Tastings: Award-winning reds

September 28, 2010 

The Central Coast American Viticultural Area is perhaps best known for cool-climate grapes like chardonnay and pinot noir. But considering its vast size — the AVA stretches about 250 miles from San Mateo and Alameda counties south to Santa Barbara County and encompasses more than 100,000 acres of vineyards — just about any grape variety will grow successfully somewhere in the appellation.

Red Bordeaux varieties are a case in point. They find the heat necessary for ripening in Paso Robles and in warmer parts of the Santa Ynez Valley and Monterey County. The results for such wines — specifically for merlot and for red Bordeaux-style blends—were mixed at the recent Central Coast Wine Competition in Paso Robles. But the competition showed what’s possible, even if a lot of wineries are missing the mark.

The competition, part of the California Mid-State Fair, was open to wines produced from grapes grown in the Central Coast AVA and Ventura County, although it was heavy on Paso Robles entries. For the first time, the Mid-State Fair partnered with the Santa Barbara, Monterey and Ventura county fairs to host the competition.

I’ll acknowledge that merlot isn’t my favorite category to judge. Merlot has the image of being a kinder, gentler version of cabernet sauvignon, but it actually has tannins that can be difficult to manage, especially when the vines are grown in the wrong place. But the best-of class merlot was stellar and came close to being named the best red wine in the competition. (The ultimate winner among reds was a lagrein from Paso Robles.)

The winning merlot was the 2007 Rancho Sisquoc Merlot ($20) from Santa Barbara County, a wine with bright cherry fruit, fine tannins and some interesting savory overtones, ranging from black olive to wild thyme. Another very good merlot was the 2007 Penman Springs Merlot ($18) from Paso Robles, a dense, dark wine with lively cassis flavors and drying tannins. I also enjoyed the smooth, somewhat smoky 2007 Robert Hall Merlot ($18) from Paso Robles, as well as the non-vintage Candor Merlot Lot 2 ($20), a blend from the 2007 and 2008 vintages that’s dark and dense with ample sweet cherry fruit.

The red Bordeaux-style blends (aka Meritage, which rhymes with “heritage”) were, in general, less successful than the merlots. Brutally drying tannins were a common problem. Some wines were overripe. But there were some bright spots. The best-of-class winner was the 2007 Justin Isosceles ($62), a Paso Robles blend dominated by cabernet sauvignon. The wine is firmly structured, with plenty of tannin, but it also offers lively black cherry and cassis flavors accented by notes of cedar and chocolate. Also very good, and less tannic, was the 2006 San Marcos Creek Sapphire Estate Cuvee ($28), another lively Paso Robles wine.

Laurie Daniel writes a weekly column on wine. E-mail her at ladaniel @ earthlink.net.

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