Previous month:
May 2007
Next month:
July 2007

Rhone Rangers in Seattle... and Paso Robles

Rrstar I'm making plans to head up to Seattle in a couple of weeks to go to the Pacific Northwest tasting of the Rhone Rangers organization.  We've been involved (as a winery) for several years, back from when we were the only winery pouring a Rose at the San Francisco grand tasting in 1999.  For the last four years, I've served on the organization's board, and have watched it grow from a regional group dominated by North Coast wineries into a truly national (well, West Coastal, at least) organization, with the annual trade and consumer tasting in San Francisco as well as trade-only tastings in Los Angeles and Seattle.

Even more exciting, we recently started a Paso Robles chapter of the Rhone Rangers.  This is just the second regional chapter in the group's history, and a recognition of the growing role that Paso Robles is playing in the California Rhone movement.  It's also an important recognition of how important Rhones wines are to Paso Robles wineries; there are more wineries here producing a Syrah than any other varietal... even more than Zinfandel, the traditional "heritage grape" of the area, or Cabernet, which is the most widely planted:


If you haven't done this recently, and are interested in statistics like I am, it's worth playing with the useful "Wine Directory" tool on the Web site of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance that allows you to look at all the different varietals produced by the 120+ members of the wine alliance. 

VarietalspiechartThe principal varieties (as measured by the numbers of wineries producing the wine) paints a significantly different picture than looking at planted acreage (displayed to the right, courtesy of the PRWCA's "Varietals Grown" page).  Much of the planted acreage of Bordeaux varietals (particularly Cabernet Sauvignon) is shipped out of the county to make California appellation wines.  Most of the Rhone varietals stay here, and are made into boutique wines that bear the Paso Robles appellation.

I expect this trend to continue, as some of the lesser-known Rhone varietals (like Mourvedre, Grenache, Roussanne, and Grenache Blanc) make into wider circulation.  Come back to Paso Robles in 10 years, and I think that the pie chart to the right will look quite different!

Beaucastel Tasting at Tablas Creek

This past Sunday, we managed to put on a Tablas Creek and Beaucastel tasting that, I felt, balanced the educational aspect, the entertainment, and the degree of participation into something that clicked.  It was intended for (and marketed to) our wine club, but open to all.

When he was over here in February, we broached the idea of a joint Tablas Creek and Beaucastel tasting with Francois Perrin.  He thought it was a great idea, and generously agreed to send over 6 different Beaucastel wines, three whites and three reds.  We also pulled three different whites and three different reds from our own stocks and library, and tasted the wines in two flights: whites first, then reds.  The menu, and some brief notes:

  • Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc 2004: Young and relatively tight, with Roussanne aromas of honey and spice, and mineral present.  But, we all felt that this would be much better in a few years as it fleshed out.
  • Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc Roussanne "Vieilles Vignes" 2002: Just delicious.  My favorite white of the day.  Lush yet light on its feet, and really seamless.
  • Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc Roussanne "Vieilles Vignes" 1986: A treat for everyone.  The weight of this wine had dropped off with time, leaving a vibrant expression of terroir: mineral and spice highlighted by bright acids.  Some sense of age, but no darkening of color, and remarkably lively.
  • Tablas Creek Vineyard Paso Robles Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc 2005: Interesting after the Beaucastels.  More spiky and assertive; more floral, brighter acids, and very lush.  Still quite primary, but with terrific depth.  A really bright future ahead for it.
  • Tablas Creek Vineyard Paso Robles Roussanne 2002: Very Roussanne in character, with more noticeable new oak than the other Tablas wines.  Slightly cedary.  Still quite young, with room to grow into its considerable structure.
  • Tablas Creek Vineyard Paso Robles Clos Blanc 2000: Very interesting, with the Viognier component showing, but clearly on the same continuum as the older Beaucastels.  The wine, which was fat and relatively low in acid in its youth, appears to be picking up acidity and vibrancy.  Fascinating.

And flight 2:

  • Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape 2001: Gorgeous.  Lots of Mourvedre meat and spice, but still very clean flavors.  Relatively tight when poured, but had really fleshed out by the end of the event.
  • Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf du Pape 1990: Also gorgeous.  Smelled notably older than the 2001 (which it was) with leather and truffles, but in the mouth was still very youthful.  Nice acids, firm tannins, lots of fruit and earth.
  • Tablas Creek Vineyard Paso Robles Esprit de Beaucastel 2005: An interesting comparison, since we used more Grenache (26%) than ever before for an Esprit.  Bottled 3 weeks ago.  Very primary, very fat and lush, with lots of fruit and mineral.  Explosive, even recently bottled.  It will clearly get more complex over time as it loses baby fat.
  • Tablas Creek Vineyard Paso Robles Reserve Cuvee 1999: From a very structured vintage.  Has softened in recent years to show game and spice flavors, good acids, and surprising depth.  Still has a few years to go.

And finally, a pair of wines from the same vintage served unidentified:

The most remarkable conclusion that we found was how much of a family resemblance there was among the wines, whether made here in Paso Robles or in Chateauneuf du Pape.  Even after tasting examples from both places, fully half the room guessed wrongly in the challenge to identify which 2004 came from which estate.

The Tablas Creek Web site maintains an up-to-date list our upcoming events.

A beautiful review of the 2006 Rosé

Wine_enthusiast_rose_reviewSome press writeups are so nice you've got to share them.  In the July 2007 edition of the Wine Enthusiast, our 2006 Rosé received its first review of the year.  Steve Heimoff gave the wine 90 points, and wrote "Just delicious, a wine you can't stop drinking. The cherry-berry and spice flavors are full-bodied and dry, while the mouthfeel is just so pretty, all silk and crisp acidity. Drink this Mourvèdre, Grenache and Counoise blend soon for its youthful beauty. It will pair well with sushi, sausages, tapas, roast chicken and other similar savory, straightforward flavors."

We've been lucky to receive lots of good press recently.  I don't typically post it here, but it can always be found on our "Tablas Creek In The News" section of our Web site.

Cool climate? Hot Climate? Paso Robles is both.

There is an ongoing debate, being waged in the wine press and trade, as to the benefits of cool-climate viticulture.  The evidence tends to support that wine grapes tend to do best at the coolest limit of their range, perhaps because there, the grapes stay on the vine longer than in warmer climes.  The longer a grape cluster stays connected to its roots, the more character it will be able to develop.  At the same time, in a cooler climate grapes will achieve physiological ripeness more gradually, with lower sugar levels (and lower alcohols) the result.

Paso Robles has aspects of climate that are hot...                          and cold

In France, the examples of grapes achieving the summit of their complexity at the coldest edge of their range is well established.  Chardonnay from Burgundy (a cooler climate) is considered better than that from the Languedoc (a warmer climate).  Syrah from Hermitage (at the very Northern limit of the Rhone Valley) is considered better than Syrah from Chateauneuf du Pape (in the Southern Rhone).  Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, in the Loire, is generally considered finer than that from Bordeaux, which is roughly 300 miles to the southwest.

The example has been broadly applied to California, which was for a long time considered unfit for earlier ripening varieties like Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and (even) Pinot Noir.  It's only relatively recently that maverick growers have been proving that it's possible to find the right climate to grow all of these grapes well in California.

Our winemaker Neil Collins on a chilly fall morning

Paso Robles is generally considered a hot climate, by California standards (certainly by California coastal standards).  And, the measurement of degree days, which measure the number of days (or hours) over a minimum temperature lends support to this analysis.  It is indisputable that during the heat of the day in summertime, Paso Robles is hot.  100 degrees is not uncommon.  And yet, these same nights are cold... colder than in most other regions.  Compared to Chateauneuf du Pape, our summer days are hotter (by about 10 degrees on average).  Yet our nights are colder by 15 degrees on average.  You would assume that this would lead most statistical measurements to conclude that our climate was cooler than that of Chateauneuf.  You would be wrong.  Degree days factor in the number of degrees and the number of hours that temperature surpasses an arbitrary value.  How much the temperature drops below that value is not taken into account.

The sun allows us to use solar energy to provide much of the winery's power needs

As you might expect, the grapevines at Tablas Creek ripen more gradually than those at Beaucastel.  Yes, the sugar levels at Tablas (driven by the extra sun and daytime heat) accumulate more quickly than they do at Beaucastel.  Yet, the acids at Tablas Creek, preserved by the nighttime cold, remain high significantly longer than in Chateauneuf, and the grapes achieve physiological maturity (shown by seeds and stems turning brown, or lignifying) on average about two weeks later in Paso Robles than in Chateauneuf du Pape.

Even better, the pre-fall-rain growing season in Paso Robles is significantly longer than that of anywhere in France.  So, the cold nights and lengthened ripening cycle mean you can do the earlier-ripening varieties credibly here.  And, if you want to grow a late ripener like Mourvedre, Cabernet, or Zinfandel, no problem.  Just wait.  In our example, we expected that the Paso Robles climate would allow us to focus on our southern Rhone varieties, particularly Mourvedre, Grenache, and Roussanne.  What we didn't expect was that the cooler nights would allow grapes like Syrah and Viognier to thrive as well.  We never expected to make a single-varietal Syrah, let alone something even earlier-ripening like our Antithesis Chardonnay.  And, if we need to wait until November to get ripe Mourvedre, we can.  It's a tremendous luxury.

So, the next time you hear a discussion about a cool-climate wine, or cool-climate region, remember to ask how they measure this.  By speed of ripening, most of coastal California is cooler than most of France.