San Luis Obispo: Solidifying an Identity
BY JOSH RAYNOLDS | APRIL 14, 2020
region within San Luis Obispo County is, of course, Paso Robles. However, most
wines that carry the San Luis Obispo designation bear little resemblance to those
from that AVA, emphasizing elegance and energy over ripeness and strength.
Blessed with a varying topography of rolling hills and exposures, San Luis Obispo produces a range of wines.
A Large and Varied
Region, Roughly Defined
varieties feature heavily in the wines of Paso Robles, at the northern end of
San Luis Obispo County, cooler-climate grapes, especially Pinot Noir and
Chardonnay, take center stage in what’s generally referenced as “San Luis
Obispo.” That’s especially true for the two most famous AVAs of the area, Edna
Valley and Arroyo Grande, as well as those wines made from fruit grown in
what’s becoming known as coastal San Luis Obispo. That particular, markedly
cold region which has some vineyards planted just a few miles from the Pacific
Ocean, can produce some of the most emphatically taut, racy Pinots and
Chardonnays made anywhere, while Syrah
is increasingly being thrown into the mix.
But for many wine
lovers, San Luis Obispo remains synonymous with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and
for good reason. While a handful of excellent bottlings are being made from,
for example, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Grenache Blanc and Albariño, it’s Burgundy
varieties that dominate the plantings in the region and the market as well.
Syrah on the Rise
John Alban, of
course, has long produced some of the best Syrahs in the world from his estate
in Edna Valley. Stolo Vineyards also stands out. Brian Talley has entered the
game with a splash, producing a wine that fans of his Pinots should instantly
recognize for their energy and balance. By all indications and accounts of
producers who have been working here (not to mention the number of impressive wines
that I have tasted in recent years), there’s great potential for Syrah here to
offer a compelling alternative to the richer styles often found in the much
warmer, neighboring Paso Robles to the north.
Raised, mineral-rich seabed soils and close proximity to the Pacific Ocean contribute greatly to the energy of many of San Luis Obispo's best wines.
eighteen experienced an
extremely cool, and long, growing season – the coldest since 2010, in fact – and
the wines, so far, show it, conveying bright, racy character and strong
tension. There’s good depth and complexity as well, thanks to a relatively
trouble-free growing season and a harvest that in some vineyards, especially
those closest to the ocean, extended into November. Yields were also healthy
and generally up by anywhere from 10% to 20% for most sites.
That’s in contrast
to the difficult conditions of 2017. Abundant rainfall in the late
winter helped to replenish water tables, but the spring and summer were hot and
dry (thank goodness for that early rain). Epic heat spikes that hit the state
in August sent ripeness levels racing upward and forced the hand of growers,
many of whom pushed the harvest up to mid-August and then moved along at a
rapid pace. Luckily, few of the wines that I tasted show overripe, much less
roasted character, as this ocean-influenced region mostly didn’t get hit quite
as hard as other parts of California did by the brutal heat.
As for 2016,
it was a healthy, relatively cool and event-free year for the vines, which
produced an average-size crop and yielded wines that are well-balanced, with
fresh fruit character, and in the case of the red wines, well-knit, supple
tannins that will allow for enjoyable, but by no means required, early drinking.
This vintage has a greater kinship to 2018, for me, and has produced a number
of serious crowd-pleasing wines that have already found many fans.
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Paso Robles Can’t Stop Winning, Josh Raynolds, February 2020
Santa Lucia Highlands Braves the Heat in 2017, Josh Raynolds, November 2019
San Luis Obispo County Plays It Cool, Josh Raynolds, January 2019
Paso Robles 2016 & 2015: New Releases, Josh Raynolds, September 2018