The Rhone Report: About Rhone and Rhone-Style Wines and Winemakers is part of an ongoing series.
Of the grape varieties traditionally grown in France’s Rhone Valley, most American wine drinkers know only a few. But some of the lesser known Rhone varietals are beginning to get deserved attention from a number of California’s most interesting wineries.
Among Rhone red varieties, the best known in America is Syrah. Carignan (sometimes spelled Carignane) and Cinsault (sometimes spelled Cinsaut) have long been grown in California, although often for inexpensive wines in the Central Valley. In recent years Grenache Noir and Mourvedre have begun to get credit for making quality wines but aren’t as widely recognized as they should be. Counoise is barely known but small amounts are now being grown in California. Other red Rhone varietals, scarcely grown in France and so far unimportant in the United States, are Muscardin, Picpoul Noir, Vaccarese, and Terrett Noir. Petite Sirah, a cross whose parents include Syrah but which is not a true Rhone varietal, is often treated as such in America because of its frequent planting with true Rhone varietals in California vineyards.
The white Rhone varietal best known to Americans is Viognier. Roussanne and Marsanne are two additional white varietals that are beginning to get a little notice. Grenache Blanc has only recently been available to growers in the United States and remains unfamiliar to most consumers. Picpoul Blanc is even less well known. Other white Rhone varietals, either unavailable in America or hardly noticed, are Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanc, Muscat Blanc a Petites Grains, Picardin, and Ugni Blanc.
Let’s talk about a few of these varietals that are starting to get deserved recognition in California and hopefully will become even more widely available.
Grenache Noir, usually just called Grenache, probably originated in Spain (where it is called Garnacha) before it was widely planted in the Rhone Valley. While it is not well known to many wine lovers, it is probably the most widely planted red wine grape in the world. It is not new to California. While about 75,000 tons of Grenache are crushed in California annually, most of that total is grapes for inexpensive wines grown in the very hot Central Valley. Grenache is highly vigorous. When over-cropped, Grenache yields poor wine that tends to be flabby. But Grenache can produce outstanding and concentrated wines; witness the Grenache-based wines of France’s southern Rhone Valley such as Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas, and Cotes du Rhone Villages wines from places like Cairanne, Rasteau and Seguret.
The French tradition of blending Grenache with complementary varietals such as Syrah, Mourvedre and others means that many wine lovers don’t recognize this grape variety and they don’t know that most Chateauneuf du Pape or all Gigondas is primarily Grenache. In recent years numerous California wineries have been offering Grenache and Grenache-based blends from fruit grown in vineyards in favorable sites and often with newly available clones such as those propagated from cuttings imported by Tablas Creek from Chateau Beaucastel.
Generally, we favor blends rather than 100% varietal Grenache. In the past, we cited some of our favorite Rhone style red blends. For those bottlings labeled as varietal Grenache (at least 75%), we prefer that some portion of other grapes be included (as in the 2005 Unti Vineyards Dry Creek Valley Grenache, which includes 14% Syrah and 2% Mourvedre) to add complexity and balance. The Australians too are beginning to use more Grenache in blends with Syrah (where it is known as Shiraz); Grenache is the “G” in the G-S-M Rhone style blends.
Mourvedre has been grown in California for a long time, but in small quantities. Renowned California bottlings of old vine Mourvedre have come from Ridge Vineyards (which calls it Mataro, after a village near Barcelona in its Spanish homeland, where it is more widely known as Monastrell) and Cline Cellars. Mourvedre is notable for its resistance to oxidation (a characteristic which makes it highly useful in Rhone blends), but the downside of that advantage is the lengthy time it takes to develop (aeration helps it open up more quickly).
It adds a substantial measure of complexity to blends because it has flavors and aromas of gamey meat and wild earthy mushrooms as well as rich fruit. Mourvedre is used extensively as a blending grape in the southern Rhone Valley, and is an important component of Chateau Beaucastel (which uses a higher proportion than most of its neighbors in Chateauneuf du Pape) and is the primary grape in Bandol. We are delighted to see increasing use of Mourvedre in California’s Rhone style blends. We are also intrigued by the diversity among the single varietal (or nearly so) Mourvedre bottlings available.
Among those we admire are three bottlings (all from Mourvedre sourced from Tablas Creek) from Holly’s Hill from El Dorado Mourvedre (Classique, Estate Reserve and the yet-to-be released Lotus), the Domaine de Terre Rouge Amador Mourvedre, the Joseph Swan Russian River Valley Mourvedre, and the Tablas Creek Vineyard Mourvedre from its estate near Paso Robles. Contra Costa County bottlings tend to have softer tannins and we enjoy Ridge Pato Vineyard Mataro and Cline Cellars Ancient Vines Mourvedre and Small Berry Mourvedre. It is thrilling that so many laudable Mourvedre bottlings originate in so many different sites in California. As with Grenache, the Australians are also now making more Rhone style blends with Mourvedre (the “M” in the G-S-M blends).
Counoise is new to California. Most of the vines now planted in the United States have come from the material imported by Tablas Creek Vineyard from Chateau Beaucastel (which uses more Counoise in its blends than most other Chateauneuf du Pape producers) in 1990 and first recognized by the BATF in 2000.
Like Grenache and Mourvedre, Counoise probably originated in Spain. Counoise is usually used as a blending grape, where its soft tannins and rich fruity quality complement Syrah and Mourvedre and add complexity to Grenache. We have only tasted a few straight Counoise bottlings, among which the best were a cuvee called Ténébi from 40 year old vines at Domaine Piaugier in Sablet in the southern Rhone and another from Tablas Creek Vineyards near Paso Robles. Counoise fruit reminds us of blueberries and makes a delicious wine in its own right.
We are encouraged that more California wineries are growing this wonderful varietal and hope to see wider use of it in Rhone-style blends such as those that already include Counoise (first-rate examples come from Tablas Creek (Cotes de Tablas and Esprit de Beaucastel), Holly’s Hill (Patriarche), Beckman (Cuvee Le Bec) and Margerum (M5), all wineries we admire). Counoise is also now appearing in a few wines from the state of Washington; for example, McCrea Cellars includes Counoise in its Sirocco red Rhone style blend and bottles a small amount as Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Red Mountain Counoise with a little Syrah added.
Roussanne, an important white grape in the Rhone, is grown in California and is slowing gaining fans in America. Long noted for its role in white Hermitage blends from the northern Rhone, and a significant component in the blend of some white Chateauneuf du Pape (such as Chateau Beaucastel), it has been too overlooked in California.
After a rocky start in which some Viognier was sold as Roussanne, more California growers have planted the real varietal with vines imported by Tablas Creek and Alban Vineyards. Roussanne has more character and body than many whites (but has had a mistaken reputation as thin and tart). Once a larger supply of well-made Roussanne is available, it should gain popularity, for it is delicious (hints of honey, blossoms and almonds or hazelnuts) and goes well with a wide variety of food. In California, it can make an excellent varietal wine. Outstanding examples are the Tablas Creek Vineyard Roussanne from its estate near Paso Robles, the Qupe Wine Cellars Bien Nacido Hillside Estate Roussanne from the Santa Maria Valley (and grown from the Tablas Creek clone) and two Roussannes from the Sierra foothills, the Domaine de la Terre Rouge Roussanne and the Holly’s Hill Roussanne.
California Roussanne also makes a solid contribution to Rhone style white blends, such as the excellent bottlings from Beckman Vineyards (Le Bec Blanc from the Santa Ynez Valley), Domaine de la Terre Rouge (the Enigma blend from the Sierra foothills), Edmunds St. John (Shell and Bone from Paso Robles), Tablas Creek Vineyard (both the Cotes de Tablas Blanc and the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc from the west side of Paso Robles) and Holly’s Hill (Patriarche Blanc from El Dorado County in the Sierra foothills).
Grenache Blanc, like Counoise, is new to California. It was imported from Chateau Beaucastel in Chateauneuf du Pape by Tablas Creek Vineyard in 1992 and finally recognized by the BATF in 2003. Grenache Blanc’s citrus and apple flavor profile make it an ideal blending partner with Roussanne, Viognier and Marsanne. Grenache Blanc is as different from Roussanne as Sauvignon Blanc is different from Chardonnay, but unlike the better known pair, the Rhone pair blends well together and becomes more than the sum of its parts. We have seen older references to Grenache Blanc in France as dull and low acid. We suspect these inaccurate and poor character references were due to less than ideal winemaking in days gone by (the winemaking wouldn’t directly lower the acid level, but it would affect the perception).
The varietal examples we have tasted in both the southern Rhone and in California have been bright and tasty with firm body and good acid. In California, Grenache Blanc is making a noticeable contribution to several white blends, notably Beckman Vineyards Le Bec Blanc from the Santa Ynez Valley and two white blends from Tablas Creek Vineyards, Cote de Tablas Blanc and Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, from the winery’s estate west of Paso Robles. We certainly hope more wineries discover the advantages of adding Grenache Blanc to their Rhone style blends.
The trend toward using more of these lesser known Rhone varietals (along with Marsanne and Picpoul Blanc) is highly positive. It will not only broaden the selection of varietals available, but it will also enable Rhone style blends from California producers to become more complex and balanced, and will expand the range of delicious, food-friendly wines available. We certainly hope that American wine lovers will try wines with these varieties and in turn encourage the wineries to continue breaking out of the rut of offering only a few popular varietals.
Apologies: In our first column, Roussanne was consistently misspelled as Rousanne. We apologize for our confused spell check program.