In the 1980s, a small band of Californian producers teamed together to form the Rhône Rangers to promote wines made from varieties, such as Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier, grown in that great French region. Then in 1989, the Perrin family, who own Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, bought property in Paso Robles, together with their US importer Robert Haas. While waiting to establish the Tablas Creek winery, they imported cuttings directly from their property in the southern Rhône, making available for the first time other quality Rhône varieties such as Mourvèdre and Counoise as well as whites like Grenache Blanc.
The popularity of these wines is still small, but production and quality is rising. Paso Robles, with its warm climate and limestone soils, has emerged as the epicentre of Rhône styles of wine. It's not the only region though: Santa Ynez Valley further south makes peppery Syrah; the Sierra Foothills, hotter and higher, have great potential for wines from Mourvèdre; and, beyond California, Washington, with its more continental climate, also makes great wine from Rhône varieties.
At a Rhône Rangers event in San Francisco, I tasted a number of wines, some blends, some from famous varieties, and some from little-known varieties. Here are some of the highlights.
Tablas Creek Terret Noir 2015 ($35)
There are 18 different varieties allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, some of them rarely used and if so only for blending. As Tablas Creek have access to cuttings of all the Châteauneuf grapes, they have the chance to experiment with them and learn what the wines from the more obscure varieties actually taste like. They have just 0.2ha of Terret Noir, which they plan to use for blending but they've also made a varietal bottling to share the taste of this obscure variety. The grape has big berries and dark skins, yet, conversely, it produces a very pale coloured wine reminsicent of Nebbiolo. The wine is floral, herbal, and spicy, with red fruits and really dry tannins (again not dissimilar to Nebbiolo). It would make a fantastic pairing with a wide range of food (duck, game, meat, roast veg) and I hope Tablas Creek continue to make wine from the variety. ✪✪✪✪✪
On a side note, two people at the tasting described the tannins of the Terret Noir as "tacky." I've never heard this word used to describe tannins and it was equally confusing to Tablas Creek winemaker Neil Collins who said "that doesn't sound very pleasant." A dictionary has the following definition: "(of glue, paint, or other substances) not fully dry and retaining a slightly sticky feel: the paint was still tacky." So I suppose describing the dry tannins of the Terret Noir as tacky was accurate, but, given it usually refers to something that's cheap and low-quality, it's still not a word I'll be using.
Adelaida Vineyards Picpoul Blanc 2015 ($35)
Picpoul is allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, although most white wines from there are blends of other varieties. Further west, Picpoul is the grape variety for Picpoul de Pinet on the Languedoc coast, one of the few French appellations that contains the name of the grape (other areas now technically have to spell it Piquepoul). The wines there are light, fresh, and acidic - Picpoul literally means "lip-stinger." Picpoul wines being made in Paso Robles are quite different, heavier and fuller-bodied, but still with a refreshing acidity - Adelaida's winemaker, Jeremy Weintraub, said the wine had over 9g/L of total acidity, which is remarkable in such a warm wine region. Adelaida's Picpoul Blanc was a great example of a balance between the rich ripeness coming from the warm climate of Paso Robles and the natural acidity of the grape. ✪✪✪✪✪
Qupé Roussanne 2012 ($30)
Under Bob Lindqvist, Qupé were one of the original Rhône Rangers. They're based in Santa Maria, making wines from Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, and, most notably, Roussanne and Marsanne. These are two of the great white grapes of the Rhône, but it's rare to see them elsewhere. Marsanne, which has a waxy, oily texture, is the base of white Hermitage in the northern Rhône, while Roussanne, which has more aromas and acidity, is at the heart of white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Roussanne is my favourite because of the rich aromatics, acidity, and the easy way it takes to oak ageing. Both these grapes also age wonderfully well in bottle, maintaining their structure while developing mature, complex aromas: this wine was from 2012 and still felt young and fresh. ✪✪✪✪
Seven Oxen Mourvèdre 2014 ($42)
In contrast to Qupé, Seven Oxen is a new project and I tasted three of their wines from the 2014 vintage, just their second. Their winemaker is Bastien Leduc from south-west France, so he's used to working in the warm climate of Paso Robles. Because of the climate, late-ripening Mourvèdre works perfectly in Paso, the hot summer and warm autumn getting the grape gradually ripe. There were plenty of good examples at the Rhône Rangers tasting; Seven Oxen's Mourvèdre stood out with rich, ripe black fruit, warm mouthfeel, and dry (not tacky) tannins. ✪✪✪✪✪
Wrath Ex Anima Syrah ($25)
Oak abounds in California, so it's always refreshing to taste wines that have seen no new oak. There were quite a few wineries emphasising the lack of oak in the wines, so maybe the tide is turning. Wrath are based in Monterey, an area that has history with Rhône varieties (mainly because of Bonny Doon, another of the original Rhône Rangers). This Syrah is only aged in old oak, so the purity of the fruit really shines through. It also makes it easier to drink young, but there are plenty of complex black fruit and spice aromas. Even better, the lack of oak cuts down on the price. ✪✪✪✪
A lot of these Rhône Rangers are beginning to produce single-varietal wines (which is what I've focused on here) as a means of attracting consumer interest. Don't forget the blends, because that's what the Rhône itself excels in, but if these single-varietal wines can get people drinking wines from the wonderful range of varieties it can only be a good thing. And the love for these styles of wines is definitely spreading: I got to taste for the first time wines from Arizona! Grown at 1,700m altitude just an hour from the Mexican border, the Viognier and two Grenache wines I tasted were pretty good. If there's a future in Arizona for winemaking, maybe it will come from the Rhône...