An intense afternoon sun draped the resplendent Daou Vineyards and Winery in shadows as a cool breeze refreshed patrons passing through the elegant courtyard and tasting room.
At 2,200 feet, Daou is the highest vineyard in Paso Robles, California. The state-of-the-art winery, tasting room and magnificent rotunda sit atop row after row of vines at a steep 40 degree incline.
Stunned by the vista that looked like a painting, I was further impressed by the elegant elevation wines and prowess of winemaker Daniel Daou.
There is a perfect storm of ecological events at Daou Vineyards.
While downtown Paso Robles routinely racks up 100-degree summer days, high elevation allows Daou to stay cool. The vineyard is above the fog and frost lines. In springtime the fruit is safe from any damage, and in the summer it can fully ripen under the intense aspect ratio.
Even with fewer hot days, Daou is usually the first to harvest in Paso Robles because the vineyards receive plenty of photosynthesis from the aspect ratio. With fewer 100-degree days the vines don’t shut down as often. For 14 hours they get intense sunlight and a cool breeze because they are just 13 miles east of the Pacific Ocean.
“The elevation is fantastic for temperature,” winemaker Daniel Daou said. “At 96 degrees vines go into survival mode and shut down and stop producing sugar,” Daou said. “Last summer only five days on the mountain reached 100 degrees, while downtown they routinely reach 100 degrees.”
With 100 percent calcarous clay soil, a vibrant minerality is present in the entire portfolio of Daou wines. Daou never presses fruit because he said he favors the “silky, gentle well- integrated tannins” of free run juice.
“Making wine from fruit grown in our soil is a pleasure,” said Daou, who has used the only To Kalon and Clone 338 cabernet sauvignon clones in Paso Robles because of the low yields and intense fruit they provide.
“They are unadulterated wines that are a pleasure to make. Paso Robles doesn’t get as much water as Napa or Sonoma, but at high elevation when fronts come in off the Pacific they dump rain on us. Downtown Paso got four inches of rain last year. We got 16 inches. In a normal year we don’t have to irrigate until August. In a wet year we only dry farm. The moisture is there, and the roots can go down and find it.
“It snows here in the winter. Come here in February or March and you think you are in Aspen. It is beautiful. That’s what makes our terroir so unique you might be able to clone a view or a label in the wine industry or use the same clone someone else uses. But the climate, soil and calcareous limestone soil here can’t be cloned.”
What to buy
Daou, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, 2011 ($56): A brilliant marriage of fruit and herbal notes. Thyme, cigar bax, tobacco leaves and vanilla notes add complexity to the black currant fruit flavors. An acidic backbone ties everything freshly together.
Daou, Celestus, 2011 ($46): Dark purple in color and loaded with flavors, Celestus over delivered in complexity. A metallic minerality is the undercurrent in an ideal syrah (59 percent) and cabernet sauvignon (32 percent) blend. Blackberry and dried herbs seamlessly mix with peppercorns and rich, dark chocolate notes.
Daou received some good-natured ribbing by his French colleagues on a recent return to his native country. He’s embraced technology, evidenced by his state-of-the-art winemaking facility and the information available on his smartphone. Vineyard sensors are linked to an application on his phone that monitor soil moisture levels.
• James Nokes writes a bi-weekly wine column for Shaw Media. He’s been tasting, touring and collecting in the wine world for several years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.