Tasting The Terroir At Tablas Creek

Tablas Creek Vineyard was The Daily Meal's 2015 Winery of the Year, hailed "for industry leadership, stylistic influence, and consistent quality." Recently, I had the chance to visit the winery in the beautiful California Central Coast region of Paso Robles to see how things are going at this acclaimed property.

Tablas Creek is a 25-minute drive from Paso, up a twisting tree-lined two-lane road heading into the Santa Lucia Mountains. Although you pass vineyards and wineries all the way up, it is sobering to remember that when Tablas Creek purchased its land in 1989, it was almost the first in the area. People scratched their heads that such "smart money" — the winery is owned by the Perrin family of the top-rated Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the noted American wine importer Robert Haas of Vineyard Brands and his son, Jason — had not gone to Northern California. Their rationale was terroir. The Paso Robles region was rich with the same calcareous (chalk) soil that the Perrins prized in the southern Rhône. Also comparable was the annual rainfall.

Since moving to the Central Coast, Tablas Creek has given back. Some 700 vineyards in the United States, from California to Texas to Virginia, are planted Tablas Creek clones (cultivated by the NovaVine nursery in Santa Rosa).  

To get a picture of the viticulture at its own property, I toured the vineyards with Tablas Creek's British-born winemaker, Neil Collins, who has held the position here since 1998. A major theme is the calcareous soil, which Collins considers to contribute greatly to the expression of the grapes. Vines are planted close together to create competition (1600–1800 plants per acre). They are trellised low to the ground to receive radiant heat back off the soil (as in the southern Rhône) and, in some cases (especially with mourvèdre), head-trained. The whole vineyard is organically farmed and has been certified since 2003. Biodynamic farming began in 2010. Pruning and harvesting is all done by hand using multiple passes. 

To the strains of Mazzy Star, the tasting room staff then took me through the current offerings. The wines below are worth ordering from the winery or your local wine store. Prices are at the winery and through its VINsider Wine Club:  

Tablas Blanc 2014 ($27/$21.60). The winery's workhorse white-table wine — in this vintage 42 percent viognier, 30 percent grenache blanc, 23 percent marsanne, and 5 percent roussanne. Glorious lemon and lime citrus notes in the nose and an enveloping minerality in the mouth.

Roussanne 2013 ($35/$28). It's good to see a 100 percent roussanne on the card. This is a grape that offers a unique mouthfeel and flavors. This example is rich like honey in the mouth. It has a subdued nose and a precise fruit-acid balance. The leader of the tasting recommends it with Dungeness crab, and I would not disagree.

Counoise 2014 (club members only, $35). Onto red and the southern French counoise grape, prominent at Tablas Creek. It figures mainly in blends but in the right vintage is bottled as a monovarietal. This example is 100 percent counoise (the first since 2010). It has grippy tannins and medium-plus acidity. It will be interesting to see how it will age.

Terret Noir 2014 ($35/$38). One of the 13 permitted Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties, 100 percent. There are only 0.6 acres planted at Tablas — which is more than at the Perrin estate in France. More will be planted. Almost rosé, but with lots of tannin. Spice, thyme, and wild strawberry in the nose. It's interesting to taste this unusual grape.

Esprit de Tablas 2013 ($55/$44). The flagship red. Leads with mourvèdre, rather than the grenache more common in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Made in the second year of the drought, with lots of heat spikes and the earliest harvest ever here (early August). The weather conspired to produce a vivacious, fruity, lovely wine. Still has potential to age.

Esprit de Tablas 2012 ($55/$44). Unlike the 2013, a classic Paso vintage. Not a lot of heat spikes, with harvest in September and October. Less opulent than the 2013 but will be long aging. Buy both and compare.