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Tablas Creek: Patriarch of California Rhones

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Tablas Creek General Manager and partner Jason Haas. (Courtesy photo)

Today, the Paso Robles region is known for producing the best Rhone-style blends outside of iconic Rhone Valley appellations like Chateaunef-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras. A recent list of California Rhone-style reds recommended by Wine Spectator magazine included releases from Saxum, Denner, Booker and Epoch, all from appellations in the Paso Robles region.

This didn’t just happen, there had to be a pioneer, someone who had the expertise, could do the research and was willing a to take a big risk. Tablas Creek Vineyards and Winery was such a trailblazer and we were able to meet up with General Manager Jason Haas during a recent visit to the Paso Robles area. I am familiar with Tablas Creek wines but am always willing to visit the engaging property and taste their current releases.

We were fortunate to see Jason on a Sunday. He was hosting a vertical tasting of past tannat releases for their membership. Tannat is a grape that originates from southern France, but, today is grown in parts of South Africa and South America, where it has become the national grape of Uruguay.

Known for deep color and a firm tannic structure, tannat is often blended with other varietals, but Tablas Creek has produced a 100 percent tannat release for several years. A few years ago, I served a 2010 Tablas Creek Tannat ($50) with the Rogue River Creamery Smokey Blue Cheese. The wine had softened with age, but elegantly stood up to the nutty, toasted flavors of the cheese, nicknamed as “candied bacon.”

The Tablas Creek story began with a friendship, then partnership with the Perrin family of France’s Chateau de Beaucastel and Robert Haas, a long-time importer of fine wines. Convinced that this region could replicate the Mediterranean climate, they searched and eventually purchased the existing 120-acre property in 1989.

To insure quality from the beginning, Tablas Creek took cuttings from the finest clones on the Chateau de Beaucastel estate that were subject to a three-year quarantine. Planting began in 1994 and their first vintage was released in 1997.

Robert Haas died in March 2018 after a long and extraordinary career. Establishing Rhone varietals in Paso Robles stands as one of his remarkable achievements.

Tablas Creek is a certified organic winery that practices biodynamic farming. They are the only winery in California that has a shepherd on staff. Nathan Stuart’s vineyard sheep contribute to the biodynamic process in vineyards that produce 25,000-30,000 cases annually.

Jason began our tasting with three Rhone-style whites blends, wines that generally appeal to red wine drinkers. The highly reviewed Cotes de Tablas Blanc 2015 ($30) is composed of equal parts viognier, grenache blanc, marsanne and roussanne, exhibiting intense flavors that are approachable now.

The roussanne-dominant Esprit de Tablas 2014 ($50), the winery’s top tier white wine, delivers a rich complexity of flavors with added grenache blanc and picpoul for crispness. The Patelin de Tablas Blanc 2016 ($25), designed to be an everyday wine, was among Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2017 with aptly described succulent stone fruit flavors.

The crisp and acidic Picpoul Blanc 2017 ($30), a varietal increasingly evident on restaurant wine lists, expresses both tropical and citrus flavors and a notable minerality throughout the finish.

With the Rhone-style red blends, Tablas Creek produces three tiers: Patelin de Tablas featuring syrah, the Cotes de Tablas featuring grenache and the Esprit de Tablas that highlights mourvedre.

The grenache-based Cotes De Tablas 2016 ($35), and previous vintages, remind me of a tasting, years ago, in Gigondas. There is a luscious spiciness to this blend. Mourvedre is at the heart of the Esprit De Tablas 2015 ($55), earthy on the nose and palate, yet enabling the grenache to add expressions of fruit. Both wines are reasonably priced.

From head-trained rather than trellised vines, the En Gobelet 2016 ($50) is a blend of mourvedre, grenache, syrah, counoise and, yes, a bit of tannat. I found extraordinary range in the aromas and flavors of this wine which has received high accolades across the board. Fruit, spice and herbal flavors are perfectly balanced and will be enhanced with age.

Tablas Creek Winery was at the forefront of Rhone-style wine in Paso Robles, yet they continue to lead in sustainable farming practices and recurrently strive to produce the best wine possible.

Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 15 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email him at sfewine@gmail.com.

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