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Rethinking and Freethinking California Blends

Posted: Oct 26, 2006 5:47am ET

I was thinking again today about the Grand Tasting during the California Wine Experience last week, and how some of the most interesting wines I tasted were Rhone blends, in particular the 2005 M5 from the Margerum Wine Company and the 2004 Esprit de Beaucastel from Tablas Creek Vineyard. These were both Chateauneuf clones. They were made from blends of Mourvedre, Syrah, Grenache, and Counoise. The M5 also had some Cinsault. I rated both the wines outstanding, or 90-plus points.

What I think is most interesting with these reds is the way they have such richness, but are at the same time balanced. It’s why producers in Chateauneuf have always used different varieties in their blends. Different varieties give different character to the wine whether it’s the color and structure of the Syrah and Mourvedre or the freshness and fruitiness of the Grenache. I also think that the blend of grapes helps mitigate some of the overly hot and sunny weather conditions in a particular growing area, whether the Southern Rhone Valley or the South Coast of California. The wines can, therefore, be rich and ripe but they don’t have to be overly alcoholic and oily.

This may have been one of my personal disappointments of the California Wine Experience. I found too many wines that were thick, oily and alcoholic. Some actually burned my palate. And it didn’t seem to matter if they were Cabernet Sauvignons or Pinot Noirs.

This made me think that perhaps more interesting blends are a real possibility in California. Why keep to traditional ones established in France such as Bordeaux blends or Rhone mixtures? Perhaps California winemakers should be more like their counterparts in Spain or Italy, where there’s more openness to different blends. Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah? Why not? Or may be Pinot Noir and Cinsault? Hell. I don’t know.

But California has always been a freethinking place, at least when I grew up in the southern part of the state. And its winemaking too. That’s why the Perrin family came from Chateauneuf to California and started Tablas Creek Vineyard.

Guus Hateboer
Netherlands —  October 27, 2006 4:28am ET
James, have you ever experimented at home, or wherever, making your own fantasy blends directly from the bottle, by for example mixing a 100% nebbiolo-based barolo with a St Emilion? Or mixing with different percentages: a Brunello with some Syrah-based Rhone wine or a 100% Spanish Tempranillo? Should be good fun! Or would this be considered unethical?
James Suckling
 —  October 27, 2006 5:12am ET
Never thought about it. I will give it a try next time!
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  October 27, 2006 6:59am ET
That Tablas Creek Espirit red is delicious. I had the 02 a while back. I love some of the S.Rhones JM has recommended but many of my guests just don't. I have to be careful recommending them, which leads to your comment on many of the CA wines being thick & alcoholic. Some say they want to try something different but what they really want is the same but w/ a new label. I do like new world wines because many times I'm having something after work w/ no food. However, sometimes they become palate-fatiguing to steal a WS line.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  October 27, 2006 4:30pm ET
I've had multiple vintages of both the M5 & the Esprit and they are consistently some of the best QPR wines I enjoy. I do a little blending myself, particularly when I'm disappointed by a single-varietal wine (like Cab Franc or Syrah) that seems one dimensional. I'll open up a bottle of Cab Sauv, Tempranillo or even Grenache and play around with different compositions. Sometimes the result is quite tasty, and sometimes I just end up wasting part of a new bottle. It's fun, and I don't mind as long as the wines were under $30/bottle.
Trevor Witt
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada —  November 10, 2006 9:41pm ET
James...what do you think about the petite syrahs? i know Hurley has made them for years.
James Suckling
 —  November 10, 2006 10:22pm ET
I like Petite Syrah in general and Turley's I enjoy...

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