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The Rhone Valley in California - Part 2
To up date you on Part 1, we covered some history of the Rhone Valley and the emergence of the Rhone grape in America. We ended with a list of traditional white grapes from the Rhone. In this article, we begin with a list of red grapes from the Rhone, and end with a discussion of Rhone wine enjoyment in America.
Carignan (Carignane): In the past this grape was the base of many of jug wines. However, when cultivated by knowledgeable growers and/or producers, Carignan becomes an important blending grape in no small part due to its tannins. It can also make a respectable stand alone wine.
Cinsault (Cinsaut): Usually used in blends to add a spicy component that is not high in tannins, this grape provides a high yield for the grower. Not too often found as a stand alone, it is becoming best known as half the genetic cross (along with Pinot Noir) that produces South African Pinotage.
Counoise: An important component of many Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines, it is a deep purple-red, and has a rich spicy character with flavors of anise, strawberries and blueberries. Counoise’s moderate alcohol and tannins make it a good complement for Syrah, balancing that grape’s characteristically intense spice, strong tannins and high alcohol.
Grenache: When a grape is probably the world’s most widely planted, it is no surprise that growers of all skill levels are involved. Thus, some very undistinguished Grenache with both high sugar and alcohol too often reach the consumer. However, in the proper soil and in the right hands, Grenache can produce an exquisitely luscious, beautifully balanced wine.
Mourvedre: This has been used in field blends in California for years (sometimes under the name “Mataro”). It produces sturdy wines with good acid, and can develop enticing blackberry aromas and flavors. Mourvedre is notable in France as the prime ingredient in the red and rose wines of Bandol, and in the U.S. stand alone bottles are produced.
Muscardine: This is one of the 13 permitted varietals in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, and though it has almost disappeared, giant Chateau de Beaucastel still includes Muscardine in its red blends primarily to add distinctive aromatics.
Syrah (Shiraz): This is the grape of the moment and of the future in California, according to a recent article in The Wine Spectator (though we give ourselves a proverbial “pat on the back” as we called it that in a column about 18 months ago). Syrah (Shiraz is the same grape) has it all -- it is a healthy vine, is resistant to mildew and rot, and has the flavor to stand alone and challenge the best Cabernet Sauvignons and Pinot Noirs. Not surprisingly, Syrah is the basis for the great reds of the Northern Rhone, and as an ingredient in blends it contributes much of the character and aging potential for wines of the southern part of the region.
Petite Sirah (Durif): This is thought to be a cross between two grapes, Syrah and Peloursin, and was developed in France by Dr. Francois Durif. Though we could find no evidence that Petite Sirah is now grown anywhere in France, it is doing fine in both California and Australia, where the grape produces a wine dark in color (blue red) with great extraction and big tannins (forget the word “petite”).
Picpoul Noir: The red variant of the more common Picpoul Blanc, Picpoul Noir produces wines which are almost colorless, but high in alcohol.
Terret Noir: Terret Noir is a minor varietal more commonly seen in its “Blanc” and “Gris” forms. It produces wines with bright acidity, providing a balance for some of the low-acid red varietals in the Southern Rhône.
Vaccarèse: A minor varietal found primarily in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where it is considered a relative of Cinsault and produces floral, tannic wines.
Let’s turn now to the United States, and discuss what Rhone varietals are most popular here. Perhaps, however, the first question should be whether these wines that are made with the same grapes that are used in French bottlings actually taste the same as their French counterparts. This of course leads to the second inquiry, which is, “Should they?”
We are proponents of the philosophy that wines produced in different countries (even if they are of the same grape) should not necessarily be compared to each other, but should each be enjoyed in their own right. The bickering over whether French wines or American wines are better is, in reality, not only an exercise in futility because no one will win, but is, ultimately, an unimportant competition. The fact is that great winemakers universally agree that “place” is the single most critical criterion affecting the taste of a wine. If this is so, why is anyone surprised that California Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay are distinctively different from French Red Bordeaux and White Burgundy? And rather than argue about which is best, shouldn’t we all be celebrating these very differences (this “taste gap” if you will) that allow for a greater number of tasting opportunities?
As to the Rhone variatals grown in the U.S., it is interesting, however, that as they have improved to their present outstanding quality, the so-called "taste gap” between them and their French cousins seems to have closed, rather than widened, as it has with the varietals above. This may well be the result of two factors -- better growing and winemaking techniques in this country being one, and good weather allowing consistently optimal ripening conditions in the Rhone being the other. Nevertheless, whether you agree with us or not that Rhone wines from the U.S. and France are often similar, they are delicious to drink alone, or for enjoyment with a wide variety of global cuisines.
A word of caution: Consumers need to be alert when searching for, and buying, Rhones now being bottled in this country. Why? Because it is currently stylish to sip a Rhone, almost every winery is planting, bottling, and selling these wines so as not to miss out on a new and expanding market. Yet, as with many new products, too many are still not where they should be in terms of quality, while some are simply overrated. We have spent a number of years following the advances in Rhone varietals in the U.S., and are most favorably impressed in the future of the grape in the hands of some excellent vintners.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.