Cabernet Sauvignon may be king in America's palate and Chardonnay the queen, but certain winemakers have ventured beyond these stately varieties to grow different grapes offering rustic, earthy flavors and irreverent dynamism. These California winemakers and their wines have been dubbed The Rhone Rangers.
The movement gives nod to France's Rhone Valley. With blistering summer heat, numbing winter cold and maddening wind (named "Le Mistral"), wine farmers rely on 27 sturdy grapes to assure their family's crop and annual income. Varieties including Bourboulenc, Calitor, Terret Noir are little more than tricky questions on a sommelier exam, but other Rhone grapes have made their way into America's mouth and mind. Primary red grapes are Grenache, Syrah and Bourvedre; in whites, Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne.
Ross choiceMourvedre "El Pelon"
Paso Robles, Calif.
• Suggested retail and availability: $55 at fine wine shops (distributed by Rootstock Wine Company, Chicago)
Mouvedre is the "dirty Frenchman," according to winemaker Christian Tietje, "dark, brooding and funky." A carbonic maceration technique (often used in Beaujolais) brightens fruit to cherry and pomegranate flavors; maturation in toasted oak barrels adds brown spice, vanilla cream and licorice accents. Serve this firm and appealing red with the earthy flavors of grilled sausage, truffle or mushroom recipes, game meats and stinky cheese, which will make you smell like a dirty (and contented) Frenchman.
In fact, Rhone grapes have deeper roots in California than the current sales leaders. Thick-skinned reds immigrated to the U.S. during the Gold Rush and planted throughout the Mother Lode in the Sierra Nevada foothills produced heady plonk enjoyed by the 49ers. A century later, Rhone reds joined the heady plonk of jugs enjoyed at countless kitchen tables and rock concerts, when only a handful of Americans could pronounce Sauvignon.
By the 1970s, winegrowers were taking Rhone grapes seriously, though bottling namelessly in blends including Cline's "Cotes d'Oakley" (a play on the Rhone's Cotes du Rhone subregion), McDowell's "Les Vieux Cepages" ("the old blend"), Phelps' "Vin du Mistral."
By 1997, the merry band of outsiders had been fixed with the moniker the Rhone Rangers.
While earlier wines with heat-induced, jammy flavors and nosebleed alcohol levels never engaged this palate, a recent Rhone Ranger tasting proved a trend toward balance and freshness. A few favorites with approximate retail prices include Ross's Choice and:
Viognier, Fess Parker (Santa Barbara County, $28): Rich and bright with stone fruit flavor and solid acidity. Serve as a Chardonnay alternative and to highlight fruity chutney, salsa and glaze in Floribbean, Moroccan, Southeast Asian and Indian cuisine.
"Patelin de Tablas" Rose, Tablas Creek (Paso Robles, $20): Grown in the patelin (French for "the hood") of Tablas Creek, this grenache-based rose is delicate and pretty, with bright strawberry and watermelon flavor and satisfying finish. This style is classically served in France's Provence region with noshes including socca (spicy chickpea flatbread), pissaladiere (onion and anchovy pizza), tapenade (olive dip) and light entrees such as salads and fried seafood.
Grenache, Kenneth Volk (San Benito County, $28): Grenache doesn't command the respect or prices of Syrah, but it is the Rhone's dominant grape and one of the world's most widely planted. Kenneth Volk expresses the deep strawberry, savory and spice character of Grenache, along with firm but pleasing mouth feel. Serve throughout the season ahead, with autumnal outdoor grills, barbecue & tailgating, with a rich holiday turkey and a meaty stew by a winter's fire.
• Contact Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at email@example.com.