A Sit Down with Paul Hobbs

May 22, 2008

I sat down earlier this week with Paul Hobbs, the California-based winemaker whose eponymous California wines rate highly with my colleague James Laube. Hobbs is a busy man, as he works both sides of the equator.

Hobbs has found a second home in South America, where he wears many different hats: He consults with a number of Chilean wineries, including Viña San Pedro, Odfjell and MontGras, and while in Argentina he works with Bodega del Desierto in Patagonia and the newly created Finca Las Divas in Mendoza. His main project, however, is partnering with the husband-and-wife team of Luis Barraud and Andrea Marchiori in Viña Cobos.

Viña Cobos is based on the family owned Marchiori vineyard, a 52-hectare parcel in the prime Perdriel region of Mendoza, planted primarily to Malbec, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot. The vineyard, which features some 70- and 80-year-old vines, is planted on loamy silt and clay soils that produce richly textured, dark-fruited wines, a style that plays well into Hobbs’ hands.

Viña Cobos has been steadily undergoing some changes in recent years, not the least of which was finishing construction on a winery facility. During its first few years (the winery debuted in the El Niño-ravaged 1998 vintage) the project rented space in a few different wineries, so getting quality control under their own roof was an important step for Hobbs, Barraud and Marchiori.

In addition, the entire Marchiori vineyard now has hail netting installed, an expensive proposition, but necessary when all your eggs are in one basket (most wineries in Mendoza have their vineyards spread out, to hedge against the destructive nature of the very localized hail storms that are common in the region). While the netting provides peace of mind against hail, it does require some careful viticulture—the black netting blocks both sunlight (around 10 to 15 percent according to Hobbs) as well as heat (1 to 2 degrees Celsius).

“It’s all about learning to work with the netting,” explained Hobbs. “It requires a lot of hand work, both on the canopy and the fruit zone."

I found the earlier vintages of Viña Cobos wines, the Malbec in particular, to be very opulent, with creamy fig and boysenberry flavors. While a gorgeous example in the hypermodern vein, they were also very stylistic. Tasting the not-yet-released '06 Marchiori Vineyard Malbec shows that the wine is still a powerful, fruit-driven version (the wine is aged 20 months in 100 percent new Taransaud barrels) but I also found more definition with a nice underlying raciness, perhaps from the ever-so-slight reduction in light and heat the grapes received. While it still has some toast to absorb, it does show terrific mouthfeel already.

The new Unico bottling, which debuted in the 2005 vintage, blends Cabernet Sauvignon along with some of the choicest Malbec from the Marchiori vineyard. Cab is arguably Hobbs’ strong suit, but I still had to ask why make a blend with Malbec when Malbec is not only Argentina’s best grape, but in doing so, take away some juice from the limited Malbec bottling (which is usually in the paltry 500-case range).

“I’m a big lover of Cabernet and I feel very strongly about the quality of the Cab we have in the [Marchiori] vineyard,” said Hobbs, matter-of-factly.

The proof is in the bottle. The ’06 version shows a huge core of black currant, fig sauce and ganache flavors—very Cabernet-like—but with a freshness on the finish. As with the Malbec bottling, I also found it to have even better definition than the ’05 (which was reviewed in the June 15 issue).

"It’s taken a few years to get it down," said Hobbs, referring to managing the Cabernet vines. "But now we’re starting to see more of the graphite and mineral notes, which is what I really like.”

While reds dominant the portfolio here, there is also an improving Chardonnay. Hobbs instituted night picking with the ’07 vintage (also not yet released) in order to keep the Chardonnay grapes cool and preserve freshness.

“The night picking reduces the oxidative processes as enzymatic activity is greatly slowed down,” explained Hobbs, who adds that he then doesn’t need as much sulphur during fermentation. The resulting wine is brighter and purer. Previous vintages have been on the very good-to-outstanding cusp, with rich graham and honeyed apple notes. But in contrast the ’07 offers a brighter profile, with more yellow apple and floral notes while still keeping its rich and creamy texture.

The Cobos wines are not cheap, and Hobbs admits to seeing some resistance in the market when he initially released the winery’s ’04 reds. But since then Cobos has opened international markets to go along with its U.S. distribution. Since the wines are sourced from a single estate vineyard, production can’t increase, so demand consequently rose for the ‘05s and now presold ‘06s despite the high price point. All of which proves that while it's easy to make a splashy entrance into the wine world, it's slow, steady progress and establishing a track record that are the keys to long-term success.

United States California

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