Tablas Creek Vineyard – The Rhones, the new Adelaida AVA, natural fermentation and the use of foudres.

Tablas Creek Vineyard Spring 2015

While on the Central Coast in April we were lucky enough to meet with Jason Haas, General Manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles. Jason graciously took time out of his busy schedule to spend a couple of hours with Michael and I in the vineyard and the winery.

Tablas Creek Vineyard is the collaborative effort between the Perrin Family of Chateau du Beaucastel in Chateauneuf du Pape in France’s Rhone Valley and the Haas Family. Vineyard Brands, the wine import company founded by Robert Haas had been the exclusive importer for Beaucastel wines. In 1989 they founded Tablas Creek Vineyard in the west side of Paso Robles to grow Rhone varieties.

In our 3rd segment, Jason tells us about all the Rhone Varieties that Tablas has brought in to the United States, we discuss the new Adelaida AVA, he tells us the intricacies of native yeast fermentation and we discuss Tablas Creeks use of 1200 gallon Foudres for aging wines.  Here’s the video, but you can read below for the details

 

The Rhone Grapes at Tablas Creek Vineyard

Tablas Creek brought in classic Rhone varieties directly from Chateau du Beaucastel.  These original cuttings went through the mandatory 3 year quarantine and were grafted onto rootstock.  These were; Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc.  Soon after they also added Picpoul.  They planted 1/2 acre of Picpoul and this increased the amount of Picpoul planted on the planet by 50!  In 2003 they decided they might as well bring all the rest of the Chateauneuf du Pape grapes.  Many of these were the first new plantings of these varieties in a decade.  Clairette Blanche and Terret Noir were added and both have been made into single varieties wines in 2013 and 2014.  Picardan was planted and they expect to have a small crop this year for the first time.  3 others Vaccarese, Cinsaut and Bourboulenc are out of quarantine and they expect to be able to plant these this winter.  Poor Muscardin is still in quarantine and may be released next year.  Tablas Creek has wonderful information on their site about all of these varieties Tablas Creek Vineyard Grapes

The Adelaida AVA

Paso Robles Wine was one of the largest unsubdivided AVA in California spanning 40 miles East to West and 30 miles North to South.  This immense area varies from 350 to 2700 feet in elevation, rainfall in different areas can run from 6 to 35 inches and temperatures from one area to another can vary by 15 to 20 degrees.  In November of 2014 this area was broken into 11 new AVAs (American Viticultural Areas).  Tablas Creek is located in the Westernmost AVA known as the Adelaida District.  This is one of the AVAs to be noted by their calcareous soil, which is one of the reasons Tablas Creek chose this location.  How these new AVAs will change the area is yet to be seen.  For Tablas Creek Vineyards, all of their Estate Wines will now list “Adelaida District” on their label.

Native Yeast Fermentation

I have always been fascinated by native yeast fermentation.  Many winemakers find it to be too risky, so I took this opportunity to ask Jason about the native yeast fermentation at Tablas Creek and how they might handle a “stuck” fermentation.  Jason mentioned that often native yeast fermentation is described as “hands off” wine making.  He looks at it more as “fingerprints off” wine making because the process actually makes you more “hands on”.  During fermentation they are closely monitoring each lot and testing to be sure it is perking away.  If a lot is not fermenting well or looks like it is getting stuck, they have options.  They can mix the lot with another lot that is fermenting well or pump it over the lees of something that is fermenting well.  They can build a culture from a tank that is doing well and release it into a tank that isn’t.  So they don’t get “stuck”, they just have to work harder.  Using only native yeast is another way of expressing the uniqueness of the site or the “terroir” which is something that Tablas Creek is passionate about.

Use of Foudres

There are few places in California that you will see foudres used.  Foudres are 1200 gallon barrels (as opposed to a typical wine barrel that holds 60 gallons).  When you walk into the Tablas Creek Vineyards tasting room you can see these beautiful large foudres through the glass windows that surround the tasting room.  As Jason explains it, when you are aging a wine you must determine how much oxygen and how much oak you want.  As they follow the Chateau du Beaucastel style they are looking for very minor but consistent oxygen and very little oak.  As a result, large wood it the way to go.  With a 1200 gallon Foudre you have 20 times the wine and just 4 times the surface area compared to a normal 60 gallon barrel.  This gives you more volume to surface area.  The staves in these larger barrels are thicker also, which makes the penetration of oxygen slower.  This is perfect for protecting Grenache which is prone to oxidation and for Syrah and Mourvedre which are prone to reduction which can cause them to go funky.  The large foudres give a balance allowing the wines to age gently and still progress.

 

While this concludes our formal interview with Jason, we did continue with a vineyard walk and winery tour which concluded with a great conversation about how they blend their wines.  So watch for more videos and blog posts.

 

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Yeasts: Indigenous or Cultured

Wine pouring into vat

Recently while in Paso I had an interesting and enlightening conversation with David Parrish of Parrish Family Vineyards regarding yeast.  Now this is not a subject that I have in depth knowledge on, most of what I know I have picked up by listening at my favorite vineyards.  I walked into the conversation a big supporter of the use of natural yeast, without any real understanding of why you wouldn’t use natural yeast.  David explained that natural yeast could be a completely uncontrollable variable in wine making.  This was a new perspective for me.   So, today is the day to research and explore the pros and cons of indigenous yeast vs. adding cultured yeast to wines.

First, I suppose we should talk about what part the yeast plays in the making of wine.

Yeast is what causes the fermentation process in wine.  The yeast, just like when you are making bread, eats up the sugars and produces, in this case alcohol and carbon dioxide.  The yeast will typically continue to do this until it has transformed all the sugars. The process can stop or be stopped short of that, which gives you the residual sugar in wine.

grape-grapesIndigenous yeasts are those that are “naturally” occurring in the vineyard or winery.  Yes “naturally” is in quotes, because well…yeasts can show up from anywhere.  Lets begin by talking about the natural yeast that you find in the vineyard.   In Europe these yeasts that are found on the skins of the grapes are considered part of the terroir.   Often called the “bloom” or “blush” these yeasts can be seen on the skin of the grape and come into the winery with the grape during harvest.  These native yeasts can produce amazing and unique wines, but they are also a bit of a wildcard, because they can also be unpredictable causing off flavors or aromas and possible spoilage.  Wild yeast as it is already on the grapes can start the fermentation process immediately, as the weight of the grapes on top crush the grapes on the bottom the yeasts can go to work before they even get to the crushpad.  Indigenous yeast can take longer to get going with fermentation and there isn’t a specific formula for how long fermentation will take, so the winemaker must be vigilant, checking in on the process often to see where it’s at.  The type of vineyard can assist natural yeast in the vineyards.  If the pH is low and there is high acidity this will help the yeast to succeed.  Often warmer regions with higher yields don’t work as well for natural yeast.  The variety of natural yeast found in a vineyard can also add to the diversity of flavor in the wines.  In Europe most wineries use natural yeast, this is the way it has been done for centuries.  Often a “pied du cuvee” is used to kick start a slow fermentation.   A “pied du Cuvee” is like sourdough starter.  Grapes are picked a few days or weeks prior to harvest and crushed to cultivate the yeasts.  Then if the fermentation from the indigenous yeasts is slow this can be added to kick start the fermentation process.  This is also used if there is rain before harvest that washes away many of the natural yeasts on the grapes.

On the downside, it has been said that the benefits to flavor of natural yeast can only be shown while the wine is young, after 6 months of aging these notes are no longer noticeable.  And…yeasts also can be found in the winery and cellar and these are thrown into the mix along with any that arrive on equipment coming into the winery, so you have additional curve balls that can be thrown in.  Also many indigenous yeast are of strains that only tolerate low alcohol levels, once levels reach 3 to 4% these yeasts die off.

 

For the winemaker who prefers cultured yeast it is all about control.  Yeast is an ingredient carefully chosen for a specific effect. I mentioned how indigenous yeast can be a wild card?… Using indigenous yeast it is possible to lose 10-20% of a wineries wine if the yeast does not behave in the way you expected.  Many small wineries do not want to take that chance.  And…well once you use a cultured yeast, that powerhouse of a yeast is in your winery and will overpower any native yeast that comes in, so it’s hard to go back.  Cultured yeasts will start the fermentation process much more quickly.  Large producers use this to quickly ferment, so they can move on and reuse the tanks.  Cultured yeasts are primarily “sugar yeasts” and there are several hundred strains to choose from.  The type of yeast can affect the characteristics of the wine even changing characteristics within a grape variety.  Some strains make a heavier sediment to make it easier to rack the wine.  Commonly with added yeast a large dose of a single strain is added to start the fermentation process.  Saccharomyces cerevisiae is the primary yeast used in fermenting wines.  Unlike many naturally occurring types of yeasts it can tolerate high alcohol levels.

There are downsides to using cultured yeast.  You can have problems with volatile acidity and stuck fermentations, problems you don’t see with natural yeast.

 

My summary:  This is just the start of my research on yeasts.  I look forward to conversations with winemakers on their opinions.  I am all about the love of wine, and the winemaker’s love of winemaking.  The romance and history of natural yeast and my immense love of Tablas Creek has me leaning in that direction.  But…as I have said before gorgeous wine comes in many forms.  There are so many variables in wine, in the growing of the grapes, in the harvesting, in the winemaking… and I enjoy wines with many different backgrounds and styles.  We discussed Biodynamics and Organically Certified wineries before.  Do those labels make these wineries and their wines better?  No, but often it means that the winery and winemaker are passionate about their wines and are striving to find ways to make them better.

So here’s to the discussion and exploration of winemaking in all it’s many forms and facets!  Cheers!