'Rhone rangers' hit target with once-neglected varieties

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Ten years ago it was easy to choose a California Rhone-style wine. You either picked Joseph Phelps syrah or McDowell Valley syrah.

Things sure have changed. Now just about any top-flight wine shop will offer at least a dozen selections, representing the best grape varieties from this long-neglected but now-celebrated region of France.

Largely thanks to a group of pioneering winemakers dubbed the Rhone rangers," California has emerged from its cabernet-chardonnay rut.

These venturesome souls noted that California's climate is far more similar to that of the hot, dry Rhone Valley than it is to Bordeaux or Burgundy, the native regions of cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. And they did something about it, sometimes going to great lengths to secure vine cuttings and budwood from obscure varieties.

A sampling of the California Rhones on the market demonstrates convincingly that their efforts were fruitful. These wines are not a fad. They represent a historic advance in American winemaking.

That doesn't mean Americans will be dumping chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon down the sink in order to make room for Rhone-style wines. California winemakers still have a long way to go in learning how to handle these varieties, and prices can be dauntingly high.

In addition, few Americans want to complicate their lives by memorizing yet another set of French words. It took decades for U.S. consumers to learn to order chardonnay instead of chablis, so don't expect your work colleagues to be gathering around the coffee pot next week chatting about the relative merits of mourvedre, syrah, grenache and viognier.

If you are interested, however, there are many pleasures to be NTC found in those words -- for they are the names of grapes that make some of the world's most ravishing wines.

The granddaddy of these is syrah -- one of the oldest and greatest red wine varieties known to man. Syrah is the principal or sole grape of such magnificent wines as Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas, and it is a major supporting player in the blend that makes Chateauneuf-du-Pape. These wines, at their best, can rival the greatest Bordeaux in quality and durability.

Syrah has not reached that level in California, but there is every reason to believe it someday will.

Top producers of syrah in California include Sean Thackery (Orion), Joseph Phelps Vin du Mistral, McDowell Valley Les Vieux Cepages and LVC; Qupe; and R. H. Phillips.

Mourvedre is more of an ugly duckling story. This exceptional grape has been hiding in California vineyards for more than a century under the Spanish name of mataro -- a lightly regarded peasant variety thought to be suitable for blending.

But the lowly mataro has noble sap running in its veins -- a fact that has only recently begun to be appreciated in France. Winemakers in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, impressed by the structure and spicy perfume mourvedre contributes, have been steadily increasing its proportion in their blends.

At Bandol, south of the Cotes du Rhone in Provence, mourvedre makes up a minimum of 50 percent of the blend, and some of the best examples of this increasingly acclaimed red wine are almost entirely mourvedre.

In California, mourvedre is a magnificent discovery -- even more clearly successful than syrah. The best California mourvedres (or mataros, as some producers prefer) deliver all the fruit, structure and herbal complexity of the top Bandols, with maybe a little extra intensity.

Mourvedre wines are an especially welcome addition to California's repertoire because they match up brilliantly with the grilled foods that are so popular there and across the United States. Restaurateurs who serve grilled foods should take note of these wines because they do not require long aging.

Mourvedre can also yield some of the world's best rose wine. An especially good California version is Bonny Doon's Vin Gris de Cigare.

Top producers of red mourvedre include Cline, Ridge (mataro), Bonny Doon "Old Telegram," R. H. Phillips "EXP" and Edmund St. Johns.

Grenache can be one of the world's most pedestrian grapes or one of the greatest. The most critical factor is the size of the crop.

When a grenache vine carries too heavy a crop, the grapes produce blunt, short-lived red wines with more alcohol than flavor. When crops are small, the wines can be fabulous.

In California, grenache has traditionally been treated as a high-production workhorse -- suitable for average quality roses and blending into jug reds.

In recent years, however, a few producers have been giving grenache the respect it deserves. Bonny Doon's Clos de Gilroy, a fruity wine meant to be drunk young, is the most prominent example. McDowell Valley also makes a very appealing grenache.

Many of the finest California Rhone wines are blends that carry a proprietary name rather than a grape varietal. Perhaps the best known is Bonny Doon's pioneering Le Cigare Volant, a Chateauneuf-du-Pape-style blend of grenache, mourvedre and syrah that has been consistently excellent since 1984.

There are fewer examples of Rhone-style whites from California, and none was tasted for this article, but there have been some notable successes.

Randall Grahm, the brilliant though somewhat wacky winemaker Bonny Doon, has been doing magnificent work with marsanne and roussane, the two main grapes of white Hermitage. He has created a rare and expensive bottling called Le Sophiste, which almost justifies its $30-plus price tag.

In addition there are a half-dozen or so wineries that bottle a viognier, the shy-bearing grape that makes France's legendary Condrieu, and it seems that another California winery announces a viognier venture every week. So far the most successful have been Calera and Joseph Phelps.

Up to this point, California Rhone wines have mainly appealed to a small cadre of wine fanatics who delight in whatever's new and different. Few, with the exception of Clos du Gilroy, have been priced for mass appeal.

There is, however, one wine on the market that represents a real breakthrough. It's called LVC Bistro Syrah, and it comes from McDowell Valley Vineyards. For under $9, it delivers all the fresh, exuberant, chunky blackberry-raspberry fruit of a fine Crozes-Hermitage or St. Joseph.

Neither California nor the world can have too many wines like this. This is one Rhone ranger whose silver bullet has hit the target.

Critic's choice

1988 Rene Barbier, Penedes Red Wine, Spain ($4). It's rare to find a $4 wine today, and it's even rarer when it's good. This wine will never be mistaken for a classic, but it's a great value in a medium-bodied everyday red whine. It's fully mature, so drink it up this year.

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