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THE WINE GUY: California's Rhone-style wines continue to impress
I wrote a column about syrahs from around he world earlier this year but since then I have — much to my delight — come across several more from California of such distinction, along with a few other Rhone varietals, particularly grenache, I just had to write another column about Rhone-style wines.
The Central Coast, Paso Robles in particular, has emerged as one of the best sources of California Rhone-style wines. One of my favorite producers in Paso is Austin Hope, whose family has been farming there for more than 30 years. Son Austin is now the winemaker and produces a variety of wines under several labels, but the best are released under his own name from grapes grown in the Hope Family Vineyard in the coveted Templeton Gap district on the west side of Paso Robles.
This pedigree is seen in his 2010 grenache ($42), which opens with an assertive bouquet of dried red fruits, earth and spices. Similar flavors fill the mouth with firm acidity balanced with soft tannins. There is a joyful openness to this wine that invites you in.
The 2010 syrah ($42) shows more power even as it reveals a rounder personality. Its intense aromas of blue and black fruits are accented with black licorice and spice and wild herbs. In the mouth the wine is quite concentrated, with succulent fruit, balanced by meat and chocolate notes, all this richness lingering in the finish.
During travels to France as a young man, Andrew Murray fell in love with Rhone wines and decided to pursue a career dedicated to making wines from those varieties. His dream was realized in 1990 when Andrew and his parents established Andrew Murray winery in the Santa Ynez Valley of Santa Barbara County. While the Santa Ynez Valley more recently has become celebrated for its fine pinot noirs, producers like Zaca Mesa and Andrew Murray prove the region also has sites that can do wonders with Rhone varietals.
Murray seeks out such Santa Ynez vineyards as Stolpman and Great Oaks, but also the Watch Hill Vineyard that lies in the cool corridor of Los Alamos Valley just to the north. The 2010 Watch Hill Syrah ($30) shows intense black fruits, chalky-minty notes, a touch of earth, vibrant acidity, and a floral note from the inclusion of 3 percent viognier to enhance the aromatics.
Murray also sources fruit from the Terra Bella Vineyard on the west side of Paso Robles. The vineyard’s steep, chalky soils have produced a 2009 Terra Bella Syrah ($36). This is a powerful wine with complex aromas and flavors that mix dark and red berry fruit accented with vanilla, spice and toasty notes. Deep fruit in the mouth is delivered with solid acidity but silky texture. The 2009 Terra Bella Grenache ($30) delivers abundant, exuberant cherry fruit with meaty, leathery notes followed by similar flavors and a firm but sleek texture.
Finally, Murray produces two Rhone-style blends that are fantastic values. The 2009 Esperance ($19) is a grenache, syrah and mourvedre blend that bursts with juicy plum and blackberry, given interest with earthy and meaty notes; while the 2009 Tous le Jours ($16) blends Paso and Santa Ynez grapes to craft a juicy, spicy wine that is ideal for early drinking.
Another premier Rhone-style producer located in the midst of what is otherwise considered premier chardonnay and pinot noir country is Donelan, a small, boutique winery in Sonoma County. Founder Joe Donelan and winemaker Tyler Thomas do produce highly regarded chardonnay and pinot noir, but my focus here is on their syrah and grenache (there also is a roussanne).
Like Andrew Murray, the strategy here is to focus on great vineyards. The goal is to discover what is unique about a site and practice careful winemaking so that essence is distilled into the wine. This generally means working with quality-oriented growers in western Sonoma’s cooler climate vineyards with their windy conditions, often higher elevations, and well drained soils.
Thomas has produced two impressive blends I tasted. His 2009 Cuvee Moriah ($40) is about three quarters grenache, with the rest syrah and mourvedre. It shows brisk acidity but with richness to the sweet red fruits given intrigue with spice and herbal elements. It is well-structured and complex but with an enticing elegance.
The 2009 Cuvee Christine Syrah ($45) joins fruit from four higher-altitude Sonoma vineyards to form a wonderful, complex wine with deep, dark fruit aromas and flavors, intriguing bacon and savory notes all presented in a seamless, luscious frame.
His single-vineyard wines are equally amazing. For instance, the 2009 Walker Vine Hill Syrah ($45) comes from a unique site in the Russian River Valley where Goldridge loam soils and a warmer microclimate than surrounding vineyards enable a wine of deep, dense blue and black fruits, classic meaty qualities and a minty note in the nose. I really loved the flavors of pure fruit, meat, spice and mint. There is a great freshness to the wine even as it displays a firm tannic, structure.
The offerings in this article are proof to me that California growers are succeeding as never before in finding the right places to grow world class Rhone varieties. Hopefully, you will agree.
Rich Mauro has been writing about wine since 1995. He is a policy analyst for the Denver Regional Council of Governments. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 30 S. Prospect St., Colorado Springs 80903.