color during fermentation.  In fact, the first year we fermented it, after two weeks it still looked like a rosé, so we kept it on the skins for another week, at which point it hadn't picked up much more color but had accumulated quite a bit of tannin.  We have since gone back to a more normal 2-week maceration, accepting the lighter color but keeping the tannins modest.

Ultimately, we expect this to be a blending grape, and in fact beginning in 2016 will be using it in a blend with Syrah and Grenache (for that full story, see here). In a blend, its spiciness, herby savoriness, and low alcohols provide a moderating effect on the more powerful, deeply fruity Syrah and Grenache, while those darker grapes give to Terret substance.  On its own, as we've bottled it in 2013, 2014, and 2015 vintages, it is reminiscent of pale color, fairly tannic grapes like the Jura's poulsard.

Flavors and Aromas
Terret Noir is pale garnet red, with spicy, lifted aromatics of dried herbs and wild strawberries. On the palate it shows a persistence surprising for such a pale red wine, with crunchy red fruit like pomegranates and red currants, complex notes of black tea and dried roses, good acids, and some grippy tannins on the finish. We have no idea how it will age, and the literature doesn't provide much insight here. If you are interested in trying it, we just released our 2015 Terret Noir, and we hope you'll let us know what you think.

Terret Noir 15

Footnotes

  1. Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
  2. Sud de France WineHub, http://www.suddefrancewinehub.com/en/terroirs/igp-pays-dherault-2/
  3. Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009

If you build it they will come: Owl boxes, owls, and gopher management

By Jordan Lonborg

For those of you who garden, have fruit trees, a few grapevines, or even a vineyard, pocket gophers can be your nemesis. They will burrow in your garden, sometimes taking entire plants underground with them. The will feast on feeder roots of young trees and/or vines, killing the plant. A garden, orchard, or vineyard is paradise to the pocket gopher. They have water (from irrigation) and an actively growing root system as a food source. We may have lost close to 500 one-year-old vines last year due to gophers. The most effective way of dealing with pocket gophers is to physically trap and kill them. This process takes practice, skill, and time. Even then, at the end of the day you may find yourself looking like Carl Spackler (Bill Murray from Caddyshack) with holes all over your yard, no gophers trapped, and feeling very frustrated (no C4 please!).

Enter Tyto Alba, commonly known as the barn owl. This raptor has your back. Here at Tablas Creek, as part of our pest management program, we have built and erected owl boxes throughout vineyard in the last two growing seasons. To be exact, on the 120 or so planted acres (10 of which are just rootstock) there are 38 owl boxes! From just about any point in the vineyard you’ll notice the rectangular shaped houses that are painted barn door red with the Tablas leaf painted on all sides. It was my goal to have one box every 100-150 yards throughout the entire vineyard, and we've been putting up boxes steadily over the last two years. Being certified organic, outside of trapping, biological control -- read predators who will eat them -- is our only other option. Note the heavy traffic this one's door has seen:

IMG_4147

Every January, barn owl males go in search for suitable nesting locations. To attract females, they begin bringing back rodents to their nest to prove that they can provide enough food for a clutch, or a family of owls. The females will lay between 6-8 eggs in a season, an eggs every 2-5 days. When the last egg has hatched, she begins hunting with the male until late May or early June when the owlets fledge or leave the nest. With a full clutch and a strong food source, a nesting pair can conservatively take around 500 small vertebrates back to the nest to feed their young. Barn owls are extremely efficient hunters and can be voracious when it comes to consuming pocket gophers and other vertebrate pests. Other than gopher remains, I have found the skulls of ground squirrels, song birds, snakes, and even crows in these. Check out the gopher skull I picked up under the above box:

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If you have gopher issues and are interested in building owl boxes for your property, check out this link for step-by-step directions on how to build your own… I have personally built over 150 of them and they are very successful. The link provides all steps needed. I will happily answer any and all questions; leave them in the comments or give us a call at the winery.

Owls are amazing hunters. But I'm not suggesting you rely solely on owl boxes to solve your pocket gopher issues. Look at barn owls as free labor that work while you sleep.  If you do decide to build a few of your own, I leave you with a quote…. “In the immortal words of Jean-Paul Sartre, 'Au revoir, gopher'” –Carl Spackler aka Bill Murray in Caddy shack


Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost: Q&A with Cellar Master Brad Ely

By Suphada Rom

Brad Ely, a native of the Central Coast, has found his way back to the area after several years of travel and cellar experience, taking him from the far reaches of Australia and New Zealand all the way to Washington state and the Rhone Valley. I sat down with him recently to talk all things travel, winemaking, and what makes Tablas Creek special to him.

Brad truck

I know you're local to Central Coast- where did you grow up?
I grew up in Arroyo Grande, California, so about 45 minutes south of Paso. It was a good town to grow up in- close to the beach, which was great since I surfed a lot. Small town but a really good place to raise a family, and it's on the central coast so that's definitely a plus. After high school, I went to Cal Poly.

Did you study wine and viticulture at Cal Poly?
So I was torn between wine and viticulture, construction management, and business. At the time, I thought business would be the most versatile option, but really all my work experience after college has been in the wine industry. My first job was at Saucelito Canyon in Edna Valley. I went into it thinking I'd just do a quick harvest, then do a ski season somewhere else, but I stayed on for two harvests. After that, I took off around the world for 3 years, to travel and continue my passion for making wine.

Brad Barrels

Where have you traveled and worked?
The first place I went to was Australia, to work harvest for Two Hands in the Barossa Valley. I stayed beyond harvest, took some time to travel to Asia, then moved up to Washington to work for Owen Roe, making everything from Pinot Noir to Bordeaux varieties and Syrah. I worked there until winter and went straight back to Two Hands in Australia to work another few months, leading into harvest. After that harvest was done, I hopped on a plane to go to New Zealand for another. Literally, our harvest ended on a Friday and that following Monday morning I was scheduled to start in New Zealand for a custom crush facility called Vin Pro in Central Otago. After that, I traveled through Indonesia and the Philippines, before going to France. While in France, I worked for a producer called Domaine La Barroche under Julien Barrot. The vineyards there have been in the family for centuries, records going back to about the 14th century. Originally sold to negociants, Julien decided to keep the wines and start a label. The year that I was there was the first year they were producing out of their new cellar, which was just a beautiful cellar. All concrete fermenters, large foudres, and gravity flow. I came back and it wasn't long until I heard about an opening at Tablas Creek. I've been here about a year now, which has been a huge blessing!

What makes Tablas Creek special to you?
It's just an amazing property, with a completely different feel than a lot of wineries in the area. I think that has a lot to do with being co-owned by a French family. Just walking through, it feels very French, especially coming from Chateauneuf-du-Pape and basically going straight to Tablas. Not only are the winemaking philosophies pretty similar, but it has that French feel; and that's part of why I like our winery so much. Tablas is a special place and an awesome piece of land to grow grapes on. Everything we do here really reflects tradition, as well, which I am a huge proponent of. 

As Cellar Master, what are your tasks?
It's everything in the cellar and everything winemaking oriented. We have an awesome team and between Craig, Chelsea, Neil, and I, we pretty much have all the bases covered and organizationally speaking, things run really smoothly here. Working in the cellar, it's fruit to glass. During harvest time, it's everything from processing fruit to pump overs to digging the tanks. No job is too small or too big, we're doing it all. When harvest is over, it's a lot of moving wine around, lots of tasting, and making sure everything is going in the direction we want it to. Working in the cellar is very mechanical and you have to wear all sorts of hats. You may be a plumber and then an electrician and a repairman. And cleaning... a lot of cleaning!

Brad Tractor

What would be something people would be surprised to hear about working in the cellar?
Well a lot of people think we drink wine all day, which isn't true! You've got to drink in moderation, which doesn't include drinking at work, so we're constantly spitting. I believe you can taste a lot better when you're spitting, as well. And depending on who you talk to, not everyone knows how much work goes into making a bottle of wine. I've had people shrug it off and say, "Oh yeah, you know... you pick grapes and then make the wine." That's when I have to tell them it's a bit more complicated than that!

What is your personal winemaking philosophy?
Wines that are pretty close to Tablas. I like to be pretty hands off and I don't really like oak. I like natural fermentations, and getting away from additions if you can, even in terms of acid adjustments. I like lower sulfur wines, as well. Basically, trying to make wine as naturally as possible, while still making clean drinkable wines that reflect terroir and sense of place. In terms of what I want to make, I want to make Rhone wines- that's where my passion lies. If I could, I would make Grenache and Roussanne all day, those are the two I care most about. 

When you're not cleaning tanks or moving wine, what are you doing?
I like to travel. I just got back from Cuba, which was really cool. I like to ride motorcycles and work on them. Growing up, I surfed a lot, which I still do a fair amount of. I'll also golf with my Dad and although I'm horrible at it, it's something we can do together. And then of course wine stuff!

Brad Lamb

Do you have a favorite food and wine pairing?
I always love pork and Grenache, like a pork loin or something with a little bit of gaminess. I had a pairing recently with rabbit and Pinot, which was pretty tasty too.

Finally, how do you define success?
I think you’re successful if you’re happy. If you’re happy and you feel like you’re in a good spot then I think that’s success. I wouldn’t tie it anything monetary. I’ve never been into status symbols and nice things, don’t get me wrong, I would love to have nice things, but it’s not a make or break for me. If you’re happy and healthy and the relationships you have are meaningful, that’s success.


Move Along... Nothing To See Here... Just our First New Wine in Seven Years

Last week, Francois Perrin joined me, my dad, Neil, Chelsea, Craig, Brad and Jordan around the blending table as we took our first comprehensive look at the reds from 2016. Coming into the blending, we'd only looked in detail at the whites, which were super. But reds often tell a different story.  I'm happy to report that this year, they look as strong as the whites.  And, for the first time in 7 years, we got to make a new wine. See if you can spot it:

2016 red blends

As usual, we started our blending week Monday morning by tasting, component by component, through what we had in the cellar. Thanks to the better crop levels that we saw in 2016, there were enough lots that we began with Counoise and Mourvedre on Monday, and continued with Grenache, Syrah, and the handful of oddballs on Tuesday.  Our goal at this first stage is to identify the quality of the different lots, and get a sense of both the character and diversity present in the vintage to help give us direction in blending.

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

  • Grenache (13 lots): A strong showing for Grenache, with 6 of the lots receiving 1's from me and only one 3.  Quite luscious, some lots still a little sweet (not unusual for Grenache at this time of year).
  • Mourvedre (18 lots): Also strong, though (for me) quite a large number of very good lots but not that many great lots.  I gave seven lots a 1 grade, with another three hovering between 1 and 2.  Lots of texture here, beautiful red fruit, good cola flavors. Not blockbuster wines overall, but classy and balanced.
  • Syrah (13 lots): The best showing we've ever seen for Syrah. I gave eight of the thirteen lots 1 grades, and felt guilty on a few other cases that I was being too tough a grader. Deep, spicy, meaty, with powerful black fruit. Juicier than Syrah often is at this stage, but with plenty of tannin and concentration to back it up.
  • Counoise (7 lots): Plenty of pretty Counoise that will be great for varietal bottlings and the Cotes de Tablas. Not much (in fact, only one lot) that felt like it had the concentration for Esprit for me. Usually there's a mix of the lighter-toned Counoise that reminds me of the Gamay grape and the darker, blueberry and spice Counoise that feels more Rhone-like. This year, almost entirely on the lighter side.
  • Tannat (3 lots): All three lots got 1 grades from me; it's going to be a great Tannat year. Lots of black fruit, good tannic structure, good acids.
  • Cabernet (1 lot): Only one small (60 gallon) lot of Cabernet this year; not really enough to bottle on its own, and anyway it was a nice dark wine but without as much Cabernet distinctiveness as we look for in a varietal bottling. It will find a happy home in the 2016 Tannat.
  • Pinot Noir (1 lot): Just right, for my taste, in its balance between pretty cherry Pinot fruit, herbal elements from the roughly 25% whole clusters we used in the fermentation, and a little kiss of oak. Should make for a delicious 2016 Full Circle Pinot. 
  • Terret Noir (1 lot): Just the 4th vintage of this new grape for us, the Terret was zesty and bright, with watermelon fruit, good acids, and a little less grip than I remember from recent vintages. We've bottled it on its own in recent years, as we try to wrap our heads around it, but it's ultimately going to be a blending grape, and we think we found a great use for it.  Keep reading.

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 strength of the Syrah (and Grencahe) lots, we wanted to see some blends with higher percentages of Syrah than we've had in most recent years, and some others where we increased both Grenache and Syrah at the expense of Mourvedre.  

Wednesday morning, we reconvened to work out each blend, starting with the Panoplie and continuing on through the lineup.  Panoplie is always overwhelmingly Mourvedre (typically 60% at least) and typically not much Syrah, because Syrah's dominance often proves to be too much for the character of the Mourvedre.  Not this year. We tried three blends and ended up picking as our favorite the one with the most Syrah and least Grenache. I was not surprised to find that we'd preferred the wine with 25% Syrah; the Syrah was outstanding. But I was surprised that we liked the blend with 66% Mourvedre and just 9% Grenache better than one with 60% Mourvedre and 15% Grenache. But it was pretty universal around the table: that by having a high percentage of Syrah and increasing the Grenache as well, we lost something essentially Mourvedre -- and essentially Panoplie -- about the wine.

Panoplie decided, we moved on to the Esprit.  Moreso than the Panoplie, the fundamental question we face each year with the Esprit is whether the character of the Mourvedre benefits more from a greater addition of Syrah or of Grenache, as these two variables are typically how we adjust to warmer and cooler vintages.  In warmer years, where the Mourvedre shows juicier and more open (and tends to be higher alcohol) the darkness, spice, minerality, and structure of Syrah are particularly valuable.  In cooler years, the flesh, sweet fruit, and more open tones of Grenache tend to be indispensable. So perhaps it shouldn't have been surprising that in the warm 2016 vintage, we preferred a blend with a lot of Syrah  -- 31%, our highest-ever -- to options with higher percentages of Grenache.  I was surprised that an option where we increased both Syrah and Grenache, and reduced the Mourvedre to around 38%, didn't show as well. But in this relatively ripe year, we found that as we increased the Grenache, the wines tended to come across as a touch alcoholic, while high-Syrah blends felt deep, pure, and balanced. So, the 2016 Esprit de Tablas will be 46% Mourvedre, 31% Syrah, 18% Grenache, and 5% Counoise.

Next on tap were two small-production blends -- one new, one we've been making for a decade -- that will go to the wine club. For our En Gobelet, in early years, we used nearly all the head-trained, dry-farmed lots for this one wine, and typically didn't have a lot of choices.  But as the acreage that we've planted head trained has increased, we've had the ability to use these lots in Panoplie and Esprit as well as En Gobelet.  But having already chosen the blends of these two wines, there wasn't a lot of choice left.  So it was with some relief that we all loved the wine that resulted: a blend of 39% Mourvedre, 30% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 8% Counoise, and 3% Tannat.  It was deeply red fruited, rich and savory, structured, like we'd distilled down cherries into their essence. It was a testament to the quality that those head-trained vines produce, and made a nice contrast to more Syrah-driven dark fruit we ended up preferring in the Panoplie and Esprit.  Club members are in for a treat, in a couple of years.

For our second small-production blend, we wanted to find a way to celebrate the kinship that we felt Syrah has with Terret Noir.  Now these two grapes may seem like opposites in many ways, with Syrah dark and Terret quite pale.  But Terret shares a peppery spiciness with Syrah, particularly the Syrah lots that we fermented with whole clusters.  So, we experimented with a series of blends combining the two, trying to figure out the relative proportion to make a wine with depth and seriousness, yet an openness that Syrah only rarely achieves.  We ended up needing to add a little Grenache to the blend for flesh, and think we have a solution at about 60% Syrah and 20% each of Terret and Grenache.  The result is like Syrah with an overlay of translucency: elements of both light and dark, savory, zesty, and clean.  We may still tweak this a little, but the bones are there for something that should be exciting.

On Thursday morning, we reconvened to tackle the Cotes de Tablas and the varietals.  As often happens, the Cotes fell into place pretty quickly.  We'd used so much Syrah in our other blends that all the rest of what we had in the cellar was only going to make up 25% of the 2100 cases we were trying to target for this wine.  And that amount is about the minimum we feel like a Grenache-dominated blend needs to stay savory and in balance.  We never use much Mourvedre in this blend, as we feel like it gets buried by the Grenache and Syrah, and we would prefer to save this Mourvedre for our varietal bottling.  So, we were really experimenting with only two components: Counoise and Grenache.  We ended up choosing a blend relatively high in Grenache for us (57%), with 25% Syrah, 12% Counoise, and 9% Mourvedre.  The wine was cheerful: strawberry and cherry fruit, nice spice, and enough structure and depth to hold it all together.  It should be a real crowd-pleaser when it's released, and should also get deeper and more serious with time in barrel.

Given what we'd made of the blends, the math dictated what we could make as varietals: Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise, but no Syrah.  Quantities of Mourvedre should be solid, the other two somewhat less. No Syrah, as often happens in warmer vintages, since it's so important in the blends.  That makes two years in a row; if you think you'll miss it, consider this your warning to stock up on the (delicious) 2014.

A few concluding thoughts.

First, the 2016 vintage seems to have an appealing balance between lusher, juicier notes and deeper, more savory notes.  Like a somewhat more generous 2014, or a 2015 with a little more power, or 2007 with a little less alcohol.  That these are some of our best recent vintages makes me very excited for 2016's prospects.  See all the 1's and 2's on my tasting sheet:

Tasting Notes 2016

Second, after three years where our quantities were dramatically reduced by our drought (and in 2015, by cold weather during flowering) it was such a relief being able to make the quantities that we wanted of most wines.  This stands in stark contrast to 2015, where even after some pretty drastic action in nearly eliminating the Dianthus and reducing my target quantities of many wines to rock bottom, we still came up short.  There are a few vintages where high quality and solid quantity go hand in hand (I'm thinking 2005, or 2010, here) and I'm always grateful.  Not that 2016 was particularly plentiful; it's still quite a bit below what we saw in 2010 or 2012.  But compared to 2015, it felt like a windfall.

Third, what a pleasure to taste with Francois Perrin.  It's been a few years since we had him here for the blending; we rarely know which Perrin we'll receive when we ask, and he was laid up for a time with some back problems.  And each of the Perrins brings amazing depth of experience and terrific insights.  But Francois, who has been the chief craftsman in the cellars at Beaucastel for four decades, has a unique perspective.  Hearing what he gets excited about is a treat, and knowing that he was enthusiastic about what he found out of the 2016's is a great sign of the vintage's quality.