Sip and Savor: Tablas Creek Vineyard offers 2015 En Primeur
French concept of, ‘En Primeur’ is a method of purchasing wines while still in the barrel
–Tablas Creek Vineyard and Winery has been a pioneer in many ways. The winery’s co-founder, Robert Haas, was the first to establish a Franco-American joint-venture in Paso Robles in 1989 when he partnered with the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel in France’s southern region of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
The team also revolutionized planting on the Central Coast by importing several clones of mourvedre, grenache noir, syrah, rousanne, counoise, viognier, grenache blanc and marsanne from the Perrins’ famed Rhône Valley estate — vine materials that endured three years of U.S. quarantine. Next they established a nursery and soon the Tablas Creek vine cuttings made their way to numerous vineyards around California.
But there’s more to the visionary Haas family.
Recently I learned that Robert Haas also championed the Bordelais concept of En Primeur or “futures offering,” a method of purchasing wines early while the vintage is still in the barrel. This offers the customer the opportunity to invest before the wine is bottled. This goes way back to the 1950s in New York.
“There’s a long history to that,” said his son, Jason Haas, when I met him at the winery’s 14th annual En Primeur offering and tasting held in the barrel room in early December. Jason is as much the winery’s ambassador as he is general manager and partner in Tablas Creek Vineyard.
Before Robert Haas founded the New York-based fine wine import company Vineyard Brands in the 1960s, he worked at his father’s retail wine company, M. Lehmann Inc. “My father was working with his dad and suggested the idea of En Primeur in the 1950s,” said Jason.
This is how top Bordeaux wines are offered and sold, Robert told his father. “My grandfather said, ‘It will never work’,” Jason said with a smile. Robert prevailed and approached 500 of the company’s top customers and offered them a chance to purchase Bordeaux wines before their release. Now, of course, this is an accepted tradition of the Bordeaux business in the world.
Certainly the concept proved so successful for Vineyard Brands that Robert Haas decided to continue the tradition at Tablas Creek some 14 years ago. Tablas Creek is among a handful of California wineries offering En Primeur.
The time-honored French tradition is often associated with Bordeaux’s first-growth estates. Valued customers are given the opportunity to secure a limited quantity of sought-after wines at a special price in advance of bottling and subsequent release.
“This is our chance to show you the wine as it makes its first public appearance,” said Jason of the 2015 vintage still resting in oak barrels.
So how was the 2015 vintage? “Difficult and scarce,” answered Jason. Following four years of draught, the weather alternated between warm and cold and clusters were smaller and fewer. “These wines have some tension because of cold and warm, but my dad calls it athletic,” he noted. “They have a tautness.”
Conducting the tasting, Jason, joined by winemaker Neil Collins, remarked on the character of the wines from the 2015 vintage that yielded more mourvedre fruit than syrah and grenache. “This was a spicy and dark vintage,” Jason noted. “So we de-emphasized syrah in the Esprit blend.”
And what about age-ability, I ask? “Wines with intensity will age well,” Jason assured of the challenging vintage.
The event, open to wine club members only, was attended by some 80 guests at the morning session that I attended. Another 90-plus were signed up for the afternoon session.
Members got a chance to taste the three wines offered in 750 ml and magnum-sized bottles at 30-percent off the expected retail price. The wines will be shipped to the buyers starting in fall 2017.
We started the tasting with the lively Esprit de Tablas Blanc, a fresh and herby blend of roussanne, grenache blanc and picpoul blanc. The Esprit red was a spicy and concentrated blend of mourvèdre, grenache noir, syrah and counoise. The 2015 production of Esprit is 3000 cases, compared to 4000 cases in 2014.
The dark and chewy mourvèdre-driven Panoplie is modeled after Château de Beaucastel’s Hommage à Jacques Perrin series.
“Panoplie gets the best lots of Mourvedre,” informed Jason. “We want this to be lush and speak about Mourvedre,” he said of the dense chocolaty wine that is blended with 24-percent grenache noir and five percent syrah. This is a superbly structured wine, one that will evolve and unfold to its glory over time.
The production of this wine is a mere 800 cases and dedicated to wine club members only. “We don’t have a lot of it so we feel it should go to all of you,” Jason assured the attendees.
The tasting and purchasing of the 2015 vintage ended on a French note with bowls of beef bourguignon for lunch. In typical French tradition, I drained the last few sips of the dense Panoplie in my bowl and sopped the delicious wine-drenched sauce with a slice of crusty baguette.
This is the launch of Honeycutt’s regular column featuring wine and food of San Luis Obispo County.