California Rhone Rangers: Pioneering Spirit

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  • By Renée Lorraine
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California Rhone Rangers: Pioneering Spirit

Rhone Ranger Truths We Hold to be Self-Evident: It’s not all about Syrah, White Grenache is the next big thing, Mourvèdre is also the next big thing, Qupe is pronounced “Kyoo-pay”, It’s all about Terroir...

Rhone Ranger Truths We Hold to be Self-Evident:
 
It’s not all about Syrah
White Grenache is the next big thing
Mourvèdre is also the next big thing
Qupe is pronounced “Kyoo-pay”
It’s all about Terroir
 
Last month Unwined and Les Dames d’Escoffier co-hosted the Rhone Ranger “Founders Dinner” at Charlie Palmer Steak with a truly great cast of characters representing Rhone Ranger royalty. It was a memorable night.
 
Jason Haas (Tablas Creek), Ethan Lindquist (Qupe), Barbara Smith (Ken Volk) and Gary Van Ostrand (Bonny Doon) represented the pioneers of Rhone varietals in the United States, and we had the opportunity to dine with each one as they progressed table to table, talking wine, food, and the ever-growing Rhone Ranger movement.
 
Washington Post Wine Editor Dave McIntyre hosted a panel discussion with the Rhone Rangers. And while Dave declared White Grenache to be the next “big” thing, everyone agreed it’s no longer all about Syrah. Since a vid is worth at least a thousand words, check out Dave hard at work here: 
 
California’s Rhone Rangers produce wines that are essentially New World
interpretations of wines found in the Rhone, and their growing popularity in the U.S. speaks to their rich flavors, versatility with food, and the power of American soil. More than just “making wine" from 22 Rhone varietals, they express a sense of place, known as terroir.
 
For example, Santa Barbara County’s Bien Nacido Vineyard gives rise to cool-climate expressions in wines like Qupe's 2010 Syrah Bien Nacido and 2012 Marsanne which favor comparison to the Northern Rhone where Syrah is king, and Marsanne and Rousanne are heirs apparent.
 
Other vineyard locations cue more to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, such as Tablas Creek’s vineyards in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains west of Paso Robles. Soils composed of calcareous clay - similar to the southern Rhone Valley - combined with warm days and cool nights, allow the Haas family to produce wines such as the Tablas Creek 2011 Esprit de Tablas Rouge GSM and the Viognier-based Tablas Creek 2012 Cotes de Tablas Blanc.
 
While many wines are inspired by these historic French viticultural regions, some winemakers march entirely to the beat of their own drum. Kenneth Volk’s 2011 Mourvèdre from 90-year-old vines in San Benito County’s Lime Kiln Valley defies comparison to its Bandol brothers in Provence, just south of the Rhone. The valley’s decomposed granite and overlaying limestone soil, combined with the cooling influence from the Monterey Bay’s onshore winds and Ken’s skill, yields a wine of deep black-blue fruit, laced with herbal notes, spice and mineral. 
 
The 2013 Bonny Doon, Vinferno Vin de Paille is another unique expression. Bonny Doon's founder, Randall Grahm (affectionately called the "Original Rhone Deranger") crafted this single-vineyard dessert wine from biodynamically-farmed, air-dried Grenache Blanc and Roussanne grapes. It's wickedly good and like no other-- rich, fragrant, and honeyed with luscious notes of apple, pear, apricots, and hazelnuts. A true American treasure.

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