Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tablas Creek: The Original Rhone Ranger

Last weekend I extended my tour of non-Napa and non-Sonoma California wine regions with a trip to Paso Robles, 3.5 hours south of San Francisco. Tablas Creek Vineyard was at the top of my list, knowing only that they produced Rhone varietals. I quickly learned that this partnership between the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf du Pape (Southern Rhone, France) and Robert Haas, an importer and founder of Vineyard Brands, which brought the wines of Marqués de Cáceres (Spain), Santa Rita (Chile), and Villa Maria (New Zealand) to the U.S., resulted in the first Rhone varietals being brought to the U.S. back in the 1980s. The team purchased 120 acres in the Las Tablas area of west Paso Robles county, noting the similarities to Châteauneuf du Pape: limestone soils, a temperate climate, and hilly terrain. They brought over the traditional Rhone varietals from France: Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah, Counoise (reds) and Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc (whites). The original 80 cuttings were brought in through Cornell University for quarantine and propagation, and the new plants were grafted onto disease-resistant American rootstock. Tablas Creek today has their own grafting business and grafts for themselves and other wineries in California.

An original Syrah plant brought to the U.S. from Chateau de Beaucastel in Rhone, France
Mourvedre grafted onto old vine Chardonnay in the field
While a rarity in California, some of the great French wine regions are known for their limestone, including Champagne, Burgundy, and of course, Châteauneuf du Pape. Tablas Creek Vineyard is organic and dry-farmed (no irrigation), and the limestone soil retains the moisture from about 30 inches of annual rainfall. The topsoil of clay and decomposed limestone helps with drainage. The 1500-foot elevation and proximity to the ocean give it the benefit of the humidity and tempered climate. Cover crops like peas, oats and cloves also help with drainage and provide food for their many grazing animals, including sheep, donkey, pigs, alpacas and chickens. These animals naturally fertilize and aerate the soil.

Tablas Creek is largely estate grown, with some additional Paso Robles grapes used for their Patelin de Tablas blended red and white wines. The wines undergo natural fermentation in a wide variety of tanks and barrels. The whites are full of minerally acidity, so they are crisp, refreshing and alive. The reds have deep flavor with good structure and balance.  The signature red and white Rhone blends are named Esprit de Tablas, mimicking the Chateau de Beaucastel wines. The Cotes de Tablas blends are meant to be approachable sooner than Esprit.  

Cotes de Tablas Blanc 2012: Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Roussanne combine into a fresh, well-bodied wine with orange blossom notes.

Esprit de Tablas Blanc 2011: Roussanne leads with Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc making an appearance to a lush, rich result.

Picpoul Blanc 2012: a lesser-known Rhone varietal, Picpoul Blanc is also known as the “lip stinger” for its sparkling and spicy citrus character.

Mourvedre 2011: 100% varietal full of red fruit, bloody beef, earthiness and nice salinity.

Cote de Tablas 2011: Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Counoise balance bright spice, earth and meat in this wine.

Esprit de Tablas 2011: Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah and Counoise combine in a dark fruity, meaty, spicy wine that is a bit more lush than the Cote de Tablas.

Tannat 2011: a varietal from the Basque region of Spain that is widely planted in Uruguay, Tannat made its U.S. debut through Tablas Creek. Classic blackberry flavor on a firm, tannic structure mean this wine will likely age well.

Thank you to Gustavo for a wonderful tour & tasting and to Jason Haas for making the arrangements. Go Big Red!

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