Dan Berger

The divergent Rhône revolution

Those who stand behind the American version of Rhône blends like to support a concept representing similar grapes that are made seemingly within the same French framework.

But they may not realize that a far simpler -- and less expensive -- alternative exists.

The Rhône movement actually began in the United States nearly 30 years ago when the earliest of these wines, Viognier and Syrah, first appeared on the U.S. horizon and began to capture the attention of people who had tired of Cabernet and Zinfandel and hadn’t yet discovered Pinot Noir.

Starting in 1992 as The Viognier Guild, this "Rhône in America" idea was one of the first organized efforts to recognize this new trend. From its name, it’s clear that Syrah was an afterthought.

Since then, many have found basic flaws in Viognier – it didn’t age well, it oxidized more quickly than other white wines, and it often lacked the dramatic aromatics that so many other grapes — Riesling, for example — deliver more ostentatiously.

When the Guild changed its name to Rhône Rangers in the mid-1990s, the idea caught the fancy of wineries growing many of the French region’s grapes, which gave more support to those who liked the movement. It seemed independent from more traditional grapes.

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As much as I appreciate some of the more interesting Rhône blends that have been created in the United States, several key points seem to have been forgotten by those who love these wines – if they ever knew these points to begin with.

First, white Rhône blends can vary so widely there is virtually no way to compare them.

Start by looking at a few varieties. Some are dominated by Rousanne and have no Grenache Blanc. The former grape is somewhat mysterious, making wines that tend to vary wildly in aromatics and flavor from area to area.

And so little Grenache Blanc is grown in the United States that the number of white Rhône blends using it is tiny. So it’s hard to compare the wines. Those that use Viognier for aromatics often don’t have the spice aromas that are its most charming aspect.

As for Rousanne, it’s either interesting or bland. And Marsanne? What is it supposed to be?

Secondly, rosé Rhônes can be varietal but the best are Grenache-based or all Grenache. These have the potential to be fabulous wines. Many from Spain (called Garnacha) are usually great values.

But rosés made by saignée (bleeding) tend to be heavier, almost like light reds, vanquishing the delicacy rosé can deliver.

By far the most confusing aspect of U.S. red Rhônes is their relative amorphousness and thus dissimilarity from one another, and the Rhône itself.

Assume a winemaker wants to make a truly fine Southern Rhône blend that features Grenache. Such a wine should probably be structured not along the lines of Cote-Rôtie or Hermitage, wines from the north, but more like the weight of a Cru Beaujolais.

However, to command a price of about $25, the wine must have more muscle, so the structure tends to avoid the Southern Rhône and emulates a more powerful wine.

By doing so, it becomes an anomaly, showing some weight that actually might require some bottle aging. Such wines often have unresolved tannins.

Moreover, where most of the more upscale (pricey) American Rhône blends are weighty, they often have overt oak and alcohol (Fifteen percent isn’t uncommon, higher is considered muy macho).

As a result, comparisons to France are hard to make, the way we do with more traditional grapes.

We compare great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, to the best of France. We say a rich Chardonnay is like Meursault or Batard-Montrachet. We say a lighter-weight Pinot is more akin to Beaune than to Cote de Nuits.

But comparing many of the more iconic Rhône Rangers’ wines to the actual Rhône Valley is impossible.

For one thing, Hermitage usually has an impenetrable exterior when it is young, and it is bought on faith that it will age. How many American Syrahs are so made? Approximately none.

As for Côte-Rôtie, the peppery notes of the region may be found in Australia and New Zealand, but very rarely in America.

Anything else that challenges red American Rhône blends? Yes, just one more:

Price.

Côtes du Rhône is the model on which the blended red category is built, and anyone wishing to get a sense of what the Rhône Valley does best can easily buy a Côtes du Rhône Village, made mainly from older plantings of Grenache Noir, Syrah, Caringane, Cinsault, Counoise and Mourvèdre. By law, 50 percent of the blend must be Grenache.

Prices for most of these wines will be under $20, many under $15. Compare this to most U.S. Rhône reds at $25 to $50. Most such wines may have more overt fruit, but real Rhône wines deliver character at a price anyone can afford.

The national average price for Guigal Cotes du Rhône is $14. Too much? The Perrin family makes a reputable, widely distributed Cotes du Rhône that sells nationally for less than $10.

Compare that to some of the supposedly great U.S.-produced red Rhône blends that are richer, perhaps, but do not offer the same reliability or personality and often are far more expensive.

Can the American versions be tasty? Yes, of course, but often at a premium price. When buying the best U.S. Rhône reds, it might be a good strategy to try a real Rhône alongside. Price isn’t an issue.

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