The Rhone Rangers get more specific. They are a non-profit group waving, blowing the horn and attracting attention to American Rhône varietal wines. As they describe, “American Rhône-style wines are made from the same grapes that have flourished for centuries in France’s Rhône River Valley, and their growing popularity in the United States speaks to their versatility with food, wide range of rich flavors, and to the skills of American winemakers. Twenty-two traditional grape varieties may be grown [in the Rhône]. Twelve of these grapes are planted in the United States, including the best-known, Syrah and Viognier, the up and coming Mourvèdre, Grenache, Roussanne and Marsanne, and the truly obscure (but delicious) Counoise, Cinsaut, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul. Plus Petite Sirah, whose parentage places it clearly in the Rhône.”
When it comes to vitis vinifera, Cabs, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay all have their place with me. But when I sit around and think about my favorite wine grapes - please tell me I’m not alone in this behavior - the Rhône varieties always end up highly ranked.
The Rhone Rangers L.A. stop on June 23, 2013 was held downtown in the repurposed Vibiana cathedral. Here are a few of the wines I tried and liked at this event.
Andrew Murray (left) is always mentioned on the short list of Santa Barbara County winemakers to watch. Taste his wines and find out why. Big floral notes grace his 2012 Viognier ($25). The red blend "Experance" 2011 ($25) is a familiar Rhône mix of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre which shows a funky touch. Two Syrahs rocked the table, the outstanding, meaty 2011 Watch Hill Vineyard ($30) and the lovely, dark 2010 Terra Bella Vineyard ($36). The 2011 Mourvèdre is a lighter expression of the grape, but still pretty bold.
Randall Grahm's mother, Ruthie (right), stood in for her winemaker son. I overheard a great quote from her: "...and I never made another suggestion to him again." I don't know what she was talking about, but the quote really seemed funny to me even out of context. The warm afternoon was highlighted by Grahm's amazing whites. The 2011 "Le Cigare Blanc" ($28) is smoky and fruity with great acidity while the 2010 "Le Cigare Blanc" Reserve ($50) has great savory tones with a beautiful finish. Grahm's reds are favorites of mine, too, and his 2009 Bien Nacido Syrah ($40) sings.
Neil Roberts makes wine in Templeton, in the heart of the Paso Robles AVA. His 2011 Viognier ($18) offers more fruit than flowers and the 2011 Grenache Blanc ($20) pits wonderful fruit against magnificent salinity. His 2009 Syrah ($25) is gorgeous.
The Napa Valley winery is becoming as well-known for their everyday line, Stepping Stone, as for their top-shelf Cabs. The 2012 Corallina Rosé of Syrah has beautiful acidity and great fruit expression.
Derby Wine Estates
The Paso producer poured a white blend, the 2010 "Fifteen 10," ($24) that shows Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc in a floral and savory setting. The 2009 "Fifteen 10 Red" ($28) adds Counoise to the GSM blend for a bright and tart pleasure. Derby's 2009 Petite Sirah ($26) is dark and deep with lip-smacking grip.
From Santa Rosa, Donelan's 2010 red blend "Cuvée Moriah" ($40) is heavy on the Grenache and surprisingly light and breezy. A great, funky nose defines their 2010 Syrah from Walker Vine Hill Vineyard ($45) with lots of blue fruit following on the palate.
J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines
They poured mainly their Gesture line of Paso Robles wines. Flowers and peaches on the 2012 Viognier ($25) while the 2012 Rosé of Grenache ($18) is a dry strawberry delight. The 2012 white blend ($25) combines Roussanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc with great lime and almond notes. Brilliant cherry flavor lights up their 2011 Syrah ($30) and the 2011 Petite Sirah has licorice, dark fruit and great acidity.
Kale Anderson (left) poured a brilliant 2012 rosé ($22) made from Sonoma County Syrah and a straight up 2009 Syrah ($40) from Alder Springs Vineyard in Mendocino County. There's a 10% splash of Viognier in it and it is lush with a great herbal edge.
Using fruit from several vineyards in Paso's Westside, the 2008 Syrah ($28) gives eucalyptus notes while their two red blends, "Osiris" ($32) and "Morpheus" ($36) are bright Grenache-based wines.
Estate fruit from Santa Barbara County's Santa Ynez Valley make up the Michael Larner (right) offerings. The 2011 Viognier ($28) has a delightful savory aspect and their 2009 Grenache ($40) is pure cherry. Larner's 2009 Reserve Syrah ($65) utilizes stem inclusion - fermenting the grapes stems and all - for an herbal tone and greater tannic structure.
This Napa producer recently experimented with aging bottled wine under the sea. They were so intrigued by the results, they have plans to age more wine - pre-bottling - beneath the waves in September. Gustavo Gonzales poured his 2009 Hyde Vineyard Syrah ($48) full of dark fruit, slight funk and racy acidity.
Mitchella Vineyard and Winery
This Paso outfit ages their 2012 Grenache Blanc ($24) half in steel and half in neutral oak. Great freshness and a beautiful finish are remarkable. Their 2012 Viognier ($22) has a nutty edge and the 2010 "Shameless" red blend ($28) is a GSM with the Grenache and Mourvèdre cofermented.
Winemaker Jim Shumate (left) told me he doesn't like to over oak his wines, and his easy touch shows. His 2010 Viognier ($20) has a floral nose leading to a savory palate. A trace of funk dots the nose on the 2010 Syrah ($34) and the 2010 "Fiesta Red" ($34) makes a bright and spicy blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Merlot. Shumate offered dessert at his table, in the form of his gorgeous 2010 Reserve Late Harvest Viognier ($68). How late was the botrytis-kissed harvest? During the first week of December, at 39 brix. He says he's seen grapes harvested even later, at 50 brix.
Tom Stolpman's (right) 2012 Viognier ($22) has a lovely, savory side and his 2011 "Golden Point" ($19) combines Rhône, Burgundy and Bordeaux grapes, spinning Roussanne, Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to an almost buttery extreme. Both are excellent, and it's hard to believe the latter wine costs less than a twenty.
William Allen traveled a far piece from his home base of Santa Rosa for the Santa Ynez Valley grapes that went into his 2012 Saarloos Vineyard Grenache Blanc ($25). He sees it as his flagship wine, and with good reason. Plenty of fruit with a savory edge should please a lot of people. Allen's 2011 white blend ($26) from the Russian River Valley has Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier and Grenache Blanc mixing it up with salinity that absolutely stuns. Perhaps most outstanding is the Two Shepherds 2011 Grenache ($35) of Saralee's Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. He calls this cool-climate wine "the lighter side of Grenache." Beautiful cherry flavor and great acidity constitute a home run.
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