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Smells Like Rhone Spirit: Tablas Creek’s Esprit

2012 October 31

vineyards at Tablas Creek (photo courtesy Tablas Creek Vineyard)

Tablas Creek wasn’t the first producer to grow Rhone varieties and make Rhone style wines in California, but it is undoubtedly one of the most important.

Tablas Creek was the result of a belief on the part of the owners of one of the greatest estates in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Beaucastel’s Perrin Family, and their American importer, Robert Haas of Vineyard Brands, that great Rhone-style wines could be made in California. In pursuit of this belief, they entered into a partnership in 1985 and searched for a suitable vineyard property—one with climate and soils comparable to Châteauneuf-du-Pape —throughout California. They located that property in the Las Tablas District of west Paso Robles, where they purchased 120 acres in 1989.

The partners then began the lengthy process of importing multiple clones of the white and red grapes planted in Beaucastel’s vineyards through U.S. agricultural controls. This included a three-year wait to ensure the vines were virus free before they could be used to propagate additional vines. The first vines were available for propagation in 1993, and the first plantings took place in 1994.

To develop sufficient numbers of vines from the relatively small number of plants that were imported, the partnership started a nursery. That nursery eventually produced 200,000 plants a year, for Tablas Creek’s needs and for sale to more than 500 other growers. The huge number of high quality clones of many Rhone varieties that Tablas Creek thereby made available to other producers is a big part of the project’s legacy. Although the winery got out of the commercial nursery business some years ago, they partnered with Sonoma’s NovaVine to continue to make grafted vines and budwood of Tablas Creek clones available. NovaVine now sells an estimated 1.5 million Tablas Creek clone cuttings each year. There is no doubt in my mind that our state’s Rhone-style wines based on those plantings are as complex as they are in large part because of the diversity of plant material Tablas Creek brought to California.

The Tablas Creek winery was constructed in 1997. Their flagship wines, a white and a red inspired by Beaucastel’s red and white wines, were launched in 2000, with the red Esprit de Beaucastel. The Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc followed in 2001. Tablas Creek also makes a white and red Côtes de Tablas, which is intended as a riper, more California style wine, meant for drinking earlier, while the Esprit is meant for aging for some years.

To commemorate the release of the 10th vintage of the Esprits, the 2010, Tablas Creek general manager Jason Haas convened vertical tastings of both the red and white Esprit for invited journalists and wine buyers in New York City, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I attended the tasting in San Francisco, and was delighted to have a chance to compare the vintages and to look back at these wines which have been so inspirational to California-based fans and producers of Rhone wines.


Tablas Creek General Manager Jason Haas

Like Beaucastel’s great Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which is famously a blend of up to all 13 permitted varieties, Tablas Creek’s red and white Esprits are both blends of classic Rhone varieties. The red is, like Beaucastel, predominantly Mourvèdre, but also contains portions that vary by year of Grenache, Syrah and Counoise. The white, again like Beaucastel Blanc, is dominated by Roussanne. It also typically contains Grenache Blanc and a small amount of Picpoul. In the first few vintages, before the Picpoul came online, it contained Viognier, a grape of the Northern Rhone not used in the whites of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

Jason explained that the Perrins think Roussanne makes a great wine, including about 80% of the grape in their Beaucastel Blanc, and it is a very ageworthy white wine variety. It is also, as he phrased it, “a big pain in the vineyard.” Roussanne ripens late and unevenly, and doesn’t tolerate stress well. Jason said, “if it gets too cool or hot, some blocks will drop leaves and just give up.” Pests and mildew also tend to affect Roussanne first.

The partners and winemaker Neil Collins found they had to make four passes through the vineyard to pick the unevenly ripening Roussanne, which turns orange at harvest (it apparently got its name from this “russet” color). Jason told us they hired a full-time field crew in 1996, in part to deal with the Roussanne, and that five members of the crew are still with them.

The small amount of Picpoul in the blend seems to bring out a “saline minerality” in the Roussanne according to Jason. Picpoul has high acidity and adds brightness.

The Esprit Blanc was initially aged 50/50 in stainless steel tanks and barrels. In 2006 they had an extra foudre, or very large oak container available, so they tried putting the Roussanne into it, to break the foudre in. It turned out to be one of their favorite lots in that vintage, so they continued to age a portion of the Roussanne in foudre. Now they use up to four foudres for the Blanc, so that two-thirds of the blend is raised in foudre, and the rest in a mix of stainless steel and small barrels.

The partners had originally planted the vineyards thinking they would produce 80% red wines and 20% whites. The whites have performed and sold well, however, leading to additional plantings of the whites so that the winery’s mix is now 65% reds and 35% whites (a big contrast from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where only about 5% of the production is white).

The alcohol level on the whites has been about 13.5% since 2006. Jason asserted that the whites take on a more mineral and saline character every year, which he attributes to the influence of the limestone soils as the vines mature.

Originally the Esprit and Esprit Blanc were released at the same time, but starting in 2009 they pushed back the release of the Blanc six months so that it had more time to flesh out with additional bottle age. Now it is released in the fall, after two years of aging, one year of that in bottle.

They knew from the beginning they wanted to use the same four grapes for the red: Mourvèdre, Syrah, Grenache and Counoise. The change has been in the increased percentage of Grenache most years over the Syrah. This came as the Grenache matured—the Perrins find it usually takes 10 years of vine age to get Grenache where they want it in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, at which point the alcohol level is lower too. The red blend is usually around 14.5% alcohol.

Originally the Syrah and Mourvèdre were fermented mainly in open top steel tanks. Since 2010, however, they have been using more upright, 1600-gallon wooden casks for the fermentation, like Beaucastel does, which seems to promote tannin integration.

They initially keep the four varieties separate after pressing and fermentation. In assembling the blend for the Esprit, they start with the lots they have rated as the best of that vintage. 2001 was the only year when Mourvèdre was not the strongest variety. If they had made an Esprit red in 2001 it would have been dominated by Syrah, but they decided instead not to make an Esprit that year.

Jason told us that the reds have a fairly predictable aging curve, with the wines tending to shut down and become less expressive about five years after the vintage. He claimed the 2006 was in that phase now, while the 2005, which was “shut down hard” for three years has become quite approachable in the last six months.

It was fascinating to taste through all ten vintages of the Esprit and its white counterpart. I had tried many of these vintages soon after release, and in almost all cases the bottle we had at this tasting, with several years of maturity on it, performed better than when I’d tasted it earlier, reinforcing the notion that these are wines made for aging.

There was a great deal of variation in aromas and flavors in the whites by vintage—some emphasizing ripe fruits like pear and pineapple, and others showing greater minerality and spice qualities–but all showed the richness and high glycerol that is inherent in Roussanne. These are wines that cry out for pairing with rich seafood dishes, like lobster and crab.

I was surprised at how good the reds from early vintages were, as I had not been as impressed with them soon after release. A few of them–like the 2003, 2004 and 2005–are remarkably reminiscent of mature Châteauneuf-du-Pape, vindicating the partners’ guiding belief that ageworthy red Rhone blends could be made in California.

My favorite vintages for the white, to date, are 2005, 2008 and 2010, while the best and most complex reds, I thought, were the 2003, 2004, 2006 and 2008.

Examining the array of ten bottles of each of the two cuvees, I noticed that for the first three years they used a classic Burgundy style, slope-shouldered bottle. They then used a taller bottle for two years, but went back to the regular size for the past five years. Jason said the regular size bottle weighs one pound less than the super-sized one. I also noticed that the size of the print for the “de Beaucastel” portion of the wine’s name had shrunk starting in 2004. Jason informed us that it was always the partners’ intention that the Beaucastel name eventually disappear from the label, and that the wine would then just be called “Esprit.” This changeover is expected to finally occur in the next five years.

Tablas Creek now makes essentially three tiers of wine. Their top tier is the Esprit. The second is Côtes de Tablas, which is based on Grenache for the red and Viognier for the white. In recent years, they launched the Patelin de Tablas bottlings, which are meant to be early drinking, value oriented wines. The red is based on Syrah and the white on Grenache Blanc, and these wines include purchased fruit from the Paso Robles area in addition to the estate fruit. They also produce small quantities of single varietal wines and a rosé. At the high end, they produce a very small amount of a red cuvee in particularly good years that they call Panoplie, a blend of their most ageworthy barrels inspired by Beaucastel’s Hommage à Jacques Perrin, and a bottling called En Gobelet, made exclusively from head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard blocks. These latter wines are only sold through their mailing list.

For those of us who can get to the Paso Robles area, Tablas Creek’s vineyard tour and tasting is also one of California’s most informative and enjoyable, and I highly recommend it.

For my complete tasting notes on the 10-year retrospective of Esprit and Esprit Blanc, see below.

TABLAS CREEK ESPRIT DE BEAUCASTEL VERTICALS WITH JASON HAAS – Park Tavern, San Francisco. California (9/18/2012)

Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc Vertical

  • 2001 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light medium golden yellow color; golden raisin, ripe pear, peach nose; tasty, maturing, creamy textured, lanolin, mineral, tart pear palate; should go 8-10 more years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (44% Roussanne, 22% Viognier, 18% Grenache Blanc, 16% Marsanne) (92 pts.)
  • 2002 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light medium golden yellow color; ripe pear, golden raisin, baked peach nose; tasty, creamy textured, tart pear, pear nectar, lanolin, tart peach, light ginger palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier) (91 pts.)
  • 2003 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light golden yellow color; ripe pear, pineapple, light ginger nose; creamy textured, medium bodied, tart pear, light ginger, tart peach, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (68% Roussanne, 27% Grenache Blanc, 5% Viognier) (92 pts.)
  • 2004 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light golden yellow color; a little oxidized, lanolin, hazelnut nose; mature, tart peach, lanolin, mineral, pineapple syrup palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul) (91 pts.)
  • 2005 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light medium yellow color; appealing, lanolin, applesauce, pear nose; tasty, rich, fleshy, lanolin, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (70% Roussanne, 25% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul) (93 pts.)
  • 2006 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light medium yellow color; ripe grapefruit, lanolin, light ginger nose; a little tight, rich, tart peach, tart pear palate; needs 1-2 years and should go 10 years; medium-plus finish (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul) (92 pts.)
  • 2007 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light medium yellow color; ginger, mineral, ripe apple, pear syrup nose; ripe, medium bodied, rich, lanolin, tart pear palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (68% Roussanne, 22% Grenache Blanc, 10% Picpoul) (92 pts.)
  • 2008 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light yellow color; ginger, baked pear, cinnamon, baked apple nose; rich, complex, luscious, flavorful, baked pear, ginger, baked apple palate; medium-plus finish (65% Roussanne, 30% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul) (93 pts.)
  • 2009 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light medium yellow color; floral, green pear, lanolin, lilies, ginger nose; rich, ginger, tart pear, tart peach, mineral palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (62% Roussanne, 26% Grenache Blanc, 12% Picpoul) (91 pts.)
  • 2010 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Light straw yellow color; green herbs, ginger, green pear, kumquat nose; complex, rich, fleshy, kumquat, tart pear, mineral, quince palate; medium-plus finish (60% Roussanne, 35% Grenache Blanc, 5% Picpoul) (93 pts.)

Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge Vertical


  • 2010 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Dark ruby color; tart berry, light pepper, anise, tart black fruit nose; tart berry, mineral, tart plum, anise, garrigue, spice palate; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (14.1% alcohol; 45% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 4% Counoise; bottled in June ’12) (92 pts.)
  • 2009 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Dark red violet color; grapey, tart plum, black fruit, light pepper nose; tight, tart berry, mineral, light garrigue, licorice palate; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (14.6% alcohol; 40% Mourvèdre, 28% Syrah, 27% Grenache, 5% Counoise) (92 pts.)
  • 2008 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Medium dark red violet color; tart berry, cherry, baked cherry, spicy nose; tasty, poised, baked cherry, berry, mineral palate with medium acidity; could use 2-3 years of bottle aging; medium-plus finish 93+ points (38% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 26% Syrah, 6% Counoise) (93 pts.)
  • 2007 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Dark red violet color; lifted, garrigue, licorice, brett, barnyard nose; maturing, still tight, tart berry, garrigue, brett, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (44% Mourvèdre, 29% Grenache, 21% Syrah, 6% Counoise) (92 pts.)
  • 2006 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Very dark red violet color; baked berry, black cherry, cherry syrup nose; a little tight, appealing, tart berry, black cherry, anise, mineral palate, reminiscent of a Chateauneuf-du-Pape from a ripe year; medium-plus finish (45% Mourvèdre, 28% Grenache, 22% Syrah, 5% Counoise) (93 pts.)
  • 2005 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Slightly cloudy dark red violet color; gamey, brett, garrigue, tart black fruit, horseradish nose; tasty, Chateauneuf-du-Pape-like, garrigue, tart roasted plum, mineral, tart cherry palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish 92+ points (44% Mourvèdre, 26% Grenache, 22% Syrah, 5% Counoise) (92 pts.)
  • 2004 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Slightly cloudy very dark red violet color; licorice, ripe berry, baked berry nose; rich, chewy, baked berry, black raspberry, licorice, spice palate with firm tannins; medium-plus finish (50% Mourvèdre, 27% Syrah, 17% Grenache, 6% Counoise; ready for drinking) (93 pts.)
  • 2003 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Slightly cloudy dark red violet color; earthy, barnyard, tart black fruit, tobacco nose; tasty, Chateauneuf-du-Pape-like, tart black fruit, tobacco, licorice, garrigue, mineral palate; reminiscent of a Vieux Telegraphe; should go 15-20 years; medium-plus finish 93+ points (50% Mourvèdre, 27% Syrah, 16% Grenache, 7% Counoise) (93 pts.)
  • 2002 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Cloudy, opaque red violet color; mature, tart black fruit, mushroom, anise, spice nose; maturing, tart black fruit, anise, spice palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (57% Mourvèdre, 27% Syrah, 10% Grenache, 6% Counoise) (92 pts.)
  • 2000 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel – USA, California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
    Slightly cloudy medium dark red violet color; mature, brett, tobacco nose; maturing, lean, tobacco, dried berry, garrigue, anise palate with very firm tannins; medium-plus finish 90+ points (35% Mourvèdre, 26% Syrah, 25% Grenache, 14% Counoise) (90 pts.)
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3 Responses leave one →
  1. Patrick permalink
    October 31, 2012

    Fascinating tasting, with good information. Now I just wish they would change the names of those wines. Esprit de Beaucastel. Hoo Boy. They thought too hard on that one.

  2. November 1, 2012

    [...]Paso Robles Wine Club is the most innovative and unique way to taste the excellence of this California Central Coast wine region.[...]

  3. Richard Adams permalink
    February 28, 2013

    Informative appraisal. I am a retired Foreign Service officer on the east coast. Your articles almost always reveal a nugget or two of new information and I’ve been fascinated by wine for 40 years.

    I visited Tablas in June 2012. In the tasting room I found most of the young reds tasty enough but aromatically restrained. Most of the young whites had more immediate appeal. Then I had a taste of the 2004 Esprit red, and it was fabulous. These wines are built differently from both California and French counterparts.

    The 2011 Vermentino also was sensational, so fresh and zest, much better than French and Sardignian versions I’ve tried.

    I’d appreciate your appraisal of the second tier Cotes de Tablas wines as well.

    Your writing also led me to try Mauritson wines. They are distinctive wines with intensity, sometimes successful, sometimes not.

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