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The Best of 2011 Rhone Rangers SF Wine Tasting

Sunday, I attended the Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco. I got there just a few minutes after noon for the trade tasting and stayed through consumer tasting until 5PM. Overall, I thought it to be a very good event.

There was certainly no shortage of wine. I sampled well over 100 wines during my five hours of focused tasting and conversing with winemakers. Yet, I doubt that I tried even 20% of all the wines available.

Overall Impressions

Rhone-variety wines made on the west coast are continuing to improve. I only tasted a couple of wines yesterday that were merely acceptable in quality, and none that were poor. I have noticed a steady progression in this regard over the past five years or so. Part of this may be that, since Syrah and Viognier are no longer “the next Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay,” there are fewer wineries taking half-hearted stabs at Rhone wines for sake of fashion.

Of course, plenty of wineries have been making very good wines all along. Many of them, especially those who went into the making of Rhone variety wines with a somewhat European sensibility, have not even changed their style. Others have made changes and though their wines were good in the past, they are better now and more drinkable. Whereas some had used the jammy and high-alcohol stereotypes of Australian Shiraz as a model, now the reds tend to be leaner, more complex and food-friendly wines. There is also a clear trend now toward sourcing Syrah grapes from cool climate vineyards.

Another varietal undergoing transformation in California is Viognier. Just three or four years ago, there were a lot of Viognier-varietal wines poured at events such as Rhone Rangers and Family Winemakers. Frankly, many of them weren’t very good. It seemed that Viognier was treated like some California Chardonnay had been: pick it ripe, let it go through complete malolactic fermentation and then stuff it into French oak barrels, 100% new. The wines were often thick, flabby and on the sweet side with flavors dominated by jammy fruit, oak and vanilla.

While there is still plenty of Viognier out there, a majority of winemakers are now making it in a more elegant style. They’ve cut way back on oak, sometimes eschewing it entirely. Some also arrest malolactic fermentation to retain acidity. I didn’t find a single Viognier yesterday that reminded me of Anna Nicole Smith.

The 2009 Adelaida Cellars Viognier (Paso Robles, $30) is an excellent example of the new approach. Winemaker Terry Culton wants to showcase their vineyard’s calcareous soils. “The calcareous influence would be covered up by new oak,” he told me. So he does his fermentation in neutral French oak. They also use small stainless steel barrels on 20% of the wine so that it can sit sur lie for a while and take some flavors and texture from that without any loss of freshness. Stainless steel tanks preserve fruit and crispness, but there wouldn’t be enough lees contact to be noticeable. Culton does not allow full malolactic fermentation either. He says the theme of his process is “control.”

This control shows in the final product. It is a Viognier of balance. Crisp peach is coupled with delicate floral notes. The minerality shows through and the lees influence provides subtle background flavors and interesting texture. Highly Recommended.

As was the case last year, the “it” grapes now are Grenache and Grenache Blanc. Generally, that’s a good thing, especially since they both excel in blends which have the theoretical potential to be more interesting and better balanced than single-varietal wines. On the other hand, as single-varietal wines they can be a little boring, And both grapes can result in very high alcohol wines, so vineyard managers and winemakers do need to be careful.

My favorite among the red wines including some Grenache was the 2008 Terry Hoage Vineyards “The Pick Cuvee,” (Paso Robles, $48). The wine now includes only estate fruit — organically farmed — and Terry does all of the winemaking. That’s quite a job as he creates more than 100 different wines for eventual blending. The Pick, a melange of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Counoise, is simultaneously pretty and very complex with great fruit flavors but a whole lot more. I wish I had a glass right now. Very Highly Recommended.

Terry Hoage at the Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting in San Francisco, March 27, 2001.
Photo credit: Fred Swan

About My Top Picks

I chose to taste Northern California wines almost exclusively. Excellent producers were also on hand from the southern Central Coast, Oregon and Washington. But, there just wasn’t enough time in a single day to examine wines from Northern California fully, let alone those of our neighbors. That said, I did stop by Tercero Wines. I highly recommend the 2008 Tercero Cuvee Christie ($28) and the 2008 Tercero Cuvee Loco ($30). If you have a jones for Mourvedre, I can also recommend the 2008 Tercero Mourvedre Camp 4 Vineyard ($30).

My recommendations from big wine tasting events such as Rhone Rangers always come with a few disclaimers. I didn’t taste every wine. If I don’t recommend your favorite, I may not have tasted it. The tasting isn’t blind or in a controlled environment. My opinions may be colored by a winemaker’s charm or the overwhelming smell of BBQ sauce from a nearby table. [I did not give in to the temptation to taste it though.] Nonetheless, I thought the following wines were aces. I’ve listed them by category/recommendation level and then alphabetically by winery.

White Wines: Highly Recommended

2009 Adelaida Cellars Viognier, $30

2008 Anglim Grenache Blanc, $28 — 100% varietal, single vineyard

2007 Derby White Blend “Fifteen 10,” $24
2008 Derby White Blend “Fifteen 10,” $24
2008 JC Cellars Marsanne Stagecoach Vineyard, $38 — White flowers, marzipan and mineral. Serve cooler than normal to tame the 15.2% alcohol.

2009 Jemrose Vineyards Viognier, Egret Pond, $32 — Lovely peach aromatics, fresh and textured on the palate

2009 Katin Grenache Blanc, $32 — Unusually sensuous nose for Grenache Blanc.

2009 Terry Hoage “The Gap Cuvee Blanc,” $38 — Full-bodied

2009 Treana White Blend, $25 — Unctuous stone fruit and marmalade. A very full-bodied, decadent winter white.

White Wines: Recommended

2009 Alta Colina Viognier Blend “12 O’Clock,” $28 — 70% Viognier with Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc

2009 Ambyth Estate White Blend “Priscus,” $45 — Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier 

2008 Bonny Doon White Blend “Le Cigare Blanc,” $22

2009 Calcareous Vineyard Viognier, $28 — Floral aromas with stone fruit and marzipan. 50% stainless, 50% oak (Just 5% of the total cuvee saw new oak.)
2008 Calcareous Vineyard White Blend, $28 — 75% Viognier, 25% Marsanne. Rich but in balance. Fruit-centric with minerality.

2008 Caliza White Blend “Kissin’ Cousins,” $25

2008 Frick Grenache Blanc, Estate Owl Hill Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, $27
2009 Katin Viognier, $32 — Soft and pretty
2008 Kaleidos White Blend, $27 — An all-stainless production of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc from the Alta Colina Vineyard
2008 Lone Madrone Roussanne, $28

2009 Novy Family Viognier, $20 — The fruit is ripe, but the wine is still fresh. They used no oak and the wine didn’t undergo malolactic fermentation.

2009 Pride Viognier, $42
2009 Vina Robles “WHITE4,” $16 — Fruit-forward, yet gentle and complex.

Red Wines: Very Highly Recommended

2008 Terry Hoage “The Pick Cuvee,” $48 — see paragraph 11 above for details

2008 Villa Creek “Bete Noire” Red Blend, $45

Red Wines: Highly Recommended

2008 Adelaida Cellars Syrah Viking Vineyard, $65 — This wine can handle some aging
2008 Alta Colina Red Blend, $38 — Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre
2008 Alta Colina Petite Sirah “Old 900,” $48

2008 Alta Colina Petite Sirah “Ann’s Block,” $48
2009 Arnot-Roberts Syrah, Griffin’s Lair Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, $56

2010 Arnot-Roberts Syrah, Clary Ranch, ~$40 — 100% Syrah, black pepper, green olives and evergreen forest

2008 Cosa Obra Red Blend “Proprietor’s Blend,” $38 — Syrah and Grenache
2009 Cosa Obra “Other” Proprietor’s Blend — barrel sample

2008 Cypher Winery Red Blend “Peasant,” $40 — formerly “Four Vines Winery
2007 JC Cellars Syrah, Rockpile Vineyard, $60
2008 Kukkula “Sisu” Red Blend, $30
2007 Martinelli Syrah, Lolita Ranch, $75

2007 Syrah, Zio Tony Ranch, $75

2009 Outpost Grenache, Howell Mountain, $45 — An exceptionally dark and rich Grenache

2008 Wind Gap Syrah, Sonoma Coast, $48 — Black and white pepper, herb and brambly fruit
2009 Wind Gap Syrah, Griffins Lair Vineyard, Sonoma Coast, $48 — Juicy with very dark, moody flavors.
2007 Pride Syrah, $60 — Black pepper, leather and gamey black fruit 

2008 Skylark Syrah, Rodgers Creek Vineyard, $36

2007 Stage Left Cellars “The Breadwinner” Red Blend, Central Coast, $42
2009 Austin Hope Grenache, Hope Family Vineyard, $42 — Chocolate truffle rolled in cherry powder.

2008 Wrath Syrah, Doctor’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, $39

Red Wines: Recommended

2008 Adelaida Cellars Grenache, $32

2008 Adelaida Cellars Syrah, Anna’s Vineyard, $28
2008 Alta Colina Syrah “Toasted Slope,” $38
2006 Anglim Grenache — 7% Counoise

2009 Arnot-Roberts Syrah, North Block Hudson Vineyard, Carneros, Napa Valley, $56

2008 Caliza Syrah, $45

2008 Cypher Winery Red Blend “Anarchy,” $40 — formerly “Four Vines Winery”
2008 Jemrose Vineyards Grenache, Foggy Knoll, $38
2008 Jemrose Vineyards Syrah, Cardiac Hill, $38

2008 Jemrose Vineyards “Gloria’s Gem Proprietary Red,” $65

2008 Justin “Savant” Red Blend, $45

2009 Kukkula “Sisu” Red Blend, $40 — All estate fruit as of this vintage

2009 Kukkula “Pas de Deux” Red Blend, $40

2007 Montemaggiore Syrah Reserve, $45

2009 Wind Gap “Orra,” $28 — Grenache, Mourvedre & Counoise; spicy fruit and leather

2008 Quivira Mourvedre, $32 — A very nice effort
2008 Skylark “Red Belly” Blend, $20 — Soft fruit with an earth edge. Excellent value!

2007 Skylark Syrah, Stagecoach Vineyard, $40
2008 Stage Left Cellars “The ExPat” Red Blend, Central Coast, $24

2008 Stage Left Cellars “Day Job,” $40 — Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Mourvedre
2008 Terry Hoage Syrah “5 Blocks Cuvee," $NA
2008 Travieso Syrah “Amaranta,” KW Ranch, Santa Lucia Highlands, $36
2008 Travieso “Traviesito,” $16
2009 Austin Hope Syrah, Hope Family Vineyard, $42
2008 Villa Creek “Avenger” Red Blend, $35
2008 Villa Creek “Garnache,” $35 — Cherry, oak and spice
2008 Villa Creek Grenache “La Boda,” $40

2008 Vina Robles “RED4,” $16

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