Friday, May 30, 2008

All hail the Rhône Rangers

Express Staff Writer

Some 350 miles south of Paris, the mighty and muddy Rhône River carves a meandering course through French grape-growing communes with names as weighty as the wines they produce: Hermitage, Côte Rotie, Saint-Joseph.

Farther south, in the warm climes of western Provence, the river pushes past the stony, hallowed vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Lirac and Tavel.

Together, the northern and southern wine-producing regions of the Rhône Valley have for generations been hailed for their robust, cellar-worthy reds, as well a few pleasant, dry rosés and interesting whites.

The wines not only taste good—especially with food—but also bring a bit of romance and fun to the glass. The great-made-commonplace grapes of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and chardonnay are nowhere to be found. Instead, the Rhône gives us wines from the likes of syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, carignane and cinsault.

It took some time, but eventually those "unconventional" grape varieties found their way into American soil, and, some years later, American hearts. In the late 1980s, a group of California wine producers dubbed the "Rhône Rangers" started making wines patterned after the burly reds—and occasionally the whites and rosés—of the Rhône Valley. Napa producer Joseph Phelps helped get the ball rolling, and others, such as winemaker Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, by the early 1990s had elbowed their way into the public eye.

Fast forward to May 2008. In Paso Robles, a small agricultural community in California's Central Coast region, hundreds of oenophiles have gathered to sniff, sip, swirl and otherwise contemplate wines made in the Rhône image. They're at an event called the Hospice du Rhône, a celebration of a sharp-edged corner of the wine world in which Napa is not king and cabernet is relegated to a picnic-plate garnish. It's an American version of the famed Hospices de Beaune, a centuries-old charity wine auction held each year in the Burgundy region of France. Here, dozens upon dozens of winemakers—some trying their best not to fit the mold—are pouring their latest releases for a wine-savvy audience, virtually all with splashes of dark purple on their teeth.

Like the wines of the Rhône, this event has attitude. Stillman Brown, the proprietor/winemaker of Red Zeppelin Winery, dons bleached-blond hair and a glossy green sport jacket as he pours his award-winning syrah. Christian Tietje, winemaker for Paso-Robles-based Four Vines Winery, occasionally interrupts pouring his Rhône-style "Anarchy" blend and "Heretic" petite sirah to press a temporary tattoo of a devilish-looking grape vine on a woman's neck or lower back. Dylan and Tobe Sheldon, a young couple from Sebastopol, Calif., show off their "Vinolocity," a hand-crafted Rhône blend they created in the rented corner of a larger wine facility. Their situation, they said, is a step up from years before, when they sometimes made wine in their garage.

And, all the while, the crowd speaks in their advanced Rhône lingo. "I'd like to try your GSM," one says to a proud winemaker. What? GSM? Ah, yes—it's short for grenache-syrah-mourvèdre, the ultimate blend of the Rhône workhorse grapes.

Quickly, it becomes evident that the wine cognoscenti have jumped onto the Rhône bandwagon and are fully enjoying the ride—despite the bumps and occasional potholes. Yes, one will occasionally taste a Rhône Ranger's wine that twists the tongue. But those examples are few. Most of the wines are—even in their youth—very worthy of a fine meal.

And at the same time, the likes of Brown, Tietje and the Sheldons are blazing new paths. They don't pretend that their wines are Rhônes, but instead stand tall as Californian expressions of how great Rhône varietals can be. Especially with beef—or lamb.

That said, I don't think any one of them would turn down a good glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape; the great true Rhônes have not lost their place, even in the minds of competitors.

So far, the cross-Atlantic rivalry is a friendly one. For the French, perhaps, imitation is the best form of flattery. For the Americans, however, innovation might just make certain comparisons obsolete.

My advice: Take a walk on the edge—at home or abroad.

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