The New Wave of Single-Variety Rhône Wines

This past weekend I attended the Rhone Ranger’s San Francisco event. Rhone Rangers is a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote winemakers and wineries who focus on Rhône varietals and Rhône-style blends. Each year, the Rhone Rangers San Francisco Grand Tasting event gathers together a huge number of those wineries to help educate the public on these important grapes, winemaking methods, and of course the wines themselves. While not every year has a theme, it seemed that this year’s theme is the up-and-coming trend of “weird wine,” or “obscure” varietals.

As I’m sure many of you have noticed, I’ve been exploring a few of the lesser-known wine varietals lately (Tannat, Counoise, Cinsault…to name a few). And it’s not just because I have an insatiable, geeky interest in wine, it’s because more and more producers are bringing to light some of those varietals that have been hidden in the dark — as part of the lower percentages of classic and common blends.

The morning began with a brief seminar highlighting some of the latest releases from a few innovative Rhone Rangers. Each winemaker focused on one unique varietal they’ve recently released, speaking to its significance as a blending agent as well as its integrity as a single-varietal.

Host Luke Sykora (California Critic for Wine & Spirits Magazine), Ben Cane (winemaker, Westwood), Neil Collins (winemaker, Tablas Creek), Larry Schaffer (winemaker, Tercero), Jeremy Weintraub (winemaker, Adelaida)
Picpoul blanc by Adelaida Vineyards

First up, Picpoul blanc (yes there is a noir out there somewhere) by Adelaida Vineyards. While this lip-smacker of a varietal is known to the Languedoc region (stay tuned for my Languedoc series later this week), Picpoul is still accepted as one of the official Rhône grapes. Adelaida only has 2 acres planted to the white grape variety in an area of Paso Robles known for its limestone soils and high elevations. On first taste, this is what you expect from a Picpoul blanc — tart, sour, salivating flavors. But Weintraub does something interesting during the winemaking process, allowing the juices to go through natural malolactic primary fermentation, aging the wine in old oak, and bottling the finished product without filtration. Though you may be thinking tart and tangy thoughts, give the wine a minute to linger on the tongue past that point — you’ll find an almost nutty quality that gives this vivacious, crazy wine a bit of backbone.

Marsanne by Tercero

While I know I’ve tasted a stand-alone Roussanne before, I can’t recall ever tasting a Marsanne on it’s own. Each are commonly used in white Rhône blends. While the Roussanne will bring out a bit more fruit and floral elements along with a smooth, rounded texture, the Marsanne is the varietal that highlights a bit more of the “meatiness,” if you will — often with a bit of nuttiness, spices, and a textural body on the palate. But one of the reasons that we don’t see a lot of Marsanne on its own is that, despite what may seem like a “strong” wine, the grape is a hard one to grow — one must not pick it too early, lest the grape is underdeveloped and lacking in flavor, nor can one pick it too late, lest it over-ripen, and produce a flabby and, again, non-flavorsome wine. But get this Goldilocks of a grape just right, and it has the perfect ratio of texture to flavor, allowing it stand solid as a single-varietal wine.

Take a look at that color, that viscous, thick yellow color. That imagery pretty much tells all. The aromas are just as thick and funky — was that a hint of licorice I scented in the background? The initial palate is smooth, but full, while the mid-palate brings a subtle sting of acidity that stays with you until the finish. Flavors are a perfume-y kind of floral, but all-in-all flavors are a bit muted, highlighting the strong textural component of the wine, the finish leaving just a gentle coating around the tongue.

Whoever says white wine isn’t age-able, must try Tercero’s expression of this odd-ball white grape. I expect, with even just a few more years on it, the wine will thicken just a bit more, enough to bring forward more fruits, stronger floral elements, and a beautiful, silkier viscosity that would make even the “I only drink red wine” person at the table take a second sip.

Counoise by Westwood

Oh Counoise. I’ve had some great ones and I’ve had, I’m not going to lie, some full-on stinkers. It’s because, not unlike the Marsanne, the picking time means everything. A late harvester, Counoise is often one of, if not the, last grape to get picked. But wait too long, or pick on an over-heated day, and the Counoise will lose it’s vivacious fruit flavors. Pick before those skins have fully developed their flesh, and you’ll lose the body the wine will need to balance out.

Westwood’s expression is, in fact, a well-balanced one (no, not one of the stinkers). Seventeen percent whole cluster pressed, 6 days cold soak, 14 days with skin contact, and all-indeginous yeast — the result: flavors that burst with bright berries, but silky plush tannins keep the mouthfeel calm and inviting. And the finish — a mouthful of fine cigar smoke. A true taste of the whole grape from seed to stem.

Terret Noir by Tablas Creek

What’s Terret Noir? In short, I’m still not sure. Host Luke Sykora had trouble defining it, passing the mic to Tablas Creek’s Neil Collins who, himself had trouble really defining the grape. It’s a new one to California and it seems we, as a New World wine country, are still figuring out how exactly to cultivate the vines, work with the grapes, and produce a single-varietal wine out of it.

But what I can tell you is this — Tablas Creek’s take on this “experiment” is going quite well. Their 2014 Terret Noir is unlike any red wine I’ve had before. With a soft rouge color, it emits super ripe, sour plum, currents, and a pot pourri of purple flowers on the nose — its a wine you could certainly stare at and smell all day, and immediately become immersed in its complexity. But don’t. If you have the chance, put the wine in your mouth. If ever there is a wine that will make you understand texture — well this is it. It’s the juicy ripe berries and the very present tannins walking hand in hand from start to finish. But those tannins are something else — yes, they cling to your tongue, yes they literally shape the wine in your mouth — but there’s nothing “tacky” or stereotypically “tannic” about this wine at all. It’s truly a celebration of the fruit components with those skins just gliding along with it. I…don’t even know if I’m describing this well enough for you. But I hope some of that makes sense.

After the lecture, there was, of course, a Grande Tasting event, showcasing 75 Rhone Rangers winery affiliates. Jut a few highlights:

Tablas Creek

Cheers to the winery that spearheads bringing in new Rhône varietals directly from the Motherland. Tablas Creek, in partnership with Château de Beaucastel France, pretty much founded the Rhône movement here in California due to our similar limestone soils and warm weather. And not only do they create one of the largest lineups dedicated to the Cali-take on this French region, they provide clippings and grapes to other vintners interested in experimenting as well.

Wine to Try: Tablas Creek 2015 Roussanne


This boutique family-run winery no longer has a tasting room in Healdsburg, but that shouldn’t stop you from seeking out their wines by joining their wine club. Their current releases are all estate grown, and winemaker Lise really knows how to pack a punch in the bottle — from their light whites to their bodacious reds.

Wine to Try: 2013 Paolo’s Vineyard Syrah

Fairly new to the Sonoma wine world, Westwood Winery was officially established in 2005 when the original winery, founded in 1984 by Bert Urch and Betty Stoltz, was purchased by business partners and moved to Sonoma Valley. Winemaker Ben Cane came onboard just 3 years ago in 2014 — thrown immediately in the midst of harvest, having to learn on his feet, making quick decision after quick decision.

But Cane’s proven that he knows his winemaking stuff and that the team at Westwood, which includes Carl Stanton and David Ramey, is a strong one. The boutique produces just 3,500 cases with the majority lots consisting of just 3 or 4 barrels of a select clone or blend — in short, these are truly focused wines.

Wine to Try: Westwood 2015 Estate Mourvedre

A visit to Mounts Family Winery along Dry Creek Road means meeting with the vineyard owners and winemakers Lana and David Mounts. Talking to David, it’s clear he has a passion for Rhone varietals. He remembers visiting the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape and realizing the soil where his favorite French grapes were planted resembled certain areas of his home vineyard. So now, the Mounts not only produce Dry Creek classics, but have a complete portfolio of Rhone varietals as well.

Wine to Try: Rosé of Counoise

Larry Schaffer, winemaker & owner Tercero wines

Of course the highlight for me was always going to be meeting winemaker & owner of Tecero, Larry Schaffer. While visiting his table I tasted through his whole line up of current releases — and even enjoyed a sneak peak at a few futures (I’ll be waiting for that Carignan!)

Wine to Try: All of them.

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