The Rhone Report: About Rhone and Rhone-Style Wines and Winemakers is part of an ongoing series.

The 16th annual Hospice du Rhone events in Paso Robles, California from May 1 to 3, 2008 was an opportunity to consider Rhone-style wines from a fresh perspective.  Unlike most tasting opportunities, these events included Rhone-style wines from the Rhone Valley itself (51 wineries), elsewhere in France (4 wineries) as well as from Spain (4 wineries), Australia (17 wineries), South Africa (6 wineries), Chile (2 wineries), Argentina (1 winery) and the United States.  The American wines were mostly from California (144 wineries), but a few examples from Arizona (2 wineries) and Washington State (5 wineries) were also included.  While this is a California-dominated event, and while many of the Rhone Valley’s best producers aren’t represented, there is still sufficient European and other entries to make for interesting comparisons and contrasts.  The events included two general tastings and a series of focused seminars.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

This month and next, we’ll report on a variety of observations and lessons from our participation in this event.

Hospice du Rhone organization

The Hospice du Rhone organization that organized and hosted the event is heavily dominated by wineries in the Central Coast of California region, especially those from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties (101 wineries).  This makes sense, as those wineries can easily travel to Paso Robles and they can show off their wines to local wine consumers.  Apparently, the major force behind the Hospice du Rhone is John Alban of Alban Vineyards of Arroyo Grande in San Luis Obispo County.  We regretted the absence of Alban Vineyards from the Rhone Rangers Tasting and organization.  It appears to us that the Hospice du Rhone is at least a partial competitor to Rhone Rangers, although many wineries belong to both organizations and participate in both annual tasting events.  While we certainly appreciate that many of the smaller wineries in the Central Coast of California participate in Hospice du Rhone and not Rhone Rangers because the extra expense to them to travel to San Francisco (where the annual Rhone Rangers tasting is conducted), we wish that the more important wineries of the Central Coast, including Alban, would also participate in Rhone Rangers.  We also regretted that a few California producers of high quality Rhone-style wines notably absent from Rhone Rangers were also not participants in the Hospice du Rhone – Margerum, Kunin and Lavender Ridge were a few of those absences that stood out to us.

We’ll address the American wines this month, and then the European wines next month.

Scarce Grenache Blancs from California stand out

Grenache Blanc is an underappreciated varietal that continues to impress us.  We have loved bottlings encountered in France’s Rhone Valley and new examples from California.  In response to our comments about the Fess Parker Viognier at the 2008 annual Rhone Rangers tasting, Larry Schaffer of Fess Parker/Epiphany Cellars and Tercero Wines posted a reply that highlighted the Grenache Blanc from Epiphany.  We made a point of seeking out this example of Grenache Blanc.  Larry was exactly right about the 2007 Epiphany Grenache Blanc from Camp 4 Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley.  Mostly unoaked, it was fresh, crisp and delicious with a honeysuckle floral aroma and mineral character.  We also tasted the 2006 and 2007 Grenache Blancs from Tercero Wines (made by Larry Schaffer) from fruit from the Camp 4 Vineyard.  Larry used neutral oak on these wines.  Both bottlings are very nice, and the extra bottle age on the 2006 yields a very nicely balanced wine that is still crisp and delicious.  The neutral oak used in making the Tercero Grenache Blanc tempered the floral side of the varietal and contributed some complexity and a nice balance in the mouth.  Our benchmark for 100% Grenache Blanc from California has been the bottling from Tablas Creek Vineyard, the folks who first brought the varietal to the United States.  Re-tasted at the Hospice du Rhone, we were again impressed with high quality of this wine.  The Epiphany and Tercero examples are worthy companions to the Tablas Creek wine and underscore the great promise Grenache Blanc has in suitable vineyard sites in California.  But sadly it still remains too scarce.  The examples cited above were 4 of the 5 offerings of Grenache Blanc at this event.

Grenache Blanc in Rhone-style white blends

We remain strong proponents of including Grenache Blanc in Rhone-style white blends.  We have previously expressed our admiration for the 2006 Cotes de Tablas Blanc and the 2006 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc from Tablas Creek Vineyard, both white blends that include Grenache Blanc (which was first brought to the United States by Tablas Creek).  Re-tasted in the company of the wines at this event, the Tablas Creek wines once again stood out as models to emulate.  A white blend with Grenache Blanc that was new to us which we tasted and enjoyed at the Hospice du Rhone event was the 2006 Adelaida Cellars Version white cuvee from the Glenrose Vineyard west of Paso Robles with 74% Grenache Blanc and 26% Roussanne.  We also tasted several Rhone-style white blends that included some Grenache Blanc but were less successful because the blend had too much Viognier.  When the Viognier dominated the blend, the wine was less crisp and refreshing and was slightly ponderous.  Inclusion of Grenache Blanc, however much it makes a positive contribution, can’t overcome a blend flawed by other components of the blend.  Nevertheless, we hope more winemakers will offer balanced white Rhone-style blends with some Grenache Blanc as a component.  Other examples of such blends with Grenache Blanc that we have greatly admired include bottlings from Edmunds St. John, Holly’s Hill Vineyard, Mount Aukum Winery and David Girard, all from grapes grown in the Sierra foothills.

Other white wines of note

Other whites also stood out.  The 2006 Alban Vineyards Roussanne from the Alban Vineyard in southern San Luis Obispo County was very true to its varietal, had enticing aromatics and a nice mouth feel without being too heavy, and finished with lingering flavors on the whole palate.  We would love to see more high quality American Roussannes in the marketplace. 

The 2007 Terry Hoage Vineyards Picpoul “Hangtime” cuvee from a little known varietal recently brought to the United States by Tablas Creek was thoroughly enjoyable with some lushness to counterbalance its Granny Smith apple and exotic fruit flavors and high acidity.  We have previously enjoyed Picpoul in white blends, and in straight bottlings from the Languedoc in southern France.  This Terry Hoage offering makes us wonder if varietal Picpoul should be more widely available.

Splendid Red Rhone-style blends from California

Red Rhone-style blends are among our favorite wines, both for their flavors and balances and because they go so well with so many foods.  We were pleased that so many examples were poured (about 67 American wineries poured red Rhone-style blends).  As always, we were on the lookout for good examples, and we found several new ones to laud along with a couple of old friends.  The 2006 Adelaida Cellars Version red blend (Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, Counoise and Cinsault) from the Glenrose Vineyard west of Paso Robles stood out with attractive aromatics, full but well balanced and complex fruit flavors and a nice finish.  As with all the best blends, no single varietal dominated and each component contributed to the overall flavors. 

By contrast, the 2005 Anglim Winery Best Barrel Blend was very enjoyable but its Mourvedre base (45%) dominated the flavors (not a bad result for those of us who love Mourvedre).  Another tasty red blend we enjoyed was the 2005 Garretson G Red Blend of Syrah, Mourvedre and Grenache from the Central Coast.  The 2005 Halter Ranch Vineyard GSM blend was another nicely balanced example, in this case from the west side of Paso Robles near both Adelaida Cellars and Tablas Creek Vineyard.  Another San Luis Obispo County entry we liked was the 2006 Ortman Family Vineyards Cuvee Eddy, a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre with nicely balanced fruit flavors and soft tannins.  From Monterey County fruit, we also liked the 2005 Joseph Phelps Le Mistral red blend from one of the pioneers of Rhone wines in the United States.  This bottling was restrained without the excessive extraction, oak and/or alcohol we encountered in so many of the wines we tasted.  It’s a blend of Syrah and Grenache with Carignane, Petite Sirah and Alicante Bouschet, resulting in complex flavors not dominated by any of its components. 

An unusual red blend we appreciated was the 2006 Gelfand Vineyards SFR red blend from its own vineyard near Paso Robles.  This wine is 70% Petite Sirah tempered with some Rhone varietals.  It really isn’t a Rhone-style wine, but it sure is a good California Petite Sirah and would be really good with some grilled red meat. 

In the category of old friends, both the red blends from Tablas Creek, the 2005 Cotes de Tablas and the 2005 Esprit de Beaucastel, are outstanding for the reasons we have previously cited.

Magnificent Mourvedres, including our first Arizona wine

Among other noteworthy reds we encountered was our first taste of a wine from Arizona.  The 2003 Callaghan Vineyards Mourvedre from a 4,800 foot elevation vineyard in the Sonoita AVA south of Tucson was a varietally correct Mourvedre with very nice balances.  It was not overly extracted, as were too many of the California wines, and it didn’t have excess alcohol, yet it offered attractive aromas, plenty of appealing Mourvedre fruit flavors and a pleasant finish.  It opened our eyes to the possibilities for this high altitude wine-growing area, Arizona’s only AVA.  And speaking of Mourvedre, we must repeat our admiration for the 2005 Tablas Creek Mourvedre from its estate vineyard west of Paso Robles.  It always makes us want to run out and cook some lamb.

Groovy Grenaches

The 2004 Mathis Sonoma Valley Grenache was a nicely balanced wine with enticing red and black cherry flavors.  The Grenache fruit is supplemented with a little Petite Sirah and Carignan, which add some structure and acidity.  The result is a very tasty Grenache that displays its California origin.  Another Grenache we greatly enjoyed was the 2006 Tercero from the Watch Hill Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County.  According to winemaker Larry Schaffer, the vineyard site is relatively cool, and the resulting wine is deeply colored and has intense flavors of black fruits with a good acid level.  Considering the very good Grenache Blanc from this same producer, we will be keeping an eye on the promising Tercero.

American Syrahs

We don’t intend to ignore the American Syrahs, but in the limited time we had available, we didn’t taste many because we had other priorities.  We tried several Syrahs from producers about whom we had heard positive comments but whose wines we hadn’t previously encountered.  We didn’t find any new Syrahs worth singling out for praise.  Too many were over-extracted, over-oaked or from overly hot vineyard sites.  We did note that Peay Vineyards was pouring its outstanding 2005 Syrah Les Titans Estate and La Bruma Estate from the Sonoma Coast AVA.  We have previously praised these as among the best American Syrahs.

Too many flawed American Reds

While we greatly enjoyed finding some new wines to admire and reaffirmed our love for some old friends, we were greatly disappointed with too many of the red entries.  A few had downright nasty flavors, but that wasn’t a very common problem.  More common were too many wines that were overly flabby.  These wines didn’t have enough acid and structure to make them interesting to taste.  In fact, too many of them were just boring, analogous to eating bread made with no salt.  As might be expected with so many California wines available, we encountered way too many wines that were excessively extracted.  Too much oak was another common problem; we can’t understand why so many California winemakers don’t take a cue from their Rhone counterparts and temper the oak.  Another bad trait we found all too often was in wines that resembled soda pop.  They were too sweet in addition to being too flabby.  Finally, while we appreciated the large number of Rhone-style red blends offered, we found that too many of them included so much Syrah that the concept of a blend was lost.  These wines were really Syrah tempered by some other varietals.

Overall thoughts on the American Rhone-style wines

Wines such as those we named above certainly represent the highs among the American Rhone-style wines.  They include a wide range of styles.  Some are more “Californian,” while others have a more European profile.  We enjoyed all of these approaches.  But as we noted, there were far too many lows -- wines with flat and flabby structures, with over-extracted fruit, with too much oak and with too much sweet soda pop character.  Some of those flaws stem from poor vineyard sites.  Too many of those flaws seem to come from winemakers with parochial tastes and not enough knowledge of the wines of their European counterparts.

We’ll get to the European wines in the column next month.