The Rhone Rangers is an organization devoted to one of the best causes in the wine world: promoting the creation and enjoyment of Rhone style wines. While Napa Cab still dominates America’s high-end wine market, there’s obvious potential in California and elsewhere for the production of noteworthy wines from Rhone varieties.
Syrah and Viognier are certainly in the lead for red and white, respectively, but Grenache, Roussanne, and a handful of others are up-and-coming in the California wine world. I attended the Rhone Rangers San Francisco grand tasting on Sunday — here are my highlights from the dozens of wines I tried:
Favorite white: 2010 Donelan Venus, Sonoma County (pre-release) — This is a Roussanne-based wine with some Viognier blended in. The Viognier definitely adds a boost to the aromatics. The nose explodes with peach, guava, pineapple, and lemon over a wet stone aroma with just a touch of oak. My favorite thing about this wine is how well it combines Viognier aromatics and Roussanne structure, skillfully avoiding the dreaded flabbiness that plagues many Viogniers. At $45 this isn’t a nightly quaffer for most, but it’s worth the money for a great white wine experience.
Favorite red: 2009 Stolpman Hilltops Syrah Santa Ynez Valley — Stolpman caught me by surprise one day when I wondered into their Lompoc “wine ghetto” tasting room in Santa Barbara County. The Syrahs blew me away with their resemblance of Cayuse, the cult Walla Walla winery with a supposed seven year waiting list. Unfortunately my favorite of that tasting, the Originals Syrah, was sold out, but the Hilltops is a worthy successor. This is a savory Syrah with a smokey, bacon fat nose over top plum and blueberry flavors. The Hilltops runs at a cool $48, but they also have their gorgeous Estate Syrah at $30 and the 2010 Originals at $38 for more affordable versions.
Most unexpected wine: 2009 Lagier Meredith Mondeuse Mount Veeder – Carole Meredith is a well-known grapevine geneticist, and according to her Mondeuse is “Syrah’s crazy uncle”. She couldn’t find the vines to purchase at a commercial nursery, but knowing that UC Davis had a couple of them which she had identified, she used cuttings to propagate a small vineyard of Mondeuse on Mount Veeder. The grape is grown in the alpine Savoie region of France, where the climate is significantly cooler than Napa Valley. It is extremely interesting to taste a California version; the wine is hardly recognizable as coming from the same grape as Savoie wines. It has voluptuous amounts of blackberry and boysenberry fruit with a great mineral-driven finish, and the fact that it was poured after the Syrah surprisingly seems correct. This wine is from only the vines’ third year, so I’ll be curious to try this in the future as the vines begin to mature.
With so many wineries present I wasn’t able to taste wine from everybody, but among those I did make it to a few caught my attention. Petrichor, a new single vineyard project with Duncan Arnot Meyers (Arnot-Roberts) as winemaker has enormous potential but the wines could use more bottle age. Two Shepherds – the project of wine blogger William Allen — continues to make waves, and he had one of the most popular tables at the tasting. I highly recommend securing a bottle of the 2010 Viognier before it is gone. (David White wrote about the Two Shepherds wines yesterday.)
This tasting confirmed my belief that Rhone style wines from California continue to be underrated and under-priced relative to their Bordeaux and Burgundy-inspired counterparts. California Syrah in particular can be one of the best values on the shelf, but I expect this won’t always be the case as the market will eventually catch up to the quality.