Monday, May 25, 2009

Paso Robles, Land of Medium Alcohol

My girlfriend and I went on an somewhat improvised trip to Paso Robles for the holiday weekend. Although we did a fair amount of careful selection prior to the trip, my expectations were not extremely high. My naive impression of Paso Robles is that the wines are generally big, alcoholic and jammy. As it turns out, that's generally not the case, and many of the best wines, ambituious pricing aside, have a surprising degree of elegance.

Now, there was some bias to our selection criteria. We avoided wineries that were heavily focused on Zinfandel and Syrah (or should I say Shiraz) since more often than not the names of the varietals are taken as license to produce exaggerated wines. We also focused on wineries west of Highway 101, particularly those in the Templeton Gap, which funnels cool coastal air inland and is especially windy in the afternoon. There is a noticeable temperature gradient between Templeton just south of Paso Robles and the north end of town. Winemaker Dave Caparone, whose vineyards are situated at the north end of the city and are ideally suited for producing heat-loving Italian varietals, commented that it's not uncommon for temperatures to vary by 15 degrees across the growing region.

Running the listed numbers on a non-trivial sample of wines purchased this weekend, the mean ABV was 14.41% and the median was 14.40%. My personal sweet spot is in the 13.5% to 14.5% range, and it seems we weren't overly seduced by the biggest wines we tasted. In general we tasted blind to the listed alcohol level, and "alcohol discrimination" based on the label was not a factor in our purchases, though I think we did engage in a bit of "alcohol activism" when it came to Caparone Winery's modestly ethanol-ated wines. (At $14 per bottle for hand-made classically proportioned wine, it's more of an insane value play than anything else.)

There will be more detailed notes coming soon, but several wineries are worth mentioning at this point. Tablas Creek is exceptional and one could easily mistake their top cuveés as French wines, from the balance and structure, to the earthiness, to the hints of Brettanomyces. Villa Creek also tops my list, in particular because they produce wines like La Boda in a decidedly more Old World style, while others like Badger and High Road are New World in a good way with their ripe Syrah and skillfully integrated creamy oak flavors. Windward Vineyards produces balanced, feminine Pinot Noir with distinctive, seductive earthy and mineral qualities. Caparone Winery, meanwhile, blows everyone else away on experience and value with its Nebbiolo and Aglianico, and really reminds me of the sort of small, unpretentious, honest producer Kermit Lynch would seek out in France.

Mourvedré is proving to be one of my favorite varietals on the Central Coast. It sets late and ripens late, meaning it's exceedingly hard for any winemaker to turn it into a fruit bomb. Its tendency towards gaminess, red fruit and earthy qualities makes it a sort of bizarro Pinot Noir (like Cabernet Franc is at times) with a hearty edginess. Perhaps by itself it's a bit rustic, but blends heavy in Mourvedré like Tablas Creek's Esprit de Beaucastel and Villa Creek's La Boda were the most aromatically complex, layered and well-proportioned wines we tasted. The Syrah-based blends, meanwhile, were most often heavy, thick and ungainly. Italian varietals were also quite successful in the warmer areas, though we tasted less of these than the seemingly ubiquitous Rhone varietals. I generally found the Bordeaux varietals like Merlot and Cabernet to be simple and somewhat dull in their monolithic expression of red fruit.

More to come soon . . . .


maulmatt! said...

i was thinking about getting to tablas creek during my trip in june... this might have sold me on it.

one primarily zin producer i recently had the pleasure to taste through that i would recommend is peachy canyon, nice elegant style zins and not too jammy or alcoholic at all.

what do you think about pinot in paso robles? someone in my CSW class was really talking down paso pinots generalizing about the area being too warm etc. i've never had one but i can't see why the cooler west side closer to the coast couldn't produce good pinot. i've read about some good ones, i was thinking that person didn't know what they were talking about...

CabFrancoPhile said...


The only Pinots I tried were at Windward and one at Martin & Weyrich (sourced from York Mountain on the west side). Wasn't a fan of the latter, but Windward's were excellent. Windward uses 'older' clones like Pommard and several others from the central coast, not the currently popular Dijon clones (667, 777, 115, etc.). This is partly speculation on my part, but probably these clones are better suited for slightly warmer areas. The Templeton Gap does receive moderating ocean influence, yet it is not as extreme as Santa Barbara County. But the Santa Barbara Pinots tend to be darker, bigger and jammier. Most vintners in Santa Barbara grow Dijon clones. In comparison, Windward's wines are more feminine and earthier and actually have ABV closer to 14% than 15%. Maybe most of Paso is bad for Pinot, but it can be done well if the producer has the right location and makes the appropriate choices, it seems.

CabFrancoPhile said...

One more comment on Paso Pinot. There's good Pinot Noir produced just to the south in Arroyo Grande, Edna Valley and more generally in the San Luis Obispo area. So it's not too much of a reach to suggest that a region of Paso with very direct ocean influence could also be a good area for Pinot. But it's probably true that most parts of Paso are not prime territory for varietals that like cooler weather.

maulmatt! said...

thanks for the info. i'll have to check out windward sometime. i've also read about adeilade having good pinots in that area.

i guess that is the problem with paso not having any sub AVA's within it, it is easy to over-generalize.