Over the weekend, our DEP’s tastings featured some of my favorite wines – Rhone varieties. One of the questions that I got during our Friday night tasting at our Fort Thomas store was “what do you mean by Rhone varieties?” Obviously, the wine geek in me had been turned loose and I needed to explain myself a bit better.
Most of us wine geeks speak of wine in terms of French geography. When talking about Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, we are talking about “Bordeaux,” Chardonnay or Pinot Noir – “Burgundy,” and Syrah, Grenache or Mourvedre – “Rhone.”
We usually dedicate an entire weekend to these grapes, with part one being dedicated to the white grapes like Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and subsequent blends, and part two, focusing on GSM and other notable grapes like Cinsault, Carignan and others. Modeled after the pioneering group of Rhone-enthusiasts the Rhone Rangers, we try to help our customers better understand that Syrah is not just a cheap grape variety producing such bargains as Yellow Tail and Rosemount, but can be remarkably structured and complex wines, and still be affordable too.
As a primer, there are three major red and three major white grapes grown in the Rhone. For the reds, it is Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Grenache is one of the most cultivated red grapes on the planet, though its sibling, Syrah, has been more successful thanks in part to the aforementioned Yellow Tail, but also to the prestige of Penfolds Grange (one of the most celebrated and highly-acclaimed wines on earth). And Mourvedre, that dark oddball that is fast becoming a hit in its own right in a little southern Spanish region called Jumilla.
As for the whites, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne are the big three, though most of them are still somewhat misunderstood.
As far as the actual Rhone Valley in France, a region leading you toward the Mediterranean coastline, the area is divided by the mighty Rhone River, which flows from German border (where it is the Rhine) west and then south, draining into the Mediterranean near Marseilles. Divided into the Northern and Southern portions, this geographic separation is tantamount to understanding these grapes somewhat. In the Northern Rhone, Syrah is the sole red grape variety allowed to be grown, with some wines from Hermitage and Cote-Rotie spiced up with the slight addition of white grapes like Viognier or Roussanne. These wines are cooler-climate wines, grown in rocky soil and on precisely-positioned vineyard plots. These traits lend to their massive structure, dense minerality and notes of roasted game and rich earth. The wines of the Southern Rhone are more blends, with Grenache being the dominant grape, both in Grenache Noir and Grenache Blanc. The most famous appellation in Southern Rhone is Chateauneuf du Pape, or New House of the Pope. A commemorative wine meant to celebrate the arrival of Pope Clement V, who was the only pope not to reside in the Vatican, but in the Rhone city of Avignon. The blend was initially permitted to incorporate all the grape varieties grown for wine, including 7 red and 6 white (technically 7 of each if you count both white and black Grenache). These days most everyone uses the simple G(renache)-S(yrah)-M(ourvedre) blend, with the exception of Chateau Beaucastel, who still uses all of them.
Syrah has become the dominant grape in Australia, where it is known as Shiraz, and it also favors well under that moniker in South Africa. California has proven to be well-suited for the Rhone grapes as well, while Grenache and Mourvedre dominate in Spain. As for the whites, you can find Viognier in California, Washington State, Australia, Chile, and Italy.
And as a slight interjection of bias, the Rhone grapes are doing extremely well in Washington state, particularly Syrah. The wines of Gramercy Cellars, Cayuse, K Vintners, Doyenne, McCrea and Bunnell are among the finest producers of Syrah in the world. One of the most stirring events I ever attended was a Syrah seminar with Gramercy Cellars winemaker Greg Harrington and Mike Sauer, vineyard manager and owner of one of Washington’s most hallowed Syrah sites, Red Willow Vineyard. Just days after Washington State’s father of wine, David Lake had lost his battle with cancer, Mike spoke of their planting the first Syrah vines together there on that hillside, tears in his eyes, and you could taste all that they had hoped you could, the pedigree of Northern Rhone, the “terroir” of Red Willow, the love of the Rhone.
I urge you to give these varieties a try, and hopefully you too will discover some amazing wines, that just happen NOT TO BE Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Chardonnay.