Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Night of Delicious Domestic Rhones

The Rhone Valley of France has always been one of my favorite wine regions, partly because it’s the ancestral home of so many amazing grapes, red ones like syrah, grenache and mourvedre, white grapes like roussanne, marsanne and viognier. And it was here, in the Northern Rhone hills of Côte-Rôtie, where vintners first began co-fermenting syrah with a dash of viognier — which is obviously one of humankind’s greatest ideas.

Another such idea was planting these grapes in California and Washington State. American winegrowers have decades of experience producing stellar Syrahs, Rhone-style blends, as well as whites. Domestic “Rhone” wines feature prominently in my cellar, they make frequent appearances on my dinner table, and they constantly wow me at wine tastings. So it was with much pleasure that I attended a wine tasting dinner with a domestic Rhone theme. Organized by David White of Terroirist (a daily wine blog I occassionally write for), ten of us got together for some domestic Rhone wines and grilled lamb. (Syrah and lamb is a match made in heaven.)

Here are my notes from an evening of epic wines…

2011 Two Shepherds Pastoral Blanc Saralee’s Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley
Smells like those peach ring gummies, sweet white flowers and even a hint of mineral. Tangy acid, plump white peach and canteloupe fruit. A waxy mouthfeel, but this stays crisp the entire time, something I find rare in California white Rhone blends. A blend of 40% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne, 20% Viognier and 10% Grenache Blanc, fermented and aged in old oak. (88 points)

2011 Halcon Vineyards Prado Alder Springs - California, North Coast, Mendocino
What a beautiful white blend. Aromas of peaches and cream, lemon zest, clover honey and vanilla. On the palate, this wine is oily and full but the acid is persistent and snappy. Melon, pineapple and banana mix with notes of mineral and vanilla bean. Juicy and ripe, but it stays elegant. 50% Marsanne, 50% Roussanne, aged in 20% new French oak. (93 points)

2010 Phoenix Ranch Viognier Phoenix Ranch - California, Napa Valley
Fresh and bright on the nose, lemons, limes, potpourri, honeysuckle. Full-bodied, but so crisp and delightful on the palate that it never feels heavy. Pineapple, green melon and white cherry combine with honey and a distinct chalky flavor that I really enjoy. All stainless steel and aged 10 months on the lees. Rarely do I find a Napa Valley Rhone white that’s so brisk. (90 points)


2010 Black Ankle Vineyards Syrah Leaf-Stone - Maryland, North Central Piedmont
Tasted blind from a decanter. Interesting mix of aromas: cherry sauce, tart berries, fresh tobacco leaf. On the palate this wine is quite soft, which made me think it had some age on it. Fine tannins and crisp acid. Juicy berry and currant fruit, along with leather, tobacco and a hint of tomato paste. A bit of toast lingers on the finish. I had all sorts of ideas about what this could be (a modern style Bordeaux? An Aussie cab?) but I never would’ve guessed a Maryland syrah. It’s not a typical syrah, but it’s a very solid wine. Lots of other tasters enjoyed this wine and everyone was surprised that it came from Maryland. Black Ankle produces some of the best wines in the state, and this bottle is further proof. (90 points)

2006 Syncline Syrah McKinley Springs Vineyard - Washington, Columbia Valley, Horse Heaven Hills
This was my contribution to the tasting. Complex and seductive aromas of roasted coffee, all sorts of mixed berries, white pepper. So polished on the palate with fine tannins and solid acid, combining in a velvety mouthfeel. I love the cranberry, red and black plums, coffee and dark chocolate flavors. So pure on the finish. Despite it’s dark and rich nature, the wine leaves the palate refreshed, not overwhelmed. A beauty that I’d like to revisit in two or three years, except I don’t have any more. Damn!
They nickname this vineyard the “Espresso Block” for its dark color and rich flavors. The syrah was co-fermented with 2% Viognier as well and aged in old French oak, which allows the purity of flavors to shine through without dominant oak influence. (93 points)

2008 Betz Family Bésoleil - Washington, Columbia Valley
Herbal on the nose, like rosemary and sage, mixed up with red berries, smoke and rhubarb. Pure velvet on the palate, rich but very balanced by the acid and fine tannins. Flavors of red cherries, strawberry, along with milk chocolate and herbal notes of white pepper and rosemary. Green olive lingers onto the finish. A stunning blend of 82% Grenache, 9% Mourvedre and 9% Syrah. (92 points)

2008 Long Shadows Wineries Syrah Nine Hats - Washington, Columbia Valley
Love the aromatics: cherry pits, blackberry, olive and campfire. Good amount of game and olive to accent the sweet red and black plum flavors. Minerals and charcoal last long on the finish. Overall, very nice,and perhaps I’d rate it higher than 90 if I hadn’t tasted it alongside so many awesome wines. (90 points)

2001 Behrens & Hitchcock Syrah Alder Springs Vineyard Homage to Ed Oliveira - California, North Coast, Mendocino County
Aromas of dark plums, fig, tobacco, soil and dried roses. Fine tannins and medium acid, this wine feels like glycerin on the palate. The fig, date, caramel and smoke flavors are deep and brooding. A dense and serious syrah that still has years ahead of it. I was surprised this was from 2001. If tasted blind I would’ve guessed 2006 or 2007. (92 points)

2008 Saxum Broken Stones - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Ah, Saxum. This blend of 79% syrah, 13% grenache and 8% mourvedre smells like paint, incense smoke, dried roses, blueberries and a whole mess of other things. So complex aromatically, although we did drink this out of a decanter, which I highly recommend. The palate is extracted and thick as motor oil. The fig and blueberry fruit is undeniably delicious, but the fruit is backed up by charcoal, black olive, vanilla and smoke flavors. Very dense and probably capable of much more in a few years. (93 points)

2008 Saxum James Berry Vineyard - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Obviously, this is a massive wine. That said, what a beauty. A medley of wild berries, figs, charcoal and iron on the nose. Full on the palate with firm tannins and loads of pureed berry and plum fruit. The acid somehow keeps this wine juicy, almost velvety. Packed with secondary flavors of grilled herbs, charcoal, anise, chocolate. A gorgeous beast of a wine that will reward the extremely patient. 52% Grenache, 31% Syrah and 17% Mourvedre. (94 points)

2008 Copain Syrah James Berry Vineyard - California, Central Coast, Paso Robles
Another James Berry Vineyard from 2008 and another winner. Mocha, caramel, fig, licorice, chocolate... the nose is incredible. Full and dense on the palate, but the raspberry and plum fruit tastes fresh and the acid is lovely. So complex and layered, with chocolate and caramel and anise. Endless finish that actually tastes crisp and makes you want to take another sip. A beauty that will be even better in five or 10 years. (94 points)

2008 Carlisle Syrah Cardiac Hill Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Bennett Valley
Rich blackberries, earth, olive brine and smoke on the nose. Full-bodied and generous, yet balanced and easy to drink. Great combination of black fruits, meat, olive and charcoal. Acid carries onto the finish, which is long and smoky. I’ve enjoyed wines from Cardiac Hill before, and this is no exception. A good five years ahead of it, I’d wager. (91 points)

1998 Henri Sorrel Hermitage Le Gréal - France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
The only actual Rhone wine in the tasting, this Hermitage is orgasmic. The complexity of aromas, the balance on the palate, the length of the finish, all of it is top notch. The aromas are endlessly beautiful: red berry fruit, dried cranberry, anise, olive tapenade, seaweed, oyster brine, musk and mineral. Pure and velvety on the palate, with silky tannins and brisk acid. Snappy red fruit is accentuated by lots of olive brine, crushed rocks, herbs, iron, white pepper, tobacco. One of the best syrahs I’ve had, period. And it’s in such a perfect place right now. As close to perfect as I can imagine. (98 points)


  1. Isaac, I am glad to see an "older" vintage of Syncline included. I have been a long-time fan of their Rhone wines. You can find them all over Seattle which attests to their popularity.


  2. I don't have much experience with Syncline, but what I've tried I've really enjoyed.