Rhone Rangers: Grand Tasting

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I’ve been meaning to write up this event for several weeks now, but have always been put off by the sheer number of notes I took, and by how many tasty wines I enjoyed. The Rhone Rangers is held in the same space as the ZAP tasting at Fort Mason; however, it does not enjoy the same number of visitors and the hall felt positively empty in comparison to ZAP. That is unfortunate since there are some pretty interesting Rhone-style wines coming from California. However, there were notable absences from some pretty major players like Beckman and Ojai. I’m not sure why they weren’t there, but it would have been nice to see some more of the standard bearers at the tasting. That said, I did get a chance to meet and talk with Bob Lidquist of Qupe and Randal Graham of Bonny Doon.
Due to the sheer volume of notes I have, I will keep most of them brief unless I think the wine or winery deserves a little more of a writeup.

Randal Graham of Bonny Doon

Starting with Bonny Doon, which does warrant a bit more attention since Mr. Graham was the original “Rhone Ranger” and has been touting Rhone varietal wines for quite some time. Never one to go the standard or easy route, Graham is producing some fascinating stuff, and all of it biodynamically farmed. Here’s what I had:

2007 White Blend “Le Cigare Blanc”: Floral, honeyed, ripe and round. Very Good. $22.

2005 Red Blend “Le CIgare Volant”: Peppery, meaty on the nose with plum and chocolate. The palate was veyr dry and tannic, with pepper and mineral. Very different from the 2004, and Randal explained to me this was more of a Grenache based wine than that vintage. Needs time in the bottle. Very Good+. $32.

2008 Rose “Vin Gris de Cigare”: Candied fruit, cherry, not that interesting. Good+. $15. not yet released.

2006 Syrah “Le Pousseus”: Rich fruit, dark and brambly. Briar patch. Very dry and peppery, and still quite tannic. Very Good. $20.

Delille Cellars (Doyenne)

I was very happy that one of my favourite Washington producers showed up: Delille. Delille makes Rhone style wines under their sister label “Doyenne”. I think WA is one of the best places for syrah in the New World.

2007 Roussane: Round apple and orchard fruits. Not overly oaky, A good tasting white for fish or rich chicken dishes. Very Good. $34.

2006 Red Blend “Metier”: GSM – Chateaneuf style. Has a very rich nose of red and black berry with some caramel. The palate is much richer than any CdP wine I’ve had, but still balanced and properly acidic. Very Good to Very Good+. $35.

2006 Syrah “Signature”: Rich, ripe, dark up front fruit with a mineral core. Maybe the best Syrah of the show. Excellent to Excellent+. $50.


Bob Lidquist’s Head on the left, surrounded by adoring fans at the crowded table

Very popular, especially amongst the trade crowd. And, for good reason. Qupe is one of the leading CA producers of Rhone style wines, with a wine maker who knows how to do it right. You will not find a single oaky, high Ph, flabby wine amongst the bunch. Not to mention they have a huge range and have built this from good relationships with growers and not the desire to flood the market with false choice. NB: they just opened a tasting room in Los Olivos.

2008 Verdad Grenache Rose Edna Valley: Very Good. $15.

2007 Marsanne Santa Ynez Valley: Tart orchard fruit, and sharp on the mid-palate. Very Good. $20.

2006 Roussanne, Bien Nacido Hillside Estate: Richer and rounder than the Marsanne. Creamy and very fruity. Very Good. $40.

2007 Syrah Central Coast: dry cut mineral syrah. Basic, but good and exceptional value. Very Good to Very Good+. $17.

2007 Grenache Purisima Mountain Vineyard: light in colour, but full in body with minerals, pepper and raspberry. Classic Grenache – the most Rhone like I tasted at the show. Very Good+. $35.

2006 Syrah Bien Nacido Vineyard: Ripe, minerally, serious pepper on the mid-palate. Very Good to Very Good+. $30.

2006 Syrah Alisos Vineyard: Very chewy, dark and rich. Wood and mineral predominate. Very Long finish. Very Good+ to Excellent. $35.

2006 Syrah Nielson Vineyard: sweeter style. Dark fruits. Very Good+. $35.

2006 Syrah Stolpman Vineyard: dusty dark fruit. Bigger and more forward than the other vineyards. Very Good+. $35.

2005 Syrah Bien Nacido Hillside Estate: Really mouthfilling, with massive power but surprising elegance. Ripe fruit with tremendous character. Excellent. $45.

2005 Syrah Bien Nacido X Block: Super dense and rich. Oaked more than the others. Needs age, but layered character of multiple types of plum and black berries. Chocolate. Has a beautiful background of earth and mineral. Incredible length. Excellent to Excellent+. $100.

Tablas Creek

Another classic producer, and another making a huge range of high quality wines. However, less impressive than Qupe for my money.

2007 White Blend “Cotes de Tablas Blanc”: apple juice. Medium acid. Good+ $25.

2007 White Blend “Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc: sweet and round, full and layered. A great food wine. Very Good to Very Good+ (the bottle I had on its own was better). $40.

2005 Roussanne: burnt caramel, orchard fruit, soft texture. Very Good to Very Good+. $27.

2008 Rose: Good+ to Very Good. $27.

2006 Red Blend “Cotes de Tablas”: Very Good. $25.

2006 Mourvedre: Good+ to Very Good. $35.

2006 Syrah: Very Good. $35.

2006 Red Blend Esprit de Beaucastel: their top dry red. Good, but not great, esp. for the price. Very Good+. $45.

2006 Dessert Wine “Vin de Paille”: why california producers think they can charge this much for mediocre dessert wines is beyond me. Good+ to Very Good. $65.

The Remainder

Hagafen Cellars 2005 Syrah Prix Vineyards Reserve Napa-Sonoma: Very full and rich with classic california notes of rich dark fruits, caramel and chocolate. Really develops with air. Needs a good decant. Very Good+ to Excellent. $65.

Katin 2007 Syrah Glenrose Vineyard Paso Robles: lots of fruit and character. Reserved in style. Very Good+ to Excellent. $45.

Joseph Phelps Le Mistral Red Blend: Wanted to try this for some time – good but disappointing for the price. Very Good. $45.

Michael-David Vineyards Earthquake Syrah 2005: not super expressive on the nose. Masssive fruit and wood palate, but good if you like that creamy sweet style with backbone. Very Good. $28.

Ridge 2005 Syrah Lytton West: Very french in style. Dry with a touch of Viognier that makes the nose quite expressive. Long minerally finish. Loved this. Very Good+ to Excellent. $36.

Ridge 2002 Syrah Lytton Estate II: No notes, but rated Very Good. $36.

Ridge 2004 Petite Sirah Dynamite Hill: I’d been wanting to try a pure Ridge PS for some time, so this was a special treat. (not sure how this is a Rhone Variety though). Vegetal and savory. Very dry and tannic. Not what I expected. Almost like a bordeaux style PS. Earthy and old-worldy. Very Good+. $?.

Rosenblum Cellars 2006 Syrah Riminger Vineyard Yolo County: These guys made some really good value syrah. California forward style, lots of fruit, but also good grip and tannin. If you like big chewy and intense wines with great extraction but not to the point of no return, this and the next wine are a good bet. Very Good to Very Good+. $25.

Rosenblum Cellars 2006 Syrah England Shaw Vineyard Solano County: Very Good+ to Excellent. $35.

Saddleback Cellars 2006 Syrah Carneros: Minty and chocolatey on the nose – very Napa. Syrah, merlot and biognier blend. Smooth for a syrah (from the merlot), but lots of fruit. Not out of this world, but very solid and stood out from many other Syrahs at the show. Very Good+. $45.

Snoqualmie 2006 Syrah Columbia Valley: Hands down winner for best value of the show, and from Washington to boot. A dark fruit personality, and tremendous character and grip for such a cheap wine. This is real wine for $10. Very Good to Very Good+. $10.

Snoqualmie 2005 Syrah Reserve: Who else makes such a high quality reserve for $20? Restrained and powerful. Dark fruits with pulling grip. Great layering on the mid-palate. Very Good+. $20.

That was probably about half of the wines I tasted, but I only wrote up the big boys and the wines that I thought stood out from the crowd. Overall, quite an enjoyable event, especially since it is so rare to taste so many Rhone style California wines side by side. My final assessment is that there is tremendous potential for syrah in California, and while some are already top flight, others need to work on their product to reach the quality of syrah grown in France. But, there are so many good value and tremendously enjoyable syrahs amongst this bunch that I feel this is a great place for the industry to be growing.

That said, the Grenache wines were mostly disappointing (save for Qupe’s great example), mainly because they were too forward or overly peppery, and way too extracted. Grenache to me is the Rhone’s equivalent of Pinot Noir – it can pair beautifully with foods, and it is actually a fairly refined red in the Rhone. On the other hand, if you go to Priorat in Spain old vine Grenache is producing some of the most outstandingly complex and singular ball-busting wines in the old world. Sure, some have become over-extracted there too, but the best producers are making a bold style Grenache that works. But that’s the beauty of this variety. The young vines can make a wonderful table wine while the old vines can punch out something with as much complexity as a great Syrah. California has a long way to go to reach that level of purity and power.

Additionally, I have yet to be impressed by a California Marsanne or Roussane. They tend to be too sweet and round and not acidic enough. When the acidity is brought up in these grapes they tend to taste like apple juice. I am not sure what people are doing wrong here, or if it is simply climate, but the white varieties have a very long way to go. That said, I am not super impressed with a lot of Rhone whites either, but there are some great ones (Chapoutier’s Hermitage Blanc’s) that show what these varieties are capable of. And the Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc is by far the best of that style I’ve tasted from California, with a lot more complexity and layering than normal. Hopefully we will see some improvement over the years. Thus, syrah remains king of the hill, for now.

Posted in: Tastings


  1. Jo Diaz
    April 13, 2009

    Pettie Sirah was crossed in the Rhone Region of France by Francois Durif in 1880. (This is why it is also referred to as Durif. And, only one “f” is the correct spelling of Durif.)

    Being crossed with two Rhone cultivars (Syrah + Peloursin = Petite Sirah) makes this a Rhone variety of heritage.

    The French government’s agency for recognizing “Noble” cultivars doesn’t recognize Petite Sirah; however, in 2002 the Rhone Rangers did recognize Petite for its Rhone heritage.

    Gilles Liege is a viticulturist in France who is now determined to have Petite Sirah be recognized for it’s French roots. The fact that the US has claimed Petite as a heritage variety of importance, concerns Gilles that its place in France’s viticultural history could be lost forever; however, PS I Love You is determined to keep its lineage pure, and dating back to Francois Durif.

    Thank you for thinking out loud!

    Jo Diaz
    Founder and Executive Director of PS I Love You

  2. Shea
    April 13, 2009

    Thanks for the detailed explanation! Very interesting. Maybe that explains why I love PS :).

  3. SLAKED!
    April 15, 2009

    What an awesome tasting. Have you noticed differences in style/terroir between the Central CA (I’m thinking Paso Robles and Edna Valley) Rhone-style wines and those from northern CA or WA, and if so, how would you define it? I am starting to think that only in Central CA they can come close to duplicating CdP….

  4. Shea
    April 15, 2009

    It is sometimes hard to generalize between those two areas because of microclimatic variation in North and Central CA, but the Napa syrahs I’ve had tend to be thicker textured and bolder in fruit, without needing as much alcohol to accomplish that. You can find this style in central CA, but I think that those who attempt it amp up their alcohol. The best central coast syrahs I think approximate Cote Rotie in style and tend to be more minerally, earthy and with higher acidity. These also usually have more moderate alcohol levels below 14%.

    That said, I had a Neyers syrah recently that reminded me of Cornas. As for approximating CdP – well I think that’s tough from whatever region. CA just doesn’t have the quality of grenache necessary. The Tablas Esprit de Beaucastel is a good try as is Bonny Doon’s Cigare Volante. But, they really aren’t approximating authentic CdP as much as using it as a template for their own unique blends.

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