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Recap of Hospice du Rhone 2011 - Day One

This is summary of all the Rhone goodness that was Friday, April 29 at Hospice du Rhone 2011. More detailed articles on the seminars, top wines, etc. will follow. Don’t miss photo gallery at the end! Also check out my recap of day two.

The first seminar, Rhone Valley Wines, started at 9AM. There were some bloodshot eyes in the crowd. The previous night’s Rhone n Bowl event ran late into the night with plenty of wine and beer flowing. Judging by the loud conversation and laughter coming from rooms near mine at the Black Oak Motor Lodge, more than a few people joined after-parties at the hotel too. Nonetheless, seminar attendance was good. My rough count was around 650 people.

Even wine lovers who have not studied the Rhone in detail have heard of Chateauneuf du Pape and, probably, Cote Rotie. They may know that Hermitage as a great wine they can’t afford to drink. And they probably associate Cotes du Rhone with so-so red wine poured on international flights. The purpose of this seminar was to expose us all to unsung regions of the Rhone that deserve our attention and to do justice to Cotes du Rhone.

For the most part, the mission was accomplished. Attendees got a lot of detailed information about the Rhone growing area overall, especially the Cotes du Rhone AOC, the various named Cotes du Rhone Villages, some of those that have their own AOCs (Cornas and Gigondas), plus Costieres de Nimes. However, like my previous sentence, the seminar ran long. There was too much content for the allotted time and the final portion was rushed.

Here are some interesting facts about the Rhone, shared with us by moderator Christophe Tassan, sommelier at MIX in Las Vegas.

  • The Rhone Valley is France’s second largest wine region, comprising nearly 200,000 acres.
  • There are 6,000 vineyard owners and 1,500 wine producers in the Rhone Valley.
  • They fill 400,000,000 bottles per year.
  • 80% of that wine is red.
  • The U.S. is the largest importer of Rhone wine, having just passed the UK.
  • U.S. imports of Rhone wines increased 22% last year. [There are some great bargains to be had.]
  • The primary red grape of the Northern Rhone is Syrah, while Grenache is the main red grape of the Southern Rhone.
  • There are 18 cru AOCs in the Rhone Valley, plus 17 named Cotes du Rhone Villages.
  • An additional 78 villages without individual AOC status can contribute to more general Cotes du Rhone AOC wines.

Christopher Sawyer was moderator of the second session — Find Your MoJo. A journalist and the sommelier at Carneros Bistro, he energized the crowd and made sure the trains ran on time. After the obligatory Austin Powers impression, we learned that MoJo is not just for swinging British spies. We can get it ourselves it by drinking good Syrah! And we can spell it by taking the first two letters from the names of Morgan Twain-Peterson and Joey Tensley. Not coincidentally, those guys make kick-ass Syrah.

Tensley said his wines are all about the vineyard. The primary focus for him is Syrah. We were treated to tastes of three single-vineyard Syrah from cool climates in Santa Barbara County, plus a blend from all three vineyards.

Morgan Twain-Peterson believes terroir is crucial as well. But he also experiments with various winemaking techniques. He offered one wine that was aged in massive (600 liter) barrels with double-thick staves. Oak influence was minimized because there was a lower ratio of oak surface to wine volume. The lower ratio and thick staves also decreased water evaporation, keeping alcohol percentages lower than they would otherwise have been. Another wine was fermented with 90% whole clusters. He barrel-fermented yet another a lot of new oak to achieve an “Aussie style.” That wine wasn’t everyone’s favorite, but I thought it was excellent.

Find Your Mojo was a very interesting seminar. It also featured some great wines. (If you aren’t on the Bedrock Wines mailing list, you should be. Subscribers were recently offered the delicious 2009 Bedrock Sonoma Coast Syrah for just $20. Consider that my “Wine of the Day” recommendation.

Interesting take-aways from this session included:

  • Both winemakers agreed that site is more important than clone.
  • Twain-Peterson believes that, while Syrah is a tough sell now, the future should be good as “wine consumers are better educated than they ever have been before... with more access to information and a huge educational curve that bodes well.”
  • Joey Tensley said, “Dollar for dollar, what you can get in Syrah is much better quality than from other varietals in the U.S.” [I totally agree.]
  • Chris Sawyer emphasized the variety of California Syrah available. As a sommelier, “the great thing about [pouring] ten Syrah is that you can be all over the map.” He added, “In Sonoma, we have 118 different types of soil, more than in the entire country of France.” Then Chris was shot by an enraged French wine publicist. I might be lying about this last bit. Or not.

After tasting 20 wines before noon, some of them burly, we were all ready for rosé. Fortunately, the thoughtful people of Tavel only make rosé and they bring mass quantities of it to the lunch that they sponsor each year at Hospice du Rhone. I tasted some but, with an afternoon at the massive, three-hour Rhone Rendezvous tasting ahead of me, chose to glug gallons of the provided Fiji water. [Thank you Fiji!] I also loaded up at the healthful lunch. Filling up on roasted vegetables provided a good base for tasting. And, after the previous night’s Kobe beef corn dogs and steak tartar sliders, I felt obliged to go sans meat.

The Rhone Rendezvous is a big walk-around tasting at which the participating wineries break out wines that they don’t normally pour at big walk-around tastings. This year, the Hospice du Rhone organizers asked them to bring older vintages. VINTUS offered 1997 and 2001 Guigal Brune et Blonde Cote Rotie. I love the way they take direction!

Two California wineries proved Rhone variety whites can age, even when made here. Qupé broke out a 2001 Roussanne Alban Vineyard. Kenneth Volk doubled down with a 1999 Equus Roussanne James Berry Vineyard and a 2001 Equus Viognier. I wish that I had any of them in my cellar.

Among those strolling the aisles, glass-in-hand, was Emilio Estevez, low-key and trying to remain under-the-radar. I was surprised to see him there. That’s because I don’t know a thing about wine from Malibu. He and his partner, Sonja Magdevski, are the proprietors, vine tenders and winemakers of Casa Dumetz. It’s one of a dozen or more wineries in the area. Malibu is hoping to get it’s own AVA designation before too long. Now that I know about it, I’m looking forward to trying some of the wines.

The final event of the day was the Sommelier Soirée. It’s a party to which the sommeliers participating in Hospice du Rhone bring some of their favorite magnums of Rhone variety wine. Hard to go wrong with that. However, I chose to have a more low-key evening. My party of four headed over to Villa Creek for dinner. It’s an “early California cuisine” restaurant owned by winemaker Cris Cherry. Villa Creek is where everyone goes to party in Paso Robles when there is not a Sommelier Soirée going on. Looking around me, I saw that Patrick Will (VINTUS) and Clyde Beffa (K&L Wines) had also opted for quiet dinners. The food at Villa Creek was good, the portions large (you have been warned), and the wine list attractive. Check it out!

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