Mar 16 2009

Don’t Pass Over Paso Robles

by Brett Ashley McKenzie

At the Paso Robles Grand Tasting on Tuesday, March 10, I stood at the Adelaida Cellars table with a glass of 2006 HMR Estate Pinot Noir in one hand and a giant, chalky rock in the other. The rock covered my hand in a fine white dust, which remained on my skin and clothes long after we’d moved on to another table. “”Limestone and chalk,” the Scots-English winemaker repeated for a second time, “With an aquifer underneathe.”

I knew that the exceptional Pinot (which was deceptively light-colored yet powerfully tannic) had come from the rocky western region of Paso Robles, but to reconcile that this Pinot, with its notes of licorice, blackberry and anise, had grown in so harsh a soil was difficult. Nonetheless, as we moved on and sampled more offerings from the western part of Paso Robles, it became evident that winemakers in Paso are doing incredible things with soil resembling that of the Planet Tatooine in Star Wars.

Located exactly halfway between L.A. and San Francisco in San Luis Obispo County, Paso Robles isn’t Napa, and it isn’t Santa Barbara (and the winemakers prefer it that way). Paso is nestled into the foothills of the Santa Lucia Coastal Mountain Range, where in the summer, more than 40 degrees separate the daily highs and lows (93 degrees Fahrenheit during the day in August, 52 degrees Fahrenheit during August nights). Winemakers attribute their success to this wild variation in temperature, as too much of either hot or cold would dramatically alter the grapes for the worse.

Perhaps it is the extreme contrast of climate that enabled winemakers to experiment with some of the unique blends we encountered. Malbec and Mouvedre, Grenache and Tempranillo, and splashes of Cab Franc, Sangiovese and even Tannat found their way into the wines. At the Clayhouse Wines table, we encountered a new grape in the fruity 2007 Adobe White: the “Princess” grape, a white table grape with a distinctly muscat flavor to it.

The contrast between Cabernets grown in the east and Cabs grown in the west were stunning, and could be chalked up to soil variation or slightly different climate (vineyards shaded by the hills vs. vineyards exposed to the elements). One eastern Cab that we sampled knocked us over with green bell pepper, while a western Cab pleasantly surprised us with its big fruit and hint of pepper (likely lent from the 15% Malbec in the blend).

Because it is lesser known that its northern and southern rival regions, Paso Robles wines offer incredible value and variety, with everything from light, summery Viogniers to Cab/Syrah blends available for under $25. At Just Grapes, we love the peppery Francis Bewyn Zin, Norman’s “The Monster” Zin, and the Schoolhouse Pinot Noir from Adelaida.

What two soil and climate factors make Paso so unique for winemaking?

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