There’s one thing you need to know about Paso Robles wine country.
It can get hot.
And I’m not talking about the Summertime temperatures, or even the Indian-Summertime temperatures, which had busted through the 100F mark not too long before my visit to Paso in October.
No, I’m talking about the wines.
After tasting through a small score of the vino on offer from several of Paso’s wine producers, the most prominent takeaway was that there were so many wines that were made from very, very ripe fruit – wines that generally exceeded 14% abv in the whites and regularly hit over 15% abv in the reds.
That is not an inevitable conclusion for Paso Robles wine. And I know this because it wasn’t always the case.
During my Paso visit, I dined at the home of Gary and Marcy Eberle, who own Eberle Winery in Paso. Over the course of our meal (also attended by representatives of several other Paso producers), Gary opened a few bottles of Eberle Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve from the early 1980s. Those wines were a far cry from being dead – in fact, they were vibrant, with juicy red fruits underpinning aromas of dried herbs. In other words, those wines were refined, food-friendly, and eminently drinkable. The abv? About 13%…
So… what happened in the thirty years since Eberle harvested those Cabernet grapes? Why are Paso wines these days so… well, so damn hot? Is it the inevitable conclusion of having to pick grapes at higher ripeness in order to preserve and emphasize the ripe fruit characteristics of the region?
A member of my traveling group (Mike Dunne, who judged with me at the Lake County Wine Competition this year and with whom I was lucky enough to have as my traveling companion earlier this year in South America) was keen enough to pose this question directly to some of the winemakers in Paso. Towards the end of our trip, we had a Q&A / tasting session at the gorgeous Niner Wine Estates, with a panel of winemakers that included Nick de Luca (of Vina Robles), Neil Collins (Lone Madrone), newcomer Blake Kuhn (Clayhouse Wines), Amanda Cramer (Niner), Kevin Jussila (Kukkula) and Jason Diefenderfer (Hope Family Wines).
Bristol, England native Neil Collins (also Winemaker and Vineyard Manager at Tablas Creek) was quick to respond to Mike’s question – and his answer was as direct and refreshing as his wines:
“I fundamentally disagree [that Paso grapes need to be picked at high ripeness],” he said. “You only need to pick at high ripeness if you’re chasing high scores in the press.”
I’m not sue all of the panelists agreed with Neil (some of the wines we tasted during the Q&A were certainly on the ripe, high-abv side of the spectrum), but I know I sure as hell agreed with him.
I’m not saying that all high abv wines are unbalanced, nor am I saying that all Paso wines are too high in alcohol; in fact, I tasted several wines from Paso producers that showed beautifully – and exhibited a high degree of finesse despite being from grapes picked at high degrees of brix! But I also had my fill of Paso wines that traded too much finesse for too much fruitiness.
What’s clear is that Paso is more-than-capable of making great wine – actually, it’s capable of making elegant, epic, age-worthy wines. But chasing after ultra-ripe flavors in favor of balance is probably not going to consistently get them to that happy tasting place.
Below are a few recommendations from that Q&A session at Niner of Paso wines that I thought really struck the right balance between ripe fruit and… well, and balance:
2010 Vina Robles White 4 (Paso Robles)
This wine makes a great case for blends in Paso, and it’s a bargain of a tropical mouth party. Verdelho (aged in stainless tell), Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Vermentino (all aged in neutral oak) are included, and while these type of “kitchen sink” blends normally taste disjointed and somehow less-than-the-sum-of-their-parts, White 4 strikes a great balance – the four elements come together here like the Rat Pack in Vegas. No malolactic fermentation took place, but there was some lees-stirring action which gives the wine a little bit of body to balance all of the acid and jumping citrus and tropical fruits, and a tiny bit of spice for good measure – and the 14.2% abv is hardly noticeable. Try this if you fine yourself bored with CA white wine.
2009 Lone Madrone La Mezcla (Paso Robles)
Balance is the name of the game in this Grenache Blanc / Albarino blend. There’s acid to spare here, and I’d run out of room for food pairing possibilities if I listed them, but I think it’s telling that we’ve got a Paso wine here that’s clocking in at 12.6% abv despite the majority of the blend being Grenache Blanc which can get pretty hefty pretty quickly. In other words, they went with acid balance instead of ripe fruit flavors, and the wine benefits immensely from that decision, as the minerality, tropical fruit and hints of lime zest are prevalent and inviting. While it’s certainly not a standoffish wine, I fond myself generally impressed by the elegance of the package and convinced that it could even benefit from a couple of years in the bottle. Oh – and I changed my mind about the food pairing, it wants scallop ceviche!
2007 Niner Wine Estates “Twisted Spur (Paso Robles)”
Ok, this one isn’t too big, either (14.1% abv) but it’s also probably one best consumed on the younger side, because it’s tasting great right now and is just… well, it’s just so damn fun. Actually, it’s kind of like a rodeo: a little woody, a little leathery, a little dusty… that kind of fun. Mostly Merlot with helpings of Cabernet Franc, Syrah and a pinch (2%) of Petit Verdot, the wine is all ripe red fruits, plums and blue flowers – and they are all on the vibrant side. I dug the fact that there were also some little bits of dried herbs and wood spices in the aroma – a great option to use to turn your friends onto Paso wine.