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

Last month we discussed the white Rhone style wines offered at the 2008 Rhone Rangers tasting event at Fort Mason in San Francisco on March 18. This month we turn to the reds, of which we tasted 50. Among those we tasted were some old favorites and some wineries or bottlings with which we were not yet familiar. We don’t pretend that we tasted a representative group of wines, because our sample was skewed to wines we have loved in the past and others about which we have heard positive comments.

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.

As always, in addition to looking for outstanding wines, we searched for trends and patterns to illuminate the direction and future of Rhone style wines in America.

We already noted in our review of the whites that the event was dominated by California producers, with under-representation from other U. S. producers of Rhone style wines. We don’t see any evidence that wine producers in other states have given up on Rhone style wines. Instead we suspect that the costs of presenting wines in San Francisco discourage the non-California producers from participating.

We also could not help but miss several notable absences of worthy producers of Rhone style wines who don’t belong to the Rhone Rangers organization. One of the leading pioneers in growing Rhone varietals in California, Alban Vineyards, was not in attendance. Neither was Margerum Wine Company, which makes some outstanding Rhone style wines. Among the other missing producers whose wines we often like were Kunin Wines and Lavender Ridge Vineyard. We would hope that in future years, they would join Rhone Rangers and show their wines together with their peers.

Reds by the numbers
The 2008 tasting included about 385 reds, excluding dessert wines, just about the same as in 2007. These counts can’t be exact because some wineries don’t offer wines listed in the program, and others add wines not listed; we adjusted our counts as best we could but our totals can’t be exact. Of these, by far the most popular was again Syrah, with about 203 entries, slightly down from last year. We were extremely pleased that about 93 red blends appeared in the 2008 tasting, compared to roughly 62 the prior year. As strong advocates of Rhone style blends, we think this increase is a decidedly positive step in the right direction. About 36 bottlings of Grenache were offered to taste, nearly 10 more than last year. Petite Sirah, while not a true Rhone grape but included in this group, had about 31 entries. Mourvedre was represented by only about 11 bottlings (about the same as last year), which is unfortunate because it makes delicious wine. Cinsault and Carignan had one entry each that we know of.

Syrah

The Syrahs had no consistent style, and some were poor representations of the varietal. No wonder they are a tough sell in the marketplace, as the consumer never knows what to expect of a California Syrah. Many were obviously grown is too-hot vineyards, and others were over-oaked, as if the winemaker had confused Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. Others were dense and fruit-forward in the common style of an Australian Shiraz (in fact a few producers use that name). We tried some Syrahs that have garnered good reputations, only to find that they weren’t to our taste, that is, they fit in one or more of the categories above.

Nevertheless, we did find many examples that we liked. On the recommendation of Roger Rosenblum (Rosenblum Cellars), we tried the wines of Prospect 772. The 2005 Prospect 772 “The Brawler” Syrah ($36) from Calaveras County in the Sierra Foothills is clearly a California wine. It’s big, ripe, rich, deep and concentrated – but not over the top. It is tempered by the addition of 4% Viognier (a practice sometimes encountered in the northern Rhone Valley), which adds complexity to the aroma and balance in the mouth. This is a special California Syrah.

Speaking of Rosenblum, the 2005 Rosenblum Cellars Kick Ranch Reserve Syrah ($45) from Sonoma County is another big, rich, extracted, deep California Syrah. But it also is not over the top, and we found it to be delicious. Another example of a very good California style Syrah is the 2004 Martinelli Winery Terra Felice Vineyard Syrah ($45) from Sonoma County. The Martinelli wine has some of the gamy quality that makes northern Rhone Syrahs so enticing. These wines demonstrate that California vineyard sites which aren’t as cool as the northern Rhone Valley can make wonderful Syrahs, given careful attention in the vineyard and sympathetic winemaking.

While the above wines are pure California, there were two Syrahs that stood out above all others because they exhibited the balance and flavors of great northern Rhone Syrahs (think Hermitage or Cote Rotie). We aren’t suggesting that these wines are clones of the wines of Hermitage or Cote Rotie, but they are the closest American wines to those classic northern Rhones we have yet encountered. Our two favorites were both from Peay Vineyards, whose cool climate vineyards in the far reaches of the Sonoma Coast appellation contributes to the black pepper in these Syrahs. The first is the 2006 Peay Vineyards La Bruma Estate Syrah ($45), with game and rare red meat flavors to accompany the peppery spiciness in a well balanced wine. The second is the 2006 Peay Vineyards Les Titans Estate Syrah ($45), with Tellicherry pepper and blood flavors, again in a nicely balanced wine. We couldn’t decide which of these two we preferred – whichever one was in our glass tasted best. The Peay wines prove that California can produce classic Syrahs. A cool vineyard site is one prerequisite (some intelligent wine-making doesn’t hurt either). We hope others follow this model.

Grenache

Grenache, the backbone of the great southern Rhone Valley blends such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and others, was scarcer at the Rhone Rangers tasting than we would like, for it makes a very tasty wine when grown in the right sites and with yields kept low.

One outstanding example is the 2006 Beckman Vineyards Estate Grenache ($28) from the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County. This is pure Grenache with a California accent, rich, fruity and forward but with good acidity to yield a well balanced wine. The winemaker let the fruit sing, and didn’t add too much oak or otherwise interfere with what the vineyard produced.

A second fine example is the 2005 Unti Vineyards Estate Grenache ($30) from the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County. Compared to the red cherry flavors in the Beckman bottling cited above, the Unti Grenache has notes of black cherries. The Beckman Grenache tastes sweeter and is more aromatic. The Unti Grenache is darker, deeper and more complex. Both are fine examples of California Grenache.

Mourvedre

Bottlings of one of our favorite varietals, Mourvedre, were scarce. We had two favorites. One is the 2005 Tablas Creek Vineyard Mourvedre ($35) from the winery’s estate west of Paso Robles. It has the classic Mourvedre flavors, including hints of mushroom and game. Our second favorite Mourvedre is the 2002 Domaine de la Terre Rouge Mourvedre ($22) from the Sierra Foothills. The extra age of the Terre Rouge bottling contributes to softer tannins than young Mourvedre, and it shows to great advantage the gaminess and rich flavors of this late-ripening variety.

Red Blends

Those who have read other columns in The Rhone Report know our love for blends. In the southern Rhone Valley of France, red and white wines are most commonly offered as blends of two or more varietals. That is because, as we have noted about the whites too, the red varietals complement each other, so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

We made a point to taste many of the red Rhone blends offered at the 2008 Rhone Rangers event. We liked many, but we found six to highlight.

Sierra Foothills red Rhone blends

Three of our favorite red Rhone style blends at the 2008 tasting come from the Sierra Foothills. One of producers, Prospect 772, was new to us but came highly recommended to us by Roger Rosenblum. The 2005 Prospect 772 “The Brat” red blend ($36) from Calaveras County (in the southern part of the Sierra foothills wine growing areas) is a blend of Grenache with Syrah added. We found it to be rich and powerful, but with all the elements in harmony and with sufficient acidity to counterbalance the deep fruit and spice flavors. It’s clearly a California wine, but done with respect for the grapes and nuances each varietal brings to the blend.

Another red blend from the Sierra foothills is the 2005 Holly’s Hill Vineyards Patriarche ($30) from El Dorado County. The Patriarche is a blend of Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache and Counoise. The predominance of Mourvedre and Syrah produces a dark, rich wine with black fruit flavors, and the addition of Grenache and Counoise adds bright red fruit. The result is a complex wine with intriguing flavors and good balance in the mouth. This is a prime example of the advantages of blending.

Our final of the three Sierra foothills red blend favorites is the 2000 Domaine de la Terre Rouge Noir “Grand Annee” ($25) from the Sierra Foothills AVA. Bill Easton’s Noir is a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah. Because of its relative age, the tannins have softened and the nose is immediately appealing. The fruit flavors have great elegance, with high notes of red cherry from the Grenache. Underneath there is a gaminess from the Mourvedre and rich spice notes from the Syrah. This is another complex wine, ready to drink, and a showcase of the merits of blending.

Central Coast red Rhone blends

With all due respect to our favorite producers in the North Coast and elsewhere, our remaining three favorite red Rhone blends from the 2008 Rhone Rangers tasting are from the Central Coast. The wine growing areas around Paso Robles south into Santa Barbara County have been showing great promise with all Rhone varietals, so it isn’t surprising that some of the best red Rhone blends should come from this up and coming area.

The first of our favorite red Rhone blends from the Central Coast comes from a producer whose Grenache we much admired. It is the 2006 Beckman Vineyards Cuvee Le Bec ($20) from the Santa Ynez Valley in Santa Barbara County. The Cuvee Le Bec is a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Counoise. It is “lip smacking” good with fresh forward fruit, good acidity and no oakiness to interfere with its luscious flavors.

The remaining two of our favorite red Rhone blends from the Central Coast come from what is probably the best Rhone winery in America, Tablas Creek Vineyard. Both bottlings are from the winery’s estate west of Paso Robles. The Cotes du Rhone-like 2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard Cotes de Tablas ($22) is a Grenache-based blend with Mourvedre, Syrah and Counoise. The Beckman Cuvee Le Bec tastes sweeter, just as its Grenache is sweeter than Unti’s.

The Cotes de Tablas is better balanced and more complex, good as the Beckman is, and shows more of the Mourvedre in the blend. The 2005 Tablas Creek Vineyard Esprit de Beaucastel ($45) is a truly special wine. Like its namesake Chateau de Beaucastel (Chateauneuf-du-Pape), Esprit is a Mourvedre-based blend with Grenache, Syrah and Counoise. As a result of this different blend, it isn’t as forward as the Cotes de Tablas. Instead, it is more complex and very elegant. It is a treat to every corner of the mouth, which is exactly the point of blending. Not surprisingly, the team at Tablas Creek knows exactly how to blend the outstanding fruit they grow. Recognizing that there is no single best blend, the Tablas Creek wines are models for others to emulate.

The case for more Rhone blends

Americans need to break out of the varietal paradigm. With the right blends of varietals, wines become far more complex and complete and tantalize different parts of the palate. That is why both white and red Bordeaux wines are blends and why Chianti traditionally includes several white and red varietals. Just as blends are the norm in the southern Rhone Valley in France because of the advantages of that approach, so too American vintners need to produce and consumers need to drink more blends, especially of both white and red Rhone varietals.

Marketing such blends remains a challenge. On one hand, most restaurants don’t know how to list them and many retailers don’t where to place them on the shelves. On the other hand, many consumers are confused by them. Hopefully restaurants and retailers will educate their customers about such wines and those of us who love them will continue to expose our friends to them. American producers have proven they can offer outstanding Rhone style wines and they need support to expand those offerings. For these reasons we were thrilled to find more white and red Rhone style blends at this year’s Rhone Rangers tasting. We look forward to even more next year.

Final thoughts
As with the whites we covered last month, the best Rhone-style red wines at the Rhone Rangers tasting were from wineries that specialize in Rhone wines. Wineries that specialize in Cabernet or Chardonnay seem to do less well with Rhone wines (but some Pinot Noir producers do have a knack for Rhone varietals as well).

We think we see encouraging progress in planting the right varietals on the right vineyard sites. The wines cited here are prime examples.

We hope producers of Rhone style wines from states other than California will join this tasting next year to show off their progress. It shouldn’t be a secret that some wonderful Rhone style wines are produced in several other states.

In covering the 2007 Rhone Rangers tasting, we noted the identify problem these Rhone style blends have. This problem remains. Many of the proprietary names are cute or humorous, but they don’t help consumers understand what the wines are. The wine producers need to renew past efforts to find a clearer identity. With the French Rhone wines disadvantaged by the exchange rate, the American producers have an opportunity they shouldn’t miss.