When it comes to making wine, everything starts with weather. Every single growing season is unique. Weather events will influence the wine that ultimately makes it to your glass. But it is not just simply a case of good or bad weather that’s shaping the wine.
It comes down to the skill of the grape growers to adapt to what Mother Nature throws at them, which is why most producers will argue that there is no such thing as a good or bad vintage. A good vigneron – one who concentrates on good grape growing – will most often put out a good bottle of wine. What it usually means is that some vintages are meant to be drunk more immediately, while others may require extra time in a cellar to reach their optimum.
“Some vintages just start showing better early.” – Austin Hope
While it might seem inconvenient if you are not guaranteed to have the same taste in a wine from one year to the next (there are industrial winemakers who do their best to eliminate variation), it is the mystery of what a particular vintage will taste like that makes wine such a beautiful and intriguing subject matter.
Since 1990, when there were fewer than 20 wineries in Paso Robles, a large expansion of activity has seen the number rise to more than 200 wineries today. The region has approximately 26,000 vineyard acres planted with wine grapes, and is well known for its heritage varietal zinfandel, Rhône-style wines, cabernet and red blends and styles that are unique to the area.
Austin Hope, who is both the overseer of his namesake company Hope Family Wines and its head winemaker, is producing excellent wines that are truly indicative of place and its environment. He’s a passionate ambassador for Paso Robles, and his wines are testament to that passion. As a matter of fact, his “Austin Hope” label 2018 cabernet sauvignon was my pick for 2020 red wine of the year – an announcement that was revealed to our newsletter subscribers in December.
“We’ve spent the better part of the last 10 years understanding the region and its soils,” said Hope during my virtual tasting and conversation with him last May. “Paso can be summed up with one word, and that’s diversity. Our proximity to the ocean is a big benefit to us. We don’t typically see rain until November or December and that carries through to March or April. So, we’re super lucky in that we don’t have to worry about rain interfering with our harvest.”
When speaking of his noteworthy cabernet wines, Hope says “there’s certain flavour profiles I am trying to create and understand. Cabs made with aggressive, hard and drying tannins are just not favourable for me. We’ve learned how to massage our tannins here.”
According to officials at Paso Robles Wine Country (pasowine.com), the 2017 vintage marked the end of a five-year drought in California. The wettest portions of the Paso Robles AVA saw as much as 45 inches of rain, primarily in January which was the wettest of the months. This cold, wet winter helped delay budbreak into a more normal cycle with the majority of budbreak seen across the AVA in the first week of April. More moderate, typical late summer/early fall weather followed a brief late spring heat spike, which brought much of the region into more balanced maturity and ripening. These cooler temperatures extended harvest well into October.
Wine Enthusiast Magazine proclaimed the Austin Hope 2017 cabernet sauvignon their 10th best wine of 2019 – a monumental achievement for Paso Robles and for Hope. “We want to set the standard for luxury cabernet in Paso Robles,” said Hope. “We have extreme goals we want to achieve and for Wine Enthusiast to give us this highest score for the region, that’s a big deal.”
Meanwhile, the 2018 vintage began with a cool, dry winter. Approximately 70 percent of the annual rainfall for the vintage came in February and March. The later and lower than normal rainfall helped to push bud break into mid to late March, later than what was expected but earlier than what is normal. A six-week heat wave that began mid summer delayed ripening and maturity. Once the heat subsided the weather returned to a more normal pattern through harvest. This cool period extended harvest, making for a more even, less stressful picking season.
“Some vintages just start showing better early,” said Hope on the subject of comparing his 2018 cabernet vs. the 2017. “We didn’t age ’18 as long as we did ’17 in barrel.” In fact, the difference was two full months and perhaps that has something to do with this wine seeming a bit more focused and precise. “This 2018 will prove to be one of the better wines we’ve ever made,” he says. “I love this wine. It’s just damn good.”
While both vintages offer their unique differences, leaving their fingerprint on each of these wines, it should also be stated that vintage variation isn’t as prevalent here as one might find in back-to-back vintages from Bordeaux, Burgundy or Ontario. Climate would certainly lend its hand in that assertion.
It is also clear to me that cabernet wines from Paso Robles are more approachable than most other neighbourly offerings, despite also being quite ageworthy. “You feel that weight across your palate all the way to the finish,” says Hope. “Smooth and not so aggressive. Very drinkable now, but they’ll age 20 years.”
2017 Cabernet Sauvignon
Dark ruby in colour, this wine expresses aromas of freshly picked blueberries, ripe black cherries, subtle notes of milk chocolate and dried spices. On the palate, the luscious supple tannins are powerful yet modern in style with layered flavours of juicy blackberry and red fruit. Nuances of black pepper, clove and vanilla bean round out the long smooth finish. It’s full-bodied, round and rich. A chewy, hearty wine with polished tannins. Will age for decades, but one need not wait that long. “Do our wines get better with age? That’s a bit of a loaded question,” says Hope somewhat jokingly. ($69.95)
2018 Cabernet Sauvignon
There’s layers upon layers of flavour and structure here. Rich and ripe cherry, smoke, dark chocolate, peppercorn spice. There’s even hints of smoked meat and bacon fat – usually something you tend to find in a well made syrah. Tannins are noticeable, but are smoothened, as if by a rolling pin. It doesn’t have that over-extracted flavour feeling, despite using a lot of new and once used French oak. This is next level cabernet and although it will cellar beautifully, this is wonderful to experience right now. Should be double the price, but I’m not complaining. Named VineRoutes’ red wine of the year for 2020. ($69.95)