Can I get a whoop-whoop? I think we Americans are finally moving in the right direction. At least, from a wine perspective. Have you noticed that many people are reaching for and craving something out-of-the-ordinary, the unexplored, the less commercial? Let me know if this is all in my head because I’m heels-up in love with this trend… authentic, well-made wines made by people who actually care. Toto… have we escaped from Kansas?
This impassioned love affair revealed itself at the Rhône Rangers event in San Francisco. The sole reason Rhône Rangers exists is to introduce unique California-made wines to the American public, one consumer at a time. Hundreds of thirsty people crowded a waterfront warehouse to taste wines made only from grape varieties hailing from this lesser-known region of France. Nary a Chardonnay, Pinot Noir or Cabernet in sight. Practically heaven for this wine writer.
OK… those throwing their knowledge around might pee on my parade and say, “Syrah is from the Rhône and that’s pretty mainstream.” Yes, indeed, it is. But Grenache, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Cinsault are wines only the fervently adventurous deign to explore. Until now…
Channeling Yoda… titillating, this is.
So I spent 2-3 hours expanding my already enthusiastic yearn for Rhône white wines (mostly whites but also some reds). Grown in many warm climate areas throughout California, Rhône varietals are happier when they have heat during the day to develop flavor ripeness and coolness at night to develop acidity. Tart acidity — a wonderful characteristic of many of these varietals — keeps the wine from transforming into spineless fruit juice.
California regions inclined to producing transcendent Rhône varietals include Paso Robles and Dry Creek Valley but talented winemakers can craft some damn tasty juice from warmer pockets tucked into traditionally cool climate area like Russian River Valley and Sonoma Valley.
Of all the white varietals, Grenache Blanc (GB) is a current favorite. Often blended with Roussanne, Viognier or Marsanne, GB is a full-bodied, higher acidity alternative to Chardonnay. It originated from a mutation of Grenache, its red brother, reportedly in Spain and can be found in many French white Rhône blends as well as some reds to provide fragrance and softness. When done well, Grenache Blanc provides apricot and peaches with a zingy and sometimes earthy finish.
Producers to look for: Tablas Creek (nationally-available and blended in but the GB imprint is all over this wine: see review), Ranchero Cellars (Paso Robles) and a local Sonoma County winery, Two Shepherds.
Viognier can be considered a chick wine. Floral, honeysuckle with a luscious mouthfeel, this sexy white wine has gained a large following and has carved the way for Rhône white wines. The Viognier folks even have an informal guerrilla marketing campaign teaching people how to prounouce it: VEE ohn YAY. Great idea since people who see this on a restaurant wine list might skip over it for fear of misprounoncing it. Don’t. This grape is used frequently in Syrahs in the Rhone region to impart fragrance, softness and elegance during fermentation. Evening out an otherwise tannic and robust grape, Viognier has plenty of purpose. And it should see the inside of your glass.
Producers to look for: Mounts Family, Ranchero Cellars, and Bonterra (national distributed, review).
If you’ve ever tasted chamomile, green tea or straw in a white Rhône blend, you’ve experienced Roussanne. This variety makes me happy since it’s so drastically different than many others — adding joy and variety to my wine rack. It’s apparently a pain in the ass to grow so you won’t see many 100% bottlings, however I jump every chance I see one. One of the most stunning interpretations is from Truchard Vineyards. Grown on their estate in Napa’s Carneros region, the consistently elegant Truchard Roussanne is one of the best sold. Bar none. Also tasted a nice one from Hearthstone Vineyards in Paso.
Many of these will only be available for sale online, but don’t let that stop you from learning the ways of the white Rhône.