Thursday, March 16, 2023

Paso Robles Reds

Here's a question to test your California wine knowledge: What is the most planted red grape in the Paso Robles AVA?

If you said Zinfandel, you'd be off...way off.  Although Paso Robles has long been linked with Zinfandel, the most planted red grape in "Paso" is Cabernet Sauvignon, followed by Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Syrah...and then Zinfandel.

One theory behind the Zin link, more fantasy than fact, I suspect, has to do with the Paso climate and a wild west legend.  Paso Robles, an inland part of San Luis Obispo County, is blazing hot in the summer and Paso Robles town once had a reputation as a safe haven for outlaws. So legend has it that the bad guys were looking for a liquid refresher to beat the heat. And that, according to the legend,  is where Zinfandel comes in.

I'd say that tale is as full of holes as the unfortunate bartender of the Paso town saloon who crossed old Bad Bart, an ornery sidewinder with a taste for sin, 'er Zin.


 "Give me a shot of Zinfandel and make it fast," Bart bellows sidling up to the bar.

 "I'm sorry, Mister Bart," squeaks the quaking bartender, "all we have is Red Eye." 

The well ventilated bartender and Bad Bart have passed into history, but the popularity of Paso Robles Zinfandel lingers on.  

Paso Robles Zin continues to make its mark, especially with intriguing names like "Twisted," "Double Black" and "Truth & Valor," but the reality is that in Paso Robles, Cabernet Sauvignon rules. Numbers show that there is more Cabernet Sauvignon (39%) planted in Paso than Zinfandel (8%). Even Merlot (14%) and Syrah (9%) are ahead of Zinfandel in Paso vineyards.  

All of those grapes and more (60 different varieties), are planted in 11 districts, with the largest concentration of wineries and vineyards between Paso Robles town and Templeton. In 1990 there were 20 wineries in Paso Robles. Today, there are more than 200.

Paso History

Grapes were first planted in 1787 by missionaries at Mission San Miguel Archangel, one of the string of Spanish missions that extended from San Diego north to the town of Sonoma. Commercial wine was first made in the 1880s at what is now York Mountain Winery.

Official recognition of Paso Robles had to wait until 1983 when an AVA was granted by the federal government. Then, in 2007 a proposal was submitted to split the area along the Salinas River and form "Paso Robles Westside," but it was turned down.

Since the 1980s when the first Rhone varieties were planted, Paso Robles has become a leading maker of Rhone-style wines in California. Today, Paso Robles has the largest acreage of Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne in the state.  The growing popularity of Rhone-style wines encouraged a group of Paso wine folks to stage the first Hospice du Rhone gathering. 


Tablas Creek, in the Adelaida District, west of Paso Robles, is one of the top producers of Rhone-style wines in California, if not the country. Tablas Creek is a  collaboration with the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel in the southern Rhone Valley.  

Still, Zinfandel is what many people think when they think of Paso Robles wine. 

Why Zinfandel?

Simply put, the grape likes warmth, Mediterranean heat, Paso Robles heat. And Paso's long growing season is just right for Zinfandel.  

The problem with that combination is it can mean high alcohol wines.  In the late 1970s early '80s, Zinfandel could easily reach a bruising 17%.  These high octane  Zins were delicious, like drinking Port, but they were a challenge to serve with food. 

A high alcohol Zin can still seem soft on the palate, mainly because of the abundance of primary fruit.  Some Paso Zins lack acidity, resulting in a little flabbiness. Paso growers got around that problem by better vineyard practices, while winemakers, working with better grapes, produced more balanced Zins.  

Still, some Zinfandel winemakers believe that Zin, by definition, is a higher alcohol red wine and any attempt in the winery to lower the alcohol will result in just another red wine, but not one that is characteristic Zinfandel.

Why Paso Robles?

You can choose your red wine from anywhere else in California, but Paso Robles reds, especially Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, are warm, fruity and inviting, the very wines you want at your next dinner. 

Next blog: Northern Italian Whites

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Thursday, March 9, 2023

France Series: Loire Valley & Rhone Valley

There is hardly a spot in France where wine is not made. From the sparkling wines of Champagne in the northernmost region to the wide array of table wines and bubbly along the southern parts of the country; France is awash in wine.

Spanning across the country's midsection, the agriculturally important Loire Valley has earned the reputation as the "Garden of France." The Loire is both an east-west-oriented valley and a river.  And the Loire river supplies irrigation for the valley's many crops and vines and is a means of river transportation. 

Situated in southeastern France, the Rhone Valley has earned its renown as the source of some of the country's most highly regarded red wines, as well as an impressive wine blend with an ecclesiastical history. 

Along the narrow river valley, the Rhone is home to an impressive selection of wines, that in their uniqueness rival any in the world. 

There's a lot more to say about the Rhone Valley and its wines, but first, there's this about the Loire Valley and its wines.

Loire Valley

No fewer than 30 wines are made in the Loire Valley, a verdant corridor that runs west to east across the center of France.  In the tradition of great wine that comes from areas adjacent to a body of water, the Loire river is the climactic tempering force that helps wine grapes to thrive. From the river's source in the eastern Massif Central, the Loire river runs 625 miles before forming a delta and then emptying into the Atlantic ocean. 

Along the way numerous wine districts are woven into the natural fabric of the valley alongside orchards, flower gardens and a seemingly endless variety of grand estates with picturesque castles.  To travel along the Loire is to satisfy all of the senses.

Loire chateau

The most important Loire wines and grapes are Sancerre and Pouilly-Fume (Sauvignon Blanc), Vouvray (Chenin Blanc), Anjou-Saumur (Cabernet Franc), Muscadet (Melon), Quincy and Reuilly (Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris).

One other Loire wine that seems to escape Americans is Saumur Mousseux, a high acid sparkling wine made mostly from Chenin Blanc.  Cabernet Franc is the base for Saumur Rouge, a refreshing light and frothy red bubbly with good fruit.  And then there's the Chenin Blanc-based sparkler Saumur-Champigny. 

Rhone Valley  

It is hard to overstate the value of Rhone wines to the history of French wine. In the past, when Bordeaux found it difficult to ripen their grapes, robust Rhone wines came to the rescue. Syrah and Grenache, to name a few Rhone varieties, deepened the color and helped build the body of anemic Bordeaux wines. 

The Rhone Valley has a long and storied history. Long before the Christian era, the Gauls were moving wine up river deep into the valley. The Rhone river flows for more than 500 miles, starting at Vienne in the north and flowing south through four distinct wine regions before emptying into the Mediterranean at Arles. Along the way, are were many ports of call.

In terms of quantity, the Southern Rhone is the largest producer with such noted wines as Tavel, Chateauneuf-du-Pape (more than one million bottles annually), Gigondas and Beaumes-de-Venise. Red varieties of the Southern Rhone include Mourvedre and Carignan, with Grenache the dominant red grape.  

Remains of the "chateauneuf"

Chateauneuf-du-Pape takes its name from the summer home of the Avignon popes in the 14th century. The law allows 18 red and white grapes in the blend, although in practice contemporary blends consist of varying amounts of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault.  There is also a white Chateauneuf made mainly of Grenache Blanc.

Southern Rhone is one of the few places in France that makes a vin doux naturel, or natural sweet wine.  Beaumes-de-Venise, made from Muscat, is a fragrant nectar with a lovely golden, slightly pink color.  It's sweet!  But like all great sweet wines, Beaumes-de-Venise is balanced nicely with good acidity.

The wines of the Northern Rhone -- Cote Rotie, Chateau Grillet, St. Joseph, Hermitage, Cornas -- are the most prestigious and longest lived Rhone wines. Amounting to less than 5% of the total Rhone production, Northern Rhone wines are geared to the fine wine collector and not the mass market. 

Syrah is the only grape permitted in Northern Rhone red wines.  At its greatest,  Cote Rotie and Hermitage are at the top of this class, while for value, it's hard to beat St. Joseph and Cornas. Viognier is the grape of Condrieu and the tiny exclusive Ch. Grillet.  Other Northern Rhone white wines are made from Marsanne and Roussanne.

Value seekers are in luck with Cotes du Rhone, the Rhone's other appellation.  Made mainly from Southern Rhone varieties, Cote du Rhone reds are blends, of which Grenache must be 40%, with Syrah and Mourvedre at 15%.  Viognier and Carignan may also be included in the mix.

When you're thinking of trying a French wine, there is a wide variety available.  Dry to sweet, still to sparkling, few regions offer more than the Loire and Rhone.


Next blog: Paso Robles Reds

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Friday, March 3, 2023

Wine from a Narrow Country

Recently, some family members picked up on the "New York Times" online puzzles that include Wordle and the deceptive Worldle. The Worldle puzzle tricks the puzzler into thinking they know more about world geography than they do.  Worldle shows the outline of a country like Italy or Chile and the puzzler is then asked to guess the country. 

Anyone knowing even the basics of geography easily recognizes Italy's boot shape.  But what about trying to guess the many small African countries, or Chile? 

Chile should be easy.  Long and slender, it runs north to south for nearly 4,300 miles along the western coast of South America.  The widest part of Chile is a mere 49 miles, between the snow capped Andes mountains in the east and the Pacific Ocean Pacific Ocean in the west. 

                                            Chile map Vector illustration of the map of Chile chile outline stock illustrations

That doesn't leave much room for wine growing. Yet, the Chileans have skillfully   found the best spots for vineyards, at high altitudes in the northern region of Salta, and the flatter southern expanses of Bio-Bio.   

Standing on the coast, facing east, the Andes seem to be hiding behind the near  horizon of a rising landscape. But the mountains are there forming a barrier, keeping phylloxera, an aphid that has destroyed many vineyards elsewhere and continues to be a problem, from entering Chile. On the plus side, the year round mountain snow fields in the Andes are a continuous source of runoff, supplying water to Chile's extensive system of irrigation canals. 

For years, Chilean grape growers used the ample Andes runoff to irrigate their vineyards. In the past, grapes were once sold on weight, so growers would flood their vineyards just before harvest, plumping the berries. Stories are told of the resistance from older growers to the introduction of drip irrigation and the efforts to control vineyard flooding.    

The Regions & Wines

Here's a breakout of Chile's top wine regions, north to south:

Aconcagua is the northernmost fine wine region, known mainly for red wines like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Vina Errazuriz pioneered much of the grape growing in Panquehue and Manzanar sub regions.  Errazuriz's Don Maximiano Bordeaux-style blend is one of Chile's best-known red wines.  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and a little Pinoir Noir from the cooler coastal Manzanar are among Aconcagua's most successful wines. 

Close to the coast, south of the major port city of Valparaiso, the small region of Casablanca is noted for the bulk of Chile's cool-climate wines such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir.  South of Casablanca, the San Antonio valley is one of Chile's newest wine regions, with the same cool-climate varieties as Casablanca.  

An aside. Casablanca and San Antonio valleys are both coastal regions growing the same cool-climate grapes.  Where they differ is that the San Antonio valley runs north to south with all vineyards benefiting from the cool coastal breezes, while Casablanca runs east to west which means it is a transversal valley with warmer zones in the east and cooler zones in the west closer to the ocean.

Another anomaly for those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere is remembering that in the Southern Hemisphere, the further south you go, the cooler it becomes, while a warmer more tropical climate is in the north.  

Beyond the smaller northern zones, most of Chile's wine comes from the Central Valley, a huge area, including the capital city Santiago, stretching north to south from Maipo to the Southern region zones of Bil-Bio and Itata.

Directly east of San Antonio valley is Maipo, the most famous wine region in Chile. Maipo vineyards have a predominance of red varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere.  Whites are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  Top wineries: Concha y' Toro, Carmen, Santa Rita, Cousino Macul, Patrick Valette. 

Rapel is divided into two transversal valleys: Cachapoal and Colchagua, that run from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere are the most planted varieties.  The potential of Rapel for great wine has attracted foreign investment: Los Vascos (Ch. Lafite-Rothschild)and Casa Lapostolle.  Other wineries: Vina Montes, Undurraga, Santa Emiliana.

Curico has two sub-regions of note: Lontue and Teno. Little was known of Curico outside Chile until 1979 and the arrival of Spanish vintner, Miguel Torres.  Except for Torres, the other Curico wineries of note are Valdivieso and San Pedro, although all the big wineries have extensive vineyards in Curico. 

Maule, one of Chile's cooler regions, has five sub-regions, with Talca and Linares the most important. Many of Maule's western vineyard areas are deficient in nutrients, especially nitrogen, but modern vineyard practices are helping to overcome these problems. Once an area for bulk wine, Maule now grows varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan.

In the Southern region are two relatively new wine regions: Itata and Bio-Bio. Lacking the protection of the Andes, the southern regions experience higher rainfall and cooler temperatures.  Cinsault and Muscat of Alexandria are the most planted varieties by Concha y' To William Fevre.

Chenqueco Village and Ralco Lake, Alto Bío Bío
Alto Bio-Bio


Grapes & Vines

Until the 1990s, the most common grape variety in Chile was the Pais, but in a short time, Cabernet Sauvignon shot into first place as the most planted variety, followed by Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, the latter a slow performer in Chile. 

One interesting aspect of Chile's vineyard leap forward in the early 1990s was the discovery that much of what was thought as Sauvignon Blanc was, in fact, Sauvignon Vert and Sauvignon Gris.  And DNA vine identification also showed that a lot of Merlot was Carmenere.  

The bright side is that innovative Chilean marketers turned this confusion around, making Carmenere the Chilean signature wine, the way that Argentina captured Malbec.

Today, Chilean wines are among the world's finest, especially for high quality for the price.  


Next entry: France Series: Loire & Rhone

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