The Grapes of Rhône

Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon have such a large share of the wine market that they are considered the vanilla and chocolate of the industry. Grapes like Pinot Grigio (Gris), Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir and Merlot represent much of the remaining market. All of these grapes get associated with a place, like Burgundy (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) and Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot), which are considered the “old world” templates, while the regions of Napa, Sonoma, Santa Barbara, Willamette and others are “new world.” Then comes a group of grapes from Italy, Spain, Germany, Greece and less recognized areas of France that aren’t as popular.

This month’s focus is on the Rhône Valley, which is full of fun, diverse grapes that play to its diverse climate. The Côte du Rhône is one of the older wine regions in the world and was first recognized by the French Government in 1935. This region is now Châteauneuf-du-Pape. There are about 27 grapes used in the Rhône. The most famous are Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Viognier, with Roussanne, Marsanne, Muscat and Carignan also playing roles both locally and internationally. The northern areas of the Rhône (Côte Rôtie, Cornas, Hermitage, Saint Joseph and Condrieu) focus on Syrah and Viognier, while Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan and others are best suited to the warmer climates of the southern Rhône. This jumble of grapes creates a wide palate of flavors even when from a single variety (Syrah in Cornas) or a Syrah blended with a bit of Viognier as Côte Rôtie sometimes does or when a Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer uses all thirteen grapes allowed (Château de Beaucastel).

Other regions and winemakers have discovered the possibilities of Rhône grapes and have produced stunning wines. A group of winemakers in California call themselves the Rhône Rangers. This group must consider Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon and Bob Lindquist of Qupé as their guiding lights. Grahm has been producing great versions of Rhône wines from Santa Cruz, California, for about 25 years. Two of his most famed are labeled as a bit of a lampoon at his inspiration, Châteauneuf-du-Pape—Old Telegram is named after famed producer Vieux Télégraphe, and Le Cigare Volant is in reference to an obscure Rhône law prohibiting the landing of Flying Cigars (UFOs) in the vineyards of Châteauneuf. Old Telegram is 100 percent Mourvèdre, while Le Cigare Volant is a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. Due to the lack of market share, many of these wines offer excellent value, adventure and plenty of fun flavors that pair with many styles of cuisine.

Rhône grapes are well worth seeking out:
2003 Bonny Doon Old Telegram, Contra Costa, CA $50
2007 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant, Central Coast, CA $45
2009 Copain Les Voisins Syrah, Mendocino, CA $36
2009 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône, France $98
2008 E. Guigal la Moulin Côte-Rôtie, France $300
NV Sean Thackrey Pleiades, CA $26
2009 Daniel Gehrs Syrah, Santa Barbara, CA $16