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Bringing the heat 

Paso Robles' high temperatures yield great wines

The square in rural downtown Paso Robles (pronounced "ROBE-less" by purists, "RO-bulls" by locals), California is covered with May's lush, green grass and a sea of smiles -- the setting for the Paso Robles 25th Annual Wine Festival. It's difficult to believe this sleepy, virtually unknown wine region has been producing wine for a quarter century, but when you taste the quality, you quickly realize this former cow town has eagerly arrived.

An extremely hot area with the widest swing in daily temperature on earth -- up to 50 degrees in the summer, Paso specializes in grapes that bask in heat: cabernet sauvignon, syrah, zinfandel and other French Rhône-origin grapes. Not only is this place a great place to visit, the wines are truly astounding.

In the mid-1880s, Paso Robles (translation: "the pass of oaks") became a town for settlers drawn to the healing hot springs bubbling up in the hills. The pastoral Paso Robles Inn, opened in 1891, still sits grandly in the center of town, attracting tourists to its private springs and leisurely pace of life. As early as 1882, an Indiana settler named Andrew York began to grow grapes, launching a new community that began to thrive 100 years after York planted the first vine.

Until now, wineries have branded "Paso Robles" on their labels, proudly pushing their wine region. But recently, several vineyard owners in Paso banded together to institute a pack of sub-AVAs (American Viticulture Area) in Paso Robles. Currently, the entire region, roughly 26,000 acres, is under two AVAs, Paso Robles and York Mountain, encompassing plots of land with different soil composition and climates. Establishing official sub-AVAs through the government allows wineries to market their estate wines under their true birthplace -- much like the Russian River Valley AVA for pinot noir or chardonnay under the larger Sonoma Valley name. (For more information on AVAs and their purpose, read "The Sweet Spot" at http://charlotte.creativeloafing.com/gyrobase/Content?oid=oid%3A158853). The plan, which is currently winding its way through government approval, divides the Paso region into a total of 13 AVAs, all with their own distinctions (and from what I heard, politics). But until those are in force, wineries use Highway 101 as an imaginary divider, talking casually of Eastside, which is drier with a warmer climate, and Westside, cooler and rainier.

Wineries don't print these delineations on the label -- that's where the AVAs help -- but understanding the differences between the regions will help you decide whether to buy a bottle or not. To completely generalize (and this is dangerous, since weather pockets pepper both areas), if you like fully ripe, redolent, fruity wines, look for those from the Eastside; the more austere, acidic juice is found on the Westside.

More than 40 grape varieties are grown in Paso. I tasted luscious and fragrant white viogniers, syrahs that opened my eyes to Paso's possibilities, and well-made yet rare red gems like grenache. In addition to these Rhône varieties, you can also find excellent, full-bodied sauvignon blancs, jammy petite syrahs and fantastic red blends that will convert you.

With this type of experimentation in the farming and in the cellar, one thing you'll feel in Paso Robles is the sense that anything is possible. The burgeoning community anxiously aspires to be as household a name as Napa ... but hopefully a little earthier.

More about Paso Robles wineries and their personalities in next week's Corkscrew.

Recommended Wines

Vina Robles 2005 "Red" Huerhuero Paso Robles From the Huerhuero estate on the Eastside comes fruit that bursts into your mouth like a fireworks display. Fragrant violets and roses, and ripe, opulent black cherry explode into a leathery, fruity finish. Sw = 2. $15. **** 1/2

Liberty School 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Paso Robles Soft and approachable with bright cherry, vanilla and a bit of spiciness. Great value for the quality. Sw = 1. $15. ****

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star (*) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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