The Diversity of Paso Wines

The incarnation of wines from the Paso Robles region has been, to say the least, captivating to watch.  Some of us remember, decades ago, listening to someone speak of very good zinfandel, later finding just that along with some cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and a hint of pinot noir.  Pioneer wineries such as Adelaida Cellars, Justin and Tobin James still produce quality zinfandel, but have evolved with the newcomers toward the exploration of Rhone, Bordeaux and Spanish blends, making the Paso Robles wine profile as diverse as any region in the state.

Diversity was evident as we perused the Paso Robles Wine Country Grand Tasting event aboard the yacht, “Majestic”, docked in the Newport Beach harbor. Separated by varietals and blends, the wines were connected through quality.

The Bordeaux’

It is somewhat odd than a region gaining notoriety for producing varietals originating from southern France can comfortably create blends similar to Bordeaux in the northwest.  However, Bon Niche Cellars, located in warmer San Miguel, northeast of town, is a new boutique winery producing 1,200 cases including traditional Bordeaux blends, single varietal and a few unique releases.  Appropriately, we began with the Bon Niche Cellars  “L’Entrée” 2009 (The Entry-$45),a very fruit forward, single varietal Malbec with a nice bouquet.  With the grape’s recent prominence in the regions of South America, we can’t overlook that Malbec’s origins lie among the famous Bordeaux varietals.

Bon Niche Cellars “Fenetres” 2009

Bon Niche Cellars “l’Entree” 2009

The Bon Niche Cellars “Chemin’ 2009 (Path-$50) is a traditional left-bank Bordeaux blend of cabernet sauvignon (40%), malbec (25%), petit verdot (20%), merlot (10%) and cabernet franc (5%), but we tasted the Bon Niche Cellars “Voyage” 2009 ($40) that pairs a Rhone grape, syrah with cabernet sauvignon and enough merlot to enhance the bouquet and lengthen the finish.

Single varietal petit verdot, not commonly found, always gets my upmost attention.  If one can handle the tannins, releases like the Bon Niche Cellars  “Fenetres” Petit Verdot 2009 (“Windows”-$35) deliver rich, creamy texture and layered flavors.  A very nice wine; imagine it after a few hours of decanting because at some point, all windows need to be opened.

Two single-varietal releases captured my interest, both from Le Vigne Winery, also located in the northeast quadrant.    The Le Vigne di Domenico Cabernet Franc 2006 ($35) and the Le Vigne di Domenico Tannat 2008 ($39)both articulated rich, ripened berry and plum flavors that were upfront from beginning to finish.  Tannat, actually from southwest France, near the Pyrenees’, is often blended with cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc that soften its strong tannins and welcome the deep color and abundant flavors. Le Vigne demonstrated their range by also pouring “Ame de la Vigne”, one of the best Rhone blends of the day.

2006 Le Vigne Cabernet Franc


With strong hints of spice on the nose, the Le Vigne di Domenici “Ames de la Vine” 2007 ($39) is an unusual southern Rhone blend that features syrah and petite sirah with hints of the usually dominant Grenache and mourvedre. The rich flavors are more reminiscent of a creamy pie rather than fresh berries. Experimentation with Rhone blends has led to strange bedfellows like zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon merging with traditional grapes. Among the best are those from Tablas Creek Vineyards, the patriarch of Rhone Valley wines in this region.

A mid-eighties partnership between the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel and US importer Robert Haas led to the purchase of the 120-acre vineyards, chosen as similar terrior to the Chateaunef –du-Pape, producer of arguably the best southern Rhone wines.  Today, wines from Tablas Creek Vineyards are well rated and annually designated on many top lists.  With much anticipation of tasting the Tablas Creek Vineyard “Espirit de Beaucastel” 2009 ($55), their flagship award-winning wine, this pouring also featured the Tablas Creek Vineyard “Cotes de Tablas” 2009 ($30), a Grenache dominant blend, awarded 93 pts. by Wine Spectator magazine.  The “Cotes de Tablas” begins with a very fruity bouquet followed by wonderfully balanced flavors with a hint of cinnamon on the finish. The mourverdre based “Espirit de Beaucastel” is a more earthy, spice-driven wine, using grenache and syrah to offer full fruit flavors throughout.

Not to be out done by the reds, Tablas Creek Vineyards releases several white Rhone blends led by another award winner, the Tablas Creek Vineyards “Espirit de Beaucastel” Blanc ($40), a roussane dominant blend with support from Grenache blanc and picpoul blanc, a rare Rhone grape that adds a citric acidity.  In total Tablas Creek produces over 15 single varietal and blended wines, almost all rated above 90 pts and accessible, making it a priority while exploring the nectar of our central coast Rhone Rangers.

Among many fine new wineries present, my personal take-away was Terry Hoage Vineyards, an organically farmed Westside vineyard where Hoage and his wife Jennifer undertake the Rhone-making duties, citing a mentor that caught my attention.  In earlier years, Justin Smith, who arguably produces this nations top Rhone blends at nearby Saxum Vineyards, produced some wines for Terry a decade ago, conveying a minimalist approach to winemaking that the Hoage’s have adopted.

2010 Terry Hoage Vineyards “The Gap” Cuvee Blanc

A very balanced white blend, the 2010 Terry Hoage Vineyards “The Gap” ($38) uses over one-third picpoul blanc to create a tropical “tartness” combined with floral and orchard fruit essence by Grenache blanc and roussanne to create multiple flavors, foreshadowing their profile.   The full-bodied 2009 Terry Hoage “The Hedge” Syrah ($50), a single-varietal northern Rhone style release exhibited smoky, earthy aromas and flavors with hints of chocolate on a long finish, clearly one of the best syrah I have experienced this year.  Similar kudos go to the 2009 Terry Hoage “46” ($50), a syrah-grenache split, scoring a “triple-double” in flavor, texture and balance.

2009 Terry Hoage “The Hedge” Syrah

Partial to Grenache, the 2009 Terry Hoage “The Pick” Grenache Cuvee’ ($50) delivered on all fronts with flavors ranging from white pepper to ripened berries to chocolate on the finish.  Terry Hoage Vineyards was a very pleasant discovery and provides an opportunity to access some top tier Rhone blends, not available from others such as Saxum.

In yet another discovery at the Newport Beach event, Calcareous Vineyard, located on Peachy Canyon Road on the Westside, was pouring 2008 Calcareous Vineyard “Tres Violet” ($38), a syrah-based “GSM” blend, arguably the best of the showcase.  The initial perfumed aromas preview very fruit forward  “violets” with a nice, lingering texture.  Likewise the 2008 Calcareous Vineyard Syrah ($34)exudes very nice floral qualities combining with earthy tones and rich vanilla, to create a full-bodied wine with soft flavor

Calcareous Vineyards “Tres Violet” 2008


 The international trend continues with the inclusion of Spanish and Portuguese blends, both surging in production and popularity worldwide in the past decade as well as blends, unique among themselves and to the region.

Sourcing her grapes from vineyards throughout the central coast and Napa valley, Dorothy Schuler, winemaker and co-owner of Bodegas Paso Robles specializes in varietals from Spain and Portugal to create some wonderful single and specialty blended wines utilizing the likes of tempranillo, graciano and bastardo from Spain and touriga and tinta cao from Portugal.  Beginning with a white blend boasting 40% malvasia Bianca, one would anticipate the sweetness of a dessert wine.  Contrary to the assumption that Grenache blanc would only heighten the sweetness, it actually enhances the floral, perfume bouquet in the 2009 Bodegas Paso Robles “Donna Blanca” ($18), providing enough crisp dryness to effectively balance the wine.

Next up was the wonderfully complex 2007 Bodegas Paso Robles “Viv Tu” Tempranillo ($26) from the locally renowned French Camp Vineyard.  A pleasantly unusual floral and spice hint in the bouquet and palate followed by anise and black cherry on the finish best defines this good value.

We also compared 2007 and 2008 vintages of their “Vaca Negra”, very different blends with different varietals tied together with an earthy softness.  The 2007 Bodegas Paso Robles “Vaca Negra” ($26) equally combines the spice of tempranillo with the fruitiness of Mouvedre for well-balanced wine with rich texture.  While Mourvedre sealed it’s reputation in southern France, it and Grenache originated in Spain where they are known as Monastrall and Granacha respectively.  The recently released 2008 Bodegas Paso Robles “Vaca Negra” ($26) adds 21% Grenache to the blend creating a soft, rich “fruit bomb”

Unavailable at the tasting, I am intrigued by the 2003 Bodegas Paso Robles “Iberia” ($44), a blend of Spanish and Portuguese grapes pairing tempranillo with rare graciano, touriga and tinta cao, sourced from the Napa Valley. The rioja region in northeast Spain gave us our first introductions to the tempranillo grape and the touriga and tinto cao, used in the world’s great ports, are, as consumers will soon be aware, part of an evolution in new, non-port single varietal and blended wines from Portugal.

Another interesting wine is the 2007 Bodegas Paso Robles “Pimenteiro” ($32), based from the old world port grape, bastardo, known for full fruit flavors and spice, from vineyards in Tres Pinos, south of Hollister in San Benito County.  We would all be hard pressed to find another “bastardo” wine in California, at least in the short-term.


Three wineries with fairly eclectic profiles, a local icon, a seasoned veteran and a newcomer, all with a diverse palate, are worthy of mention here. Since 1979, Eberle Winery, a staple among eastside Paso wineries, has produces the best cabernet sauvignon in the entire region.  The 2007 Eberle Winery Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($34)maintains that status receiving a gold medal from the prestigious San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and high recommendations from many periodicals.  Very integrated flavors currants, black

2007 Eberle Cabernet Sauvignon

cherry and mocha throughout.

Before the Cabernet Sauvignon came a taste of the 2010 Eberle Winery Viognier Mill Road Vineyard ($23), a very nice summer wine with beautifully soft integrated flavor and loads of butterscotch and, of course, the 2008 Eberle Winery Zinfandel, Steinbeck and Wine-Bush Vineyards ($26), expressing well-balanced, complex flavors indicative of fine Zinfandel from this area that are drinking well now. Aside from a myriad of fine wines, the winery cave tour is also recommended.

Located in the southeast quadrant near Templeton, Victor Hugo Winery, producing about 5,000 cases annually, has created a varied assortment of wines for over a decade including the 2008 Victor Hugo Estate Petite Sirah ($22), expressing nice pepper, pungent herb aromas and soft, concentrated flavors that linger.  Also recommended is the 2009 Victor Hugo Estate “Opulence” ($28) an unusual cabernet franc dominant Bordeaux blend with diminishing contributions from cabernet sauvignon, petite verdot, malbec and merlot. They definitely created very good, soft-layered flavors that would pair well with hearty meats and pasta.

Sure, “Vines on the MaryCrest” is a catchy name for a new Paso winery, but quality is always subjects to proof.  Born from passion and respect for the land, winemaker Victor Abascal and wife Jennifer’s wines have received accolades from their early vintages.   The 2007 Vines on the MaryCrest “Round Midnight” ($25) caught my attention because it is a syrah-dominant Rhone blends as well as the fact that it bears the name of a favorite jazz classic. Highly spiced bouquet and flavors make this wine a suitable pair with spicy meats.

Receiving multiple awards from the San Francisco Chronicle and other respected wine competitions, the 2009 Vines on the MaryCrest “My Generation” ($27), a unique blend of zinfandel (48%), syrah (29%), mourvedre (12%) and petite sirah (12%), introducing 55-year old zinfandel vines to the Rhone world resulting in highly concentrated, balanced fruit flavors. Giving homage to Victor’s experience as a technical engineer in the music industry, the 2010 Vines on the MaryCrest “Summertime” Rose’, another release bearing the name of a classic tune, is another atypical blend of Grenache, mourvedre, tempranillo and zinfandel, reminding us that rose’ can be complex and layered.

It is difficult to keep up with the sheer number of new wineries that are emerging in the Paso Robles region.  Events like the Paso Robles Wine Country  Grand Tasting in Newport Beach intend to expose new and established wineries to the world.  When many of us predicted tremendous wine growth in the region, we couldn’t imagine the diversity of the terrior and the talent that would invest in it.  The year 2012 is time to branch out from our traditional, comfortable favorites and explore the depths and diversity and a region that continues to expand in size and stature.

About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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