Paso Robles is experiencing a refreshing renaissance of crisp and clean whites.
At Tablas Creek Vineyard, a national conduit to Rhône grapes, the prominence of Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne is no surprise. Yet, lesser-known Rhône varieties like Picpoul Blanc and Clairette Blanche are also on an exciting rise. Then there are bottlings of Albariño, Vermentino, Chenin Blanc and Ugni Blanc that zip with freshness and intrigue with rocky minerality.
These wines prove that Paso Robles isn’t just about big reds anymore.
“Let’s be fair,” says Neil Collins, winemaker for Tablas Creek since its inception in 1998. “A summer evening in Paso Robles lends itself to a crisp, complex white every bit as much as it does a massive red.”
For years, Viognier was the go-to white Rhône grape across California, but over the last decade, Grenache Blanc has emerged as brighter, fresher and easier to master.
In 2017, Stanley Barrios, proprietor and winemaker of Top Winery, opted for the grape to star in his Axis bottling, a lower-alcohol, zesty contrast to his richer, Roussanne-heavy Poise bottling.
“Flaunting both restraint and power in a white wine?” he asks. “Now, that’s exciting.”
One of the first “new” white Rhônes to turn heads was Picpoul Blanc, which Halter Ranch uses in both still and sparkling wines by itself and in blends.
“With so many Rhône white varieties lacking in acid, Picpoul Blanc is the key to balanced blending,” says Winemaker Kevin Sass, who believes it’s the “most underutilized” white Rhône in Paso Robles.
Clairette Blanche is an even newer variety to the scene. Since 2017, McPrice Myers has used Paper Street Vineyard grapes as a single-varietal expression, in his Beautiful Earth white blend as well as coferments for red wines with Syrah and Mourvèdre.
“It’s an extremely versatile grape,” he says.
Sometimes, these varieties work best as a team, as in Law Estate’s Soph, a blend of Roussanne, Marsanne and Clairette Blanche, made since 2015.
“Flaunting both restraint and power in a white wine? Now, that’s exciting.” — Stanley Barrios, proprietor and winemaker, Top Winery
“It is bold, powerful and concentrated enough for most ‘I only drink red wine’ drinkers to enjoy, but has a tremendous amount of finesse and freshness to make it crisp and refreshing,” says Law Winemaker Philipp Pfunder. “These whites break the stereotype and shine brightly from beneath their big, bold red siblings.”
Halter Ranch 2016 Libelle Sparkling Picpoul Blanc (Adelaida District); $60, 93 points. One of the only domestic sparkling Picpoul Blancs, this bottling starts with aromas of orange rind, wet clay and the slightest hint of petrol. It’s laser sharp, crisp and racy on the palate, offering flavors of Asian pear, orange blossom and a hint of jasmine. Editors’ Choice.
Top 2018 Axis Grenache Blanc (Paso Robles); $48, 93 points. One of the more texturally driven white wines coming out of Paso Robles, this bottling by Stanley Barrios starts with a shy and subtle nose of yucca flower and honeysuckle. The tightly woven, grippy palate offers grapefruit peel and Meyer lemon zest, leading into a long, zesty finish. Editors’ Choice.
Law 2019 Soph White (Paso Robles); $78, 92 points. Richness and minerality are expertly balanced in this blend of 48% Roussanne, 40% Marsanne and 12% Clairette Blanche, starting on the nose, where white melon, light banana and creamy cherimoya meet with a chalky tone. The palate is creamy as well, with peach and mango, but it’s the wet, chiseled stone flavor that makes the wine most compelling.
Tablas Creek 2019 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (Paso Robles); $25, 92 points. Light lemon-peel, lychee, honeysuckle and apple aromas show on the nose of this blend of 35% Grenache Blanc, 25% Roussanne, 19% Viognier, 14% Marsanne and 7% Clairette Blanche. The palate intrigue with citrus flavors, from mandarin pith to makrut lime, with a bright lemongrass tone carrying throughout the tightly woven texture.
ONX 2019 L’Autre Femme White (Paso Robles); $42, 90 points. Rounded aromas of bubblegum, banana and plumeria are cut by slightly sour orange on the nose of this blend of 52% Roussanne, 32% Viognier and 16% Grenache Blanc. There’s compelling tension on the palate, with a flash of lemon zest, but the core flavors are reminiscent of banana pudding.
Bodega de Edgar’s lineup of wines nods toward Spain, so Albariño fit snugly into the portfolio when Edgar Torres added it in 2009. The grape can be vinified in rich or racy styles, but his bone-dry 2019 bottling, loaded with chalk and grapefruit pith, is an ideal style.
He’s proudly embraced the shift toward more restraint.
“Instead of using Rhône varietals that have been harvested too late, we have shifted towards crisp whites with a higher acidity,” he says. “The consumer continues to demand this style of vibrant whites.”
These Albariños hang onto that energy quite well, as seen in the Project España bottling by Derby Wine Estates. After almost four years in the bottle, the 2017 release bursts with lime and guava peel, and retains a firm grip on the sip.
“I’ve found the textural component of the wines can be enhanced with a light crushing, followed by a few hours of skin contact prior to pressing,” says Winemaker Sean Geoghegan. “The resulting wine is very rich in phenolic compounds from the skins and, paired with the low pH from the acidity, creates a white wine with the ability to improve with age.”
Derby 2017 Project España Albariño (Paso Robles); $26, 93 points. Both fresh and full on the nose, this zesty bottling offers lime and guava-peel aromas on the nose, as well as chopped lemongrass and gardenia. There’s a very firm grip on the sip, where wet stone and chalk flavors play friendly with the lime-balm flavors. This is a strong showing for this variety in this region. Editors’ Choice.
Donati Family Vineyard 2019 Family Reserve Albariño (Paso Robles); $30, 91 points. Broad aromas of poached peach, gardenia, apple blossom and lime bubblegum come through on the broad nose of this bottling. It tightens up on the palate, focusing on Meyer lemon peel and pith, with golden-apple and baking-spice flavors arising by the finish. Editors’ Choice.
Expressive Chenin Blanc
“In my early years, the region’s whites were looked down upon,” says veteran vintner Neil Collins of Tablas Creek. He remembers those early Chardonnays as quite flabby. He was aiming for a Chard alternative when he first attempted Chenin Blanc from the Old Bailey Vineyard (planted in 1969). That was almost 30 years ago, when he was a winemaker for Adelaida Cellars.
“We absolutely destroyed it with American oak,” says Collins. “But I never forgot the vineyard and its fruit.”
“Chenin is a very appropriate grape to express the terroir of our zone,” he says.
Sherman Thacher, of Thacher Winery, makes a mineral-laced, acid-driven bottling each year. He uses grapes from the very warm Shell Creek Vineyard, in the southeastern Paso Highlands district.
Planted in 1972, the site’s age and own-rooted vines, and the region’s huge day-night temperature swings, are what Thacher credits for the resulting wine style.
“Older plants have had a chance to embrace their environment and, being own-rooted, they have a direct connection with the marine limestone sitting just beneath the top coat of alluvium,” he says.
Thacher 2019 Own-Rooted Shell Creek Vineyard Chenin Blanc (Paso Robles Highlands District); $32, 92 points. Crisp aromas of creamy pear, chiseled granite and a hint of pineapple show on the nose of this bottling from a vineyard in eastern Paso Robles. The palate is lively and florally aromatic without being overwhelming, offering restrained tuberose and plumeria flavors while clinging to a taut frame.
A sneaky toss of Vermentino sticks by a wise nurseryman into a shipment of vines bound for Tablas Creek in the mid-1990s unleashed this non-Rhône grape on the Rhône-focused vineyard. Everyone’s been rejoicing since.
More commonly found in places like Corsica, Liguria and Sardinia, and also known as Rolle, the grape delivers strongly rocky and refreshing citrus flavors with stunning regularity.
Vina Robles Vineyards & Winery, in Paso’s eastern hills, planted some Vermentino in the Huerhuero Vineyard, a cool, windy spot. The winery began to make a varietal bottling in 2011.
“While we do a fruit-forward Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier, I find the Vermentino to be one of our most versatile, food-friendly white wines,” says Winemaker Kevin Willenborg. He likes to pair it with light dishes like pasta, shellfish and chicken, as well as spicy meals. “What really sets it apart for me is this rich weight and smooth, long finish in the mouth without being cloying, sweet or oaky.”
He’s happy that Paso Robles is finally getting recognized for its white wines.
“With the long growing season and cool maritime-influenced nights, we can get these flavorful crisp whites—you just need to work with the vine and canopy a little,” he says. “Sooner or later, you find yourself in need of a good white.”
Tablas Creek 2019 Vermentino (Adelaida District); $27, 94 points. Proprietor Jason Haas continually reveals the magic potential of this grape for a warmer weather region like Paso Robles. In this vintage, crisp and light aromas of pear, lemon and lily lead into a fascinating palate of nectarine, honeysuckle and ripe melon, all wrapped in an immensely chalky structure. Editors’ Choice.
Vina Robles 2019 Huerhuero Vineyard Vermentino (Paso Robles); $20, 92 points. Very light in the glass, this bottling is incredibly aromatic in all the right ways, offering just enough hints of jasmine, plumeria and coconut oil as well as a brisk line of citrus peel. The palate is vibrant with acidity and scintillating texture, which balance the tropical tones of tuberose and plumeria extract. Editors’ Choice.
Ugni Blanc Is One to Watch
The biggest surprise grape here is Ugni Blanc, also known as Trebbiano, which Ryan Pease of Paix Sur Terre turns into perhaps the region’s best white wine of each vintage. Inspired by Tablas Creek’s Vermentino, Pease started working with Ugni Blanc in 2013. He planted another 1.5 acres in 2020 and remains the only known producer of the grape in the region. “It has become our most sought after wine,” says Pease.
Paix Sur Terre 2020 Maison Mason Vineyard Ugni Blanc (Paso Robles Willow Creek District); $32, 94 points. Very lean aromas of lime and wet cement pick up warmer tones of apple, honeysuckle and coconut flesh on the nose of this bottling. There is tremendous grip to the sip, where orange- and lime-pith textures and flavors meet with lemongrass as the wine clings to every edge of the palate.