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Highlights from the 2010 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting

The Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting is always a good time. The great diversity of wine varietals is interesting and helps prevent palate fatigue. There are a large number of wines and wineries, more than anyone could taste in even a full day, but not such a huge number that you feel overwhelmed or have to wander through multiple halls. Attendees, both wineries and tasters, are friendly. And, while the tastings draw a big crowd, the hall isn’t so crowded that you get claustrophobic.

This year’s Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting was made even more interesting by the large number of non-wine vendors. Most of the companies were offering some sort of food that might go well with the wine. The Girl and the Fig restaurant served up some good duck cassoulet. Others had chocolates, flavored crackers, bread, paté, olive oil, etc. The SanTasti people had their palate-cleansing water and Aidells was there with sausage. There were also a few tables with wine bags, corkscrews. Soirée demonstrated their wine aerators.

One table that was not a hit with winemakers offered flavored water from ICIO. I didn’t taste the water myself, so I can’t make any comments on it’s quality, pro or con. What had the winemakers up in arms were some of the flavors and their potency. The peppermint was particularly reviled for it’s capacity to overwhelm the palate and make the wines taste lousy. I overheard one woman (a trade tasting attendee) say that it smelled and tasted like mouthwash. Perhaps it would have been better to give the water to people as refresher when they left the building rather than handing it out in the middle of the hall.

There were just under 100 wineries in attendance at the 2010 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting. Most were from California, but there were a handful from Oregon, two from Washington and one from Idaho. Of course, I wasn’t able to taste every wine. I did make a valiant attempt to do so for the whites and managed to taste pretty much every white wine from Northern California wineries as well as a few from farther south and all of the ones from Oregon. That alone took about two-and-a-half hours, moving at a fast pace. After taking a brief break to wolf down a sandwich, there wasn’t much time left to sample the red wines. So, for those, I went to a few specific wineries that I know well in an attempt to get a sense for how the new releases compare to those in recent years.

The-2010-Rhone-Rangers-Grand-Tasting-hall

Overall, the quality of these Rhone-varietal wines was very good. My general sense, and this was reinforced by other tasters and winemakers with whom I spoke, is that acidity, minerality and restraint are making a comeback. Excessive extraction, oak and alcohol levels are much less common. Naturally, these comments are relative to past California vintages. The majority of the wines are still heavier, fruitier and more potent than typical wines from the Northern Rhone in France.

Having tasted hundreds of Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay based wines already this year, and having seen the same trends with regard to acidity, alcohol, extraction and oak there, I feel confident in saying that there is a broad movement among the better wineries toward a “less is more” approach. I have not noticed a similar degree of change in Pinot Noir though. Perhaps the feeling is that, though California Pinot Noir is a good deal heavier and fruitier than Old World or even most Oregonian versions, the levels of alcohol, oak and extraction in absolute terms are not so high as to necessitate substantial change. In any case, the Rhone-varietal wines poured yesterday were generally leaner than those in the recent past.

Another trend I see is the increasing use of Grenache Blanc for single-varietal wines. This grape, which has historically been used primarily in blends and not been copiously planted in California, seems to be gaining favor with winemakers. Most of the Grenache Blanc-focused wines I’m tasting now seem to be targeted at people looking for crisp and refreshing wines that are more subtle than Sauvignon Blanc. The majority of the wines are being made without any oak and with little, if any, malolactic fermentation. While I don’t think that Grenache Blanc is “the next Chardonnay,” I do find typical Grenache Blancs I’m tasting to be more attractive than the majority of New World unoaked Chardonnay I’ve had. If you’re looking for something new for Spring or Summer, something clean with good acidity and interesting minerality that will go with a range of light foods, check out some of the top-rated Grenache Blanc from below.

Without further ado, I’ll post my recommendations based on the 2010 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting below. As always, bear in mind that this was a walk-around tasting, not a blind tasting. My judgement may have been affected by anything from the winemaker’s smile to the aroma of those Aidell’s sausages. I stand by my ratings, but reserve the right to change them slightly based on future tastings under more controlled circumstances.

For your convenience, I’m breaking the ratings into two sections. The first is the dry whites (and the one rosé I tried), the second will be reds. Within each section, the wines are listed in alphabetical order by winery name. Those wines for which no varietal is explicitly stated are blends. I only tasted one dessert wine and am not including that category of wine in this review.

WHITE WINES
Very Highly Recommended
2008 L’Aventure Roussanne Estate, $35
Highly Recommended
2008 Adelaida Cellars Viognier Glenrose Vineyard, $30
2007 Anglim Viognier Bien Nacido Vineyard, Santa Barbara County, $26
2008 Arrowood Vineyards Viognier Saralee’s Vineyard, Russian River Valley, $30
2007 Bonny Doon Le Cigare Blanc, $22
2008 Calcareous Vineyard, $28
2008 Clavo Cellars Viognier Apparition, $15
2008 Clavo Cellars Grenache Blanc Oracle, $18
2008 Clayhouse Wines Estate Cuvee Blanc Paso Robles, $23
2009 Clos Saron Carte Blanche, Sierra Foothills, $24 Sauvignon blend!
2008 Edward Sellers Viognier, $29
2008 Edward Sellers Estate Blanc, $35
2008 Epiphany Grenache Blanc, Santa Barbara County, $24
2007 JC Cellars Marsanne Stagecoach Vineyard, $38
2008 Katin Viognier, Paso Robles, $32
2008 Grenache Blanc, Paso Robles, $32
2008 Novy Family Viognier, Russian River Valley, $22 100% stainless steel, no ML
2007 Qupé Roussanne, Bien Nacido Hillside Estate, $40
2008 Sarah’s Vineyard Roussanne Estate Vineyard, $22
2008 Sierra Vista Viognier, $22.50
2008 Skylark Pinot Blanc Orsi Vineyard, Mendocino County, $16
2007 Sol Rouge Viognier, $32
2008 Stage Left Cellars The Go Getter, Central Coast, $34
2008 Tablas Creek Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, $40
2007 Treana Winery, $25 [At present, this wine is on the border between highly recommend and recommended. I’m placing it at the higher level with the caveat that it needs 6 months to a year of bottle age, which is almost always the case with this particular wine.]

Recommended
2008 Adelaida Cellars Version, $30
2006 Anglim Cameo, Paso Robles, $22
2006 Arroyo Robles Rosé Estate Syrah, $21
2008 Bonny Doon Vineyard Viognier Dewn, $20
2008 Caliza Kissin Cousins, $28
2008 Carina Viognier, $22
2009 Cass Winery Roussanne Estate, $26
2009 Cass Winery Viognier Estate, $22
2009 Cline Cellars Marsanne-Roussanne, $16
2009 Concannon Vineyard Viognier, $15
2007 Derby Wine Estate Fifteen 10 White, $24
2007 Frick Winery Grenache Blanc Estate Owl Hill Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, $27
2007 Frick Winery Viognier Estate Gannon Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, $27
2008 Hagafen Roussanne Lodi, $18 [kosher]
2008 Halter Ranch Estate Vineyard Cotes du Paso, $24
2009 Holly’s Hill Viognier Estate Vineyard, $18
2008 Jemrose Vineyards Viognier Egret Pond, $32
2008 Justin Viognier, $22
2008 Lawer Family Viognier Three Coins, $24
2007 Lone Madrone Roussanne, $28
2008 Lone Madrone White Blend, $22
2007 Michael-David Vineyards Viognier Incognito, $16
2007 Michaud Marsanne Estate Vineyard, Chalone AVA, $40 [This wine was a notably viscous, if that’s not your preference in Rhone whites beware.]
2008 Miner Family Marsanne La Diligence, $38
2008 Pride Viognier, Sonoma County, $42
2007 Quady North Viognier, Steelhead Run Vineyard, Applegate Valley, $19
2008 Qupé Marsanne, $20
2008 Robert Hall Winery Viognier, $20
2007 Rosenblum Roussanne Fess Parker, $25
2007 Sarah’s Vineyard Cote de Madone Blanc, $27
2008 Sierra Vista Roussanne, $22.50
2008 Skinner Vineyards Seven Generations, $25
2007 Sol Rouge Gypsy Blanc, $28
2007 Stark Wine Viognier, $25
2008 Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas Blanc, $25
2008 Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc, $30
2008 Tablas Creek Roussanne, $30
2007 Terre Rouge Roussanne, Sierra Foothills, $25
2007 Terre Rouge Viognier, Amadaor County, $25
2007 Terre Rouge Enigma, Sierra Foothills, $25
2008 Terry Hoage The Gap Cuvee Blanc, $32
2008 Thacher Viognier Hastings Ranch, $25
2008 Truchard Roussanne, $20
2009 Villa Creek White Blend, Paso Robles, $24
2006 Zaca Mesa Roussanne Estate Vineyard, $25
2008 Zaca Mesa Grenache Blanc Estate Vineyard, $25

Since I did sample almost every dry white wine offered [by wineries located from Paso Robles north in California] at the 2010 Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting, it’s fair for you to assume that if a wine is in the Grand Tasting catalog but not on my list I am not recommending it. That said, I would like to clarify two things. First, non-recommendation does not mean that a wine is bad. It may be quite acceptable but simply isn’t at the same level as those above. Second, there are a few wines which I simply didn’t get to at the tasting. I’m listing them below so that their absence from the lists of recommended wines isn’t misinterpreted.
2008 Clautiere Vineyards Estate Viognier
2008 Jada Vineyard XCV, $35
2008 Michael-David Roussanne Chicken Duck
2006 Pug Blanc Saralee’s Vineyard Russian River Valley
2007 Pug Blanc Saralee’s Vineyard Russian River Valley
2006 Renaissance Viognier
2006 Renaissance Roussanne
2006 Renaissance Roussanne Vin du Terroir
2007 Steele Viognier, Lake County, $16
2008 Steele Roussanne, Writer’s Block, Lake County, $16

RED WINES
Highly Recommended
2005 Domaine Serene Syrah Del Rio Vineyard, $45
2007 Edward Sellers Mourvedre, $45
2007 Fleming Jenkins Syrah Black Ridge Vineyard, Santa Cruz Mountains, $40
2006 JC Sellers Syrah, Ventana Vineyard, $30
2006 Kaleidos Syrah, $
2006 Kaleidos Grenache, $45
2007 Outpost Petite Syrah The Other, Howell Mountain, $50 [Needs 7 years of bottle age at minimum]
2007 Pride Syrah, Sonoma County, $60
2008 Shane Syrah The Unknown, North Coast, $38
2008 Shane Syrah Jemrose Vineyard, Bennett Valley, $42
2008 Shane Syrah Judge, $NA
2007 Skylark Syrah Unti Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, $26
2007 Skylark Syrah Rodgers Creek Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, $36
2007 Skylark Syrah Stagecoach Vineyard, Napa, $40
2007 Sol Rouge Syrah, $32
2006 Stage Left Cellars The Breadwinner Central Coast, $42
2006 Stage Left Cellars Petite Sirah Russell Family Vineyards, Paso Robles, $40
2007 Villa Creek Mourvedre Damas Noir, Paso Robles, $40

Recommended
2006 Domaine Serene Syrah Rockblock Reserve, $40
2007 Fleming Jenkins Syrah Madden Ranch, Livermore Valley, $40
2007 Justin Syrah, $27
2007 Justin Savant, $45
2005 Kaleidos Syrah, $28
2006 Kaleidos Osiris, $28 [Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre]
2006 Kaleidos Morpheus, $34 [Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre]
2007 Outpost Grenache, Howell Mountain, $40
2007 Outpost Petite Syrah, Howell Mountain, $35
2007 Skylark Red Belly, $20
2007 Skylark, Grenache, Mendocino County, $26
2006 Sol Rouge Grenache, $36
2006 Sol Rouge Gypsy Rouge, $28
2007 Sol Rouge Mourvedre, $29
2006 Sol Rouge The Keep, $NA
2007 Stage Left Cellars Syrah The Escape Artist Watch Hill Vineyard, Los Alamos, $38
2007 Stage Left Cellars Syrah The Scenic Route Del Rio Vineyards, Rogue Valley, $38
2007 Villa Creek Garnacha Denner Vineyard, Paso Robles, $35
2007 Villa Creek High Road James Berry Vineyard, Paso Robles, $50

I tasted very few red wines, so the two lists above should be taken as isolated recommendations and no assumptions of any kind should be made about wines that are not listed. In many cases, I only tasted one or two wines from a given winery though they had more available.

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This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2010 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.