This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Aug. 1, 2005.|
WT101 - Rhone Varieties in the USofA
For 50 years or more, from the end of Prohibition until well into the 1980s, fine wine in California, and thus in most of the United States, was based almost entirely on a few great French grape varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir for the reds, and Sauvignon Blanc (often labeled "Fumé" Blanc) and Chardonnay for the whites.
Yes, a few old producers offered a quick bow to Italy with Barbera and Charbono; and of course there were those intriguing and only-in-America varieties Petite Sirah and Zinfandel. But when it came to the fancy stuff, if it didn't mirror the classic wines of Bordeaux or Burgundy, it just wasn't quite the thing.
But in the past 20 years or so, starting with a few maverick pioneers, a new varietal movement has come into the mainstream of American wine. Nicknamed the "Rhone Rangers" because their favored grapes come from the warmer climes of the Rhone Valley in Southern France, they've put the once-exotic names of grapes like Syrah (Australia's Shiraz), Grenache and Mourvedre, Marsanne and Roussanne and Viognier on just about every wine enthusiast's table.
For those of us who've loved these grapes in their French, American and Australian variations, it's a welcome development indeed, and one that is very well suited indeed for the climate and soils in much of the Golden State.
For this month's Wine Tasting 101, we feature Rhone Varieties in the USofA as our monthly topic, and welcome as our guest host the amiable nuclear physicist and wine writer Tom Hill, who's been following the development of California Rhone-style wines since the very start.
Tom has penned a helpful tutorial on these varieties, which you'll find at
To participate in Wine Tasting 101, you're invited to visit the forum at
The first two wines are true Rhone-styles, made from blends of Rhone varieties. "REDS" doesn't qualify as a Rhone Ranger because it adds Zinfandel to the blend, but we include it because it's modestly priced, popular, and made very much in the Southern French tradition with a California accent.
Interested in matching food with California Rhone-style wines? Watch the Food Lovers' Discussion Group during August for conversations on this topic.
Several fine-wine shops around the U.S. will be hosting tastings of California Rhone-style wines this month in cooperation with WT101 ... watch for specific announcements.
And finally, by happy coincidence, two related events are going on this month:
Now, as we launch a new month's Wine Tasting 101 topic, let's grab this last-minute opportunity to feature one more from last month's feature, French Whites.
Vincent Dureuil-Janthial 2003 Bourgogne Aligoté ($25)
A variety worth knowing if only for wine-trivia discussions, Aligoté is the other white grape of Burgundy, making up a mere few drops in a sea of Chardonnay. Although it's generally regarded as a "lesser" grape capable of making only a short-lived wine, its plantings are declining in favor of its more sought-after cousin. But Burgundians recognize it as a worthy summer sipper and a fair food wine all year 'round. It good hands, especially in a ripe vintage like '03, it can make a white of real quality. This is a transparent, straw-color wine with pleasant aromas of fresh apples and a hint of spice (this importer's special bottling very likely sees a bit of oak); a snappy twist of lemon adds an appealing grace note on the nose and palate, and its mouth-filling, freshly tart flavor is crisp and pleasantly lemon-accented. U.S. importer: North Berkeley Imports, Berkeley, Calif. (July 25, 2005)
FOOD MATCH: Well-suited for sipping as a summer aperitif, it would match nicely with chicken or fish or a range of cheeses and vegetarian fare. It went very well indeed with the meatless pasta dish featured in last week's Wine Advisor FoodLetter, a variation on Marcella Hazan's penne with spinach and ricotta using fresh kale as a substitute green.
VALUE: It's a good wine, but to be blunt, the $25 price tag is distinctly on the cheeky side unless you're willing to pay a premium to mark off an uncommon variety on your "life list." It would be much more competitive in the lower teens, and indeed one excellent New York retailer, Chambers Street Wines, lists it for $15.
WHEN TO DRINK: The conventional wisdom argues that Aligoté is a "drink me now" wine, and its fruit will be best over the next year or two, although it will certainly hold longer under good cellar conditions.
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