Chow Town

A brief history of wine from the ‘Rhone Rangers’

They call themselves Rhone Rangers, wine producers focusing on grape varieties originating in Frances Rhone Valley.

There are grapes youve likely heard of: Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier. There are grapes you may have heard of: Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Marsanne. And grapes you likely have never heard of, unless youre a wine geek like me: Counoise, Terret Noir, Bourboulenc, and Ugni Blanc to name but a few of the more obscure varieties. There are 22 grape varieties that qualify for Rhone Ranger status. Ive had a bunch, but nowhere near all 22!

As a huge fan of wines from the Rhone, I thought it would be interesting, educational, and tasty to focus on the wines and stories of some of these Rhone Rangers.

Ill start with the original Rhone Ranger, Bonny Doons Randall Grahm. Hes a legend in the wine business, an esoteric and innovative individual and winemaker, and a man I featured early on during my days with Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert. Grahm is definitely a guy who marches to the beat of his own drum, but that has served him and wine drinkers well. Were it not for Grahms search for the Great American Pinot Noir a search he called off decades ago the world would not have been privy to Grahms explorations of obscure and not so obscure Rhone grapes. And that would have been sad.

Ive tasted many of Grahms wines through the years. This time, I focused on his Le Cigare Volant, white and red, standard and reserve bottlings. These wines are meant to be homages to the great reds and whites of Chateauneuf du Pape, and they stay true to their goal. Le Cigare reds feature primarily Syrah and Grenache, with lesser amounts of Mourvedre, Cinsault, and Carignane. The whites, meantime, are blends of Grenache Blanc and Roussanne. I enjoyed both the red and white, the standard and reserve, but if I had to pick just one of the bunch for the best combination of value and complexity, Id have to recommend the standard bottles of Le Cigare Volant Rouge.

Better than your best Cotes du Rhones, but not quite as complex as most Chateauneufs, the Cigare stikes a nice balance between earth and fruit, acidity and tannin. Medium to full-bodied, its also a good alternative to the high alcoholic, high tannin Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels that populate the California landscape, and would pair well with a wide range of foods.

Bonny Doon is located in the Santa Cruz wine appellation, tucked back in the hills south of San Francisco in Californias Central Coast. If you continue to head south down the coast, youll arrive in Paso Robles, where you will find a good number of these so-called Rhone Rangers. Paso is really divided into two areas, East Paso, which is hotter and home to more Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, and West Paso, which is closer to the ocean, and therefore much cooler and much more suitable for Rhone varieties.

Paso Robles is where youll find Hope Family, which has been farming there for more than 30 years.

In the beginning, they planted apples and grapes, not knowing what an important viticultural region Paso Robles would become.

The apple orchards are long gone, supplanted by a wide range of grape varieties, including Rhone red stalwarts Syrah, Mourvedre, and Grenache, and white favorites like Viognier and Roussanne.

Youve got quite the selection when it comes to Hope Family, five individual brands: Liberty School, Treana, Cando, Austin Hope, and Troublemaker.

I am here as an advocate of one wine, the 2011 Austin Hope Roussanne. Roussanne is a grape traditionally associated with white Hermitage. I have not had many white Hermitages, as they are hard to find and quite pricey, but not long ago, I popped the cork on one from Paul Jaboulet Aine, a terrific Rhone producer, and it was a stunner!. But at $100 retail, it better be!

The Austin Hope Roussanne might not have the depth of complexity of that Jaboulet, but in some ways, its easier to enjoy. An elegant wine, this Roussanne is rich, ripe and round, but extremely well-balanced with lovely, bracing acidity. As with the Le Cigare Volant, the Austin Hope Roussanne is a nice alternative to the over-oaked, over extracted Chardonnays that are still too prevalent throughout California.

My next to last Rhone Ranger stop also brings me to West Paso Robles and Tablas Creek, another winery I featured some years ago on Culinary Travels with Dave Eckert. Tablas Creek is a joint effort of Robert Haas, a wine importer, and the Perrin Family of the great Chateauneuf du Pape house, Chateau Beaucastel, which Haas imports. The Perrins and Haas sought the soils and climate that best exemplify those of Chateauneuf du Pape in the Southern Rhone. They found that in West Paso.

I have to admit Im biased with regards to Tablas Creek. Ever since my visit, Ive thought they produced my favorite Rhone Ranger wines, both red and white. Ive honestly never had anything from their portfolio that I havent enjoyed, and Ive had their entire range of wines several times.

That said, its hard for me to pick just one of their wines as a favorite. But, if backed into a corner, Id go with their signature wine, the Esprit de Tablas, formerly Esprit de Beaucastel. This is a wine meant to resemble the red grape blend of Chateau Beaucastel, a wine based on Mourvedre with solid does of Grenache, 30%, Syrah, 20%, and Counoise, 10%.

Its not Chateau Beaucastel, but then, nothing is. What the Esprit de Tablas is is terrific-currant, black tea and roasted meat aromas from the Mourvedre, dark black fruits from the Syrah, and a bit of mid-palette lift from the Grenache. I love it.

For one last Rhone Ranger offering, lets head to Mendocino County, just north of Sonoma, where you will find quite a few Rhone-style offerings. One that caught my eye was the Kale Syrah from the Spirit Ranch portion of Alder Springs Ranch in far northern Mendocino County. Spirit Ranch offers the highest elevation plantings in the ranch at some 2700 feet. That, and the cooler climes of northern Mendocino make this a cooler climate Syrah to be sure, and that means more earth and spice, higher acidity, and in general, better balance. Kale says this brambly blackberry beauty will easily age for 15 years or more.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward to even more great wines through the ever-improving efforts of a growing number of Rhone Rangers. Keep em coming!