Paso Robles Revisited
One of the first trips I made when I moved to California was to Paso Robles. Without knowing too much about the region, I was inspired to visit by the wines of Tablas Creek which I had tasted back in the UK. Tablas Creek make red and white Rhône blends, and I discovered that it is these styles of wines that best showcase Paso Robles. Although Cabernet Sauvignon is grown here, the climate and soils are so similar to the southern Rhône that varieties such as Grenache and Mourvèdre are much more exciting.
This personal discovery of Paso Robles thrilled me, because Rhône-style blends are hard to come by in California, where plantings are dominated by Chardonnay, Merlot, and Cabernet. Paso thus stands out, and over the last twenty-five years it has carved out a distinctive niche for itself. The region is still very much under the radar, however, meaning that the wines are much less expensive than they should be - great for the consumer but still a lot of marketing and education to be done by the producers.
Just after Christmas, I made a brief revisit to Paso Robles. It's still a quiet, quaint farming town, though one with a burgeoning restaurant scene. I retasted some old favourites, including Tablas Creek, but here are some new discoveries which confirmed my impressions that the best wines are made from Grenache and Mourvèdre.
Grenache loves hot weather, thriving in southern France, Spain, Australia, and also Paso Robles. It can lack acidity and tannin, so it's usually at its best in a blend. However, I tasted a couple of single-varietal Grenaches which were superb. The 2013 Grenache from Venteux, a small producer making just 3-4,000 cases a year, is grainy, earthy, and textured, with spicy aromas of liquorice and ripe red fruits ($32; ✪✪✪✪✪). Another small producer, Seven Oxen, also make a fabulous Grenache. The 2014 comes in at a whopping 16% ABV, but I didn't notice this level of alcohol until I looked at the bottle after tasting the wine. Alcohol this high usually knocks the wine out of balance, but it was extremely well integrated - wine is all about balance and this Grenache has it. As one would expect, it's full-bodied, spicy, and full of ripe red fruits, but it also has a firm, gripping texture to it which keeps everything in check ($39; ✪✪✪✪✪).
One of the great, underappreciated grapes of southern France and Spain is Mourvèdre. This is another grape that likes the hot weather, as it's late ripening and it needs the warm autumns to get ripe, concentrated black fruit aromas. Seven Oxen also make a single-varietal Mourvèdre, which really shows what the grape is capable of. The 2013 is smoky, herbal, and spicy, with the earthy, bramble aromas I associate with the variety, together with a surprisingly pretty floral nose ($38; ✪✪✪✪✪).
Both these varieties excel in blends. Tablas Creek's great red wine is Esprit de Tablas, which is Mourvèdre-based with other Rhône varieties Grenache, Syrah, and Counoise. These grapes work so well together because their different attributes complement each other: the red fruits and alcohol of Grenache, the body and earthiness of Mourvèdre, the acidity and tannin of Syrah, and, less commonly, the spice of Counoise. Venteux's 2014Farmhouse Cuvée is 50% Grenache, 30% Mourvèdre, and 20% Syrah ($38; ✪✪✪✪✪), a classic GSM blend that's floral, perfumed, herbal, and fruity; while Seven Oxen's 2014 Cassidy is 65% Grenache, 35% Mourvèdre, slightly funky, with liquorice, vanilla, coffee, and slightly jammy fruits ($42; ✪✪✪✪). Another good producer are Sextant; the 2014 Passage is a different make-up, 48% Syrah, 42% Grenache, and 10% Mourvèdre. It's more tannic, with blackberry aromas and pepper, cocoa, and tarragon ($45; ✪✪✪✪).
All this talk of the Rhône leads one to Syrah, and this was the first Rhône variety to be planted in Paso Robles, back in the 1980s by Eberle. However, the climate of Paso Robles is very much that of southern rather than northern Rhône, and I feel that it's too warm to produce complex, expressive wines from Syrah. One of the more expensive wineries in Paso is L'aventure. I tasted four of their wines, which are all Syrah based; I found them too monotone, without either the power or texture of Grenache or Mourvèdre. At the same time, these are wines which will appeal to the Napa Cabernet lover - big, fruity, and full-bodied.
zinfandel and petite sirah
Paso Robles is hot, although the influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean does cool the nights down (many of the best producers are located on the west side of Paso Robles, receiving more of a cooling influence from the ocean). Before the Rhône trend, inspired by Tablas Creek and others, took off in the late 1990s, Paso Robles was known for its cowboy-friendly Zinfandel. That hot climate gets Zinfandel fully ripe, leading to wines with lots of body and alcohol. ZInfandel's partner in crime is often Petite Sirah, which makes highly tannic, ripe wines. Petite Sirah is not for the faint hearted, but when made well the wines are rich, fruity, dark, and full-bodied. Sextant's wine-club only 2015 Petite Sirah is a fantastic example of what the grape can do: full of every black fruit imaginable, with high, gripping tannins, and coffee, chocolate aromas ($35; ✪✪✪✪✪). Venteux make an interesting take on the classic Rhône blend; the 2014 PMS is 60% Petite Sirah, 30% Mourvèdre, and 10% Syrah, another rich, ripe, jammy wine ($40; ✪✪✪✪✪). These are winter warmers for sure.
The variety and quality of the wines being made in Paso Robles make it an exciting region, and one to seek out before too many people are aware of its potential.