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Checking Out How Other Regions Fashion Their Rhône Varieties

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 28, 2007 3:12pm ET

I took a rare day off yesterday, using up the last of my vacation time during this slow holiday week. I used the opportunity to spend some time with Nancy, dining out for lunch and dinner with a movie sandwiched in between.

I also used the opportunity to try some new wines, namely, Rhône varieties from other regions. Though my official focus is on the Rhône, it’s always important for me to see what others are doing with grapes like Syrah, Grenache, Roussanne and so on. As I've discussed here previously, when I taste wines (either formally or informally) I look for the commonality of the grape's flavor profile, as well as the different expression of the wine's respective origins.

Lunch was at Zoë, the SoHo institution owned and run by Stephen and Thalia Loffredo, where the all-American wine list is always on the cutting edge. Nancy and I hadn’t been in a few years, but Stephen greeted us as if we were regulars.

We started with a half-bottle of the Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc Paso Robles 2005, a blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul. This project, owned by the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel fame, seems to have missed some of the limelight despite making some very good wines. The ’05 Esprit Blanc showed the rich, almost oily texture I’d expect of the blend, along with the typical peach, almond and melon notes. The wine also had the extra oomph I’d expect from a California wine, emphasizing its fruit more than its minerality, though it wasn’t top heavy or dull at all, showing plenty of purity and length.

That was followed by a bottle of the McPrice Meyers Grenache Santa Barbara County 2004, a new winery that’s gotten some good ink from my colleague James Laube. As with the white, the Grenache showed some classic characteristics of the grape, with some zesty mixed berry fruit and a nice peppery note. But at the same time it also showed its California origins, offering some slightly heady alcohol and a raisined hint on the finish. We asked to have the bottle cooled off a bit (it was served at a proper cellar temperature to begin with), which helped settle the wine down into a smoother, more harmonious drink, though I found it a touch on the overripe side nonetheless.

For dinner, we checked in at Cesca Enoteca & Trattoria, another restaurant in which we hadn’t dined in a while. The Italian-themed restaurant was packed, the room full of conversation and the open kitchen space throwing off a fare share of heat thanks to the wood-burning oven.

I quizzed the sommelier on the grapes in the Rapitalà Sicilia Solinero—Sangiovese and something he said, though I knew it was a Syrah. He corrected himself on the grapes when he brought the bottle over, but while the 2004 vintage was listed, he presented the 2002. No worries though, since I was in it for the fun of it. The wine showed some wild pepper, herb and olive aromas that were classic Northern Rhône in their profile. On the palate though, it quickly settled into a rich, tarry wine that finished with the hints of ash and charcoal I often get on top Sicilian reds.

It was an interesting trio of wines over the course of the day. All three wines showed intriguing combinations of typical varietal character augmented by their own sense of place. When all was said and done, I could chalk up another win in the "wine diversity" column.

Rajiv Modak
Tucson AZ —  December 28, 2007 5:44pm ET
James - I have really come to enjoy your blogs and your descriptive writing style in general. Keep up the good work.If you enjoyed the Esprit de Beaucastel White, you should really try the red. Fashioned after Beaucastel CdP, it is usually Mourvedre based. In the most recent cooler vintage (2005), it really shows restraint, power, and acid to balance the fruit - perhaps the closest to a French wine they have made thus far.Not to get off track, but your experience with the "sommelier" at Cesca is particularly frustrating. It becomes increasingly tiresome when so many places have wine personnel who know less about their own wine than a novice like me. The vintage switch is fairly typical. It really makes the places with good wine service stand out. Maybe I ought to strive for a more carefree attitude like yours! Happy New Years.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  December 29, 2007 12:03am ET
I find the McPrice Myers to be deliciously ripe. I signed up for the wine club on JLs reccomendation and have not been disappointed with the wines---definately in the Albans style with very ripe flavors, modest oak and lots of ETOH. Tablas Creek makes similar blends from the same and nearby AVAs as MM with more restraint ---they are equally yet differently delicious. As I am sure you know, there are alot of really amzing rhones coming from these areas as well as the Sierra Nevada foothills---due to the QPR of these wines, I have almost stopped buying Cali cabs! Have a great New Years!
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  December 29, 2007 10:50am ET
I find the McPryce Myers wines to be deliciously ripe --sort of in the Albans style of ripe fruit, modest oak and losts of ETOH except that I was able to get on the mailing list and the wines are 1/2 to 1/3 the price. Tablas Creek makes similar blends from similar AVAs as MM which are equally delicisous but with more restraint. As I am sure you are aware, there are numerous exceptional Rhone blends coming from Paso Robles, Santa Barbara and the Sierra Nevada Foothills with nice QPRs (esp compared to Cali cabs). Thanks for the blog and Happy New YEars
Andrew Schaufflervircsik
Clarkdale, AZ —  December 30, 2007 12:30pm ET
James, Like most, I find your blogs refreshing. However, on point, I question your concern over vintage listings. Every week we receive shipments from our distributors, and we have no control over the vintage sent. If it's different, we only have three choices, refuse it and go without that wine ("86 it"), serve it with the acknowledgement that the vintage has changed, or go through reams of paper changing the list as each shipment comes in. A case in point, recently we received a delivery of red with the next year's vintage. Dutifully we reprinted that page of the list to reflect the change. The next week, with the new order, the vintage went back to the one listed previously! It's hard to keep up. Ditribution warehouses rarely care about anything but getting the right label on the truck before it's time for lunch. Diners know things change, they don't have a problem with it, they either accept the new vintage or choose a different wine. Wine geeks get it too. They're in it for the fun of it, like you - and most everyone else. It's only the snobs with the control issues that get all bent out of shape. Why all the fuss? (Granted, a list with numerous vintage changes means that either no one is watching or no one cares.)
Brandon Redman
Seattle, WA —  January 2, 2008 1:39pm ET
Maybe this is an issue for the Forums, but I strongly disagree with your assertion, Andrew. Having a mis-printed vintage date on a wine list is just sloppiness. Yes, there are always shipments coming in from distributors who change the vintage date at will and, yes, it costs paper and ink and time, but a wine list should be up-to-date regardless, especially when one considers the amount some folks might be paying for a particular bottle. True, they can as you say, refuse or order something different, but they shouldn't have to do that. A less-informed customer could be getting a poorer bottle of wine without knowing. Imagine swapping out a '97 Cali Cab with a '98. I wouldn't imagine a restaurant would list an entree with ingredients that weren't available or weren't going to be used in the dish. People would go crazy if the same thing happened with food.Great blog, by the way, James!
Adam D Mitchell
mpls mn —  January 10, 2008 11:45am ET
Vintage switch is very frustrating or rewarding, depending on if the vintage recieved turned out to be better or worse than the vintage ordered. I head the wine program at a local popular restaurant, and I can say that displaying the proper vintage for every wine all the time on the wine list is one of the most frustrating for any of us in the restaurant side of the wine industry. Not because it takes skill or is necessairly hard to do, but the amount of time and money needed to do this for a task, that, as long as the years pass by, will never be completed. From distributors switching vintages in our orders without notification to the sheer cost of having to preprint wine menus every time a single vintage rolls over to simple mistakes when reworking the wine menu at 400am when I accidently type in 2002 instead of 2003 cause these mistakes. Any restaurant who has a wine list that has a vintage correct menu should looked on as having great attention to detail and consistancy, and one can hopefully assume that the rest of the place treats the diners experience with such detail.
F N Fontana
January 20, 2008 10:46am ET
James, you have blogged and written about Chapoutier's 2005 and 2006 Northern Rhone reds, as well as had Michael at your NY Wine Experience. When can we expect to see your formal ratings of these wines, as the last Rhone restrospective covered his 2004s. Thanks.
James Molesworth
January 23, 2008 10:20am ET
F.N.: I just received my samples, so formal reviews will appear in the coming weeks. I have blogged about the bottled '05s, and you can reference that here:


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