Exploring the unexpected wines of Paso Robles

To start with, we need to get the region's name right. It's PASS-o-ROW-bulls, not Robe-less or Robe-lay. So said Joe Roberts of 1Wine Dude who led our merry band of wine professionals through the #unexpectedpaso Twitter chat at the end of July.

Paso Robles - which means Pass of the Oaks - is an AVA in California that sits about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It's known for its red wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, merlot, syrah and zinfandel make up 72% of the region's 26,000 acres of vineyards (source: California Winery Advisor). Paso Robles' climate - with its warm days and cool nights plus great soil - is conducive to many varieties, not just reds. So, with absolutely no disrespect meant to the region's reds, we sipped our way through some of the more unexpected wines from the region: summer-worthy whites and a rosé.

The first wine in our discussion was Justin Wine 2016 Rosé (SRP $22.50). I can't personally say anything about it because it was clear upon first sip that something was wrong with the bottle - most likely it spent too much time in the heat of a delivery truck.

Others on the chat whose bottles arrived unscathed had good things to say about this rosé. Roberts told us it is "Provence in style, but Paso in soul." He described the wine as "pithy, minty, citrus-y, herbal, & redcurrant fruit."

Others described this Cabernet Sauvignon-based rosé as zippy, refreshing, crisp, and dry with a bright acidity. They found common rosé flavors of strawberry, watermelon and peach in the wine as well as tart cherry with some unusual savory grassy and herb notes.

Up next was Vina Robles 2016 White4 made from an unconventional blend 45% viognier, 27% vermentino, 17% sauvignon blanc and 11% verdello (SRP $14).

This wasn't just an #unexpectedpaso wine; this was an unexpected wine altogether because the blend didn't taste familiar. It's fun when a wine is a bit confusing on the palate because it's not like anything I've had before. White4 had a heavier-than-expected body and a deep flavor of ripe, late summer peaches and pears plus pineapple and honey with some ginger and minerality.

I shared this bottle with friends who invited me to dinner. Despite not knowing what to expect from the wine or what they were serving, it ended up being a nice pairing with chicken thighs marinated in Sriracha and soy with a side of zucchini and yellow squash in a mustard and agave sauce.

Beware the alcohol on this white. it's 14.9%, and it can sneak up on you after just a glass.

We moved onto Tablas Creek Vineyard 2016 Patelin de Tablas Blanc, a Rhone-style white blend of 52% grenache blanc, 24% viognier, 12% roussanne, 9% marsanne and 3% clairette blanc. (SRP $25)

I couldn't stop sticking my nose in this glass. It had one of those "Oh, Wow!" smells that let me know right away I was going to love it. Lots of fresh pear on the nose. I immediately tasted the pineapple notes from the viognier, plus lime, white flowers, and minerality.

During the chat Jason Haas of Tablas Creek said, "Paso's a great place to make warm-climate whites: there's lots of sun, limestone soils, and cold nights. All = great acids." This wine did have high acidity that had me salivating for something fresh and delicious. It went well with a simple caprese salad (made with Jersey tomatoes, of course).

Tablas Creek gets sustainability bonus points for their biodynamic farming and use of sheep to fertilize, graze and keeps weeds down in the vineyards, plus clean up after the harvest by eating what's leftover.

We ended the night with Adelaida Vineyards 2016 Chardonnay HMR sourced from vineyards planted 1973 (SRP $40). Aged in 100% French oak with 40% of that new, there was a pleasing balance between the fruit flavors and the oak and a smooth, medium body.

Lemon was the predominate aroma and it came through on the palate along with some honey, melon and salinity.

Chardonnay is not common in Paso Robles, but the estate vineyards where these grapes grow lie in a "sheltered swale of the Santa Lucia Range, some 14 miles from the cooling breezes of the Pacific coast" with an elevation of 1,400 - 2,000 feet and diurnal temperature swing of 40 - 50 degrees. The microclimate of this particular vineyard works for Chardonnay. Add the indigenous yeasts used for fermenting this wine - a yeast that moves through the wine as its stirred occasionally - and this Chardonnay is essentially #unexpectedpaso.

A few general takeaways from these four wines and our Twitter chat:

  • If you generally stick with Napa or Sonoma from Cali because they're best known, head a little south and break out of your comfort zone. You won't be sorry.

  • Don't pass by the whites and rosés of Paso Robles simply because the region is better known for its reds.

  • Acidity, minerality and salinity run though the lighter wines of Paso Robles, making them food friendly.

  • These are great value wines. Amazing quality for the price.

  • I need to add Paso Robles onto my regions-to-visit list.

  • I need to up my bottle photography game.

If you want to know more, read what some of the others who participated in the chat have to say about these wines.

Disclaimer: All wines for the #unexpectedpaso Twitter chat were sent to me as media samples.

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