the rhone revolution started here

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

It’s hard to believe that just 20 years ago, Rhône varietal wines were considered to be bleeding edge experiments in this country. Here in Washington, there were a handful of wineries trying out Syrah – Columbia, McCrea and Glen Fiona come to mind – but no hint of the whites, or red grapes such as Mourvèdre. Even Grenache, a stalwart in the early days of the industry, had all but disappeared.

Today there are literally hundreds of Syrahs released annually just in Washington, and certainly dozens of red blends featuring Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Viogniers are abundant, as are varietal Roussannes, Marsannes, and their blends. The occasional Picpoul and Grenache Blanc pops up as well. I’m especially fond of the latter, and in fact will offer a blend based on Grenache Blanc as a Waitsburg Cellars wine next spring.

Clearly, there has been a swift and impressive change in what can be grown, what is being grown, and what winemakers want to be grown, not just here in Washington, but up and down the entire west coast. And we have Tablas Creek to thank for it.

“We knew the vines we wanted to grow,” Jason Haas explained in a conversation some years ago. “Grenache blanc, Grenache, Syrah, Counoise, Marsanne, Mourvèdre, Viognier and Roussanne.” But as for what was available at California nurseries – not so much. “Counoise and Grenache Blanc didn’t exist. Mourvèdre and Grenache had a really lousy reputation; suitable for jug wines only,” said Haas. “And Roussanne was very suspect – it later turned out that California growers thought was Roussanne was actually Viognier. So the only way to go was to bite the bullet and bring in new cuttings.”

Vines must be quarantined, tested and certified virus-free before they may legally be planted. The cuttings imported in 1989 were not certified until 1992, propagated for another two years, planted in 1994, and finally began bearing in 1997. Then test wines were made, and comparisons done with similar wines from American clones. A full decade had elapsed before the first results came in. Good news! “They were really dramatically different,” says Haas. “The wines from the French clones were darker, richer, more intense.”

The Haas family generously made their clones available for purchase. “We felt that bad clones were holding back the category,” says Haas. “We thought if we could improve the clones available, everybody would benefit.” Washington vintners were among the beneficiaries, and have been planting small blocks of these fascinating grapes ever since. So when you see a Washington Counoise or Mourvèdre or Picpoul – or anything besides Syrah or Viognier – it’s probably from a Tablas Creek clone. And still very early in the going. “In France,” notes Haas, “they don’t even pay attention until the vines are at least 10 to 15 years old.”

The original vines at Tablas Creek have now reached that milestone, and a flight of new releases impressed me across the board. Accustomed though I am to the brightness of Northwest wines, these single varietals and blends did not have the super-ripe sweetness of so many California wines. They were more subtle, elegant, and complex, with alcohol generally between 13 and 14%. All are “Grown and bottled on the estate” as the labels proudly proclaim.

The 2012 Côtes de Tablas Blanc ($30) is a crisp, fresh blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc, with mixed flavors of white flowers, green apples, pineapple and lightly toasted grain. It’s almost autumnal, with a toasted hazelnut kick to the finish.

The 2011 Roussanne ($30), a dark, lemon/gold shade, offers flavors of grain, ripe lemon, blood orange, honey and mineral.

The 2011 Esprit de Tablas Blanc ($40) is the flagship white, and provides the model for my own blend of these three grapes. It was propagated from budwood cuttings from the Château de Beaucastel estate. Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul are the components, a marvelous mix of spice, herb, yellow and green berries and earthy minerals, all in a wine with compact power.

The two reds I sampled were even more impressive. The 2011 Mourvèdre (oh I do love this grape!) benefitted from a growing season that extended into November. The long hangtime and low yields contributed to a wine of surpassing richness and concentration, a unique and distinctive flavor mix of blue plum, cassis, mineral, graphite and chocolate. Not the chocolate flavor that comes from new barrels – this was fermented and aged in 1200 gallon neutral foudres. A spectacular effort, it sells for $40.

Last but in no way least I tasted the 2011 Esprit de Tablas ($55), a blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah and Counoise. Sophisticated, complex and detailed in the most subtle and intriguing fashion, this mineral-driven wine offers a full palette (and fills your palate) with fruit, earth, bark and rock nicely entwined.

Check the Tablas Creek website for an overview of these and other wines in the Tablas Creek portfolio. And join me in a sincere thank you to the Haas family for the hugely important effort they have made on behalf of the entire American wine industry.


Bob Neel said...

Proud to have been the winery that first brought all these varietals to Washington. With thanks to Jim Holmes & Dick Boushey. Yummy stuff.

Jason Haas said...

Thank you, Paul! I really like the 2011's... great evidence of how differently a vintage can play out in the Central Coast to what wineries in the North Coast saw. And you're totally right... our oldest vines weren't planted until 1992, which means they're only now getting to 20 years old. I'm hopeful that you ain't seen nothing yet!

PaulG said...

Thanks Jason, for keeping me "in the loop" with your latest releases. The Mourvèdre was just as good – if not even a little better – on the second night!

Unknown said...

Your readers also should note the Tablas Creek website's vintage drinking guide. It is a model for the industry. We all know that any producer's wines go through awkward periods. Only Tablas Creek seems to acknowledge that phenomenon with its own wines, providing TC consumers a rough guide when to wait and when to drink.

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