The Paso Robles American Viticultural Appellation (AVA) was established in 1983 with 17 wineries on 5,000 acres (7.8 square miles, about the size of the City of Coronado in San Diego County). Today, more than 200 wineries call the AVA home and vineyards have expanded eight-fold, covering some 40,000 acres (62.5 square miles, similar in size to the cities of Irvine and Stockton).
During the annual SommCon, a major conference for sommelier-level education and training in the wine industry, held recently in San Diego, Joseph Spellman, Master Sommelier and winery sommelier for Justin Vineyards and Winery, led an exploration into “The New Classics of Paso Robles,” from 11 different AVAs.
Spellman said Paso Robles is the most diverse and largest wine region in California, with 40 varieties planted on 30 distinct soil types and a wide range of microclimates impacting grape growing in the hills, valleys and flat lands of the AVA.
The varieties planted: Cabernet Sauvignon, 39 percent; other red, 16 percent; Merlot, 14 percent; Syrah, 9 percent; Zinfandel, 8 percent; Chardonnay, 5 percent; other white, 5 percent (this includes Roussanne and Viognier, which are proving to do well in the region); and Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, 2 percent each
Historically, Paso Robles wine country was viewed as having two distinct wine sub-regions, split by Highway 101: east (higher temperatures, creating ultra-ripe grapes that guaranteed high alcohol content, with Rhone and other warmer weather varietals) and west (closer to the Pacific Ocean, more rain and cooler microclimates, Bordeaux varietals).
In 2007, an independent AVA committee proposed creating 11 subdistricts. In 2014, all were approved. Spellman touted the differences in soils, temperatures, topography, weather, which directions the slopes faced for best exposure to the sun and other factors. In looking at the data, a case could be made for grouping the new subdistricts geographically, not exactly east-west, but close, based on annual rainfall, daily temperature fluctuations, which can be significant, and the climate category.
Climate categories were developed at University California at Davis to classify wine growing regions based on heat summation, or degree days, above the minimum sunshine needed each year to ripen grapes to make wine (50 degrees). Called The Winkler Scale (after A.J. Winkler, one of the authors), the scale ranges from Ia to V.
Examples: Ia – Rio Negro, Argentina, 1194 degree days, and Champagne, 1805; 1b – Burgundy, 2196, and Willamette Valley, Oregon, 2273; II – Bordeaux, 2961; III – Rhone, 3027, and Sonoma, 3189; IV – Napa, 3601; and V – Lodi, 4005 and Jerez, Spain, 4614.
The Paso Robles II climates are mostly west of Highway 101 or in the middle of the AVA: El Pomar; Willow Creek (just a 20-degree range from high temperature to low during the day); Santa Margarita Ranch; and Templeton Gap (where Zinfandel grapes were planted more than 100 years ago). Region II-III: Adelaida. Region III: Creston; San Miguel; Estrella. Region III-IV: Geneseo; San Juan Creek. Region IV: Paso Robles Highlands (on the far east side, with a 50-degree daily temperature fluctuation).
The Paso Robles winemakers provided a range of styles and varietal combinations for the SommCon tasting, including some creative combinations, which the region is known for to improve marketing for varietals that don’t fly off the shelves.
(One of the winemakers in attendance noted the challenge: “What’s the difference between Syrah and Syphilis? You can get rid of Syphilis.”)
Pardon the digression. Here are the wines tasted, tasting notes and score on the UC Davis 20-point scale and rough translation to the 100-point scale.
Tablas Creek, 2015, Espirit de Tablas Blanc (55% Roussanne, 28% Grenache Blanc, 17% Picpoul Blanc), $45. 13% alc. Light straw gold; honey, floral, spice and citrus nose; mid-body; round, ripe, with good acids; crisp finish. 16-16.5 on UC Davis 20-point scale (90-91)
Pasoport Wine Co., 2015 Chenin Blanc, Per Caso, $27. Light green-gold; herbaceous, green grass, honey nose; mid-body, round, good acids, long semi-crispy nutty finish. 13.5% alc. Good cheese, breads and appetizer wine. 16 (90)
Giornata Wine Co., 2016 Barbera (100%), $26. Mid-garnet; berry, jam nose; clean fruit; mid-body; nice structure; tart, like a Zinfandel; long refreshing fruity finish. 16 (90)ONX Wines, 2015 Mad Crush (38% Grenache, 37% Tempranillo, 25% Mourvedre), $48. 14.5% alc. One of the creative blends. Mid-brick (Grenache doesn’t get a lot of color in Paso, hence adding Mourvedre); fruity Grenache nose, Rhone-like, with earth and minerals; fresh; mid-body; long smooth food-friendly finish. 16.5 (90-91)
Seven Oxen, 2014 Mourvedre (90% Mourvedre, 10% Grenache), $42. 15.0% alc. Dark garnet; meaty, leathery, brambles and medicinal nose; mid-big body; round, good extract; long chewy finish (beef wine). 16.5 (91)
Lohr, 2013 Cuvee POM (84% Merlot, 8% Malbec, 4% each Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc), $50. 14.6% alc. Darkest purple; smoky, mint, cocoa, vanilla nose; round, ripe, smooth, long lush finish; very drinkable now; food wine. 16.5-17 (91-92)
Justin, 2014 Savant (62% Syrah, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Grenache), $50. 16.5% alc. Darkest garnet, inky; ripe grape, prune, oak and peppery nose; big style; chewy; Cabernet adds structure; but still hot finish (winemaker note: “he doesn’t water back.”). 16 (90)
Treana, 2014 Treana Red (75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Syrah), $45. 15% alc. Darkest of the wines; berry, jam, shoe polish nose; big body and extract; long, hot, chewy finish. 16 (90)