Cabernet sauvignon continues to be one of the most popular wines from California, but outside of Napa Valley and Sonoma County, few regions are celebrated for making great examples. Winemakers in Paso Robles are looking to raise their reputation for outstanding cabernet in the hopes of joining that elite company.
A historic ranching community in northern San Luis Obispo County, Paso Robles is well known but often misunderstood by wine lovers, according to winemaker Austin Hope, whose family has been farming wine grapes since 1978. The region’s early reputation as a producer of top-quality old-vine zinfandel and more recent notoriety for exceptional wines made from red and white Rhône grape varieties, such as syrah, grenache and roussanne, have made it easy to overlook that the most widely planted grape is cabernet sauvignon.
“If you look on a scale, cabernet is the most dominant variety and always has been,” says Hope, who produces wines under his name as well as the Liberty School and Treana labels. “So, why hasn’t it been talked about? Honestly, there hasn’t been much focus on it in the premium segment.”
After years of working to find the best places in Paso Robles to successfully ripen cabernet, Hope has evolved his portfolio from the affordable Liberty School brand to the premium Treana range. In 2015, he added the Austin Hope Cabernet Sauvignon as a bid to market a US$50 bottle that compared to the likes of famous California producers such as Silver Oak, Harlan and Screaming Eagle. Other Paso Robles wineries, notably J. Lohr, Justin and Daou, also strive to produce exceptional regional examples.
Three widely available cabernets from Paso Robles feature amongst this week’s recommendations. The lineup also includes some other oddities and unexpected finds, including the first release from the Ottawa Valley’s only plantings of chardonnay and a stylish white Rhône style wine from British Columbia. The Napa chardonnay that rounds out the list isn’t unusual, but it is worth seeking out.
Austin Hope Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2018 (United States)
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $69.95
There’s no denying the blockbuster status of this full-bodied and flavourful cabernet sauvignon. Its velvety texture and hedonistic core of sweet cherry/kirch flavours with vanilla and cocoa, clove and peppery spice notes make it ready to drink. The abundance of fine-grained tannin suggests there’s capacity to age for the next decade or more, but I’m not sure there’s much to be gained. That powerful fruit character is the drawing card here. Drink now. Available in Ontario and Nova Scotia at the above price, $69.99 in Manitoba and New Brunswick, $69.75 in Quebec, $69.98 in Newfoundland.
Channing Daughters Rosso Fresco 2018 (United States)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $34.90
This esoteric red is an unconventional blend from one of Long Island’s most exciting wineries. Mainly merlot and cabernet franc with small percentages of blaufrankisch and dornfelder, Rosso Fresco is a fruity, fragrant and refreshing wine that’s perfectly suited to warm-weather enjoyment. Its lighter and vibrant style is best enjoyed with a slight chill. Drink now. Available in Ontario.
Freemark Abbey Chardonnay 2017 (United States)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.95
Chardonnay is the second most-planted variety in Napa, following cabernet sauvignon, which represents 40 per cent of total production in the valley. This complex and easy-to-appreciate white draws upon chardonnay grapes grown in different parts of Napa, including cooler sites in Carneros and a higher-elevation property on Howell Mountain. The result is a rich white wine that offers vibrancy and refreshment along with its creamy and honeyed character. Drink now. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in British Columbia and Alberta, $36.99 in Manitoba.
KIN Vineyards Carp Ridge Chardonnay 2018 (Canada)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $39.95
This is an auspicious debut for the first estate-grown chardonnay from this boutique winery in the Ottawa Valley. Winemaker Brian Hamilton, who worked at Southbrook Vineyards and Tawse Winery in Niagara as well as stints in California and New Zealand, brings a wealth of experience to an operation looking to cultivate the most northerly plantings of chardonnay and pinot noir in the province. This enjoyable white shows impressive character, with a richness to counterbalance the bright acidity one expects from cooler regions. Drink now to 2024. Available direct through kinvineyards.com.
J. Lohr Seven Oaks Cabernet Sauvignon 2017 (United States)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $23.95
J. Lohr has long been a source of crowd-pleasing red wines made in Paso Robles, including this steakhouse staple. The current release of its popular Seven Oaks cabernet sauvignon continues the trend, with silky texture and satisfying sweet cherry fruit flavours with peppery spice and herbal accents from the small additions of petite sirah and petit verdot. Drink now. Available in in Ontario at the above price, $23.99 in British Columbia, $28.49 in Saskatchewan, $23.75 in Quebec, $29.99 in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, $29.97 in Newfoundland.
Liberty School Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles 2017 (United States)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $22.95
Liberty School is the affordable label made by Austin Hope in Paso Robles. This full-bodied red wine shows a strong family resemblance, with ripe and dense sweet fruit flavours that are nicely balanced and structured. Its rich character and smooth texture give it mass appeal. Available in Ontario at the above price, $23.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $21.49 in Saskatchewan, $21.99 in Manitoba $20 in Quebec, $24.99 in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, $25.98 in Prince Edward Island, $24.98 in Newfoundland.
Stag’s Hollow Rosé 2019 (Canada)
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $24
This appealingly juicy dry rosé blends syrah and zweigelt grown in the Okanagan and Similkameen valleys in British Columbia to great effect. The resulting mix of fruit, floral and peppery spice notes makes for a pink wine with layers of flavour and more interest and enjoyment as a result. Drink now. Available direct through stagshollowwinery.com
Terravista Vineyards Figaro 2018 (Canada)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $26
An unusual Okanagan Valley blend of 80-per-cent roussanne with 20-per-cent viognier from Bob and Senka Tennant, previous owners of British Columbia’s famed Black Hills Estate, Figaro is an intriguing white that’s rich and extremely gratifying. The mix of ripe fruit, floral and spice aromas and flavours is nicely layered with a bright finish. Drink now to 2024. Available direct through terravistavineyards.com
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