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

Recently we were visiting one of our favorite wine bars (our definition of a good wine bar is one offering a diverse range of interesting wines that aren’t the usual suspects found on the shelves at the local Safeway). We got to talking to the proprietor about California Rhone wines. Readers of this column know that we favor blends of Rhone varietals, the model followed in the southern Rhone Valley, as opposed to the varietal paradigm popular in California

(e.g., Syrah instead of a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvedre blend). He objected that California producers aren’t offering many red Rhone blends at an affordable price, which he defined as $20 a bottle or less at retail.

It’s true that many of California’s best red Rhone blends don’t come at everyday prices. The outstanding Esprit de Beaucastel (red) from Tablas Creek Vineyard is offered at the retail price of $45 per bottle. Holly’s Hill Vineyards’ Patriarch is $30 per bottle. Copain Wine Cellar’s Les Copain retails at $40 per bottle. L’Aventure Winery’s Cote a Cote is also $40 a bottle. A Donkey and Goat’s Three Thirteen is $37 per bottle. Terry Hoage Vineyards’ The 46 is $40 a bottle and their The Pick is $38 per bottle. Zaca Mesa Winery’s Z Three is $42 a bottle.

We don’t quarrel with these prices, for the prices of these wines are competitive with similar wines from elsewhere in the world. We appreciate that these wineries have invested large sums in expensive vineyards and winemaking equipment. Moreover, these wines are made in limited quantities using a lot of hand labor.

The challenge

Nevertheless, we do understand the challenge our wine bar proprietor was encountering. He would offer some California red Rhone blends by the glass if he could find some he liked that met his price point. But he felt that in this price range, the Cotes du Rhone wines available offered better value even with the declining value of the dollar. His price range is also what many of us look at for everyday dinner wines.

Affordable red Rhone blends

We countered his skepticism about finding affordable California red Rhone blends by citing a number of quality wines in that price range. We suggested he consider the enjoyable examples cited below. The prices we include here apply to the vintage cited. In some cases, the wineries may be offering more recent vintages, sometimes with slightly higher prices. In other cases, the vintage cited is sold out and the next vintage hasn’t yet been released. We haven’t cited wines, some relatively well known, that we find to be too oaky, too musty, too pruney, too flabby, or otherwise too great a departure from the prototype of the wines of the southern Rhone Valley. When we list the varietals in the blend, they are in order with the highest proportion first and smallest proportion last.

Our favorites for $20 or less

Of this group of $20 or less red Rhone blends from California, we have two favorites: The first is the Unti Vineyards 2005 Petite Frere that sells for $20. It is a blend of Syrah from Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley and Grenache and Mourvedre from Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. The result is a California version of a Cotes du Rhone Villages wine. That must please Mick Unti, with whom we share a love of the wines of CdRV Rasteau’s Domaine de la Soumade, especially the Confiance bottling. The Unti Petite Frere is full of forward fruit and has complex flavors from the three varietals used.

Our other favorite is the Beckman Vineyards 2005 Cuvee Le Bec from the Purisima Mountain Vineyard in the Santa Ynez Valley, which retails for $18. It is a delicious blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Counoise with bright red and black fruit flavors and a nice touch of acidity. The Beckman Le Bec bottling is one of the few examples of a red Rhone-style blend with Counoise for $20 or under that we have encountered.

The role of Counoise in Rhone blends

We applauded the increasing use of Counoise in an earlier column. Just as we would encourage California winemakers to offer more Rhone-style blends (instead of bottlings of single Rhone varietals), we heartily cheer the use of Counoise in the red blends. It adds a touch of blueberry flavor and complexity that improves the overall result. On a couple of occasions we have attended blending events at Tablas Creek Vineyard and each time we have observed that adding at least a small proportion of Counoise to the blend greatly improves various blends of Rhone varietals. That has proven to be true whether the predominant varietal in the blend is Grenache, Syrah or Mourvedre. To us, the lesson couldn’t be clearer. Now that Counoise is available (it was only recently brought to the United States by the Tablas Creek Vineyard and first recognized by the BATF in 2000), it deserves wider planting and use in Rhone blends. As more Counoise fruit becomes available, we hope to see more examples of $20 or under wines that include Counoise in the blend.

More good red Rhone blends for $20 or less

Another under $20 red Rhone blend we greatly enjoy comes from El Dorado County’s Holly’s Hill Vineyards. It is the 2004 Tranquille, a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah that retails for $18. The Holly’s Hill Rhone wines keep reinforcing the lesson that some really good Rhone wines are coming from the Sierra foothills areas in El Dorado, Amador and Calaveras Counties.

Another Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah blend that we appreciate is the Pape Star bottling from Kunin Wines; coincidentally it also retails for $18. The fruit for this bottling comes from the Larner Vineyard in the Ballard Canyon area of the Santa Ynez Valley. We have previously greatly admired Rhone wines from the Larner Vineyard from other producers, such as Benjamin Silver. Like the west side of Paso Robles and the Sierra foothills, the Santa Ynez Valley and nearby areas in Santa Barbara County are showing great promise as sources of very high quality Rhone grapes.

An additional laudable red Rhone blend for $20 or less is also from Santa Barbara County. The 2004 Heritage Cuvee from Curtis Winery retails for $18. It is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsault from three vineyard sources, Crossroads, Ambassador’s and Santa Ynez Valley’s Vogelzang.

The Santa Ynez Valley is the source of the fruit for another delicious example of an under $20 red Rhone blend. The Zaca Mesa Winery’s 2004 Z Cuvee sells for $18. It is a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Cinsault.

Coming in right at our $20 limit is an entry from one of the pioneers of Rhone varietals in the Paso Robles area. The 2005 Cotes-du-Robles from Eberle Winery is a blend of Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache.

From the Sierra foothills, another very affordable red Rhone blend is the 2004 Tête-à-Tête cuvee from the Domaine de la Terre Rouge in Amador County. It is a blend based on Mourvedre with Grenache and Syrah added. Selling for the reasonable price of $15, it’s a well balanced wine that goes with a wide variety of foods, so it’s a good choice for everyday dinners.

For only $14, consider a couple of additional bottlings. Livermore Valley’s Concannon Vineyard offers the 2004 Stampmaker Red (the winery’s website now calls it simply Syrah, as that is the predominant varietal). The blend also includes Grenache, Counoise, Mourvedre and Cinsault from various Central Coast vineyards. This is the least expensive blend we know of that includes Counoise. The other $14 entry is the amusingly named Chateau La Paws 2005 Cote du Bone Roan from Rosenblum Cellars’ winemaker and veterinarian Kent Rosenblum. It’s not quite a true Rhone blend, because it includes 12% Zinfandel in a Syrah, Mourvedre and Carignane blend.

Sonoma County’s Joseph Swan Vineyards produces a miniscule quantity of Cotes du Rosa, a rustic and flavorful blend that sold for $16 for the 2004 vintage.

Bending but not breaking the price limit

For not much more than the artificial $20 price limit we have been using for this column, a wine lover can purchase a few gems.

Our absolute favorite for just over $20 has to be the Cote de Tablas from the Tablas Creek Vineyard. The fruit is all from the winery’s estate just west of Paso Robles. It is a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Counoise. Notice the appearance of both Mourvedre and Counoise in this Grenache based blend. The 2005 Cote de Tablas retails for $22. If you like the wines of Gigondas or the Cotes du Rhone Villages (e.g., Cairanne, Rasteau, Sablet, etc.), you should love this California version of a southern Rhone wine.

Another $22 wine worth getting to know is the 2005 Rhone red blend from Core Wine. It’s a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah from Santa Barbara County. Core also offers a concentrated cuvee called Coreferment, a blend of Mourvedre and Syrah, also from Santa Barbara County. It retails for $28, a very reasonable price given the intensity of the wine.

Stretching the price limit to $25 brings two more worthy examples into reach. One of these is the 2004 M5 bottling from Margerum Wine Company. From Santa Barbara County, the blend includes Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cinsault and Counoise. The other $25 example is the 2000 Noir from Domaine de la Terre Rouge in Amador County in the Sierra foothills. It’s a blend of Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah.

The importance of Mourvedre

While it doesn’t come as a surprise that all but one of these Rhone style blends contains some proportion of both Grenache and Syrah, it is worth underscoring that every single example cited here also includes some Mourvedre. It’s our view that California growers need to increase the plantings of Mourvedre in proven areas such as Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County and the Sierra foothills. While we are encouraged by the increasing popularity of Mourvedre, as we noted in the past, to our taste California can’t plant too much Mourvedre, at least in the right sites.

The California sources of quality Rhone grapes at affordable prices

It’s also worth noting the absence of entries from Napa and the few entries from Sonoma. Too many Napa wines are over-oaked, in our view. Excessive oak ruins Rhone varietals, masking the delicious and complex fruit flavors and upsetting the balance in the glass. Napa wines also tend to be way too expensive to fit into a discussion of good wines for $20 or less, and most Sonoma wines are over that limit too. Instead, the pattern of finding admirable and affordable red Rhone blends from the Paso Robles area, Santa Barbara County and the Sierra foothills isn’t an accident. The right vineyard sites in these areas grow high quality Rhone fruit and many of the vineyards aren’t excessively expensive, at least yet. Let’s hope more growers and winemakers focus on attractive red Rhone blends from such sources, offered at affordable prices.