Think Paso Robles is all about big, bold reds? It’s time to take another look.
While the region has built its reputation largely on ripe red wines, there’s a lighter side to Paso that’s starting to gain some recognition, too.
For the first time, a white wine from Paso Robles — Tablas Creek Vineyard’s Patelin de Tablas Blanc — cracked Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the year, an exclusive list selected from producers worldwide. The white Rhône varietal blend came in at No. 26 for 2017.
Critics are taking note of other white offerings from Paso Robles as well, with wine scores inching into the 90s.
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“Paso Robles is achieving fame for its offbeat white blends, and this wine is a perfect example of why,” Wine Enthusiast’s Matt Kettmann wrote a couple years back about Vina Robles Winery’s White4, a low-priced “genre-busting” blend of blend of viognier, verdelho, vermentino and sauvignon blanc all grown in its Paso vineyards.
Paso Robles’ “alternative whites” — essentially, anything other than chardonnay — have yet to achieve the commercial acclaim of their red counterparts.
But the situation is shifting from just a few years ago when many Paso wineries’ white offerings were perfunctory. Many tasting room patrons would skip those wines, often made with grapes grown elsewhere, altogether.
“They are gaining ground,” ONX winemaker Brian Brown said of Paso whites, even as they remain a fraction of the overall marketplace and still somewhat under the radar.
Cooler than you think
Many people think of Paso Robles as a hot growing region, with summer and fall temperatures that reach into the 100s. But growers and producers are learning that Paso’s climate and soils are actually well suited to some white wine varietals, especially the warmer-climate whites of France’s southern Rhône region such as grenache blanc.
“It’s easy to pay attention to how hot the days get, and it’s easy to forget how cold the nights get,” said Jason Haas, Tabas Creek partner and general manager.
That diurnal shift, he contends, helps the grapes maintain acid, which makes for brighter, more racy white wines. With a longer growing season and lots of sun, Haas said, some of the varietals do even better here than their native Europe.
Add in microclimates and the Templeton Gap funneling ocean winds through the area’s rolling hills, and you get cooler spots where certain white grapes can thrive.
When Tablas Creek began planting its vineyards in the mid-1990s, the winery expected to follow the model of their Châteauneuf-du-Pape influence and produce about 90 percent red wines.
Then, a few years in, Tablas Creek decided to add more white acreage.
“We were so impressed with how the whites had done,” Haas said, noting that about 30 percent of the winery’s production is dedicated to white wines. “They really outperformed our expectations.”
Neighbors raised their eyebrows when ONX Wines planted a few blocks of sauvignon blanc alongside viognier and grenache blanc near the cool, shaded creek at its Templeton vineyard. And while the winery is best known for inventive red blends, it has found enough success with its two white offerings — a crisp summer blend and a weightier winter one — that it’s planting more both in Templeton and at Kiler Canyon Vineyard in Paso’s nearby Willow Creek district, which it acquired last year.
“As growers learn where the cooler spots are in their vineyards or as new vineyards are developed closer to the coast, you will see a continued growth in the number of acres under vine in the Paso AVA as a whole,” Brown said.
The number of acres of white wine grapes isn’t tracked by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance or others, but communications director Chris Taranto said the region’s mineral and limestone-rich soils also play a role in creating promising white wines.
“The vines absorb that minerality, which maintains the acid that’s so important in white wines,” said communications director of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance. “That gives them that fresh, bright vibrancy and keeps them from being flabby.”
White wine a welcome challenge
Today’s wine drinkers seem more open to trying new and different things, area vintners note, a trend driven by the younger demographic.
“Younger consumers don’t want to drink their parents’ buttery oaky chards,” Brown said.
Red blends have come to dominate the market, and non-traditional white blends seem to be following suit. That’s given winemakers the impetus to focus more on white wines; as a result, the region is turning out better bottlings.
“With experience comes consistency and quality — two things the consumer looks for,” Brown said.
Not that it’s an easy task. Many winemakers note that white wines are more technically challenging than reds.
“With reds, there is so much going on that a minor flaw might actually be considered part of the wine’s complexity,” Brown said. “Not so with whites. If you make a mistake with a white wine, there isn’t anything you can do to hide it.”
Still, many Paso vintners are embracing the challenge.
After nearly a decade of red-only production, the boutique Law Estate Wines debuted its first white, a roussanne and marsanne-dominant blend now coming out for its second vintage.
Others including Alta Colina Wine are bottling more white grapes that they would have sold off in the past, impressed by the quality and customer reception.
One new winery in Tin City, a burgeoning industrial park on the southern edge of Paso Robles, is going all-in with whites. While Monochrome Wines sources grapes from up and down the Central Coast for its exclusively white production, the winery plans to highlight the Paso Robles region when possible — such as with a Templeton Gap albariño.
Many producers predict the number and quality of white wines coming out of Paso is only destined to grow, as the relatively young wine region continues to figure out which grapes can thrive and stand out here — and as the shift toward increased direct-to-consumer distribution continues to bring more people through the tasting room doors.
“More people are visiting wineries, giving us more face-to-face time to introduce unusual grapes,” Haas said. “It’s freed some wineries up to play with grapes they think would do well and not worry about whether people have heard of it.”
Tablas Creek’s legacy
Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles is the reason many white Rhône varietals even exist in the United States.
Working with their French partners, the Perrin family, the Haas family imported clones and went through the lengthy, involved quarantine and testing process to make the vines available here. The business started as a nursery even before making wine.
Since the mid-1990s, Tablas Creek has sold 5 million cuttings to more than 600 wineries and vineyards.
And the Haas family continues to introduce new grapes. Clairette blanche came into production in 2014, and a half-acre planting of picardin increased the world’s supply by 50 percent. (There’s one acre of picardin in France.)
“It’s a huge opportunity and responsibility,” Tablas Creek general manager Jason Haas said.