DAOU Vineyards west of Paso Robles, a makers of superb Bordeaux
OK, please forgive me because I’m about to toot my own horn: my SOMM Journal cover story on the phenolic content of Paso Robles Bordeaux has just been published. It was a lot of work, but well worth it, and I learned a tremendous amount about the geekier side of wine-making. Here’s my original version, if you’re interested (it was changed a bit by the editors for print):
A Great Terroir Comes into its Own
A strong message was delivered at the Paso Robles CAB Collective phenolics conference: It’s one of the world’s great Bordeaux regions.
Like any time-honored tradition, winemaking was always considered more of an art than a science, governed by instincts honed over many years in the vineyard and dutiful adherence to longstanding practices. What to plant, where to plant, how much canopy to remove, the ideal moment to harvest, what to blend, how long to age – during much of our long history of winemaking, all of these decisions were made through a mix of hunches, received knowledge and empiricism.
But gradually, science has brought changes to the winemaker’s world, and one area of analysis – phenolics – seems poised to revolutionize the way red wine is made, thanks to technological advances that make the process timelier and less cumbersome.
At its recent CABs of Distinction annual event in early May, the Paso Robles CAB (Cabernet and Bordeaux) Collective hosted a panel discussion on phenolic analysis that was a revelation to many of the sommeliers, wine retailers and other industry professionals who attended.
“The thing about Paso that’s challenging [for winemakers] is that there’s an element of surprise here because of the newness of the region, and I think as we get more familiar with its character it will be a very different place 10 years from now,” said Scott McLeod, moderator of the panel and co-founder of WineXRay, a company that provides rapid and precise measurements of the phenolic compounds found in red wine.
Phenolic measurement is particularly helpful for winemakers in a region such as Paso Robles, whose 11 newly named sub-appellations are only beginning to be assessed and understood. “Our system is a way for winemakers to really increase their knowledge of their wine very quickly. It allows them to make informed decisions about the winemaking process,” McLeod said.
The Importance of Phenols
To those who doubted the importance of paying attention to phenolic numbers, McLeod pointed out that the stakes are high. “Why should we care about phenolics? Because phenolics give us the essential visual, textural, structural and sensory qualities of red wine.”
McLeod added that phenolic analysis can also accurately predict a wine’s market value, and whether you can charge $15 or $60 a bottle “is very helpful to know in advance.” The winemakers on the panel nodded in unison: Daniel Daou, Winemaker/Owner of DAOU Vineyards & Winery; Michael Mooney, Winemaker/Owner of Chateau Margene; Kevin Sass, Winemaker at Halter Ranch Vineyard; and Kevin Willenborg, Winemaker at Vina Robles.
Phenols are the material other than juice that contributes to a wine’s “essence,” as McLeod describes it:
“Phenolic materials are the essential building blocks that make red wines red, and great red wines great. The structure of a wine is made of tannins and other phenolic materials that are found in the skins, seeds, and stems. They are essential for giving wine both structure and longevity, but if [they’re extracted] over the desired amounts, they can produce the textural sensation of astringency and bitterness.”
Phenolic analysis has been widely available since 2002. It measures anthocyanins, which give red wines their color, and tannins, which create a dry, astringent feeling on the sides of the tongue during a wine’s finish. But the test could take as long as four hours – an eternity during the volatile early stages of fermentation.
WineXRay shortened and simplified the process. A small spectrophotometer analyzes many different compounds in a wine sample by employing ultraviolet light. The results come back in about one or two minutes.
Daou is now able to measure his numbers twice a day. “That makes a huge difference,” he said, when a fermenting wine can change radically in 24 hours. “Timely phenolic [analysis] gives me the confidence to act quickly when I need to.”
Running the Numbers
Measuring phenolics provides an ever-growing body of statistics that show established parameters and provide detailed analysis of each vintage in many different AVAs. In this way, outstanding vintages can be better understood and, when possible, their qualities emulated by winemakers (though the vagaries of weather and many other factors, of course, can’t be controlled).
Crucially, phenolic testing reveals the levels of phenols that pertain to color, mouth-feel and structure. The larger the level of phenols, “the bigger the wine feels on your palate and … the richer it feels,” Halter Ranch’s Sass said. High numbers are also a good indicator of a wine’s aging ability, Sass added.
A vital statistic is the measurement of total phenols in parts per million. “When comparing wines, you can say that one wine is ‘more extracted’ than another based on the total phenols value,” McLeod said. “It is a very useful summary of the extraction of a given maceration.”
The most fascinating part of the panel discussion concerned the quality of Paso Robles reds, particularly its Bordeaux (despite its reputation as a major source of Zinfandel and Rhône wines, Bordeaux varietals still represent the largest share of cultivation and production in the Paso Robles AVA). McLeod said his company’s numbers reveal that 2013 is shaping up to be a stellar year for Bordeaux and other reds of the Central Coast.
Many 2013 Paso Robles CAB Collective wines have outstanding phenolic numbers: 200 to 300 parts per million for color, and tannin levels well above 2,000 parts per million. Jada, Peachy Canyon and Vina Robles were all well over 3,000 parts per million for total phenols; Opolo topped 4,000. The average total phenol number for PRCC members was 2,688 parts per million for the 2013 vintage, placing that group in a rarified category. “The phenolic measurements analyzed by WineXRay of the 2013 vintage undoubtedly show that Paso Robles has a terroir that rivals the best terroirs in the world in producing Bordeaux varieties,” Wine Business.com announced.
“We don’t often get a year like 2013,” said Mooney, who founded Chateau Margene and has been producing respected Bordeaux wines since the ’97 vintage. “The weather was as perfect as you could hope for – no freezes in the spring, no late temperature spikes in the fall, no unexpected rain but just enough precipitation.”
Even in less unusual years, Paso Robles Bordeaux compare favorably to their counterparts from France and Napa. In a tasting held before the seminar, two 2010 vintage Paso Robles Bordeaux, Justin Isosceles Reserve and DAOU Soul of a Lion, performed excellently against names such as Saint Julien’s Chateau Leoville Barton and Chateau Decru Beaucaillou and Napa’s Joseph Phelps Insignia and Dominus.
“Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignons have a distinct expression in the canon of Cabernet Sauvignons grown throughout the world,” said Mike Madrigale, head sommelier of Bar Boulud, who moderated the tasting panel. “The velvety texture, richness and freshness are what set it apart from other Cabs.”
My Tasting Experiences
My tasting experiences confirmed the winemakers’ rosy reports (see sidebar). Mooney’s 2013 reds were beautifully balanced and structured, and his intelligent use of new technologies and practices with oak barrels has added intriguing subtlety to his wines. J. Lohr’s extensive Cabernet Sauvignon line-up is similarly strong for the ’13 vintage, and Daou said he expected his 2013s to deliver strongly as well. All the winemakers on the panel agreed there’s a huge amount of punch to the vintage, though some added that great phenolic numbers don’t automatically translate into great wine. “It’s up to us as winemakers to make the most of that potential,” Mooney said.
A strong and unrelenting message underscored the Paso Robles CAB Collective’s presentation: Paso is superb Bordeaux country – among the world’s great regions.
True, it’s not a surprising message to come from the Central Coast’s principal promoter of Bordeaux blends. But wine industry professionals who have tasted recent vintages are generally in agreement: Among Paso’s best, the flavor profile is superior, with less assertive tannins, more luscious fruit and greater complexity than many Napa Cabs with bigger price tags. In terms of soil, climate, meteorological consistency, hang time and diurnal swing, parts of Paso are very well suited to Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot and other Bordeaux varietals. The 2013 vintage is especially sweet for those winemakers who had to struggle through challenging vintages in recent years.
To those who know the history of Paso Robles, this isn’t much of a revelation. It was the area’s potential for Bordeaux varietals that attracted Dr. Stanley Hoffman and other winemaking pioneers back in the 1960s and ’70s, long before the Zinfandel and Rhône crazes swept through.