With a chill in the air and the winter nights drawing in, the holiday season will be swiftly upon us. You will soon need to make one of the most important decisions of the year – which wine should I choose for Christmas dinner? Maybe the elegant complexities of red Burgundy, the sumptuous delights of a Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon or maybe I can convince you to try one of our delicious West Coast red wines made in the Rhône valley style …
To understand the nature of these wines we must first look at the actual wines of the Rhône valley, upon which these California wines are based. The Côtes du Rhône appellation is situated in the south-eastern corner of France and follows the river Rhône from the town of Avignon in the south to Vienne in the north. This great wine region is split distinctly into two sub-regions, the Northern and Southern Rhône, both producing wines of great depth and character.
The Southern Rhône valley has a very distinctly Mediterranean climate with a terrain littered with herbal scrub, olive groves and vineyards filled with stony soils and rocky outcrops. This area is also susceptible to the whims of ‘Le Mistral,’ an occasionally violent wind which continually makes its presence known. The most notable aspect of the Southern Rhône valley is that there are a vast amount of grape varieties to choose from, with the majority of red wines being blends of at least three different varietals, predominantly Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre, creating wines of great complexity with a pleasing warming herbaceous quality.
The Northern Rhône is in stark contrast to the south both in climate and in its wines. Whilst retaining some of the Mediterranean influence, there is a distinctly continental climate feel creating warmer summers and colder winters, resulting in a region that has more in common with its neighbor to the north, Burgundy. The Northern Rhône is also focused on creating wines of a single grape variety, specifically Syrah for the reds and Viognier the whites. Syrah from this area produces great inky colored wines with notes of white pepper and subtle gamey tones, yet retaining the finesse so often associated with the great wines of Burgundy.
With some basic knowledge of the Rhône Valley and its wines, it becomes easier to understand and see parallels with many of the winegrowing regions of the West Coast. For instance, the predominant areas with Rhône Valley varietals on the West Coast follow the Pacific Ocean from the town of Temecula in Southern California to Bellingham in Northern Washington. The climate in Southern California is also much closer to that of the Mediterranean with a drier, more arid landscape with the Northern states of Oregon and Washington having a climate much more in common with the cooler regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux, with higher rainfall and colder winters.
The main difference between the Rhône Valley and the West Coast is that there are no clear dividing lines for areas making single varietal wines (Syrah in the Northern Rhône) and areas making blended wines (Southern Rhône reds). Instead, both of these styles of wine can be found in some form or another along the entire coastline from Southern California to Northern Washington.
One of the pioneering areas of Southern Rhône style wines is the Paso Robles AVA (American Viticultural Area ) and surrounding wine regions of the South-Central Coast. The wine makers of this area coined the term ‘The Rhone Rangers’, which formed in the 1980’s and is now a non-profit organization to promote Rhône style wines. Wine makers at the forefront of this movement include John Alban of Alban Wineries, Bob Lindquist of Qupe Cellars and Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon. It was Grahm who formed the movement in 1983.
I have recently tasted through some of the wines available from this area with excellent results. The Qupe Syrah ($13.99) from California’s Central Coast is an intensely inky wine with deep blueberry fruit, herbaceous undertones and notes of black pepper and spice, reminiscent of some of the few examples of single varietal Syrah in the Southern Rhône Valley. Tasting wines from this area and not including one from Paso Robles would be reprehensible. Luckily, the Vina Robles ‘Red 4’ ($11.99) was on hand and certainly did not disappoint. This wine, comprised of a blend of Petite Syrah, Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre, creates a wine with supple black fruit and a warming lingering finish.
Moving north through the central coast and into one of California’s most famous wine producing regions of Napa and Sonoma counties you will begin to find even more fine examples of Rhône Valley style wines. One important factor to take into consideration here is that most of the wines which closely represent this style will be found in Sonoma County, particularly Sonoma Coast AVA. The reason for this is the cool breezes and mystical fog rolling in from the Pacific Ocean which serves to cool the vines and create a wine closer in style to that of the Northern Rhône, with a certain subtlety of flavor and earthy complexity. A fine example of a 100% Syrah wine from Sonoma Coast is the Bodega Rancho ‘Que Syrah Vineyard’ ($26.99), situated in the south western corner of this diverse AVA, where the evening fog lingers to keep the vineyards cool until the early morning and often through to mid-day. This is the perfect wine to bridge the gap between old and new world styles with good brambly black fruit and rich texture yet retaining subtle spice and an underlying gamey quality.
The penultimate wine to mention for this comparison is from the northern reaches of California’s wine growing areas in Mendocino County (100 miles northwest of San Francisco). The climate and topography of this area is very complex with both coastal and inland influences. Also, there are many valley floor areas while some soar in elevation to the heights of our next wine: Aldrich Browne ‘Mariah Vineyard’ Syrah ($32.99). The vines are perched precariously at 2,600 feet above sea level, leaving the resulting wine with a very complex and intense meaty, leathery tone and soft supple fruit, reminiscent of a fine Northern Rhone wine.
To finish off this tour of West Coast wines we will be looking at Washington State in the Pacific Northwest. Contrary to the fact that Washington resides so far northward, the wines produced in this region tend to have a warmer climate feel to them than those of Oregon. This is largely due to the majority of Washington wines being produced on the Eastern side of the Cascades Mountains, protecting the vines from the rain and cooler weather found on the Western side where Oregon wines are produced. Given the geography of this region it is of no surprise that Washington Rhône style wines have a distinctly Southern Rhône Valley feel to them with blended varietals and a warming herbaceous edge. This is in evidence when tasting Doyenne ‘Metier’ ($38.99), a red blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre which encompasses all the character of a great Châteauneuf Du Pape with excellent weight and texture, aromas of lavender and bramble fruits with a deliciously long finish.
With such a vast array of wine styles spread along the entirety of the Pacific Coastline, what better way to compliment this year’s Christmas feast than with one of our great West Coast Rhône Valley style wines.
Christian B., Beltramo’s Wine Consultant