Rhone Rangers on a Roll

The annual Rhone Rangers tasting in San Francisco showcased some great syrah and petite sirah wines, but it was the grenache that really caught my eye and tickled my tastebuds the most.

The 13th annual grand tasting at Fort Mason last weekend featured Rhone-style wines from 102 producers from California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

When handled properly, good grenache fills the glass with a nose of spiciness  and a taste of berries and other red fruits. Many producers will combine grenache with syrah (more acid and tannin) and mourvedre (darker colors) to produce a blend that showcases the best characteristics of each varietal.

Carina Cellars Vineyards

I happen to like all three, on their own or in blends, but a few of the grenache wines really stood out, including a bottle from Carina Cellars in Paso Robles.

Carina’s grenache, from the 2007 Tierra Alta Vineyard in Santa Barbara, showed intense red fruit in the glass with a pleasurable edge of plums on the tongue. It’s available ($28) only from the winery.

Frick Winery of Geyserville poured tasty cinsault and carignane — two grapes that you don’t normally see bottled outside a blend — but it was the 2006 grenache that really captured by interest. Made from Dry Creek Valley grapes, the fresh fruit in this wine seemed to leap from the glass to my lips.

Another nice grenache (The Crossroad, $25) was poured by Curtis Winery from Los Olivos. Made in a lighter style from Santa Ynez Valley fruit, this 2006 wine includes 20 percent syrah.

Leslie Preston

I also liked the fresh, uncomplicated 2008 syrah ($29) from Coiled Wines, which are made from fruit grown in Idaho. Winemaker Leslie Preston splits her time between her Napa home and an Idaho co-op where she makes wine from Snake River Valley fruit.

“I think there is a lot of potential in Idaho,” said Preston, who has worked at Clos du Bois, Saintsbury and Stags’ Leap in California. “There’s a fresh intensity of fruit that I really like.”

I was able to re-taste the exciting 2006 Estate petite sirah ($28) from D. H. Gustafson Family Vineyards. This is the first wine made from Gustafson’s stunning hilltop winery near Lake Sonoma (see my earlier blog on Gustafson) and the 2007 version is nearly as good, too.

For a celebrity experience, try the 2007 syrah made by Fleming Jenkins Vineyards & Winery from a Livermore Valley vineyard owned by former Raiders coach and football analyst John Madden. The flavor profile is a delicious mix of cherry, black pepper and a hint of chocolate .

The top syrah on my scorecard were the 2006 Zio Tony Ranch ($75) from Martinelli Winery in Windsor. This one hit all the pleasure points that a syrah lover wants to find — finely integrated tannins, a pleasant spiciness balanced by broad, expanded red fruit.

My second favorite wine overall was the glorious 2007 Espirit de Beaucastel ($50) from Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles. This red blend had all the elements of a genuine Rhone champion. It should. The winery is run by the same family that owns the esteemed Chateau de Beaucastel in France.

The biggest bargain wine of the tasting was the Cotes du Crows blend of grenache and syrah produced by Morgan Winery in Carmel. I’d order a second (or third) glass of this $16 quaffer anytime.

One of the most interesting 2007 grenache-syrah blends I tasted came from a little winery in Oakland called Prospect 772 Wine Company. The $36 wine is called The Brat, a name chosen due to the difficult-to-cultivate grenache grape’s character.

You can taste Prospect 772 wines¬† — and other wines from more than a dozen urban Bay Area wineries — at the annual East Bay Vintners Alliance passport event on April 10.

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