Thursday, October 25, 2012

A Blind Tasting of Rhone Varieties

The steep slope of Hermitage in France's Northern Rhone
Valley is the ancestral home of the syrah grape.
Ah, BYOB blind tasting, when everyone brings a bottle wrapped in a brown paper bag and we all taste through them. I’m not competitive when it comes to wine, so it’s not like this tasting was a contest. Rather, it was a time to get together with other wine lovers, drink some unknown wines and make some guesses about what’s in the glass.

The theme was Rhone varieties, which, generally speaking, means roussanne, marsanne and viognier for whites and syrah, grenache, mourvedre, cinsault and petite sirah for reds. I tried to make a specific guess for each wine. Sometimes I was way off, sometimes I was close, and sometimes I nailed it. No matter how “good” or “bad” you do in a blind tasting, it’s always an educational and fun experience.

Here are some notes on some blind-tasted Rhone variety wines.
We started off the tasting with four solid white wines, each one better than the last. Sometimes Rhone whites are hard to distinguish, as my blind guesses prove.

2010 Jean-Michel Gerin Viognier Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes - France, Northern Rhône, Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes
Tasted blind. Bright yellow-gold color. Aromas of white peach, flowers, lemon peel, hints of mixed nuts. Bold on the palate with medium acid. Creamy honeysuckle and melon flavors mix with a waxy, almost oily aspect. Overall, quite nice, albeit not the most complex wine. Guess: Chateauneuf du Pape blanc. 87 points

2011 Domaine Daniel et Denis Alary Vin de Pays de la Principauté d'Orange La Grange Daniel - France, Southern Rhône, Vin de Pays de la Principauté d'Orange
Tasted blind. Bright straw color with thick legs. Big-time aromatic profile of green melon, peach and honeycomb. On the palate, the wine is big and full of flavor: honeycomb, circus peanut candy, lemon, backed up by fresh acid. Long finish. Quite nice. Guess: 2009 Northern Rhone roussanne. Turns out it’s a 100% roussanne from the Southern Rhone Valley. 88 points

2010 Denis et Didier Berthollier Vin de Savoie Chignin-Bergeron Un Cru Une Exception - France, Savoie, Vin de Savoie Chignin-Bergeron
Tasted blind. Light gold color with medium legs. Aromas of clover honey, candied nuts, yellow apple and apricot. The aromas are really complex. The palate is packed with plush fruit and balanced with superb acid. Flavors of green pear, lemon and apricot, hints of minerality. Long finish. Guess: 2008 Condrieu (which is made from 100% viognier). Turns out to be a roussanne from the lesser-known region of Savoie. I'm not sure I've ever had a Savoie roussanne, but I was quite impressed with this effort. 89 points

2011 Éric Texier Vin de Pays Opâle - France, Northern Rhône, Vin de Pays
Tasted blind. Very light straw color, almost translucent. The wine smells like Tang mix, bright lemon-lime, then an herbal kick comes out on the end. Upon first taste: WTF? The wine is off-dry and it tastes like lemon zinger tea mixed with honey. Also flavors of crisp green apple, sweet peach and honey. It's almost riesling-like with its white peach and sweet nut flavors. The acid keeps it very fresh. I guessed this as a viognier made with residual sugar. Origin? I had no idea. Turns out these grapes are picked so ripe that they'd qualify for the auslese designation if they were grown in Germany. It's very low in alcohol, incredible easy to sip and not too sweet or cloying. Really nerdy stuff, but a lot of fun. And it gets serious science fair points for weirdness. 90 points

We had an interesting group of reds to taste through, both Old World and New. I was surprised no Chateauneufs were represented, but it was still a good mix of Rhone reds.

2009 Domaine Daniel et Denis Alary Vin de Pays de la Principauté d'Orange La Grange Daniel - France, Southern Rhône, Vin de Pays de la Principauté d'Orange
Tasted blind: Bright ruby-cherry color in the glass. Aromas of broiled meat, smoke, raspberries and plums. The palate shows flavors of smoke, plum skins, blackberries and graphite. Fine-grained tannins, a bit less than medium acid, but it's still balanced. Cranberry, meat and iron flavors linger on the finish. Guess: 2009 Southern Rhone grenache blend. Turns out this wine is a classic Southern Rhone blend of syrah, grenache and cinsault. I've tasted this wine about 18 months ago and didn't like it very much. Maybe it's the age, maybe it's bottle variation, but this wine was very nice. 88 points

2009 Jean-Michel Gerin Vin de Pays La Champine - France, Northern Rhône, Vin de Pays
Tasted blind. Black-purple color in the glass. Aromas of black olive, potpourri, rose petals and cassis. Seductive, complex aromas. Grippy tannins on the palate, showing very young. Flavors of fig paste, charcoal, grilled herbs, olive paste and minerals. Guess: Northern Rhone syrah. I was impressed that this was only a Vin de Pays designation, as it drinks like a good St. Joseph. Jean-Michel Gerin does it again with this 100% syrah. 90 points

1995 Madrigal Petite Sirah - California, Napa Valley
Tasted blind, but I knew immediately that this was the wine I brought to the tasting. Brick red color in the glass. Strange/fun aromas of beef bouillon, pickles, incense and sweet, saucy strawberries and cherries. I was really surprised by the grip of the tannins, considering this petite sirah is 17 years old. Interesting mix of flavors: fig paste, white pepper, wet leaves and an herbal, almost vermouth-like kick on the finish. A few tasters poured this wine out immediately. Oh well, not everyone's as adventurous. Yes it's a weird wine, but I thought it was a lot of fun and a good example of how long well-made petite sirah can age. 87 points

2007 Summerland Grenache - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Tasted blind. Clear, bright ruby color in the glass. Aromas of sweet cassis, cola, a hint of herbs, and alcohol lingers on the nose. Silky tannins on the palate and low-to-medium acid. Flavors of strawberries, cherry jam, cola and a hint of fig. Toasty oak is slathered on top of the jammy fruit. This was so sweet, bright and full of alcohol that it just screamed Paso Robles grenache to me, which was my guess. Nailed it, but I'm not the biggest fan of this flavor profile, especially the pronounced oak and alcohol. 83 points

2010 Bricco Dei Tati (Lodali) Cortese del Piemonte - Italy, Piedmont, Asti, Cortese del Piemonte
Tasted blind. Bright cherry color. Aromas of purple Laffy Taffy mixed with herbs... hmmm... strange. Hints of pencil shavings as well. The palate shows lots of cherry jam and some peppery spice. Light tannins provide little backbone for the cranberry and raspberry jam flavors. In a Rhone variety tasting this was the ringer, and it stuck out like crazy. Guess: cheap California pinot. Turns out to be a barbera from Piedmont. 85 points

2009 Domaine La Bastide Syrah Vin de Pays d'Hauterive - France, Languedoc Roussillon, Vin de Pays d'Hauterive
Tasted blind: Dark ruby color. Aromas of red and black plums, pepper and anise. Medium tannins on the palate, with a kiss of oak to round out the raspberry and plum flavors. Mocha lingers on the finish. I guessed this as a Sonoma syrah based on its dark fruit profile and the use of oak, but was happy to see it was Domaine La Bastide. I've had this wine before and enjoyed it, especially for $12. Great bargain. 86 points

2010 Fausse Piste Syrah Garde Manger - USA, Oregon/Washington
Tasted blind. Medium purple color. Aromas of brambly fruit, plums, raspberries and violets. With time, some real meaty aromas came out. On the palate, this wine is full of grippy tannins, pure berry fruit and lots of spices. With time, some more meaty characteristics came out, like sweet barbequed pork or something. Quite delicious. Pure and vibrant cassis and raspberry fruit, along with graphite and earth. Very nice syrah. Long finish. Guess: Mendocino syrah.
This 100% syrah is a blend from the following vineyards in Washington and Oregon: Outlook (Rattlesnake Hills, WA), Ambassador (Red Mountain, WA), Marcoux (Red Willow/Yakima), Elephant Mountain (Yakima) and Riverrock (Walla Walla, OR). 91 points

Palate Cleanser
After all those big reds, we opened a palate-cleansing muscadet. I never get tired of well-aged, classic-style muscadet, and this is one of the best muscadets I've had all year.

1999 Chereau-Gunther Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine Comte de St. Hubert Château du Coing de St. Fiacre - France, Loire Valley, Muscadet de Sèvre-et-Maine
Wow, what an incredible muscadet. This was aged on the yeasts for a decade, and this wine has the depth and complexity to prove it. Aromas of lemon cake, orange rind, minerals, sea shells and peanut shell. The palate is creamy and deep, but incredibly fresh at the same time. I love the tangerine-lemon flavors, and limestone, crushed sea shells and slate rock add all sorts of complexity. Like an aged Chablis, this wine is pure, delicious and full of sea flavors. Delicious now, but this could age for another five-to-ten years, easily. Very impressive. Tasted non-blind. 91 points

Donelan Wines from Sonoma
After the brown-bagged wines were revealed, I tasted some samples that the owner of Donelan had left behind. This was my first time tasting wine from this producer. Overall, they're a little too pricey for the quality, but they seem to be decent wines. The Cuvee Moriah is really nice.

2011 Donelan Chardonnay Nancie - California, Sonoma Coast
Big-time aromatics of butter, oak, yellow apple and apricot. The palate is really rich, with flavors of lemon peel, butternut squash and toasted oak. It's got enough acid to keep it balanced, and a rounded mouthfeel from the oak. For me, the oak is too much, and it hinders this wine because there's just not enough fruit to balance out the oak. Still, enjoyable to sip, and it's got some very likeable elements. 84 points

2010 Donelan Cuvée Moriah - California, Sonoma County
I wasn't too enthralled by Donelan's other wines, but this one stood tall and demanded respect. Sweet cherries, incense, smoke and roasted meat on the nose. The palate is full of sweet cherries, cassis, but it's balanced by grilled herb, pepper and smoke. Seriously grippy tannins. This could use four or five years in the cellar, but it's an excellent example of Sonoma red Rhone blends.
54% grenache, 26% syrah and 20% mourvedre, half of which was whole-cluster fermented. 90 points

2009 Donelan Syrah Cuvée Christine - California, Sonoma County
Aromas of plums, blackberries and BBQ sauce. The palate is dense and full, with massive fruit and tannins. I like the smoke, tar and meaty aspects that add complexity to the rich dark fruit. Wow, the tannins are really dense. This needs some time, but it's a fun wine. 88 points

2009 Donelan Syrah Walker Vine Hill - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
I like this wine but I'm not swooning over it. This syrah is just too primal for me right now. Maybe in a few years it'll show better. Aromas of figs and raisins. The palate is like blackberry sauce and coffee grinds. A bit of sweetness to the black fruit. Saucy. Too much exctracted fruit and chocolate to be really exquisite. The density of the finish makes me think this wine will benefit from at least three-to-five years in the cellar, maybe even ten. Good stuff, but it needs to show more to justify its $40+ price point. 87 points 

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