Many of the attendees at this weekend's Rhtne Rangers Tasting might have once thought that Roussanne was a type of dance performed to chamber music or that Mourvhdre battled Superman. But on March 25, more than 2,000 people turned out to sample these and other American Rhtne-style wines from 97 wineries at the group's third annual event in San Francisco.
Just three years ago, the Rhtne Rangers included only 13 wineries. This small group of mavericks banded together in 1997 to promote American wines made from the traditional grapes of France's Rhtne Valley. By 1998, the count was up to 45 wineries, and now the organization is close to 100 wineries strong and still growing. Check out our interviews and photographs of some of the Rhtne Rangers.
This is the second incarnation of the group -- the Rhtne Rangers first took to the trail in the 1980s to educate consumers about Rhtne-style wines, but quickly disbanded. One of the original Rhtne Rangers, Bob Lindquist, owner of Qupi, projected only increasing esteem for Rhtne varietals in the United States. These wines "are more popular than ever," he said.
For many American consumers, the unfamiliar Rhtne names can be a challenge. But Bill Crawford of McDowell Valley Vineyards, another of the founding Rhtne Rangers, argues that red Rhtne varietals are ideal for entry-level wine drinkers. He says that these wines are more affordable than Cabernet Sauvignon, more fruit-forward and food-friendly than Merlot and low enough in tannin to enjoy either alone or with food.
In the Northern Rhtne, all red wines are made from Syrah grapes, while whites may include Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. In the Southern Rhtne, things get a little more complicated: French law permits 13 red and eight white grape varieties. The major red grapes are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvhdre, followed by Cinsault and Carignane. The main white varieties are the same as in the north, but others permitted include Ugni Blanc and Clairette.
While the Rhtne grapes are often bottled as varietal wines in the United States, they also lend themselves well to proprietary blends, said Bill Easton of Domaine de la Terre Rouge. His Enigma joined other blends such as Zaca Mesa's Z Cuvie and Andrew Murray's Esperance at the tasting. However, Easton said, it's a challenge to convince varietal-conscious Americans that blending is a valid option for premium wines.
Syrah, the most familiar red Rhtne variety to Americans, was the most widely represented at this year's event. Of the 97 wineries in attendance, 84 poured a Syrah. There were Syrahs from almost every growing region in California, from Dry Creek Valley to Napa Valley to Carneros to Santa Barbara.
"Syrah expresses itself in regard to site while maintaining its identity," said Bayard Fox, owner and winemaker of Renard. A warmer climate yields plush, jammy fruit, while a more moderate climate produces peppery, spicy notes without giving in to the green, unripe flavors that can mar wines made in overly cool regions.
"Syrah is easy to pronounce," quipped Don Reha, winemaker of Renwood Winery, explaining the wine's popularity. Also, he elaborated, "It's approachable, it doesn't have to be cellared, it has a nice amount of fruit. Just now it's starting to get the attention it deserves."
True, the wines drink well at a young age, but several wineries demonstrated that the Rhtne's famed Hermitage is not the only Syrah-based wine with aging potential. Swanson Vineyards winemaker Marco Cappelli poured a vertical of Swanson Syrah from 1993 to 1997 from magnum. Qupi offered samples from a magnum of its Syrah Santa Barbara County Bien Nacido Reserve 1992. And McDowell Valley Vineyards poured Syrah from both 1980 and 1984.
Among the white wines, Viognier held sway, with 49 wineries offering their interpretations of the grape. But Qupi's Lindquist was not alone in predicting great things for as-yet-obscure white grape: Roussanne. "I think a lot of [winemakers] jumped on the Viognier bandwagon before there was a market for it," he said. "Roussanne is the most difficult white Rhtne grape to grow, but it makes the best wine."
Swirling a glass of his 1998 Zaca Mesa Roussanne, winemaker Benjamin Silver explained that he finds Roussanne more complex than Viognier, with a longer finish.
Those characteristics prompted Tony Truchard to plan to produce the Truchard winery's first Roussanne in 2000 from vines in northeastern Carneros. "Roussanne might have more potential in California than Viognier," he said. "It's hard to grow, it ripens uneven, it ripens late, it's a challenging varietal. But it has more structure than Viognier." Truchard winemaker Sal De Ianni feels up to the challenge. "I've never made it before. It should be fun," he said with a smile.
Read about past Rhtne Rangers events: