On April 26-28, some of the leading producers of Rhone varieties from around the world converged in the small town of Paso Robles in central California. Paso is home to a thriving wine industry of its own, which has grown exponentially from a handful of producers twenty years ago to several hundred today. The emergence of Paso as a wine region of note was largely spearheaded by Tablas Creek, the California operation of the Rhone Valley’s Perrin family of Chateau Beaucastel fame. One of the other original operators – Justin – a longtime family holding, was recently sold to a large international conglomerate, marking a distinct shift towards corporate wine production.
Twenty years ago also marked the very first Hospice du Rhone, an event put together by a handful of producers then making wine from Rhone varieties, most notably John Alban. As the event grew, and consumers and critics began to pay attention to Rhone varieties being grown in California, the event expanded to include wines from France, Spain, Australia and Washington State. Now the Hospice du Rhone is the largest festival dedicated exclusively to Rhone variety wines in the world.
But twenty years brings a lot of change. While the discussions between producers from around the world over the years has added tremendously to the knowledge base for growing techniques, clonal selection, site and soil selection and cellar practices, there has also been a dramatic shift in palate preference, critics influence and general philosophy over those last two decades. Not everyone has shifted at the same pace.
The Unifying Factor
After tasting through several hundred wines at the event’s four seminars and two major tastings, I gained an appreciation for the drastic contrasts in philosophies about how to grow and vinify Rhone varieties. These philosophical contrasts also led to stylistic contrasts in the wine – the most obvious manifestation of competing ideologies. There were also important contrasts between terroir and even subtler contrasts between a single producer’s wines that provided insight into the vast range of possibilities arising from Rhone grapes. But this led me to a difficult question: given all the contrasts, what was it that brought all of these producers together?
The simple answer, of course, is: “Rhone varieties”. But there was more at work in this event than a simple adherence to a set of grapes. There was also continued reference to challenging the status quo. This arose in two ways: first by seeking out and expanding into categories of wine that are difficult to sell and market, and second through the desire to create an atmosphere of “serious fun”, as John Alban said. Thus, while there were
important conflicts of opinion – I could only imagine how a ‘discussion’ might proceed between certain producers whose philosophies seemed a chasm apart – there was for the most part also an important ethic of sharing, communality, and not taking oneself too seriously.
Perhaps this tells us something about Rhone variety wines themselves. Just as the producers who make them, the wines themselves range vastly in style, flavour and purpose. From California ‘cocktail’ wines to austere French Northern Rhone masterpieces of rocky complexity, Rhone grapes offer some of the greatest wine diversity in the world. There is so much to experience, in fact, that simply looking at the grape will give you only a small picture of what is in the bottle. All of the nuance comes elsewhere: geology, weather, harvest dates, barrel treatment, vine age, etc. In fact, placed side by side you would never guess some of these wines were made with the same grape.
The Diversity of “Rhone” Wine
While Syrah and Grenache dominated the event, there are of course 20 other varieties that fall into the ‘Rhone’ grape camp. Outside of the big two, there were some beautiful Mourvedres and Roussanne and Marsanne whites from both the new and old world. Nearly all of the exciting Viogniers, on the other hand, were from Condrieu, the birthplace of and best terroir for the grape.
The range of Syrahs was astonishing, and while I found myself steering towards the old world far more than the new, there were more than a few wines from the new world that had clearly started to redefine what it means to grow Syrah in California. In fact, there are enough California producers now seeking cooler sites, earlier picking, full phenolic ripeness with lower brix, weird varieties, and lower sulphur that I would officially class California as in the opening stages of a full Renaissance. Perhaps my biggest takeaway from not just the event, but my entire week and half touring and tasting wines, was that California is back!
The Wines of the Hospice du Rhone
The opportunity to taste hundreds of Rhone variety wines from around the world side by side is a rare one (though one my teeth and cheeks would prefer to do without). I learned a lot at the tasting, and my impressions of the wines are summarized below. In future posts I will elaborate in more detail on certain wines and wineries.
The U.S. Wines That are Changing the Game
Wind Gap: Pax Mahle is one of the greatest producers of Syrah in California. I tasted a number of outstanding wines that were all restrained, lower in alcohol, grown in cool climate sites, and absolutely delicious. I also visited Pax at the Wind Gap cellars a few days later, which I will detail in a later article.
Qupe: It’s hard to say that Qupe is ‘changing the game’ more than simply doing what they have always done (and always against the tide). Bob Lidquist brought some very old wines to the tasting and most of them were utterly remarkable. The standouts were a remarkably fresh 2004 Roussanne, a 1989 Los Olivos Cuvee, a 2000 Bien Nacido Syrah, and a 1992 Bien Nacido Syrah. All of the wines were outstandingly balanced and perfumed, with an influence from the old world, but made distinctly in Lidquist’s idiosyncratic style
Tablas Creek: The Perrin family’s joint project with Bob Hass is making fruit driven, neutral oak, modest alcohol wines in Paso Robles, where so many people are pumping up wines to grotesque levels. All of the wines are aromatic, lushly fruited wines tinged with layers of mineral and coupled with enough acidity to provide versatile food pairing possibilities. Additionally, Tablas Creek is one of the most important wineries in California for Rhone varieties given their focus on experimentation over long periods of time and as the source of some of the most important mother plants providing Rhone cuttings throughout the area.
Arnot Roberts: While not at the tasting, I have to mention these guys for making some of the most exciting Syrahs to come out of California. They are consciously seeking to make low alcohol wines, which in some ways is as polemical as it is justified. The wines, however, are all amazing.
A Cocktail Wine Worth Trying
SAXUM: For all the hype, I was somewhat underwhelmed by these wines given how much they go for and how hard they are to get. That said, the 2010 James Berry
Grenache, 2010 Heart Stone Syrah and 2010 Terry Hoage Syrah were all very well
made wines with the appropriate structure to support all that lush fruit. While the wines are close to over the top, Justin Smith keeps his wines just this side of overdone, and as such they are probably some of the very best ‘cocktail’ wines being made in California. The real question is, do you want to pay $100+ for a cocktail wine or $20-$50 for aromatically complex, food friendly wines?
Mineral Driven Old World Wines to Talk About
Domaine Jamet 2008 Cote Rotie: A pepper wine, with plenty of minerals and cool black fruits more in the background than the foreground. Jamet is a serious traditionalist, which you can taste in his austere reserved wines. These are not your standard Cote Rotie and for some they may feel slightly underripe. For example, the 2007 was not showing well at all, with too many overly herbacious green notes at this point. However, the 2008 was truly outstanding for a traditional example of Cote Rotie.
Domaine Ogier 2007 Cote Rotie: Another standout, though not as open as the ‘04 right now. This is what Cote-Rotie should taste like: minerals, flowers and meat all in a weird and wonderful balance.
Domaine Saladin Grenache 2009: Purely scented high elevation Grenache with tons of elegance. Much lighter and prettier than most of the stuff coming from the Cote-du-Rhone villages.
Rouvre Saint Leger, Laudin Blanc Viognier 2010: A stunningly mineral intense Viognier from the Cote-du-Rhone in the southern Rhone valley. I was amazed at how aromatic and fresh this wine was given it was grown in the south.
Domaine du Cayron Gigondas 2009: An excellent Gigondas that avoids the over extraction often present in these wines. Again, fairly pretty, though much denser fruit than the Saladin above. It yet had great balance and finesse, suggesting to me (along with many other ‘09’s tasted) that 2009 in the southern Rhone is a superior vintage to 2007 for those seeking a balance of lush fruit and fresh acid.
More Conservative but Balanced Wines
Cayuse: Best described as umami bombs, all of the Syrahs were outstanding. Pure, lush, mushrooms, earth, soy. These wines are extremely full and long and explosive in the mouth. Without a doubt the best Syrah coming out of Washington State. I also attended a Cayuse seminar, which I will write up in much more detail later.
Jonata: Down in Santa Barbara County, these wines offer a rich style with considerable tannin. However, they are very well balanced and filled with a lot of minerality rather than just plush fruit. These, along with the Stolpman wines below, were some of the best of the more traditionally styled California wines on offer. The standout for me was the 2008 La Sengre de Jonata Syrah, which had fantastic minerality and clean pure aromatics. The 2009 was bigger and more fruit forward, but also a good wine. These puppies need some real cellar time to tame their naturally massive tannins.
Stolpman: These are big wines, but balanced and delicious. Clearly Stolpman owns some of the best vineyard land in the Santa Ynez valley, and terroir perfectly suited for Syrah. All of the Syrahs were excellent, including the 2002 Hilltops Syrah and the 2004 Angeli Syrah.
Domaine Barroche: A modernist in Chateauneuf, but also one with an eye for balance and a deft hand at matching aromatics with fruitiness. The 2009 Signature Chateauneuf du Pape and the 2009 Pure Grenache (100% old vine Grenache) were both fantastic wines, and highly recommended if you are seeking a modern style CdP that is still balanced.
The Gang of Four
Francois Villard: Student of Cuilleron and Gaillard and one cheery dude. Villard is a maverick and is killing it with pretty much every wine he makes. And he makes quite a few wines. All of the wines are extremely aromatic and have a clear understanding of and appreciation for their terroir. The Saint Josephs range from peppery and aromatic to dense mineral driven wines with tougher tannins for longer ageing. His Viogniers are excellent (though not quite at the level of Cuilleron or Gangloff) and the Cote Rotie is an exceptional deal for the quality. My picks were Le Grand Vallon Viognier 2010 (Condrieu), the Mairlant Rouge Saint Joseph 2009, and Le Gallet Blanc Cote Rotie 2009.
Yves Cuilleron: A key producer in the Northern Rhone, Cuilleron’s wines are somewhat in between the style of Villard (modern and forward) and Gaillard (more rustic and pretty). The Terres Sombres Cote Rotie 2009 was excellent, though needed a fair amount of time to fully open. But the Vertige Condrieu 2009 was perhaps the best Viognier of the entire event, and it proves that Cuilleron is amongst the absolute masters of the Viognier grape, competing directly with the likes of Perret, Gangloff and Vernay for the Viognier crown.
Pierre Gaillard: The classicist of the group, Gaillard is also the oldest. This does not mean he is out of touch and certainly has no impact on his ambition (he owns vineyards in the Languedoc as well as the Northern Rhone and makes a staggering array of wines). However, I think Gaillard’s true raison d’etre are his Cote Roties, which are some of the purest expressions available, and so charmingly classic that their profundity could nearly slip by unnoticed. My picks were the Clos de Cuminaille Saint Joseph Rouge 2010 and the Pourpe Rose Cote Rotie 2010.
Yves Gangloff: A bit of the party-man, joker, and rockstar of the group, Gangloff is also seriously skilled – perhaps exemplifying the key “serious fun” ethic that John Alban espoused as fundamental to the Hospice du Rhone. Gangloff is both a master at Condrieu and Cote-Rotie and his Syrahs are so lush and generously scented that you can enjoy them while still very young. The Condrieus are masterpieces of cascading complexity, minerality and spice and show vintage extremely well. All of the wines were awesome, including the La Barbarine Cote Rotie 2009 and the Condrieu 2010.
Alban: None of the reds were showing well at the tastings, including the 2005 Reva Syrah and the 2008 Reva Syrah. The wines were pruney and out of balance, without the aromatic complexity, finesse or even appropriate structure to hold up the extreme extraction and ripeness. I’ve had some Alban before that have been excellent, but unfortunately the wines poured did not show well at the event.
Cayuse: The wines were all quite good, but the winemaker, Christophe Baron, was stand offish, snooty, refused to answer questions, and was downright irritating. It would have been nice to have a little of the passion and knowledge shared without the attitude. Unfortunate.
Most Exciting Wines of the Show
Jimenez-Landi Ataulfos 2009: From the higest Grenache vineyards in the world in a small DO called Mentrida, just south of Madrid. These vines are 70-100 years old, grown in limestone soils, and fermented in Amphora. This wine tastes like a Chateau Rayas grown at crazy high elevation. Nothing like any other Garnacha in Spain and, for that matter, anywhere in the world. The hands down greatest wine of the tasting and biggest revelation for me.
E&E Black Pepper Sparkling Shiraz (Vertical of ‘93, ‘95, ‘03, ‘05): Who knew sparkling Shiraz could age so well? The ‘93 and ‘95 in particular showed all the wonderful secondary development of great old wine – including tobacco, smoke, earth and mushrooms but also possessed great fruit, freshness and lift from the still quite present effervescence. A truly exciting discovery and (I was told) the first time a vertical of this sort has been poured outside Australia. Time to stock up on a few of these for the cellar.