The Brilliant 2016s from Paso Robles

Article source: Jeb Dunnuck

This report continues the Central Coast coverage and focuses on Paso Robles, yet includes numerous wines from San Luis Obispo County, and Edna Valley, as well as some new Santa Barbara County releases. Readers can find additional information on Santa Barbara County and the Central Coast in the “New Releases from Santa Barbara County” report published in October.

The full report can also be viewed/downloaded via PDF: JebDunnuck.com – Paso Robles

Recent Vintages and What You Need to Know

Looking at the 2016 vintage, Paso Robles – like the rest of California – enjoyed a long, even growing season that presented few difficulties. The year started with cooler temperatures and bud break occurring slightly ahead of average. This was followed by a warm, moderate, yet dry growing season that had no significant heat spikes or weather events. Despite the lack of water, the vines and canopies were healthy and yields were close to average. Harvest kicked off in August and didn’t finish up until October, with growers able to harvest at basically any point.

As to the wines, 2016 is an undeniably great vintage for Paso Robles, surpassing 2014, 2013, 2012, 2010, and 2007. In this reviewer’s opinion, 2016 is the greatest vintage to date for Paso Robles, and the wines show the warm, even style of the vintage beautifully with ripe, seamless textures, terrific purity of fruit, and impeccable balance. They don’t lack richness or power, yet the top wines also have incredible elegance as well as singular characters. In addition, the quality across the different varieties is high, with both thick- and thin-skinned varieties excelling in the vintage.

The greatness of the 2016 vintage is due in part to the even, picture-perfect growing season, as well as to the increased focus on vineyard management and an increase in winemaker knowledge and talent, which has never been higher.

While wine styles have shifted dramatically over the past two decades, you see a much more refined, even approach today, with winemakers happy to fine tune their wines as opposed to forcing a style. That’s not to say there are not overripe/overly extracted (or early harvested/overtly green) wines out there, but the style and quality from each estate are more consistent today than it’s ever been.

In contrast, the 2017 Vintage was a much more challenging vintage that saw considerable winter and spring rains (Tablas Creek reported 43 inches of rain, compared to their 25-inch average), high vigor and canopy growth, lots of mildew pressure, and a record-breaking, week-long heat spike at the end of August and early in September. The heat spell is certainly the defining feature of the vintage, with some harvesting prior to the heat and other riding it out. By and large, the Rhône varieties handled the heat well but wineries that panicked and brought in their Bordeaux varieties during the heat were rewarded with bitter tannins and hollow wines. I’ll taste more extensively next year yet the barrel samples I was able to look at showed forward, rounded profiles without the density and balance of the 2016s. Where everyone was able (or should have been able) to make a good wine in 2016, 2017 is going to be much more variable. It’s worth noting that the region was unaffected by the 2017 fires.

You can find additional information on previous vintages from Paso Robles in last year’s “Latest Releases from Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo County” article.

The Region

Paso Robles is a large AVA that was created in 1983.  At the time, it covered just 5,000 planted acres and just 17 wineries. Today, the region covers more than 40,000 acres and over 200 wineries. Up until 2014, Paso Robles was the largest non-subdivided AVA in California. All of that changed in 2014 when the AVA was subdivided into 11 different sub-AVAs: Adelaida District, Creston District, El Pomar District, Estrella District, Geneseo District, Highlands District, Willow Creek District, San Juan Creek, San Miguel District, Santa Margarita Ranch, and Templeton Gap District.

By far, the leading subregions readers should know are Adelaida, Willow Creek, and the Templeton Gap District. These three appellations cover the heart of Paso Robles which is a series of rolling limestone hillsides just to the west of the town of Paso Robles.

Looking first at the Adelaida District, this region lies in the northwestern part of the AVA and is a warmer climate that receives roughly 25 inches of annual precipitation as well as large diurnal temperature swings. This rugged region doesn’t see the marine influence of the other two sub-appellations and consists of older, calcareous soils.

The Willow Creek District lies to the south of Adelaida and is more influenced by the Pacific Ocean, with slightly cooler temperatures and more rainfall. This region consists of beautiful rolling hillsides and is primarily calcareous soils, with some loamy clay.

Lastly, the Templeton Gap District sees the most marine influence, with higher precipitation and notable fog and wind influence. Similar to the Willow Creek District, the soils consist primarily of calcareous rock and loam.

While not part of the larger Paso Robles AVA, York Mountain lies on the western edge of Paso Robles and is a cooler, wetter region that produced numerous brilliant Syrahs in this report.

Although Bordeaux and other varieties continue to gain traction, Paso Robles remains the heart of the Rhône movement in California and is a magical region for Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre. The top wines tend to be blends, and there’s an incredible diversity in wine styles, from ripe, powerful GSM blends to Cabernet Sauvignons that compete with the best of California, both warm- and cool-climate-like Syrahs, and Pinot-Noir like Grenache and Zinfandel releases. And while Paso Robles is a warm region, the limestone soils, as well as the cooling effect of the Pacific Ocean and Templeton Gap, help retain freshness and acidity in the wines. If you’re unfamiliar with Paso Robles, now is a great time to give these wines a try.

The Tasting Notes

All of these wines were tasted during my trip through the region in August, followed by numerous follow-up tastings at my office in Colorado.

Kassidy Clark