Monday, April 29, 2019

The State of the Rhone Nation

Last month the Rhone Rangers presented a seminar on the State of the Rhone Nation at City Winery in Washington D.C. The seminar was moderated by local wine writer Dave McIntyre and featured seven prominent American wine growers who specialize in Rhone grape varieties. The Rangers mission is to promote American Rhone varietal wines, specifically, those that include "75% of one of the twenty-two traditional Rhone grape varieties as approved by the French government for the wines of the Cotes du Rhone". The non-profit consists of over 100 winery members with the majority located in the Paso Robles AVA, followed by Sonoma County, Santa Barbara County, and the Lodi AVA. Other regions represented in the seminar and the associated trade-consumers tastings were Monterey County, Santa Lucia Highlands, El Dorado AVA, and the Monticello AVA in Virginia. This latter region was represented by Horton Vineyards where the late Dennis Horton planted Rhone grape varieties back in the late 1980s. And here are the Rhone-inspired backgrounds for each of the wineries that participated in the seminar.

Halter Ranch Vineyard: 2017 Grenache Blanc, Paso Robles ($28)
The property encompassing Halter Ranch Vineyard was first settled in the 1880s with the present estate vineyards established in 1994. Over the years the estate has expanding to include 17 grape varieties with 40% of the estate planted with Rhone varieties. The elevation, excellent water drainage, sun exposure, and limestone-rich soils of the Westside Adelaida District helps create a juicy, fresh, and aromatic Grenache Blanc.

Horton Vineyards 2016 Viognier ($20)
In the 1980s Dennis Horton traveled to the Rhone valley where he realized that the thick skin and loose clusters of Viognier would be perfect for the Virginia climate. Twenty-five years later this insight proved accurate as the Virginia Wine Board established Viognier as the signature grape of the Commonwealth. Horton has continued to be a consistent and reliable producer of Viognier showcasing the old warm charm of stone fruit and balanced acidity.

Tercero Wines 2018 Tercero Mourvèdre Rosé, Santa Barbara County ($30)
Larry Schaffer is proving that Rhone grape varieties can excel in Santa Barbara County mostly grown in the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Ballard Canyon AVA, Los Olivos District AVA, or the Los Alamos Valley. Each region provides a distinct micro-climate and soil type enabling the disperse planting based on ripening time and soil conditions. This Mourvèdre Rosé is a great example as it is a blend of different vineyard plots and shows a tropical aroma, strawberries and light cherries, and a persistent finish.

Two Shepherds Wine 2017 Two Shepherds Wine Cinsault ($20)
In general, William Allen sources his passion for Rhone varieties from Sonoma's Russian River Valley but in this case, he has access to the oldest surviving Cinsault Vineyard in the world -- the famed 135-year-old Bechthold Vineyard in Lodi. This vineyard still produces excellent fruit as modern sustainable vineyard practices have increased the health and vigor of grape clusters. This Cinsault differs slightly from the several single varietal wines produced by other wineries as Allen utilized minimal wine-making techniques such as native yeast, no additions other than minimal S02, neutral barrel fermentation and aging, whole cluster pressing, and unfined & unfiltered production. The result: a delicious wine with a candied cherry aroma, light and tart cranberries, and fresh acidity

Tablas Creek Vineyard 2016 Tablas Creek Grenache, Paso Robles ($40)
Perhaps the Rhone Rangers owes their actual existence to the pioneering work of Tablas Creek after Robert Haas established a friendship with the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel and later established the winery in 1989. Clones and rootstocks were imported from the famed Rhone estate and after a USDA-mandated three-year quarantine the Tablas Creek estate was planted. These and other newly imported clones have spread to help establish other Rhone dominated vineyards such as Lodi's Acquiesce Winery & Vineyards. This Grenache is back after a few years hiatus and shows the old world character of soft fruit, spiciness, depth, texture, and chewy tannins.

Ridge Vineyards 2015 Ridge Red-Blend, Sonoma ($36) - 54% Syrah, 30% Grenache, 16% Mataro
In 1991 the Lytton Springs vineyard formally became part of the Ridge family when the winery acquired the property because of its acclaimed Zinfandel fame. As a collateral benefit, this Dry Creek Valley estate is also a suitable host for Rhone varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, and Mataro - the Californian name for Mourvèdre. And these Lytton Springs Rhone wines are known for their barnyard, leather, and tobacco characters.

J. Lohr Winery 2016 J. Lohr Syrah (South Ridge) Paso Robles ($15)
When Jerry Lohr decided to enter the wine industry, he searched the best sites in California to produce Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet and settled on Paso Robles to plant his Cabernet vines. Like Halter Ranch's experience, the vines benefit from elevation, excellent water drainage, sun exposure, limestone-rich soils, and the dramatic diurnal swings of  50-degrees. These conditions are also conducive to Syrah which are grown in the estate's South Ridge -- a large vineyard encompasses the warmer Estrella and San Miguel districts as well as the cooler Creston, Adelaida, and Willow Creek districts.  The grapes are sourced equally from these two warm-cold groups which according to current CEO Steve Lohr "the warmer areas tend toward black tea and camphor while the cooler districts provide aromatic white pepper and blue fruit notes.  An excellent wine - and value.

No comments: