California Wines, Rhone-Style Blends

Red Rhône Blends

Wines from the California Central Coast AVA (American Viticultural Area) are now competing in the world market with award-winning Rhône-style blends. The terroir of this region is very similar to that of the Rhône River Valley, which is the largest and most diversified wine-growing region in France. Made predominantly with Syrah, Mourvèdre, and Grenache grapes, these intriguing blends are spicy, aromatic and well structured.

The Rhône River Valley of France has over 20 grape varietals in various appellations. The Syrah, Mourvèdre and Grenache are the key components of he Rhône blends, while the secondary varietals, which often make up only small percentages of the blends, include Carignan, Cinsault, Counoise, Petite Sirah, and others. In the hands of a good winemaker the blended Rhône grapes can yield a more balanced and complex wine than the single varietals. There is tremendous variety within the Rhône wines, and exploring these wines can be a fascinating tasting adventure. They also pair well with rich and earthy foods such as grilled or roasted meats, root vegetables and mushrooms, and dark fowl.

California Style. The Central Coast AVA is about 250 miles of California coastline between San Francisco County and Santa Barbara County. Many characteristics of the climate, soil and environment are much like the Rhône River Valley of France. The days are sunny and hot, assuring the maturity of the fruit, while a marine layer cools the evenings, preserving the acids in the grapes. The rainy season is in the winter months, with little or no rainfall between March and October. The soil types are varied; from decomposed granite or volcanic red rock of the mountain soil, to the alluvial sand, clay and loam of the valleys.

While there is some history of planting Rhône grapes in California as early as the 1920’s, it was in the 1970’s and 80’s that innovative winemakers saw the potential for making Rhône-style wines and begin planting significantly. The grapes flourished, and cultivation accelerated in the 1990’s. A frenzy of interest followed, including the creation of an organization dedicated to the promotion of Rhône wines known as The Rhone Rangers.

Syrah is the predominate grape of France’s Northern Rhône red wines. It is a hardy variety, growing well even in poor soil. Although it prefers a cool climate it also grows well in warm temperatures. The Syrah wine has an intense dark purple-black color and tastes of blackberry, cassis, smoke and black pepper. In the Rhône blends it provides aromatics, deep rich color, minerality, and aging potential. The tannins and chalky character provide a good foundation for the softer, fruitier varieties such as Grenache.

Mourvèdre has a long interesting history beginning in Spain, from where it was brought to Provence in the Middle Ages. It remains a primary grape in Spain. It was brought to America in the late 1800’s and was known as Mataró, named for a town in Spain. It is a spicy wine with rich earthiness, and soft fruit flavors. It offers structure and aging potential when blended with Grenache and Syrah.

The Grenache grape is also a hardy variety; it likes sandy soil and tolerates both heat and drought. It is the second most widely planted grape in the world. The older the vines, the more interesting and complex are the grapes. The color and flavor however, can be intensified when the grapes are severely pruned. It is typically a medium bodied wine with low tannin and forward fruit flavor. It can open up the more intense tannic Syrah and Mourvèdre varietals.

There are many interesting and affordable Rhône-style blends coming from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara Counties. The vineyards in these areas are growing excellent Rhône grapes. We look forward to more growers and winemakers focusing on the producing of these outstanding wines!

Lynne Garrett is a member of the tasting team who select the foods and wines for Garrett’s Emporium. The business is located in the Santa Maria Valley, which is a burgeoning wine region on the Central California Coast. Since its inception in 2006, Garrett’s Emporium has accumulated a diverse collection of high quality wines from the Central Coast AVA, mostly from small production wineries. Their collection represents distinctive hand made wines, at affordable prices. Most recently the Rhone-style blends have piqued their interest, and Garrett’s Emporium now offers an excellent collection of their recommended Rhône-style wines. These spicy full-bodied wines are great just for tasting and also pair wonderfully with many foods. wine tours in willamette valley

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