200 Miles From Los Angeles is Another World
Driving the 101 Freeway into Paso Robles from Los Angeles is epic. 8-lane freeways out of LA slink down to 2-lane curving roads lined with California oaks. The 4 hour trip from Los Angeles is highly recommended in a fast car or on a motorcycle. You’ll be surrounded by vineyards. In fact, Paso Robles wine country now has 26,000 planted acres; almost 2/3 the size of Napa.
Paso Robles is located on the Eastern side of San Lucia Mountain range, a low set of hills that stoppers the dank marine influence. In between these hills, tight valleys lay scene to a wine region that’s growing rapidly.
Bigger Was Better in the 1980s
It was the mid-1980s and America was thirsty for Cabernet Sauvignon. The demand for value wine inspired large-scale producers like J. Lohr and Meridian Vineyards (owned by Foster’s) to make Paso Robles wine. The land was cheap. Over the next decade, Paso Robles wine country ballooned to 20,000 vineyard acres. While Cabernet reigned king with the value wine market, something special was happening in the hills west of Paso Robles: The introduction of Rhône-style wines to America.
Something Very French is Happening Up Here
Robert Haas must have scratched his head long and hard when he discovered a plot of land in Las Tablas (about 10 miles west of Paso Robles). The rugged Calcareous limestone in the dirt below his feet reminded him a lot of a French wine region he’d been importing wine from for years. The French wine, called Châteauneuf du Pape, was a famous red blend made from no less than 13 different grape varieties. The varieties were not popular in the States, in fact, most of them didn’t exist here. Yet.
By 1989, Haas had convinced the owners of Château de Beaucastel to team up and create a new kind of Paso Robles wine. The winery, Tablas Creek, became a test-bed of Rhône varieties like Grenache, Carignan and Mourvédre. In order to mimic the vineyard variation at Château de Beaucastel, Haas planted several different clones of Mourvédre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Counoise, Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc–All direct cuttings from various spots around Château de Beaucastel.
Rhône Style Wine in America
Tablas Creek could have just kept their grapes to themselves, but they didn’t. They built a nursery to further the production of these unique Rhône grapes in America. Most of the wines made in the US of varietals, like Grenache Blanc, came from this nursery. In 2010, the US recorded over 38,000 acres of Rhône wine varieties.
What are the Rhône Varieties?
There are over 20 different varietals that grow native in the Rhône valley in France. About 13 of these Rhône grapes are widely planted in the US. Red grapes from the Rhône valley include Syrah, Petite Sirah, Grenache, Carginan, Mourvedre, Cinsaut & Counoise. White grapes include Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano) & Picpoul Blanc.
You can download the pdfs of these images at the rhonerangers.org site
5 Paso Robles Wineries to Investigate
Tablas Creek lies far up a valley in between the hills of the Santa Lucia range. Visiting Tablas is awesome if you can get your shoes a little dirty walking around the vineyard. I’d also recommend checking out some of the following Paso Robles wineries for their Rhône-style wines.
- Kukkula A smaller winery (1000 cases) producing wines ranging from $20-40 a bottle. Kukkula produces inky, rich and opulent wines. We could drink their Lothario $36 and Sisu $32 blends of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre all day long.
- Justin Winery A bold and opulent winery in Paso Robles more famous for red blends with Cabernet Sauvignon that produces about 45,000 cases annually. Despite their fame for Cabernet, we like their new release of Justin Syrah $25
- Linne Calodo A small and relatively exclusive producer of Rhône Varieties and Zinfandel. It sucks that it requires picking up a phone to get these wines and we wish they were bigger. We’re most excited about their release of “Overthinker” and “Nemesis.”
- Adelaida A longtime Paso Robles Winery that produces about 10,000 cases annually. Making waves in the news in the past for their Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, they now produce a Syrah that received high appreciation from Robert Parker for their Rhône Wines. Check out Schoolhouse Recess Red $20 & The Keeper $25
- Opolo Vineyards While Opolo makes terrific Zinfandel and Sangiovese, they also make Maestro $30, a very Rhône-tastic blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Counoise. Opolo produces about 30,000 cases annually with 280 acres of estate vineyards. Big.
- Cypher A winery started by the people (Christian Tietje and Susan “Sam” Mahler) who created the wildly popular Four Vines. Cypher produces wine with names like “Anarchy” $40 and “The Heretic” $40 made with Mourvedre and Petite Sirah. Wines from Cypher are unabashed and massive.
Differences between Paso Robles Wine and Côtes du Rhône Wine
Despite similar climates in the Rhône and Paso Robles, the taste differences between the two are very different.
- Higher Alcohol Paso Robles wines tend to have higher ABV which will add more viscosity and the tingle of alcohol.
- More “Meat” Wines grown and produced in France have more savory flavors. Think olives vs. blackberry and bacon instead of raspberry fruit roll-up. Neither is better than the other, you just have to choose which you’d rather have a mouthful of.
- Age-worthy? Both wine regions can produce age-worthy wines, but that depends on the quality of the wine. If you’re interested in aging a wine, verify that the tannin and acid levels are high enough. You can read more about aging here: Aging Wines.
San Luis Obispo County Facts & Figures
Paso Robles Wineries and Vineyard Information on pasowine.com
Rhône Wine Varieties in America from rhonerangers.org
History of Robert Haas and Tablas Creek from tablascreek.com
The Wine Institute on California AVAs
Facts and Figures about American vineyard acreage at nass.usda.gov