Paul Hobbs: Cab fab

vina cobos(by peter)

Paul Hobbs is tanned.

OK, so the sultry private dining room in Soho House was dimly lit, but to me he seemed to glow even in the atmospheric gloom. His honey-coated Californian vowels floated around the room with an authoritative ease. Here was a man seemingly content with life, and his wines.

And it’s no surprise. Hobbs has made a good name for himself in the vineyards of not just California (Robert Mondavi, Opus One, Simi) but Argentina (Catena, Pascual Toso), Chile (Valdivieso, Odfjell, MontGras) and even Hungary. His promotional blurb adds that he’s been named the most influential winemaker in California and has achieved “that magical 100 point score from Parker”. He’s one of those consultants whose name wine producers like to drop into their sales patter – not as ubiquitous as Michel Rolland, not as obscure as many others – in order to confer gravitas and a sense of internationality on their products.

On this occasion, Hobbs was in London to present his Californian and Argentine wines in conjunction with his importer, Alliance Wine. (You can also find prices for the wines below on their website.) On show were 20 wines, the majority from Viña Cobos, his joint venture with Andrea Marchiori and Luis Barraud in Mendoza, with the balance made up of his eponymous Californian wines: Cabernet Sauvignons from Napa and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Russian River. (Tasting notes duly follow, below, with the emphasis on Argentina.)

I found the tasting to be an intriguing insight into the man. I tasted first, then quizzed Paul afterwards on a few issues I’d noticed.

The first was the Hobbs is an accomplished maker of Cabernet Sauvignon. Given the ubiquity of this bordelais variety, it’s easy to forget that it simply doesn’t work in some places – with Argentina being one of the worst culprits in recent years, with wines consistently showing baked, hard characters, either over-ripe or green – and all too often just simply unpleasant.

Hobbs, it was notable from the wines at all levels, has a deft touch with his Cabernet. His trademark style (both in Napa and Argentina) is one of ripe, forward fruit on the nose with just a hint of that classic Cabernet graphite earthiness. And then a juicy palate profile with balanced acidity and consistently rounded yet grippy tannins that are faithful to Cabernet’s firm structure. A New World, luxuriant style, admittedly, but one with a nod to the Old World.

I asked him what his secret was with Cabernet in Argentina, when so many people were clearly getting it all wrong. “Cabernet is one of the most fickle varieties I’ve worked with,” he surprised me by saying. “People think it will perform well anywhere and that’s why it’s underperformed in Argentina. You need to pay great attention to water, to the leaf colour and size, to nutrients. It’s as demanding as Pinot Noir. So you’ve got to watch the vineyard. If it stresses, you’ve lost it, and the tannins are hard.”

He went on. “One of my main focuses now is on promoting and building on Cabernet’s performance in Argentina. It’s under-appreciated but it has the ability to compete with Bordeaux and Napa Cabernet. The Argentines don’t really understand it. It takes a degree of meticulous work that’s more suited to a Japanese or Swiss mentality.”

So: the secret is hard work. Perhaps no surprise there. But it was good to see the example being set for others to follow in Argentina.

One major issue on which I parted company from Hobbs, however, was that of alcohol. It’s been said on these pages before, and will be repeated (by Susie as much as me): high alcohol wines are very, very difficult to drink (even in those rare cases where they are balanced). They’re impressive, sure. Intrinsically admirable even. But not drinkable. Not unless you want a headache and possibly worse, anyway.

Some of Hobbs’ wines reached 16% alcohol. There was a Chardonnay at 15.5%. (As a brief aside, it was interesting to note the often significant disparity between alcohol levels stipulated on Hobbs’ Californian wines, some of which had front labels for the UK market and back labels for the US market. The former invariably stipulated lower alcohols, often by significant margins. Although this was clearly a bureaucratic hiccup, it did highlight an important issue about the way in which alcohol is labelled in the US versus UK.)

I asked Hobbs whether high alcohol was an issue for him. “I understand the sensitivity to the issue,” he commented warily. “But my job is to make the best wine I can. Even wines at low alcohol can be out of balance. My job is to make reds with ripe tannin, ripe fruit and a seamless quality. To the extent that even at 16% the wines won’t appear alcoholic.”

It’s a classic winemaker’s line, and you can’t argue with it too much. Other than it’s probably a good idea in the long run to plant grapes and make wines in cooler areas, because people are going to start reacting against overly high alcohols in wine (as some, including us, already are). I also disagree that 16% wines won’t appear alcoholic: they will, but in the best cases they’ll just seem less alcoholic than they might have if they were thin and dilute. Ultimately, you can’t hide that warmth, spice and glycerol sweetness of high alcohol in a wine. Even if you can disguise it.

Tasting highlights (all reds were served just below room temperature)

Paul Hobbs Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2007, 15.5%

Elegant toasted nut nose. Lovely acidity here – vibrant and pure, it carries the weight of the creamy nutty flavours very well. So much so that it almost manages to conceal that bruising alcohol. Almost. But it’s very creditable, and I’m sure very popular with those who don’t mind that alcohol as much. 7-6.5

Viña Cobos Felino Malbec 2007, 14.5%

Supposedly the lesser line, this Felino Malbec was aged for eight months in barrels and is a blend of fruit from mainly Luján de Cuyo and the higher altitude Uco Valley. As so often with Argentine Malbec, the supposedly lesser lines show the most attractive aromas: violets, vibrant damson and herbs, fresh and engaging. Lovely broad succulent palate with caramel notes. Bit hot and spicy to be truly easy everyday drinking though. 6

Viña Cobos Felino Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

Juicy berry fruit with some graphite, earthy notes. Fresh, lifted palate. Better acid and structure than the Malbec. I’d prefer a blend of the two! But this is good Cab at the level. 6.5

Viña Cobos Bramare Luján de Cuyo Malbec 2006, 15%

Lovely creamy sweet oak and fruit, almost a Rioja Reserva edge to it. Big, broad and creamy red fruit. Just too big and prickly on the finish to be truly engaging. Impressive, though. 6.5

Bramare Marchiori Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, 15%

Soft cassis fruit and mint. Good tannin, dense and round, with elegantly balanced acid. Which all makes for a more drinkable style than the Malbec version (bit too spicy and diffuse on the finish) but it’s still too hot. 6.5

Viña Cobos “Cobos” Malbec 2006, 15.5%

Both this and the Nico suffer from ludicrously-heavy-bottle syndrome. The nose is complex, expressive, with ginger, cream, chocolate, cassis and damson notes. Also some fresh mint – oddly, for Argentina. But it works. Dense, layered. Spicy. Carries its alcohol better than the others, partly because there’s just so much more concentration of flavour. Big broad spicy and warming. Yes, it’s balanced, super impressive and showy. But it’s not really drinkable. 7

Viña Cobos “Cobos Nico” 2006, 15.4%

On the nose, less immediately engaging than the straight Cobos. Mashed berry, some fresh leaf in there but not much. But definitely still fruit forward. Then in the mouth it is round and lush, fairly cascading across the palate, tannins present but rounded. Good structure. Layered. Fine, impressive stuff. I prefer its tighter structure to the Cobos Malbec, and the fact it’s less showy. But it’s still a monster, and not one i’d sit down to drink at leisure. 7.5-7

Paul Hobbs Russian River Valley Pinot Noir 2006, 15%

Classic New World Pinot nose, actually with a nod to Otago or Oregon. Black fruit with dark chocolate. On the palate, rounded and quite elegant, holds its alcohol well. Impressive! (The 2007 version is similarly fresh, breezy and with excellent acidity.) 7

Paul Hobbs Crossbarn Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, 15.5%

Ripe cassis. Clean, firm, round tannin. Silky but grippy. Trademark Hobbs Cabernet. 6.5