Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Favorites From a Rhone Rangers Tasting

Wines from France’s Rhone Valley are responsible for my obsession with wine. It was Hermitage and Chateauneuf-du-Pape that got me hooked. Years later, I still seek out and collect Northern Rhone Syrahs and Viogniers, and I’ve never grown tired of red and white Chateauneufs.

For decades, American winemakers have looked to the Rhone Valley for inspiration while crafting wines that evoke a sense of their own time and place. At the forefront of this large movement is an organization called the Rhone Rangers, a non-profit group of vintners who promote American wines made from Rhone grapes.

To qualify as an official “Rhone Ranger” wine, member wineries must use one or more of the 22 varieties recognized in France, and these grapes must constitute at least 75% of the blend. Red Rhone grapes like Syrah, Grenache and Mourvedre feature prominently, and white grapes like Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne are frequently blended together. (For more background on the Rhone Rangers movement, and the rising tide of American Rhone wines, check out a great piece by my friend David White from a few weeks ago: “Embracing the Rhone Rangers.”)

In early June, the Rhone Rangers made their first trek to Washington, DC, for a series of tastings, dinners and panel discussions. I caught up with this crew for a tasting held at the Longview Gallery near DC’s Convention Center. The place was packed with winemakers, winery reps and tasters. I only had two hours, and I was having too much fun chatting with winemakers, so I didn’t get to visit everyone.

The white Rhone wines from Two Shepherds are complex and beautiful.
I honed in on a few producers who I think are doing amazing things in California. Under the Two Shepherds banner, wine-writer-turned-winemaker William Allen has been putting out some intriguing stuff from selected vineyards across California. I’ve long been a fan of Donelan’s Sonoma County wines, and this tasting was no exception. And it’s not a California Rhone tasting without Central Coast staple Qupé.

Here are some of my favorite wines from that tasting…

2011 Donelan Syrah Cuvée Keltie - California, Sonoma County ($75)
Nose: dark berries, violets on the nose, warm and inviting. Juicy berry fruit on the palate, ripe but tangy. Also some meat, olive, tobacco and violet notes. Zingy, with a long finish. I’d cellar this for two years and see what it’s up to.

2009 Qupé Syrah Bien Nacido Hillside Estate - California, Central Coast, Santa Maria Valley ($40)
Dark berries, charcoal, some smoke on the nose. Quite elegant on the palate, with a velvety mouthfeel and some crisp acid. Pure berry and currant fruit, with complex notes of pickle, spice and soy. Rich, lasting, pure, plenty of time ahead. 

2012 Two Shepherds Grenache Saralee’s Vineyard - California, Sonoma County, Russian River Valley ($38)
Love the nose, so floral, cool fruit, elegance. Fine tannins, crisp acid, a lighter, more elegant style at 13.3% alcohol. Cool red fruit, mixed with spice, earth and roses. Complex, versatile, I don't remember the last California Grenache I thought of as thirst-quenching. 

2011 Wrath Syrah Doctor’s Vineyard - California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands ($39)
Nose: smoke, crushed granite, meat on top of red currants and plums. Palate: firm, medium+ acid, currants and plums, but not too rich. Tangy throughout, with smoke, earth, meaty, jetty rock elements. Yup, this is doing it for me. 

2011 Cornerstone Cellars Syrah Stepping Stone - California, Napa Valley ($35)
Deep aromas, love the currants, plums, earthy, pepper, smoke, lots of depth. Juicy palate, fresh plum & currants, solid structure. Earth, loam, charcoal, chewy yet elegant. Will be even prettier with another two years. Wowed again by this wine. 

If you’re interested in notes from the full tasting, you can view my CellarTracker report here.

Have you tasted any good California Rhone wines lately? If so, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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