Seeking out new wines always requires an open mind. We too are humans and carry a suitcase full of preconceived ideas and opinions about quality and style. At the start of our venture to Paso Robles, California, we met vast, sprawling land scattered with easy-going towns. The laidback scenery triggered memories of my formative years in the MidWest. This seemingly simple lifestyle led me to believe the wines would be as simple as the way of life.
Although there are a few key players here (Tablas Creek, Saxum), the culture in Paso is humble and friendly. The Iowa girl in me respects this sentiment. However, there are a few flashy individuals telling anyone who will listen about this wine region’s potential for great wine production. Far from simple, Paso Robles is an AVA with 11 subzones, each offering a diversity of styles and microclimates. There really is something for every wine lover here with over 200 Paso Robles wineries to choose from.
Where is Paso Robles
The Paso Robles AVA lies within the larger Central Coast appellation, just northeast of San Luis Obispo. The largest and fastest growing un-divided AVA in California, Paso encompasses a diverse range of soils and topography. Covering approximately 614,000 acres, the area shifts the Pacific Ocean cools down the region’s western districts. While the lower valleys of the central districts and the high-elevation hills inland see a lot of sun and not enough rainfall. Subsequently, the eastern, hilly districts receive about 20% more heat and 20 inches less rainfall overall. These variations in climate coupled with varying soil types equates to a wide range of wines to discover.
Soils & Climate
Bordering the westernmost area of Paso Robles, the Santa Lucia foothills define the region. Here, you’ll find high elevations and calcareous soils (clay based with limestone). Cold ocean air from the Pacific just 5 miles away from the AVA’s border moderates temperatures. Some suggest the soils create more mineral qualities in the wines. Although this could be because this soil type leads to higher acidity! This area is cooler than the east side with no shortage of sunshine. Consequently, Rhone varietals perform well here in a climate similar to their native home in France.
The Adeleida District is home to some of the most prominent Paso Robles wineries. Notably, Tablas Creek made a name for themselves in promoting the grapes of Châteauneauf-du-Pape and Cornas in California. A leader in the community, Tablas Creek was at the forefront of creating the 11 subzones in Paso. The Templeton Gap is the region’s coolest subzone. The land formation draws in cool air from the Estero Bay through low gaps in the mountains. The cooling influence even drops temperatures enough to successfully grow Pinot Noir here. The Willow’s Peak district sits higher in the mountains at elevations up to 1900 ft.
Santa Margarita Ranch
We started our wine-hunting journey in the mountainous, southwest district of Santa Margarita Ranch. A cooler area with mild temperature swings, the district is best known for its diversity of soils (ancient sea bed, shale, rocky alluvium, granitic and volcanic), which is highlighted on the labels of Ancient Peaks Winery—the sole owner of the AVA’s vineyards. The first grapes were planted in 1780 by missionaries, a common phenomenon in Central Coast California.
Currently, the property is sustainably run by three wine growing families, the Filipponi’s, the Rossi’s, and the Wittstrom’s. Margarita Ranch is also one of the oldest cattle ranches in California, which lends to the old western romance in the tasting room, including a taxidermy shrine for their beloved cow, Cinnamon. These Paso Robles wines were complex, fresh, and vibrant, expressing the cool air and ancient soils of the zone. Ancient Peaks’ 2016 Sauvignon Blanc is sourced from an area where a gap in the mountains provides full access to ocean air. This effect gives the wine a zippy finish with gooseberry, smoke, and saltwater on the nose. Zinfandel may be the star of Paso Robles’ west side and the Ancient Peaks 2015 Zinfandel was testament to that, with fresh red fruits, thyme and a lift on the finish. The wines of western Paso often mirror this higher-toned, spicy style.
Estrella River Plains
As we drove Eastward, this Central Coast wine region stretched into the Estrella River plains, with more alluvial soils and river deposits. The land is flatter and drier here, which lends itself to thicker-skinned Italian varietals. At Clesi, husband and wife team Chris and Adrienne Ferrara speak of the great parallels to central Paso and southern Italy. The temperature swings in the area mitigate the hot growing season with a 30-40 degree difference between day and night, ensuring a backbone to the ripe fruits.
The wines were not jammy, but rather smart and savory. We loved the 2013 Barbera, with beautiful acidity, rose & cranberry. The 2014 Convivio red blend, a Sangiovese-Cabernet Sauvignon blend made in the style of a “Super-Tuscan,” seemed perfectly suited to the climate, with both ripe black fruits and earthy aromas of smoke, leaves, and roasted red bell pepper. In addition to Italian varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals perform well in the climate of the 5 central districts: San Miguel, Estrella District, El Pomar, San Juan, and Geneseo (another Midwest shout-out to the name of my hometown! But I digress…).
Warm Inland Regions of Paso Robles
We did not make it as far East as the dry, hot and hilly Creston or Paso Robles Highlands District. This was from a shortage of time, not interest, as these two regions benefit from the largest diurnal shifts in Paso. This can lead to balance and complexity in the wines. These regions are sunbaked with less rain than the western side and high elevation- up to 1600 ft above sea level. Dry-farmed Zinfandel is a popular choice for winemakers here, as the heat and the lack of water concentrates the grape into a lush, inky wine. With a dry heat similar to Spain, the sun-loving grapes grown in the Iberian Peninsula are growing in interest. The wines on the eastern side are bold and generous, but have potential to be made with great balance under careful varietal selection and winemaking.
As more boutique wineries develop in the area, the humble community is taking pride in the diversity of the region. Growers are taking chances with lesser-known varieties and finding the best spots for the more consumer-familiar grapes. I welcome this diversity in a great sea of California Chardonnay & Cabernet. Paso Robles is a quiet community full of winemakers who want to showcase the possibilities of the land. From the adventurous wine drinker to the comfort connoisseur, there are a variety of styles here to satisfy all palates. -AT
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