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

Part II: Reds

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Last month we presented some lessons we learned from tasting whites and roses at the 2007 edition (March 18) of the annual Rhone Rangers tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco. This month we discuss some lessons we learned from tasting reds.

As we noted last month, within the four hour tasting period we were able to taste about 90 wines, some of them old favorites and some new to us. We aren’t endeavoring to present a “best of” catalogue, but rather to draw some lessons.

Specious comparisons to French prototypes

About 375 of the more than 500 wines offered for tasting were reds. About 120 producers poured over 225 Syrahs, reflecting the current popularity in America of this varietal, which is most famous for the red wines of such northern Rhone appellations as Hermitage, Cote Rotie and Cornas. Unfortunately, too many American Rhone Rangers make unfounded comparisons between their Syrahs and such classic northern Rhone wines. Hermitage and its neighbors are unique sites where the terroir gives the Syrah flavors not duplicated elsewhere. If those classic wines could be easily copied, they wouldn’t command the prices they do based on their limited availability. It’s even more unfortunate that some of the producers claiming such resemblances offer over-ripe wines grown in excessively hot vineyards. Great northern Rhone winemakers such as J. L. Chave would be disgusted with such flabby wines. Another common sin among the Rhone Rangers is treating Syrah as if it were Cabernet Sauvignon. Using excessive amounts of oak doesn’t make an ordinary Syrah into an Hermitage; it just makes a nasty wine.

Well-balanced Syrahs stand out

Leaving aside the specious comparisons, some of the American Syrahs are very good wines in their own right. The best Syrahs from the Rhone Rangers avoid over-cropping, excessive oak and vineyards in excessively hot sites. They are well balanced wines offering rich fruit with good acidity. Among the Syrahs we especially enjoyed were the aromatic 2004 Beckman Estate Syrah Santa Ynez Valley ($25), the well-structured 2004 Peay Vineyards Syrah Les Titans Estate ($45) from the Sonoma Coast AVA and the delicious 2003 Unti Vineyards Syrah Dry Creek Valley Estate ($24). During the event we didn’t take the time to taste a couple of other Syrahs we admire because we have had them recently: the rich 2003 Domaine de la Terre Rouge Syrah High Slopes ($35) from the Sierra foothills and the elegant 2004 Tablas Creek Vineyard Syrah ($35) from the estate vineyard west of Paso Robles. We doubt that it is coincidence that these marvelous Syrahs are all from winemakers who specialize in Rhone-style wines.

Under-appreciated varietals

While Syrah enjoys immense popularity, two other red Rhone varietals popular in the southern Rhone Valley stood out at the tasting: Grenache and Mourvedre. Nearly 30 Grenaches were offered at the 2007 event, reflecting a slight increase over prior years. We spotted only about a dozen Mourvedres, indicating that the varietal is still too unknown to American consumers. The outstanding Grenache we tasted is the luscious 2005 Unti Vineyards Grenache Dry Creek Valley Estate ($30). Mourvedre, the red grape of Bandol and also widely used in Grenache blends in the southern Rhone, makes a wonderful wine in the right hands in California. Try these with garlicky lamb: the 2002 Domaine de la Terre Rouge Mourvedre ($22) from the Sierra foothills and the 2004 Tablas Creek Vineyard Mourvedre ($35) from the Paso Robles area.

Promising stars

The red category that excited us the most were the red blends in the style of the southern Rhone Valley. Appellations such as Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Beames de Venise, as well as Cotes du Rhone villages such as Cairanne, Rasteau, Sablet and Seguret produce rich, sunny Grenache-based blends that go well with a wide variety of foods. These southern Rhone wines are the prototype for an increasing number of red blends from America’s Rhone Rangers.

We found several to admire. We loved the bright 2005 Core Wine Red Blend ($23), a blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre from Santa Barbara County. We also greatly enjoyed the 2004 Holly’s Hill Vineyards Patriarch El Dorado ($30), a blend of Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache and Counoise from an up-and-coming Rhone producer in the Sierra foothills. And some of our favorite red blends come from a couple of our favorite Rhone Rangers. The Tablas Creek Vineyard pair are outstanding. The first is the 2004 Cotes de Tablas ($22), a Cotes du Rhone-style blend of Grenache, Syrah, Counoise and Mourvedre. The second is the 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel ($45), with a blend of Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache and Counoise similar to the famous wine of its Chateauneuf-du-Pape partner, Chateau Beaucastel. The 2000 Domaine de la Terre Rouge Noir ($25), one of the most mature wines at the tasting, is a rich, southern Rhone-like blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre from the Sierra foothills. We also greatly enjoyed the value-priced 2003 Curtis Winery Red Blend Heritage Cuvee ($14), a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Cinsaut from the Curtis Estate and Vogelzang Vineyards in Santa Barbara County. Sadly, some of the entries in this category suffered from a variety of deficiencies: fruit flavors that had turned pruney, excessive oak, muddy flavors instead of the desired brightness, and symptoms of over-ripeness and excessively hot vineyard sites. We fervently wish for more winemakers to make blends in the style of the southern Rhone and for more of these blends to have the bright fruit, enticing aromas and lingering finishes of their French prototypes or the fine American examples cited above.

Identity crisis

Of course, wineries need consumer demand before they can sell much southern Rhone-style red blends. That means American consumers need to set aside the notion that all good wines bear the name of a single varietal. But we suspect that the wine-drinking public is confused by wines in this category. Consider the names of some of them: Red Blend (used by several wineries), Noir, Le Cigar Volant, Cashmere, Stampmaker Red, Coeur du Terroir Rouge, Rocks and Gravel, L’Attitude, Sirocco, En Fuego, Patriarch, Los Olivos Cuvee, Mediterranean Red, Rhone de Robles, Cotes de Tablas, Cote de Bone Roan, Vinolocity, Fleur de Montagne, Beaugravier, and so on. Many of the names are catchy or cute, and we have no objection to proprietary labels. We certainly aren’t picking on these wineries. But these names, no matter how clever, don’t immediately convey to the consumer that the bottle contains wine made in the style of the southern Rhone. The same problem applies to the white Rhone-style blends we discussed last month.

Producers of Bordeaux-style blends faced the same problem several years ago and came up with and trade-marked the “Meritage®” designation. It is now widely recognized by American wine consumers. We suspect these Rhone-style blends wines will be slow sellers until their producers find a Rhone-style equivalent to “Meritage®” – a clear way for consumers to identify these wines for what they are. That’s too bad, because there are many excellent, food-friendly wines in this category, and they deserve a wider audience. We appreciate that some of the producers have considered steps to establish a stronger identity, but until talk turns to action, this deserving category of wines will be tougher sellers than they should be.