California's Tablas Creek: A pioneer in producing Rhone-style wines

12_Patelin_web_size_1[1]Let me take you on a California taste adventure — experiencing wines that are nothing like the broad swathe of California reds and whites, but instead mirror the rocky, hilly, cool terroir of southwest France in the western reaches of Paso Robles.

Meet Tablas Creek and its modern take on old-world wines.

These wines are meticulous: Grapes are picked off vines from budwood brought from the Rhone region in France. Wines are fermented on native yeasts in stainless steel and in large upright casks —  and aged in those large wooden vats of neutral oak to reduce the oak factor. Plus the producer uses earth-friendly practices in the vineyard.

Tablas Creek was founded in 1989 by the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel in the Rhone Valley of France and American importer Robert Haas, who made the Beaucastel and Tablas Creek brands a key part of his Vineyard Brands importing business.

The Tablas Creek winery and vineyard are in the Central Valley of California west of Paso Robles. It makes mostly Rhone varietal wines on its 120-acre certified-organic vineyard.

The main grapes are Mourvèdre, Grenache Noir, Syrah, and Counoise for reds, and Roussanne, Viognier, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc for whites.

Earlier this month, the nonprofit organization Rhone Rangers, formed in the 1980s and today comprised of about 150 wineries devoted to Rhone varietals, announced that Robert Haas will be honored in April with its second annual Lifetime Achievement Award to recognize his contributions to the Rhone wine movement in the U.S. (Last year, the first award went to Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon.)

Here’s a taste:

Tablas Creek Vineyard Patelin de Tablas Paso Robles 2012, $20

This expressive, well-mannered delicious red wine is a blend of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre and Counoise. It’s dry, but the fruit is expressive and delicious and pure. There is no real intrusion of oak — this wine is all about flavor and fruit. It has good acidity for structure. The whole package is well-knit. It’s fermented off native yeast (on the skins). It’s a dry, approachable Rhone-style red wine with bold fruit flavors of dark cherry, strawberry, blackberry, dark plum and dark chocolate.

Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc 2012, $27

This blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc is a dry cocktail of stone fruit, citrus, floral, slate and minerality. To quote the winery tasting notes, it has a “a creamy texture and a pleasing saline mineral note at the end that helps keep the long finish clean and fresh.” It’s bone-dry but still appealing and approachable. Very Southern Rhone-like but kissed by the California sun.

Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas Blanc 2011, $40

This is an amazing wine — dry, structured, complex, certainly nothing like the Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs that American palates are used to. It’s a blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc, all from the 120-acre certified-organic estate vineyard. The nose is hazelnut, subtle honey and subtle tart citrus. Flavors are rich, streaked with minerality and just a hint of oak.

Tablas Creek Esprit de Tablas 2011, $55

This smooth, earthy, structured red  is a blend of Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah and Counoise. The oak is ever-so-subtly used. The nose is dark berries, roasted meat, and black tea. In the mouth, tannins are supple; flavors are sweet berries, licorice, spice. The winery recommends you cellar this vintage to experience its full potential.

Tablas Creek Roussanne 2011, $30

Intense, elegant and well-structured: This single varietal wine is a great snapshot of this important white Rhone grape. Aromas are honeyed with white floral notes and zesty ripe pear. Most of the estate-grown Roussanne goes into the Esprit Blanc, but when there’s an exceptional vintage and there’s a little left over, they bottle it as a single varietal. They made 750 cases of the 2011 Roussanne.  It’s fermented off native yeasts in large, neutral wooden vats to diminish the impact of the wood. See this Tablas Creek blog item on the vats, also known as foudres. This wine is still young and closed in. Tablas Creek expects you to be able to age this wine for a decade.

Tablas Creek Mourvedre 2011, $40

Soft tannins, and lush flavors of dark berries, fig, plum and chocolate offer a rare taste of this single varietal Mourvedre, usually a blending grape that Tablas Creek puts into its Esprit de Beaucastel. This red was fermented in stainless steel and moved to large wood vats to complete fermentation. Various lots were blended in May of 2012 and then aged another year in 1,200-gallon foudres — large neutral vats popular in the Rhone — and bottled in April of this year.

You can reach Sandra Silfven at