Paso Robles: All About the Rhône
The name may be Spanish, but the flavour of Paso Robles is very much French. I was in the centre of this sleepy, relaxed, and very friendly town having lunch before visiting wineries and a sudden wave of nostalgia for the south of France came over me: the sun, the breeze, the food, the air all reminded me vividly of the villages of Rhône and Provence. As I learnt exploring the area's wineries, I wasn't the first person to make this discovery: Paso Robles is producing wines straight out of those two wonderful French wine regions.
The full name of Paso Robles is El Paso de Robles, "the pass of the oaks." Once known for its hot springs and almond trees, Paso is now an emerging wine region, with over 200 wineries. Vines have been planted since the end of the eighteenth century, but it is only in the last twenty years that the region has grown and come to prominence: in the early 1990s, there were just twenty wineries. Zinfandel was the grape most associated with Paso Robles, but now it's Rhône blends, both red and white, that are really making the name of the region.
Paso Robles is on the California coast, three hours south of San Francisco. It's wild territory; many of the vineyards are on rolling, sun-soaked hills miles away from anywhere. The days are baking hot, although, as with the other coastal Californian regions, fog rolls over in the mornings. The nights are cool too: while temperatures in the summer reach as high as 40ºC, they can fall to 15ºC once the sun sets.
The best wines in Paso Robles without doubt come from the grapes of the south of France: Roussanne and Grenache Blanc are the base for the best whites, producing nutty, aromatic, creamy wines, with Mourvèdre, an underappreciated grape that shines in Provence, the standout black grape, backed up by Grenache and Syrah. Cabernet Sauvignon is also planted, but I don't see the area as ideal for any of the Bordeaux grapes. Zinfandel is still grown; the wines I tasted were mixed. Spanish and Italian grapes are experimented with: I tasted one outstanding Nebbiolo and some interesting Tempranillo-based wines.
The modern story of Paso Robles begins with Tablas Creek, the region's standout winery. Over forty years ago, Robert Haas, a New York wine importer, brought the wines of Château de Beaucastel into the US, forming a strong relationship with the family at the same time. Together, they formed the dream of establishing an American equivalent of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer. After many years of searching for the perfect spot, in 1989 they bought land a few miles west of Paso Robles, in 500m high hills not far from the Pacific Ocean, where the soils and climate matched those of the southern Rhône. Such was their dedication to replicating the French wines, they imported cuttings from Beaucastel's vineyards, which spent three years in quarantine at Cornell in New York before being grafted on to vines in Paso Robles. The first vintage was 1997, since when Tablas Creek has led the way for Paso Robles becoming a region for the Rhône varieties.
The flagship wines are the Esprit de Tablas red and white, which until 2011 were called Esprit de Beaucastel. The white is one of my favourites, a stunning example of the great whites that can be made from the Rhône varieties. 64% Roussanne, 26% Grenache, and 10% Picpoul, the 2011 I tasted has a nutty, honied, creamy, round nose, with bitter grapefruit and apple on the palate, with a long, rich, full finish. I also bought a bottle of the 2006, which I can't wait to taste. Its red sibling is 40% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 21% Syrah, and 4% Counoise: the wines of Paso Robles are at their best as blends rather than single varietals. The wine has rich, ripe black fruits - blackcurrants, blackberries, and plums - with a smoky, toasty nose; the acidity is high and fresh, with structured tannins and an oaky, peppery finish. It is easy to see this wine developing leather and game characters, and the 2010 I also tasted already had those qualities, as well as being a touch smokier and earthier, but with a gentle, subtle tannic finish.
Both these wines cost $55; Tablas Creek also produce two more affordable Rhône blends under the Côte de Tablas name. The Blanc 2012 ($27; 34% Viognier, 30% Grenache, 30% Marsanne, 6% Roussanne) is fruity and aromatic, with peach, pear, and apricot, while the Rouge ($35; 60% Grenache, 25% Syrah, 10% Counoise, 5% Mourvèdre) has lots of red fruits, with a dry, slightly smoky finish. The range of Tablas Creek wines is excellent, but it's the white blends that really earn the winery's reputation.
other Rhône blends
Tablas Creek produce plenty of single varietal wines - of particular interest was the Grenache Blanc 2012 ($27), a complex yet refreshing wine with hay and fennel, as well as apples and almonds - but it's their blends which really shine. It's the same in the rest of Paso Robles.
Next door to Tablas Creek is Halter Ranch, a winery which owns 281 acres of land but still only produces 12,000 cases a year. The old Victorian house on the estate was the location for the 1990 film Arachnophobia; it's now undergoing quite a change, with a new winemaker from nearby Justin, which has been taken over by a multinational, and plans to expand production to 40,000 cases by 2017-19. The wines do feel that they are in transition, but with lots of potential. The 2013 Côtes de Paso Blanc ($28; 75% Grenache, 20% Picpoul, 3% Roussanne, 2% Viognier) is barrel fermented with four months on its lees, giving it a nutty, yeasty character, but with fresh crisp citrus fruits.
Along the road back to Paso is Lone Madrone, co-owned by Neil Collins from Bristol who has been Tablas Creek's winemaker since the outset. He too produces two superb Rhône blends: the 2011 Points West White ($35; 50% Roussanne, 26% Picpoul, 20% Viognier, 10% Marsanne) is aged in mainly neutral oak but with 10% new Russian oak and has a beautiful creamy, rich vanilla texture, with pear, peach, and banana; on the palate, the refreshing acidity stops the wine from being too heavy. The 2010 Points West Red ($35; 32% Mourvèdre, 28% Counoise, 20% Grenache, 20% Syrah) has blackberries, blueberries, cherries with a long earthy, smoky finish and light spices.
The biggest producer in Paso Robles is J. Lohr; he set the winery up in 1974 and it now produces 1.6m cases a year. Although they're still family owned, this is such a huge enterprise that production is split in two: the white grapes are grown in San José and the black in Paso. Nevertheless, the wines I tasted, which were fairly small production, all had character without being overly complex. The 2013 Gesture Roussanne Viognier Grenache ($35) has a delicate floral nuttiness, with bananas and pineapples, with a dry, mineral finish to round off the wine's creamy texture. The 2012 Gesture GSM ($30) is mainly Grenache, but the Syrah and Mourvèdre give it a smoky black fruit backbone. As with the white, the flavours are upfront and friendly, with a good structure, but lacking an involving complexity.
Nearby is Eberle, another well-known winery that was at the forefront of the development of Paso Robles as a wine region. Set up by former footballer Gary Eberle in the 1980s, the wines offer extremely good value, as do many of the region. The Côtes-du-Rôbles white and red are two more good examples of Rhône blends. The white ($24; 57% Grenache, 39% Roussanne, 4% Viognier) has peach, apricot, and honeysuckle on the nose, with a creamy, textured palate finished with a grainy, dry, nutty feel. The red ($22; 45% Grenache, 23% Syrah, 23% Mourvèdre, 11% Durif) offers strawberries and blackberries on the nose, with smoky oak and vanilla. There's a good structure to the wine, with black fruits, oak, and spices.
Pomar Junction, further south than the other wineries beyond the town of Templeton, is a relatively new winery whose first vintage was in 2008. The land was bought by a family of vineyard managers in 2001, and this is their first foray into winemaking - and a successful one at that, as their wines have won plenty of awards. The Côtes de Pomar 2013 ($34; 40% Roussanne, 40% Grenache, 20% Viognier) is a rich, complex, spicy wine with pineapple, cinnamon, and white pepper. As the name of the winery suggests, there is a strong railway theme to the winery - there is an engine and carriage on site - and each of the wines either has an associated name or image. The Crossing GSM 2011 ($45; 40% Mourvèdre, 30% Grenache, 30% Syrah) has a perfumed nose of red flowers and sage, with developing flavours of cedar, smoke, and toast; blackberries, plums, and currants on the palate, with a dry, oaky, spicy finish.
All of these wineries produce interesting single varietal wines too, but it's the blends that fully express the nature of Paso Robles. This emphasises the European sensibility of the area, with its concentration on blends and soils, but it also underlines the development of American wine away from single varietal wines towards more complex blends and an appreciation of terroir. Rhône grapes are the most successful of the region, but by no means the only ones planted. In my next blog, I'll be looking at the non-Rhône side of Paso: Zinfandel, Spanish and Italian grape varieties, as well as beer and spirits.