Paul Hobbs: First Man

First Man

One Giant Leap for Winemaking

 

I had just seen First Man (the Neil Armstrong biopic) when I met Paul Hobbs, and I couldn’t help but draw some parallels. Despite similarities in terms of personality (focused, meticulous to the point of obsession, possibly some type of genius – he has also been called and doesn’t mind referring to himself as “the Steve Jobs of wine”) and early ambitions of becoming an astronaut, Paul Hobbs never quite made it to the moon. However he has undoubtedly pushed some impressive boundaries in winemaking here on earth: the first man to bottle single varietal Malbec in Argentina; the first to scientifically research the differences between French and American oak (chemically establishing that American oak has 2.5 times more Vanillin); subsequently becoming the first winemaker at Mondavi to introduce the significant use of French oak; and the first to seriously challenge the heavy use of egg white fining in Bordeaux. Paul Hobbs is one of the most accomplished winemakers alive today.

 

Raised in upstate New York to teetotal farming parents, Paul Hobbs likes to tell the story of how he had wanted to come an astronaut but was turned away because of his eyesight. A slim, tidy man with precise movements and speech, he instead studied medicine. This also didn’t stick, so he eventually wound up at UC Davis in California, leading the group of young researchers at Mondavi winery that would show up some sloppy Bordelaise practices and make important discoveries that would become widely accepted as Best Practice for producing clean wine.

 

Meticulous to the core, Paul Hobbs leads a tasting with calm, orchestrated precision. He keeps his composure when, despite numerous hints and suggestions, neither his agent nor the waiter manages to control the rising temperature in the room. He bats away a question about high alcohol levels, insisting that “he does not lose his cool about hot wine”.

 

Showing photos of himself 30 years younger, he jokes about the toll age has taken. But everyone in the room is clearly admiring a man who has not gained a single pound or lost a single strand from his full (granted now subtly salt and peppered) head of hair. In fact, the only thing giving away the comparative youth of the man in the photo is his 1970s rock band t-shirt. Everything about Paul Hobbs speaks of a closely controlled coolness.

 

Fascinating personality aside, his wines are excellent. Paul Hobbs would not put his name to something that does not meet his exacting standards – from his namesake Napa estate (of which we tasted the wonderful Cabernets from 1998 through to 2016 from both ‘Beckstoffer To Kalon’ and ‘Nathan Coombs Estate’ vineyards on this occasion) to Viña Cobos, the Argentine winery he founded in 1998 following his pioneering consultancy with Catena Zapata that first brought him to Mendoza.

 

We recently had the opportunity to taste through the range of wines from the 2015 vintage made at Viña Cobos, where talented young winemaker Andres Vignoni is leading the day-to-day winemaking. During this tasting the flawless quality that Viña Cobos stands for shone through, and Andres spoke about his wines with great passion, clarity and ease.

 

The wines offer pure, focused fruit at the absolute peak of ripeness but never edging beyond, rich but elegant complexity, and the finest of textures through the intelligent use of extra-fine grain new French oak, which is perfectly integrated and acts as just a touch of ‘seasoning’ to these fabulous wines. Never overworked and delivering (with utmost generosity) the gifts of the terroir from these amazing high altitude, old vine sites in Mendoza’s Luján de Cuyo, these truly are superior wines that leave little else to be desired.

 

The original top wine – the first wine Paul Hobbs made at Viña Cobos – is the ‘Cobos’ Marchiori Estate Block C2 Malbec. This has sensational energy, as if it was powered by a battery of sublime acidity and freshness (in the best possible way). The 80-year-old vines deliver wonderful fruit complexity and concentration, but of course in tiny quantities. Even smaller quantities are produced of the new top wine, the ‘Cobos’ Chañares Estate Malbec. This is a site that Paul Hobbs rescued from development into a luxury hotel – 3,888 feet above sea level and surrounded by the Chañares Formation, a geologic formation of ancient, rich, fossil material.

 

Paul Hobbs’ motto is “cleanliness is next to godliness” and whilst his puritan, laboratory-precision approach could appear loveless and clinical, his understanding that technology and immaculate hygiene allow for the purest, most natural expression achievable in fine wine is actually quite transcendental. The proof is absolutely in the drinking…