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A Walk on the Wild Side

Christopher Sawyer

EMBRACING SYRAH AND OTHER TASTY VARIETALS WITH THE RHÔNE RANGERS

Simple wines are for wimps. Just ask the growing number of talented American winemakers who are crafting world-class wines with intriguing red and white grape varieties originally brought over from the Rhône Valley of France.



It's an art that starts with devotion to the hallowed grape Syrah. Since the early 1990s, the popularity of this grape has been on the rise with boutique producers in the United States. Today, it is used to make elegant, complex and powerful still wines, sophisticated Rhône-style blends, proprietary red wines, refreshing pink wines and flavorful ports.

One of the pioneer winemakers to witness the growth from the beginning is Bob Lindquist, proprietor of Qupé, a Central Coast winery that is currently celebrating its 30th consecutive vintage of making wines with the illustrious grape.

"It's a grape that sucks you into the fold with its amazing flavors and seduces you with its ability to age in the bottle," said Lindquist, who poured his tasty new releases at this year's San Francisco Celebration of American Rhône Wines hosted by the Rhône Rangers, a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting the enjoyment of Rhône-style wines produced in the United States.  
In addition to Lindquist, many other maverick winemakers were out in force at the popular weekend event, busy preaching the beauties of the grape in all its forms. Among them was the dynamic duo of sommeliers-turned-winemakers John Lancaster and Robert Perkins of Skylark Wine Co., who poured their tasty Syrahs from the Unti and Rodger's Creek vineyards in Sonoma County. "Syrah is a grape with its own attitude inherent of where it's planted," said Lancaster.

Another fan of the grape variety is Carl Bowker of Caliza, a boutique winery located in the breezy Templeton Gap sub-region of Paso Robles. According to Bowker, it's common to find fragments of whale bones and fossilized shells in the calcareous limestone-rich soils at his estate vineyard planted on rocky, steep hillsides.
The end result is a rich Syrah with juicy flavors of blackberry, boysenberry, bourbon-coated cooked cherry, licorice, coffee and bay leaf. A true crowd pleaser! "Our winemaking is about the soil, the land, and where the grapes originated," he said.

Diversity of Regions, Climates and Styles


There is plenty of excitement happening outside California as well. At a special Rhône Rangers seminar moderated by wine writer Patrick Comiskey, the panel discussed growing Syrah in cooler regions to allow for slower development of the fruit.
In Oregon's Rogue Valley, Rob Folin of Folin Cellars planted his first syrah vineyard in 2001. Protected from high mountains to the west, the region is not influenced by coastal breezes, so the temperature swing is dynamic leading up to harvest. The current release from the 2008 vintage has stunning flavors of pretty red fruit, violet plum, blueberry, chocolate, mint and a nice silky texture. And when asked about the style of Syrah from Southern Oregon, Folin replied "earthy, forest floor and not as peppery."

From Washington State, the Chateau Ste. Michelle 2008 "Ethos" Syrah is a focused wine with bright acidity, balanced tannins and complex flavors of ripe blackberry, cassis, seasoned meats and spicy notes of black pepper.

 
According to enologist Kd Organ, the key to success starts in the vineyards and the purity of the fruit. "The berries are bags of goodness," she said on working with the fruit from the Wahluke Slope and Cold Creek vineyards. Other tasty examples were presented by Tarara Winery in Virginia and Domaine Berrien Cellars in Michigan.

Back to the Future


In addition to the new up-and-coming producers making wines with the popular grape varieties Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre, there are a number of producers working with more obscure (but delicious) Rhône varietals as well. This trend was explored in detail at the enlightening seminar "Rare Wines: Come Taste the Unusual," moderated by Jon Bonné, Wine Editor of The San Francisco Chronicle.

One of the new darlings is Counoise, a deep purple-red grape known for its deep berry flavors, layers of spice and moderate alcohol. Carrie Bendick of Holly's Hill, a small family-owned winery in the Pleasant Valley region of El Dorado County, said the interest in the grape has grown considerably since the family planted the first half-acre on the property in the late 1990s. "Once we started making the wine separately, our customers wanted to take the barrel home with them," said Bendick.

Another rare breed is Cinsault, a red grape sometimes called Black Malvasia, which has been planted in California since the 1880s. Winemaker Gideon Bernstock of Yuba City-based Clos Saron Winery uses an ample amount of Cinsault and smaller portions of Syrah in his red blend called A Darker Shade of Blue. According to him, the grape variety has a personality all its own. "It's a grape with beautiful floral aromas and ripe spicy fruit flavors," said Bernstock.
 
Carignane is another red grape that has grown in popularity over the past decade. One of the main proponents of the varietal is Ridge Vineyards, a historic wine producer currently celebrating its 50-year anniversary of making wine in California. From old vines planted during the 1920s to 1940s at the Buchignani Ranch in Alexander Valley, the Ridge 2009 Carignane features high-tone notes of ripe red fruits, cranberry, pepper, savory spices and plenty of natural acidity.

"Acid didn't come in a bag 80 years ago. Instead, it was all about the vineyard," said David Gates, Vice President of Vineyard Operations at Ridge since 1989.

At the top of the trivia scale is Mondeuse Noire, one of the rarest Rhône varieties planted in the United States. Today, the species is a very minor grape and quite often confused with other varieties. "We like to call it Syrah's crazy uncle," said Dr. Carol Meredith, who makes a small amount of wine for the Lagier Meredith brand with fruit from the original 400 vines planted in 2007.

White Wine Varietals on the Rise

Beyond the usual suspects of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier, another unique white Rhône grape growing in popularity is Grenache Blanc. The fourth most commonly planted white grape in France, the variety is known for producing wines with vibrant acidity, floral aromas and flavors of green apple, melon, citrus and marzipan.
A proponent of working with the grape is William Allen of Sonoma County-based Two Shepherds Wines, who works with Grenache Blanc grapes from the Saarloos Vineyard in Santa Ynez Valley and Saralee Vineyard in Russian River Valley. Once picked, the fruit is fermented in neutral barrels and aged on the lees, using "as minimal manipulation as I can," he said.  
Another unique white grape is Picpoul (aka Piquepoul Blanc), a variety known for its floral aromatics, acidity and soft tannins. In Paso Robles, the winemaking team at Tablas Creek Winery has diligently worked with the grape in blends and by itself over the past decade. Winery president Jason Haas says there are a lot of benefits: "It's a grape that helps create wines with ripe, citrusy flavors, vibrant acidity and a nice a rich mouth feel. It's an exceptional new white varietal to fall in love with."

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