It always comes as a surprise to some American wine lovers when they hear about French wineries deciding to open up shop on American soil. I think this surprise comes not only from the historical rivalry between California and France that came to head in the 1976 Paris Tasting, but also because America is used to being in the role of colonizer, rather than the colonized.
I also think that most wine lovers have the impression that the all French think of America as the land of fake wines made on soil with no terroir. Unfortunately, it is pretty easy to find people in France all too willing to pronounce such opinons. However, to suggest that this is the dominant French view of American wine is at best a gross generalization, even a stereotype, and as such, to overlook the degree to which some very smart and accomplished French winemakers and wine families have invested in California wine.
I think Tablas Creek Vineyard is perhaps my favorite example of such a project. Even leaving aside my delight at the high-quality wines they continue to produce year after year, I love the matter-of-fact understatement that accompanies their continued presence in the California wine market. Tablas Creek sees no need to boast of their winemaking heritage or history — it is certainly not one of their selling points. Rather they are relying, as any good winery should, on simply making great wine.
Of course that’s what the Perrin family, who run the venerable Chateau Beaucastel in the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation of France’s Rhone Valley have been doing since 1909. So, when after 80 years of making one of France’s top wines, the family decided to join with the Haas family, an equally prominent name in American wine, to create a new winery, there wasn’t a lot of fanfare.
The Perrins first knew Robert Haas as the founder and owner of Vineyard Brands, an import company he started in 1973, largely to bring great French wine to the United States. The relationship between the Haas and Perrin family deepened over the years to become much more than a simple business connection, leading to a natural collaboration when the Perrins decided to explore making Californian wine. Together the two families searched the state for a vineyard site that could approximate the Mediterranean climate required to produce great Rhone-style wines, and in 1989, they settled on a 120 acre parcel of land in the western part of the recently created Paso Robles American Viticultural Area.
This plot of land, which is roughly bisected by the creek which lent its name to the new project, consists of broken limestone soils nearly identical to the soils at Chateau Beaucastel. Into this familiar geology and climate the family imported cuttings directly from their estate vines, and proceeded to set up what today is a completely organically farmed vineyard operation that replicates both the grape varieties and clonal selections of the original Beaucastel estate vineyards. The importation of foreign vine cuttings has gotten the wine world into trouble before, so it’s should come as no surprise that the process of getting vines into the U.S. for propagation took several years of testing and certification, not to mention tedious propagation afterwards in order to have enough grafts to start a vineyard.
Between 1993 and 2000, using its own specialized nursery set up on the property, the estate produced nearly 200,000 vine grafts for planting, and for sale to other wineries in the area, many of which have become some of the region’s top producers. At this point the winery has a bit less than 100 acres of its vineyards planted, and is producing around 16,000 cases of wine each year.
Winemaking at Tablas Creek, as one might expect, follows a traditional old world model. After careful hand-harvesting and sorting, all grape varieties are fermented separately with no added yeasts, and aged separately in neutral French oak barrels. Just as in the appellation of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where up to 13 different grape varieties are blended together to make the final red wines, Tablas Creek places a heavy emphasis and puts much care into the process of blending its final wines. The estate’s signature wines are all blends evocative of their Rhone forbears, though it also produces some single varietal wines.
Tablas Creek will soon bottle their 10th vintage (though the 2007’s won’t be released for some time) and continues to produce a wide variety of wines distinguished by their shared attention to detail and unique character. The winery also continues to distinguish itself by its accessibility and its ability to produce what I believe to be some of the highest quality wines under $20 in the entire state. That alone is enough to make me love the wines of Tablas Creek, but of course, the wines also happen to be great, with some bordering on phenomenal.
While the investment that the Perrin and Haas families have made in creating the perfect marriage between new world terroir and old world winemaking knowledge must have been quite substantial, tasting the wines year after year makes it clear to me that they are well on their way to reaping great returns. Tablas Creek Winery continues to be one of the reasons every wine lover should pay attention to Paso Robles.
Full disclosure: I received these wines as press samples.
2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard Vermentino, Paso Robles
Palest of golds, this wine has a lullaby of a nose with aromas of vanilla and white flowers. In the mouth its flavors center around apples and pears dusted with citrus zest, and an overall experience of clarity and brightness. This is marred by a hint of bitterness in the finish, but this doesn’t keep the wine from being lovely and refreshing. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $27. Where to Buy?
2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard Grenache Blanc, Paso Robles
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has a lush, tropical nose of guava and other exotic floral aromas. In the mouth it is a delightfully zesty mix of flavors like sarsaparilla, vanilla, and papaya. The wine is beautifully textured, with a silky weight on the tongue that lingers, as does the long bright finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $25. Where to Buy?
2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard “Cote de Tablas” White Blend, Paso Robles
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of baked apples and wet stones. On the palate it is striking in its minerality, with a sharp acidity carrying flavors of apples, incense, and wet slate quickly over palate. The finish is slightly woody and has a bite to it that put me off initially, but that aspect of the wine mellowed with some air. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $16. Where to Buy?
2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard Roussanne, Paso Robles
Light gold in the glass, this wine has refreshing nose of pears and star fruit that makes you thirsty just smelling it. The wine is poised and well composed in the mouth, nicely balanced between fruit, acidity and minerality. A mix of flavors that range from toffee, pear, grapefruit and orange zest combine to make a nicely complex rendition of this white Rhone classic. Score: around 9. Cost: $27. Where to Buy?
2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard “Esprit de Beaucastel” White Blend, Paso Robles
Light blonde-gold in color, this wine has a rich nose of star fruit, mineral, and floral aromas. In the mouth the overwhelming impression is one of balance and delicacy, though this is quickly eclipsed by a sensuousness of texture upon which float flavors of white peaches, pears, and a calcified minerality that extend into a long, beautiful finish. Score: around 9. Cost: $40. Where to Buy?
2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard Viognier, Paso Robles
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of strong linalool (think fruit loops) mixed with the classic candied peach aromas typical of the varietal. In the mouth this wine is a smooth operator, with a nice mix of peach and apple flavors that linger nicely into a moderate finish. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $28. Where to Buy?
2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard “Antithesis” Chardonnay, Paso Robles
Light yellow-gold in color, this wine smells overwhelmingly of vanilla. In the mouth it offers flavors of golden apples resting on a bed of nice acidity, but these apples lack complexity. The wine has a pleasant finish, but cannot transcend its own niceties. Score: around 8. Cost: $27. Where to Buy?
2005 Tablas Creek Vineyard Cunoise, Paso Robles
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells like grape soda laced with pomegranate syrup. In the mouth, for a few moments, you might actually think that it IS grape soda laced with pomegranate, though the lack of carbonation gives it away for being merely a light fruity wine that some might love, but I certainly don’t — not my style. Score: between 7.5 and 8. Cost: $33. Where to Buy?
2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard Rose, Paso Robles
Light pink in the glass, this wine pairs aromas of strawberries and lilacs to tantalize at first whiff. In the mouth it possesses a light sweetness, made bearable by a decent amount of acidity and pleasant strawberry and raspberry flavors. Not mineral or dry enough in its aspect to pass for a French rose, this is nonetheless one of the better California pink wines out there. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $27. Where to Buy?
2005 Tablas Creek Vineyard “Cote de Tablas” Red Blend, Paso Robles
Dark ruby in color, this wine offers cherry and earthy aromas and a nice combination of plum and cherry flavors tinged with an appealing earthiness. Fine tannins, and secondary flavors of sandalwood emerge as the wine crosses the palate, but these are replaced by a light bitterness on the finish that diminishes the wine’s overall impression. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $16. Where to Buy?
2005 Tablas Creek Vineyard “Esprit de Beaucastel” Red Blend, Paso Robles
Dark garnet in color, this wine has an alluring nose of cassis, wet earth, and mushrooms. In the mouth it is rich with flavors of cassis, cherry, and leather that hang on a framework of leather and iron that rings with a clarity of a perfectly forged bell. The finish extends these resonant flavors as long as you have the patience to pay attention. Drinking this wine not only provokes intense pleasure, it begs the question as to why more people are not making similarly styled southern Rhone blends this well. Undoubtedly age worthy. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $34. Where to Buy?
2005 Tablas Creek Vineyard Tannat, Paso Robles
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine has a strong cassis and blackberry nose. In the mouth it is true to its name, with grapey flavors of cassis, blackberry, and blueberry studded with rebar-stiff tannins that grab the edge of your mouth as if they want the wine to linger longer than you might. Not that you’re in a rush to get it out of your mouth — it has a nice texture and admirable length, despite lacking some complexity that it might recover with some age. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $32. Where to Buy?
2005 Tablas Creek “Esprit de Beaucastel – Panoplie” Red Blend, Paso Robles
Dark Garnet in color, this wine has an attractive nose of strong black raspberry aromas. In the mouth the deep and resonant core flavors center on cherry and plum, with high notes of cassis and faint tannins that linger into a moderate finish. Not quite as complex as the normal bottling to my taste, this limited release is nonetheless a beautiful wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $90. Only available through the winery.
2005 Tablas Creek Vineyard Syrah, Paso Robles
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of blackberry and chocolate. In the mouth briary blackberry flavors dominate body of the wine which also contains hints of leather. Good acidity and a beautifully dry profile makes this a good food wine, but one that lacks the complexity and lushness its nose promises. Score: between 8 and 8.5. Cost: $35. Where to Buy?
2005 Tablas Creek Vineyard Mourvedre, Paso Robles
Dark garnet in the glass this wine has a gorgeous nose of dried black cherries, blueberries and a hint of grapeyness that is often the signature of this variety for me. In the mouth it is smooth “like buttah,” its earthy, leathery tones wrapping around a core of dark cassis, plum, and black cherry fruit that lingers into a beautiful finish. There are very few excellent renditions of this grape variety in California, and this is one of the best. Score: around 9. Cost: $35. Where to Buy?
2005 Tablas Creek Vineyard “Vin de Paille – Sacre Rouge” Mourvedre Dessert Wine, Paso Robles
Dark garnet in color, this wine smells of stewed prunes and roasted figs. In the mouth it is moderately sweet, with flavors of prunes and chocolate, making me wonder whether I enjoyed drinking it as much as I would enjoy pouring it over some vanilla ice cream. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $45. Where to Buy?
2005 Tablas Creek Vineyard “Vin de Paille” White Dessert Wine, Paso Robles
Pale gold in color, this wine smells deliciously of yellow melon and honey. In the mouth it is silky and beautifully bright with acidity. The flavors continue in the vein of melon and honey, with additional hints of poached pear, all of which are only moderately sweet. This lightness, along with the pretty medley of flavors are the wines chief points of recommendation as an excellent dessert wine. Score: around 9. Cost: $60. Where to Buy?
2005 Tablas Creek Vineyard “Vine De Paille – Quintessence” Roussanne Dessert Wine, Paso Robles
Bright yellow-gold in the glass, this wine has a stunning nose of peaches, meyer lemon and bergamot aromas. On the palate it is weighty and thick, while at the same time offering a silkiness, that leaves me thinking of a nude in a Titian painting. The flavors of lemon and mixed tropical fruits end up a bit syrupy for my tastes, and lack quite enough acidity to propel them onto a different plane of flavor. Still, this is the only dessert wine I’ve ever had made entirely from Roussanne, and I’m pleasantly surprised. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $80. Where to Buy?