Intrigued by our recent successes tasting Rhone-inspired blends at the Santa Barbara Wine Cask Futures event, we congregated in the Winos’ fortified compound in Sherman Oaks to taste some Rhone-style whites. (As an aside, we don’t mean to suggest by the use of the term “fortified compound” that the Winos are stockpiling weapons. Rather, my apartment is fortified in the same sense that some wines are fortified: there’s simply a fair amount of liquor inside.)
Lots of people brought $10 pittance, but we still had enough bottles to make an evening of it: four bottles from the Rhone Valley, one California Roussanne, and one California Viognier comprised the tasting, after which followed a Chardonnay, a Ribera del Duero, and a trip to Casa Vega.
First up was the 2006 Chateau Grande Cassagne “Cassanus” (Costieres de Nimes), a 60% Roussanne and 40% Marsanne blend from the southern Rhone. On the nose, Jason got some lemon, peach, and “something earthy.” Several people offered honey notes, while Francophile Andrew suggested that it “could’ve used a little more funk.” Some mineral notes were present as well: Jason got steel, and Noah got slate. I agreed with the latter and also added some lime. The palette, however, threw us for a loop. Tons of acidity, “like biting into a lemon,” according to newbie Bradley. Almost as glaring was the lack of any of those robust flavors we’d enjoyed on the nose. “The palette is empty,” offered Andrew. “I’m not saying it’s bad, it’s just empty.” Towards the end of the glass, I got a little peach, but the nebulous empty tartness prevailed, and we were 0 for 1.
In the two-spot was the 2006 Les Vins de Vienne (Saint-Peray). The nose fared well, with oak, butterscotch, and some citrus. Jason and I got a distinct and pervasive scent of blonde wood on fire, like when you burn down a match: really prevalent, and very interesting. The palette was quite nice, serving up some vanilla and white pepper. Jason got big tangerine, and roomie Ed got pear. Andrew claimed to be having a hard time extracting any flavors because the oak was too big, but I didn’t agree; I thought the oak and acid existed in a nice balance, and that while the fruit wasn’t huge, it was definitely there, albeit in light and nuanced form. An overall winner.
Next up was the presumed star of the tasting, the 2006 Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe (Chateauneuf-du-Pape), donated to the proceedings by three of the assembled Winos. The light nose featured vanilla bean ice cream and some butter. Andrew, unfortunately, got nothing; I again disagreed and picked up some cigar smoke, like a proverbial smoke-filled room. “You mean like there’ll be at the Democratic National Convention in two months?” asked Andrew. “I don’t know what kind of smoke-filled room you’re hanging out in,” offered Jason, who hadn’t gotten any smoke. “Maybe the kind that’s outside in the open air?”
We ventured into the tongue, and Andrew finally came around. “Now this is a French white,” he mused, taking pleasure in the funk-ish notes and the full body. Nice, really well-balanced acidity complimented a hearty mustiness. The oak was subtle but pronounced, and additional fruit flavors really opened up in the glass. Bradley applauded the “long finish of acid and cigar smoke.” Still, even after all this adulation, Jason remarked that he wouldn’t pay much more than $20 for this (a few bucks shy of the $50 sticker price), and no one offered much disagreement.
Batting cleanup was the 2005 E. Guigal (Cotes du Rhone), made of a blend of all six Rhone whites: Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, and Bourbelenc. Yeah, that’s right… Bourbelenc too. We were immediately intrigued by the big, accessible nose, which Jason said was all orange, and Katie claimed was apple. Remarkably — and this is honestly the first time I’ve ever said this — I could smell both apple and orange at once. Blew my mind.
Several others enjoyed some other notes, including honeydew melon, but unfortunately this rampant fruit wasn’t as immediately apparent on the palette. “Some of these French wines taste like something was soaking in water, and now you’re drinking that water,” complained Andrew. Sarah Warner agreed, and claimed it tasted a bit soapy. However, flavors began to make themselves apparent: some honey, some lemon, decent acidity. People came around towards the end and agreed that for the price ($14), this was a perfectly decent Rhone white.
We ventured back into our home turf with the 2006 Herman Story Roussanne (Santa Ynez). Andrew voiced the group’s opinion when he said that “it hits you California style.” Oaky and clean, this was a big nose that Jason thought smelled like a candy store, akin to “sour jelly worms.” Sarah Warner agreed, likening it to “cheap candles you get at the grocery store.” Andrew and I erred on the slightly more conservative side, citing coconut and vanilla cake. Brian got butterscotch, and Ed got baked pear.
Big fruit on the palette: mango and pineapple were both apparent. Newbie Alex referred to “the soft bluntness” you sometimes get with Rousanne. I was picking up some Pina Colada character, but Emily (once again) said it was more like a Mai Tai. Jason wasn’t huge on the “blubbery” character, complaining that the flavors were bleeding together rather haphazardly. I kind of agreed, but I still loved the wine; to me, this bottle was a guilty pleasure movie, a thoughtless action pic or a tawdry romance. It might not have been the most well-crafted wine ever, but it certainly was delicious.
Finally, I offered up the 2006 “The White Knight” Viognier (Clarksburg), which I’d really enjoyed at a recent Vendome tasting. This was a ridiculous nose that provoked consternation among the group, as its bouquet seemed to vacillate between floral and — wait for it — sewage. No kidding, I experienced it too; one minute it’s lavender, the next minute it’s Dockweiler State Beach. Andrew summarized it thus: “like flowers covering a sewage tank.” Lovely. Not quite as I’d remembered.
The palette didn’t fare much better. Kitchen chemicals were perceived by several; Brian called it “lemon cleanser.” I got some distinct unripe pineapple and lime, which met with some agreement. We broke out the first round of cheese at this point, a Comte and a Gouda, both of which responded well to the wine, softening the acidity and accentuating some sweetness on the palette.