Take a Ride with the California Rhone Rangers

There is more to life than Cabernet, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It’s quite easy to get stuck in a rut when it comes to wine, mostly because the rut isn’t all that uncomfortable. You shouldn’t be blamed for drinking what you like. On the other hand, you’re missing out on a wide world of flavor if your wine drinking habits bring you back to the same grape varieties, or even worse, the same wine brands again and again and again. You might enjoy John Hughes movies, but why on earth would you want them to be the only things you ever watched?

No, there’s an incredible world to explore out there when it comes to wine, and now’s as good a time as any to strike out into new territory. There are an infinite number of directions to go, but since the Rhone Rangers tasting came to town a couple of weeks ago, let’s explore the bounty of what they have to offer, shall we? From the bright spiciness of Grenache to the brooding minerality of Syrah, to the apricot tones of Viognier and the spiced apple notes of Marsanne, Rhone wines have a lot to offer. But across the board they share a similar spirit.

The wines of Burgundy are philosophers wines. Good for contemplating the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. Bordeaux are the wines of royalty and class, excellent to have on hand before (or after) invading a small country. But if you want to party, there’s no better wine than Rhone wines, the wines of the common everyday people who want to have a good time after a hard day’s work.

The charms of Rhone wines are many. Without a doubt, the best rosés in the world are made from Rhone grape varieties such as Grenache, Cinsault, Carignane, and Mourvedre. Syrah, in the hands of the masters of Cornas and Hermitage and Cote Rotie, easily elevates to be one of the world’s greatest red grapes, making wines that are as profound as they are passionate. And who can deny the charms of the complex, technicolor intensity of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, which in addition to being fun to say, can be mind-bindingly delicious especially in a cooler vintage where a touch of restraint and minerality joins the boisterous fruit.

Here in California, wines made in these traditions have been slow to gain acceptance, but are now unquestionably mainstream, at least among more experienced wine lovers. For some, however, the unfamiliar grape varieties still prove something of a barrier to acceptance.

For anyone in that category, I’d like to offer a bit of help. Here are seven fantastic wines made by California Rhone Rangers that might just initiate you into the fold.

2016 Unti Vineyards “Estate Cuvée Blanc” White Blend, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma
Unti Vineyards is quite possibly my favorite winery in Dry Creek Valley. I don’t think there’s any wine they make that I don’t enjoy. Well known for their wines Italian grape varieties, the winery also dabbles in Rhone varieties as well, not to mention some deliciously “unholy” blends of the two, such as this little number.

Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of crisp apple and citrus. In the mouth, brilliant acidity makes flavors of citrus, apples, pears, and a touch of floral notes dance a jig on the palate. Mouthwatering is perhaps the most apt descriptor for this wine that begs to be quaffed in big gulps. An unusual blend of Vermentino, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2014 Tablas Creek Vineyard “Esprit de Tablas Blanc” White Blend, Paso Robles, CA
Few wineries in California can boast the combination of pedigree and dedication to a European style of winemaking that Tablas Creek has possessed for more than 30 years. Started as a joint venture with the Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the winery has championed Rhone variety wines since its inception. and in more ways than one. In addition to starting a winery, the Haas family also started a nursery which has supplied many a newer Rhone Ranger with vines.QupeNV-Sonnies-Syrah-bottleshot-800px1.jpg

Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of candle wax and apple. In the mouth, flavors of quince and apricot and spices have a slightly waxy complexion and positively shimmer with bright juicy acidity. Refreshing but more complicated than that, this is a delicious wine that will improve both with air, as well as with a few years in the bottle. A blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc. Score: around 9. Cost: $45. click to buy.

2013 Domaine de la Terre Rouge “L’Autre” Grenache, Sierra Foothills
Bill Easton is one of the original pioneers of Rhone grape varieties in California. Originally a wine retailer, Bill decided he needed to get closer to the source, and in 1985 began growing vines and making wines up and down the Sierra Foothills for years, seeing out the red volcanic soils that give his label its name.

Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of spicy cedar and red berries. In the mouth a combination of cherry and strawberry flavors are clasped in grippy tannins but enlivened with fantastic acidity. Nice earthy notes rumble around in the basement of this wine as the fruit sings high in its upper boughs. A blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. Score: around 9. Cost: $30. click to buy.

2016 Edmunds St. John “El Jaleo” Red Blend, Amador County
Speaking of original Rhone Rangers, when Steve Edmunds started making Mourvedre wine in California most people had never heard of the grape. If there’s a winemaker in California that embodies the descriptor “old school” more than Edmunds, I don’t know who that might be. And I mean that in the best possible way. Edmunds has unwaveringly made high-acid, low alcohol, savory, food friendly wines for decades, which means that only now has the mainstream caught up to his vision. This wine is a brand new one for Edmunds, the first vintage of a new cuvee, with an unusually snazzy label for a guy who hasn’t changed his labels in 30 years. After I tasted the wine and found out its price, I told Steve he ought to significantly raise the price but he smiled kindly and looked at me like I was an idiot. Don’t be an idiot. Buy some. It’s due to be released on September 1st, 2017.

A brilliant medium purple in the glass, this wine has a wonderfully floral and berry aroma leaping out of the glass. In the mouth faint but muscular tannins wrap themselves around a core of berry fruit and crushed stone minerality that is shot through with electric acidity. This wine just begs to be swallowed, with herbs and fruit lingering in the finish. An unusual blend of Grenache, Tempranillo, Mourvedre, and Graciano. Score: between 9 and 9.5strong>. Cost: $29.

2015 Limerick Lane Cellars “Headpruned Block” Syrah, Russian River Valley
Perhaps best known for their blockbuster Zinfandels, Limerick Lane is on only its third owner since it was planted in 1910. Located in Healdsburg at the heart of the Russian River Valley AVA, Limerick Lane also makes Syrah and Grenache-based wines, though they are not as well known as their Zinfandels.

Medium to dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of slightly smoky blackberries. In the mouth, wonderfully spicy fruit gushes with mouthwatering acidity as hints of herbs, blackberry and bramble swirl across the palate. Faint tannins and wonderful fruit linger in the long finish. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50. click to buy.

2014 Petrichor Vineyards “Les Trois” Red Blend, Russian River Valley
I first stumbled on this tiny family-run vineyard in a flash of anger. Why? Because as soon as I learned of the existence of the word “petrichor” about 15 years ago, I privately decided that if I ever made a wine, that’s what I would call it. Imagine my annoyance when I walked up to the table of this brand-new winery, pouring at Rhone Rangers and proceeded to be wowed by their wine. “Why is this wine so damned good?” I wanted to blurt, but instead I just found out who the winemaker was, and everything suddenly make sense. Owners Jim and Margaret Foley had the good sense to hire Duncan Meyers (Of Arnot-Roberts fame) to make the wine for the first four years of the estate. This wine, however, is the first made by the husband and wife team of Megan and Ryan Glaab (who you might know from their own label Ryme Cellars). If you like cool climate Syrah, you’ll dig what these folks have going on.

Medium garnet in color, this wine smells of bright herbs, berries, and wet chalkboard. In the mouth, positively ecstatic fruit and herb flavors bounce across the palate sheathed in a fine tannic mesh. Excellent acidity and a wonderful wet chalkboard minerality round out a positively juicy bit of winemaking. Delicious. A blend of 76% Syrah and 24% Grenache. Score: around 9. Cost: $48. click to buy.

2012 Qupé “Sawyer Lindquist Vineyard – Sonnies” Syrah, Edna Valley, Santa Barbara
Few winemakers have more thoroughly mastered the many charms, quirks, and depths of the Syrah grape than Bob Lindquist, the founder of Qupé. One of the state’s earliest (and most unwavering) proponents of Syrah, Lindquist simply makes some of the best renditions of the grape to be found in California. Never heavy handed, Bob’s winemaking is decidedly old-school, but with a touch of California lushness, making the resulting wines no less than delicious.

Medium to dark garnet in the glass, the wine smells of white pepper, sage, and cassis. In the mouth, gorgeously savory flavors of blackberry and cassis mix with dried herbs, a touch of sweet oak, and a fantastic mineral backbone stiffened by muscular tannins. A stunner of a wine, destined to be quite long lived. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $55. click to buy.

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