"This is a Rhône-style wine." You've heard the line before, but the definition of a Rhône-style wine can vary and calls for some discussion. As always, we're here to bolster your vino knowledge. So grab your corkscrews and let's go Rhône!
The Rhône Valley wine region, often simply referred to as "the Rhône," is located in the Rhône River valley in southern France. It's believed that vines were first planted by the Greeks here around 600 BC… that's quite a long time ago.
The region borders the Mediterranean Sea, west of the Côte d'Azur (i.e. the French Riviera), and is south of Burgundy. The Rhône is divided between two sub-regions: the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône. Although there is a distinct geographical difference between the two sub-regions, there is also a distinct difference in climate and, consequently, a variance in grapes grown and wine produced.
The landscape of the north is hilly with steep slopes. The Southern Rhône is flatter with broad plains. The south offers far more planted acreage of grapes with not as many famed appellations as its northern neighbor. The Northern Rhône has a continental climate - a considerable winter and a hot summer. The Southern Rhône has a Mediterranean climate - mild winters and hot summers.
Syrah is the king varietal in the Northern Rhône and it is considered by many to be the varietal's homeland. Other red varietals are grown, but Syrah plays such an important role that the others aren't worth discussing in detail. Marsanne, Roussane, and Viognier are the most widely planted white varietals. All can be stand-alone varietal wines and are also used as blending components.
The most esteemed wine produced in the Southern Rhône is by far Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It has its own AOC (our equivalent of an AVA) and is a blend of up to 13 different varietals (eight red, five white - although is often made with far less). The name literally translates as the "the pope's new castle," which, without a brief history lesson, really doesn't make a shred of sense. It originates from the fact that the nearby city of Avignon temporarily was home of the papal court in the 14th century.
White wine grapes are grown in the south, such as Ugni Blanc, Roussane, Viognier, and Bourboulenc, but red varietals play the dominant role. While Syrah is king in the north, Grenache plays a similar role in the south. Syrah, Mourvedre, Carignan, and Cinsault are the other most widely-planted red varietals.
Rhône varietals and methods of blending have been exported around the world. Californian and Australian growing areas are where arguably the best Rhônes are made outside of France.
Australian winemakers love the Syrah grape (even if they do call it Shiraz), but they also produce a wide range of Rhône blends. These red blends are often called GSM, referencing Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre, with the most prominent varietal listed first (we label these blends the same way in California). As for whites, Marsanne and Roussane are also bottled as varietal wines and white blends. Australian Rhônes differ in approach and style to their French cousins, as they are fruitier and intended for opening while young.
In California, Rhône-style varietal wines and blends, both red and white, are generally considered to be of a style somewhere between the fruity Australian-style and the subtle refinement of the motherland. Although you'll find Rhône-style wines throughout California's growing regions, premier regions include Paso Robles, Sonoma, Santa Barbara, and….yup, you guessed it - our very own Monterey County. Paso Robles was first to heavily invest in Rhônes and leads the way. However, outstanding Rhône wines from other growing regions are not hard to find these days.
Here in Monterey County, we have excellent Rhônesque terroir conditions. Our different growing areas and micro-climates of the County offer enticing potential for Rhône wines. Rhône varietals have been grown in our Arroyo Seco AVA by pioneers such as Ventana for decades and have continued with newer faces such as Mercy and Sinecure. Our wineries craft excellent Rhône varietals out of Carmel Valley (Chesebro) and the Chalone (Cima Collina, Antle). Syrahs are produced throughout the County, however, the varietal has made significant strides in recent years in the Pinot Noir-dominated Santa Lucia Highlands (Wrath, Guglielmo). We're also excited to see more and more Syrah and Viognier wines coming out of the up-and-coming San Antonio Valley AVA (Marin's, Line Shack, Pierce). Considering the relative proximity of this AVA to Paso Robles, it's not surprising to find Rhône varietals showing a bright future there.
Outside of California, Rhône-style wines are also becoming more popular around the country, and specifically in Washington State. A prominent association called the Rhone Rangers promotes American Rhône varietal wines and includes member wineries from across the country.
So now that you're filled with knowledge, we suggest you fill your glass with one of Monterey County's own fine Rhônes. You have a couple of fine examples to delve into with your wine club selection this month and we offer many others. We know you'll not be disappointed!