By Christopher Matthews
Paso Robles, located halfway between San Francisco and LA along California’s Central Coast, is a happening place…right now!
This traditional cattle ranch and horse country is the Golden State’s largest and fastest growing wine district, with over 200 wineries (from 35 a decade ago). And Paso continues to attract top winemaking talent, drawn by the consistently long growing season, diverse geology, varied microclimates and stunning topography. It also has an expanding — but still laid back — local culinary and wine tourism scene, centered in the town itself, making it a fun, relaxed place to visit. Call it the Un-Napa. And speaking of local eats, the hottest table in town is Thomas Hill Organic Market Bistro; be sure to book in advance.
Paso’s primary color is red. Big Red. As in intense Cabs, big, jammy Zins, and rustic Rhone-inspired, Bordeaux and proprietary “Paso” blends. Around 80% of Paso’s vineyards are covered with red varieties, led by Cabernet Sauvignon (38%), Merlot (15%), Syrah (10%) and Paso’s heritage grape, Zinfandel (9%), but with many other Spanish, Italian and Rhone red varieties on the rise, like Mourvèdre.
So, it’s easy to understand why Paso’s expressive whites are overshadowed, and often overlooked. In my book, this is a serious mistake.
During a recent trip to Paso Robles — in the middle of harvest — my wife and did a good bit of tasting. For me, the quality and vivacity of the local whites stood out, from “mountain-grown” Chardonnay, the most planted white variety, to white Rhone blends and varietals, to eclectic, “crazy” blends.
Just west of Paso, on the steep and rolling slopes of the Santa Lucia Range, is Adelaida Cellars. From limestone-laced hillside vineyards, winemaker Terry Culton crafts vibrant, elegant wines, including a terrific Chardonnay from 38 year-old vines. Pale gold, with white flower, gala apple and pear notes, the 2010 HMR Vineyard Chardonnay is bright and crisp, finishing long with hints of spice and sea shell. A compelling California Chardonnay, without oaky bombast. Bring on some grilled seafood! ($40)
We’re big fans of Tablas Creek (see my previous post), and we had the chance to dine with founder Robert Haas while in Paso. In addition to his knockout 2003 Esprit de Beaucastel Rouge (long sold out), he brought along his recently released mid-range white, the 2010 Patelin de Tablas Blanc, a Rhone-inspired blend of 50% Grenache Blanc, 33% Viognier, 10% Roussanne and 7% Marsanne (from both estate and locally purchased fruit). Lively and floral, sporting spicy pear and great balance, it’s versatile dinner companion, whether paired with a vegetable tart or herb-roasted chicken. ($20)
Another fun Paso white blend is the 2010 Viña Robles White4, a wine we’ve highlighted before, albeit the previous vintage. Made with more or less equal parts Viognier, Verdelho (a Portuguese grape), Sauvignon Blanc and Vermentino, it has an intensely floral and stone-fruit nose, followed by bright tropical fruit on a full yet zesty palate. Quite a mouthful for $16. Pair it with some spicy Thai or Chinese dishes. Or grilled fish tacos.
Some other noteworthy blancos from our Paso experience:
Lone Madrone 2009 La Mezcla (57% Grenache Blanc, 43% Albariño) – appley and citrus aromas, ripe melon and Fuji apple on a balanced palate, with some mineral hints on a clean, lengthy finish. ($22)
Cass 2010 Roussanne– a vibrant varietal wine, floral with stone fruit and melon and a slight almandine finish. ($22)
Treana 2009 White, Central Coast – rich and round, this 50-50 Viognier and Marsanne blend has aromas of tropical fruit and nutmeg. Mostly barrel-fermented, there’s baking spice on the palate and a core of stone fruit. Big yet balanced, it’s a pleaser for fans of Cali Chardonnay, delivering more character ($23).
Chronic Cellars 2010 Stone Fox– as the name indicates, a sexy white Rhone-blend (Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne), with gorgeous acacia and stone fruit aromas, on a full, dry nectarine and exotic fruit-laced palate. ($20.00)