Response to “Rhône blends from le monde nouveau”

By Jesse on September 9, 2011

Every “old world” varietal (i.e. most of the major ones) tastes significantly different when grown in the “new world,” where the climate, the winemaking practices, and the laws governing wine production are nearly always drastically different than in the old country. The Rhône grapes, however, do a better job than some other prominent varietals of maintaining their essential “old world” character when grown in warmer climes, particularly the reds; a great Grenache / Syrah / Mourvedre blend from California will ideally display a lot of the same earthy tobacco notes endemic to its French forefathers. Or will it? Perhaps our palates only perceive earth and tobacco on when Rhône-inspired reds when tasted against a backdrop of Zinfandels and Merlots. On a recent Wednesday, we decided to find out for good.

Holding this meeting at Jason’s house was a no-brainer, as he always has several decent Rhône reds on hand. This night was no exception, so we decided to kick off the evening with the 2007 André Farjon Côtes du Rhône to form the basis of our comparison. The nose was perfectly typical of a good, solid, inexpensive Rhône red: earth, leather, and a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg. Jason appreciated its “sogginess,” I picked up some peppercorn sausage, and Andrew mentioned that it wasn’t “too funky.”

The palate followed suit: earth made itself very apparent early on. Xander thought it tasted like “cigar and rock,” and later picked up some dried blueberry, which revealed itself with a little swirling of the glass. Light-to-medium body and mild acid confirmed this as a quintessential southern Rhône quaffer, and the $10 price tag allowed us to overlook mild flaws, such as the warm alcohol and the only slightly unforgivable tartness on the finish.

To transition to California, we opened up the 2006 Arthur Earl “A Genoux” red wine (Central Coast). The earthy notes were there, as we’d hoped, but so was a whole farmer’s market worth of fruit: strawberries, blackberries, and miscellaneous “stewed berries.” Caramel and tobacco were pleasant additions to the cacophony, but the overhanded oak treatment foretold the problems that were to come.

On the palate, this bottle packed a nasty, oaky wallop. “It’s like a punch in the face,” said Jason. The medium-bodied palate offered up the same fruit notes we’d encountered on the nose, but the presentation was more Jolly Rancher than organic farmer. At $24, I’d rather drink 2.4 bottles of the first wine.

The next bottle was a Trader Joe’s cult favorite that I tend to think offers tremendous value, the 2009 Rabbit Ridge “Allure de Robles” (Paso Robles). It’s one of my go-tos not just because of how much I enjoy it, but because of how much ire it always inspires in Jason. Tonight was no exception: when Xander remarked that the “wet leaves” nose reminded him of Burgundy, Jason replied that “Burgundy has that charming barnyard, compost heap thing, while this is like the back of a Vons where they throw out all the old rolls and shit.” Admittedly, the nose was pretty funkified: we picked up some beets and some fresh-chopped parsley, but also plenty of yummy jam.

The palate was what I’ve come to expect from this wine: it’s dependably enjoyable and easy to sip. “Not as bad as I recall in the past,” admitted Jason, begrudgingly. “Too thick-bodied, though.” There was definitely some viscosity supporting the notes of red berry jam, milk chocolate, and anise, prompting Andrew to complain that the thickness came across as “artificially conceived.” Jason, apparently getting his second wind, bemoaned the “medicinal cherry” character and the notes of “store-brand Hershey imitator chocolate.” Jordan rallied to the palate’s defense, calling it “simple and pleasant” with notes of “nice chocolate.” To me, this has always been a terrific wine to pair with a sharp cheddar cheese, and it has plenty of other admirers in the grogosphere as well. At $5, this bottle was a winner for nearly everyone in attendance. (Better luck next time, Jason.)

It’s rare that the Young Winos get to taste an unreleased wine in the context of a regular weekly meeting, but that’s just what happened when we opened up the bottle of 2009 Municipal Winemakers MCS (Santa Barbara County) that Muni wine-wizard Dave Potter had given to me several weeks prior. MCS stands for Mourvedre, Carignan, Syrah, a trio of grapes more used to chaperoning Grenache than striking out on their own. The wine was still young, and the nose was stingy at first: tentative flutters of cherries and tobacco tried to break through, but it took a lot of swirling before the dried fruit and brown sugar began to reveal themselves, and even then only slightly. Was there some chocolate trying to make its voice heard? We decided we’d try our luck with the palate.

And what a palate it was. The tightness persisted (even after an hour of decanting), but it’s impossible to hide body like that, and the dark, structure-driven nature of the wine was a crowd-pleaser. “This is as old world as you get in the new world,” said Jason. Xander agreed. “It’s like the first one, but less austere,” he said. “You taste the sun.” Earthy without being bardyard-ish, the palate was light on the spice quotient, surprisingly so for a blend of these brooding Rhône varietals. No one begrudged the absence of Grenache, however atypical that may be in a California Rhône blend, when some fruit finally revealed itself on the finish — for a second at least, I swear I picked up some strawberry rhubarb pie action.  Meanwhile, the tobacco and olive notes were applauded by all.  As the wine is fairly light on tannin, I’m not sure I’m convinced of Dave’s claim that this is a bottle to sit on for 7 to 10 years; for my money, it’ll be singing in two or three. However, we all agreed that it’s a bit too closed up to enjoy fully right now, at least not without a few more hours in the decanter. (No price has been announced for this wine, but if it’s in the $25 to $27 range of Dave’s other reds, that’s right on point.)

We wrapped things up with our sole single-varietal entry, the 2009 Stolpman “Originals” Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley), which served up a spicy nose with notes of fresh coriander. Deborah picked up some cherry, Jason got salami, and I got some of that “toasted cavendish” pipe tobacco that I’m fond of making my friends’ apartments smell like.

The palate was a bold one, and the wine offered us our first heavy dose of spice we’d encountered thus far. Xander picked up some “bitters” character, and Andrew was a fan of the powdery tannins. In terms of the flavors, Xander summed it up nicely: “if you took blackberries and crushed them against rocks, that’s this.” For $30, this was a bit of a tough call; it was delicious, to be sure, but we weren’t sure if it was quite thirty-dollar delicious.

Our consensus for the evening was that there are great Rhône-inspired reds to be found in the new world (or at least in California, since that turned out to be our sample pool), but that one tends not to taste hints of the true Rhône wines until one is willing to venture into the $25 to $30 range. On the lower end of the price continuum, there are very tasty bottles to be had, even if they’re not quite evocative of Vieux Telegraphe. As we know, however, five bottles isn’t enough to draw any type of serious conclusion, so we agreed that we’d just have to resign ourselves to drinking more wine in the near future. What a drag.

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