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

As lovers of Rhone blends, we eagerly traveled to Paso Robles in the spring of 2005 to attend a “blending seminar” at the Tablas Creek Vineyard. We love both the white and red blends from the southern Rhone Valley, among them the wines of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Cotes du Rhone, Gigondas and others. At home in California, we love the wines of the Tablas Creek Vineyard. So we were excited to attend this event and to learn more about blending these wines.

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.

We were among about three dozen fans of Tablas Creek’s wines seated at tables set up in the winery among the stainless steel fermentation tanks. It was chilly in the winery and we were thankful we had brought sweaters.

Each table had 6 bottles of open wine, measuring beakers and other blending paraphernalia. Each place setting had many sparkling clear wine glasses and paper and a pencil for making notes.

The “seminar” was presented by Jason Haas, the general manager of Tablas Creek, and Neil Collins, winemaker. We were also pleased to be joined by Robert Haas, founder of the importer Vineyard Brands and one of the principal founders of Tablas Creek (along with the Perrins of Chateau Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape).

White Rhone Wine Components

The components we were to blend were all from the harvest the prior fall (2004), so the wines were in their infancy. They were Picpoul fermented in neutral French oak with 100% malolactic, Viognier fermented in neutral French oak again with 100% malolactic, Marsanne also fermented in neutral French oak but with no malolactic, Grenache Blanc fermented in stainless steel and with 50% malolactic, and two Roussannes. The first Roussanne was fermented in stainless steel and was 100% malolactic. The second was fermented one-third in new oak, one-third in a neutral French oak barrel and one-third in a large oak foudre, and was 50% malolactic. All of the grapes for these wines were grown on the winery’s estate west of Paso Robles.

A Picpoul from California was new to us. A blending grape in France, it had just become available through the program of vines imported directly from the Rhone valley by Tablas Creek. It was very tart, like a green apple, with an apple nose and lemon finish.

The Viognier wasn’t as floral in the nose as we expected based on our prior experiences with the variety in California; it was more like a Rhone Valley product. The aroma reminded us of apricot. In the mouth the wine was richer than we expected. Jason Haas explained that the fermentation in the neutral French oak barrel accentuated that quality.

The Marsanne had a more neutral nose and a medium body with a pleasing mineral taste and a lingering finish on the mid-palate.

The Grenache Blanc, another varietal newly available through the Tablas Creek vine importing program, had attractive fruity aromatics, a bright mouth-feel from its acid, a slight alcoholic character, a medium mid-palate body and a pleasant but not long finish.

The Roussanne, fermented in stainless steel was medium bodied with good acid and a very long, back-of-the-palate rich finish with a buttery quality (no doubt from its malolactic fermentation).

The oak-fermented Roussanne had forward and complex aromatics. It surprised us with more fruit than oak character. It had a medium body centered in the back of the palate and a spicy (but not oaky, so the oak brought out a different character in the fruit) finish compared to its stainless steel counterpart.

This was truly a diverse range of wines in terms of aromatics, acid levels, fruit flavors, palate interest, and finish.

Making a White Blend

The group at each table of the event is a blending team. The team at our table tried an initial blend using 40% of the stainless steel Roussanne because we thought that would provide a nice body, good back-of-the-palate balance, and that rich, buttery finish. We added 20% of the oak fermented Roussanne for its aromatics and spicy finish. We used another 20% Grenache Blanc for its mid-palate, bright acid and fruity aromatics. For its mineral quality and to add more mid-palate and lingering finish, we added 15% Marsanne. Finally, to add little rich mouth-feel and its apricot-like fruit in the nose and finish, we added 5% Viognier.

We liked the result, but found that we lacked sufficient acidity, that we needed slightly more fruit and that a little more weight in the mid-palate would help. We also suspected we had gone too far with the Roussanne. What should we modify to improve our blend? One obvious step was to make our second blend with less Roussanne. We also added more Grenache Blanc and slightly more Viognier. We liked this much better. But we still wanted a slight bit more acid to add brightness, without changing the flavor, aroma and finish result we had achieved. What steps would make that improvement? With nothing to lose, we added a couple of milliliters of the Picpoul to the remainder of our second blend. That made a noticeable improvement, even in such a minute proportion.

That gave us the clues we needed. For our final blend, we used 33% of the stainless steel Roussanne and 17% of the oak fermented Roussanne (thus reducing the overall proportion of Roussanne from 60% in our first blend to 50%). To that we added 27% Grenache Blanc (up from 20%, a big difference), 15% Marsanne (the same as the first blend), 8% Viognier (up from 5%, and a noticeable change) and 2% Picpoul (a major increase in acidity and brightness). We really enjoyed the aromatics from this blend, as well as its balanced feel in the mouth, its stimulating acidity and its flavorful and lingering finish. Our blend was unlike either of the Tablas Creek whites (the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc is predominantly Roussanne with Grenache Blanc and a little Picpoul, and the Cotes de Tablas Blanc is predominantly Viognier with Marsanne and a little Grenache Blanc and Roussanne). We were pleased when Bob Haas tasted our blend, expressed his approval and even made a note about it!

Then we tasted the blends everyone else had concocted. It was amazing how these same wine components could be blended so differently. We didn’t like a couple of the blends others had created, especially if they hadn’t included enough of the components with higher acid levels. But we also didn’t like one blend that seemed to have way too much Picpoul, a variety that seemed add magic in very small proportions but which we didn’t enjoy when it dominated a blend, as it easily could. Nevertheless, we did greatly enjoy most of blends created at the other tables. Each different blend, even with seeming minor differences, resulted in very different wines.

Lessons from Blending White Rhones

We learned several things from this event:

  1. The various Rhone whites are very different and each offers different qualities,
  2. Blending these wines affords the opportunity to counterbalance various strengths and weaknesses to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts,
  3. There is a degree of science involved to bring the blend to a good acid level, to assure sufficient aromatics, to achieve a balanced mouth-feel, and to end up with a nice finish,
  4. There is also a degree of art to arrive at a pleasing final result, and
  5. As a result, there is no “best” blend, as the art is very subjective.

This event also underscored what we already knew: Tablas Creek is growing and making outstanding Rhone wines.

Red Rhone Blending and Components

The next spring, 2006, we went back to Tablas Creek for another “blending seminar.” This one was with red varietals.

The components were all from the wonderful 2005 harvest, and again all of the grapes were grown on the Tablas Creek estate.

The wines were Counoise (a little known varietal in America about which we have previously offered our opinion that it is a highly favorable addition to a Rhone-style blend), Grenache, Mourvedre, and two Syrahs (the second with new oak).

The Counoise had a slight blueberry taste in its rich fruit that we greatly enjoyed. On the downside, it had a short finish.

The Grenache was more aromatic, full of red and black fruit flavors with a spicy edge, slightly more tannic, and carried a longer finish. It also had a noticeable level of alcohol.

The Mourvedre was also more aromatic, had a nice plum and fig taste with a hint of chocolate, and displayed an even longer finish.

The “normal” Syrah (in a true Rhone style, one without excess oak) had higher acidity and more tannin and a long finish. Its fruit was very restrained. It also had a mineral note, comparable to the mineral quality in the Marsanne from the white tasting.

The Syrah from new oak showed more fruit (similar to the effect the oak had on the Roussanne at the white blending event the prior year), was very aromatic, had more tannin, and enjoyed a long finish. But it had such a strong profile it threatened to dominate any blend. It seemed to be more of a “California” wine than a Rhone wine.

Initial Red Blend

Before starting to make our blend, we talked with our team at the table. We agreed we wanted attractive aromatics up front, complex flavors, a balanced mouth-feel, and a lingering finish. The Grenache, Mourvedre and both Syrahs promised to contribute to our aromatic objective. A blend of all the components should assure a complex flavor profile. Counoise and Grenache would appeal to the front of the palate, Mourvedre would stimulate the mid-palate and the Syrahs would tantalize the back-of-the-palate. The Mourvedre and oak Syrah would assure a lingering finish. The Grenache would contribute a rich fruit and spicy character. The Counoise would also add rich fruit with a slightly different flavor profile. The Mourvedre would add different flavors with its plum, fig and even chocolate flavors. The Syrah would add a darker flavor character. The challenge was to figure out what proportions would yield the most pleasing overall result.

We started with 40% Mourvedre, 33% Syrah (23% oaked Syrah and 10% “normal” Syrah), 20% Grenache and 7% Counoise. Just as we had enjoyed our initial white blend the prior year, we also enjoyed our initial red blend.

Refined Red Blend

But we thought about how it could be improved. We like the proportion of Mourvedre and what it contributed to the nose, the flavors and the finish. But we decided we were missing a little of the fruit character of the finest southern Rhone-style blends, and that the Syrah was too dominate. That suggested we should increase the proportion of Grenache and Counoise and reduce the amount of the Syrahs. After a second round of refinements, we kept 40% Mourvedre in our final blend but reduced the Syrah to 29% (21% oaked Syrah, down from 23%, and 8% “normal” Syrah, down from 10%) and increased the Grenache to 23% (up from 20%) and the Counoise to 8% (up from 7%). These may sound like minor changes from our initial blend, but the differences in the two were remarkably obvious when we compared them side by side. The final blend was more balanced and more delicious. Each component contributed and none dominated. It turns out that this blend is roughly similar to the Esprit de Beaucastel, the Tablas Creek flagship red blend.

Lessons from Blending Red Rhones

We also tasted the blends prepared by the other participants. Just as we found at the white blending event, we enjoyed most of the other very different blends. Once again, the components could be blended differently to produce dramatically different wines. While we liked our blend the best, we certainly respect that several of the other tables also produced excellent results.

All of our lessons from the white blending apply to the red blending in 2006. The experience teaches that blending is part science and part art, and that the only right answer is in the palate of the taster at that place and in that moment in time.

Another Red Blending, Different Vintage

We attended another red blending event in April 2007, using wines from the 2006 vintage. This time we found the Syrahs to be even more forward than the prior vintage, and so we included a smaller proportion in our blend (we started with too much and then backed off). The 2006 Mourvedre really appealed to us, so we bumped up the proportion of it. We also found that a slightly higher proportion of Grenache and Counoise seemed to improve the blend. Our final blend at this event was 50% Mourvedre, 25% Grenache, 15% Syrah (again from two different Syrahs, but their differences were vineyard sites rather than oak), and 10% Counoise.

How much of the difference between our preferred red blend in 2006 (from 2005 wines) and in 2007 (from 2006 wines) resulted from our reactions to the different wine components in different vintages and how much of those differences were from different personal preferences on those different days we will never know. We can be sure that we enjoyed both blends, the blends others at the event created, and blends finally released by Tablas Creek Vineyard.

Final Thought: Blending is Key

For us, the biggest lesson from these events is that for both white and red Rhone varietals, the advantages of blending are substantial, not just in the southern Rhone Valley in France, but also in California. California’s winemakers need to experiment with their own blends and offer more of them, and America’s wine drinkers should get to know these delicious and food-friendly wines. When it comes to Rhone-style wines, the varietal paradigm in California needs to yield to ancient French practices of blending complementary varietals to produce a result that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.