No U.S. winery has a patent on or a rigid formula for a red Rhone wine blend, and there are literally dozens of them.
The reason such wines can be confusing is that there is no legal definition for such a wine, though it is generally assumed to be a blend of various proportions of Mourvedre, Syrah, Cinsault, Carignane, and Grenache. And perhaps even other grapes from the south of France.
The category developed partly as a result of the success of one of France’s most recognizable red wine values, Côtes du Rhône, a blended red from the Rhone Valley, where it is typically made in the southern reaches of the area and is dominated by Grenache.
Since that grape variety had often been hard to obtain in the United States, and was not always very reliable anyway, other grapes became better associated with American-made Rhone blends.
One of the first, and still one of the leaders, of the category is from Bonny Doon Winery in Santa Cruz, whose Le Cigare Volant long ago established the style of wine that wine maker Randall Grahm saw as an American classic.
Today, “The Cigar,” as it’s affectionately called by its adherents (about $40), made from grapes grown in the Central Coast, remains one of the best red wine blends in the country. This stellar red with a screw cap is the model for dozens of similar wines in which the varieties change regularly.
Mourvedre and Syrah usually are dominant in such blends, but the varietal mix nationally is soon to begin a slow change. Red Rhone blends are about to shift gears as new plantings of Grenache statewide come on line, thanks in part to one visionary wine project based in Paso Robles in San Luis Obispo County.
The Perrin family of Chateau de Beaucastle in the Rhone partnered in the mid-1980s with wine importer Robert Haas to look for a suitable property from which to make classic Rhone blends.
After searching for a site warm enough to ripen the proper grapes, the partners located a spot along a western ridge in Paso Robles that had warm days and coolish nights in which both red and white southern Rhone grapes could flourish.
The name chosen for the project, Tablas Creek, today stands for white and red (and a small amount of pink) wines based on grapes of the Rhone Valley. But to do so with authentic raw material, the company had to make certain the grapes carried qualities the Perrins knew only existed in the Rhone.
So despite a long, costly, complicated grapevine quarantine process, and then years to propagate vine cuttings, plant them and get a crop, the Perrins and Haas began to import and gain official certification for various grape varieties.
The key grape, in the mind of Robert’s son, Jason, now the general manager for Tablas Creek, was Grenache.
The basic Grenache that was planted in California, said Haas the other day, made a rather uninteresting lighter red wine.
The French cuttings that the project began to import in 1992 made a more interesting wine, he said. But rather than keep all the new grapevine material to themselves, he said, Tablas Creek began to sell cuttings to others.
Since the end of the quarantine period in the late 1990s, Tablas Creek has sold several million Grenache cuttings to potential competitors, most of whom intend on making a southern Rhone blended red wine that features Grenache as one of its lead varieties.
To remain ahead of the curve for wines like this, Tablas Creek is just releasing its latest top-of-the-line Rhone blend, 2014 Esprit de Tablas, at $45 a bottle.
The wine is a startling statement since it has 35 percent Grenache, more than the winery has ever used in this blend, and its aroma of red cherries, pomegranate, and spice make it one of the best such wines I have ever tasted. It is succulent and still balanced perfectly to go with red meat dishes.
To be sure, wines like this are expensive, but they represent the dawn of a new and exciting era for red Rhone blends.
No Wine of the Week.