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White Rhône-style blends on the rise? Yes. And please take my reader survey

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First, huge thanks to all of you who took the time to fill out my reader survey yesterday. It had an unbelievable 117 responses the first day! If you still haven’t done it, you can click here to access it. I sure would appreciate it. In a few weeks, this information will help me figure out what to do with steveheimoff.com to make it better.

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I’m often asked which California wine type do I think has made the best improvement over the years. All of them, I usually say, because I think it’s true: California wine is better than I ever remember it, and I’ve been drinking it seriously (I mean studiously) for nigh on 35 years. (Does anyone under the age of 50 say “nigh on”? It means “almost,” of course, and comes from the old German word “Nahe” for “near.” Nahe” is also the name of the German wine region. Can anyone explain this connection? If you can, you get a free subscription to my blog.)

The problem with comparing wines separated by decades of time is that the comparison can only be done in memory, which is fallible. Did I really think David Arthur 2009 Elevation 1147 (99 points, $150), which I reviewed this summer, was better than a 1978 Clos du Val Cabernet (price and alcohol level unrecorded), which I had when it was a few years old? I didn’t rate the latter wine; why would I, years before I became a wine critic? But, to judge by my notes in my Tasting Diary, I thought it was superb (“Gorgeous, beautiful, tannic, but opulent, full of fruit and glycerine. Wish I had waited another 4-5 years [to open]”).

That I found both of these wines superlative, separated by nearly 30 years, is evident, so how can I say that one was better than the other? After all, if the Clos du Val actually was better–and had I been scoring it–I would have had to give it 100 points! So this illustrates some of the pitfalls in saying “California wines are getting better.”

This question of “Are California wines getting better” also arises during discussions of “score inflation” that pop up from time to time. If my scores are higher than they used to be (and they are a little, as Wine Enthusiast’s database shows), a rational explanation is that the wines have improved. However, an equally rational explanation is that my “palate” has changed in some way that prompts me to rate the wines higher. Or perhaps something in my mind has changed, which then influences my palate. It’s hard to say. To further confuse things, there are plenty of people (the anti-high alcohol crowd) who argue that California wines actually are worse than they used to be. They might accuse my palate (and those of critics like me) of having become jaded by these ultra-rich wines, so that anything with finesse or subtlety doesn’t get noticed.

Let’s take a step back. Strictly objectively, you’d have to say that California wines are better than they used to be because they’re less flawed. Fewer bad corks, cleaner wines due to cleaner wineries, healthier rootstocks and plant material, more grapes organically or sustainably grown, and so on.

So you can see that the simple statement “California wine are better than they used to be” is not so simple after all. It’s rather like asking, “Is America better than it used to be?” People of different ages and backgrounds will have all sorts of opinions, but nothing is provable, the way a mathematical equation (2+2=4) is provable to everyone’s satisfaction.

Still, I’d say California wines are better than they used to be. Can’t prove it. Just my opinion. Sue me if you disagree.

Having said that, it got me thinking about what wine type has improved (or seems to have improved) the most over the years. The answer, obviously, is Pinot Noir, but we all know that. Is there another type that’s less obvious? Yes: white Rhône-style blends. I’ve given more high scores to them in the last several years than ever before. Why this should be so, I think, is due to grapegrowers’ ability to better farm these often difficult varietals, and to winemakers’ increasing understanding of how to properly blend this family of grapes, which includes Roussanne, Marsanne, Picpoul Blanc, Grenache Blanc and Viognier.

A California white Rhône blend should be rich, fruity and balanced, although it will seldom equal the opulence of a great barrel-fermented Chardonnay. But the best of them are able to support some oak. Firmer than Chardonnay, nuttier and more floral, with more backbone, they pair well with a wider range of food than does Chardonnay. Some of the better ones I’ve had lately have been Krupp Brothers 2008 Black Bart’s Bride Marsanne-Viognier, Tablas Creek’s 2010 Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc (a nice value), Adelaida 2010 The Glenrose Vineyard “Version,” Calcareous 2009 Viognier-Marsanne, Demetria 2009 Cuvée Papou and Kiamie 2009 White Kuvée. Interesting that so many of them come from Paso Robles. Could a cool vintage in a hot climate be just what a white Rhône blend wants?

There still aren’t many of these wines produced. Statewide acreage of Viognier, the most widely-planted white Rhône variety, in 2011 was only 3,020, barely one-thirtieth that of Chardonnay, so the wines must necessarily be rare. Nor do they command particularly high prices, except for cult examples like Alban and Sanguis.

Still, the winemakers committed to making these wines are passionate. White Rhône-style wines haven’t made much of a dent on the national radar, yet; but sommeliers are well aware of them, and so are critics. They could be the Next Big Thing in white wine.

  1. Steve,

    I am in total agreement with you. Unti, Line Shack and Terre Rouge are making incredible white rhone blends. I have stopped reaching for chardonnay at the store and seek these out instead.

    Cheers,
    Derek

  2. Check out our blend of Rhône cepages, Enigma, from a single site at 3,000 feet – North exposure. We have been making it annually since 1995. It is really one of the pioneering Rhône blends in CA. You have tasted, Steve, and enjoyed it in the past. In fact, the owner of Domaine Grand Veneur in Chateauneuf-du-Pape starred making a similar blend after tasting our wine in the late 1990′s. That is the story that our mutual importer told me anyway. Our’s is really an aromatic wine suggesting almond blossoms from the predominate Marsanne with nice white stone fruit flavors and firm crispness. TERRE ROUGE is one of the few Rhˆøne only labels and specialists in California.

    Thank you for continuing to promote Rhône varietals.

  3. Viognier is definitely growing in popularity in the Northwest, both in the Columbia Valley and the Willamette Valley. I’m sure that the other white Rhone varieties can’t be too far behind.
    Have you seen a growth in popularity among white Rhone wines from the Rhone Valley as well?

  4. In the beginning (early ’90′s), there was only Viognier to work with. Then along came Marsanne, which I don’t think contributes much in the blends except structure. Then along came Roussanne and now GrenacheBlanc. So nowadays the winemakers have a lot more of a palette to work with. With a lot more GrenacheBlanc around, I think that has made for some very aromatic/perfumed kind of blends. I don’t particularly see that the winemakers have become more skilled at the blending…they just have more to work with.
    Tom

  5. Tom certainly makes some great points – as usual. There is a lot more to work with for winemakers these days, and even within varieties, there is more out there. Add to that the continued experimentation with stainless fermenting and aging some of these varieties, the increased use of concrete for some of these as well, and the varied harvest seasons we’ve seen these past few years, and you have a recipe for ‘more interesting wines’ for sure.

    I still am partial to many of these varieties on their own – especially Grenache Blanc and Viongnier – but can see how a little bit of this and a touch of that can create unique blends that stands apart . . .

    Cheers Steve and thanks for the continued spotlight on domestic rhone varieties – something that is near and dear to my heart! (oh, and by the way, we’ve started a new regional Santa Barbara Country chapter of the Rhone Rangers – more to follow!!!!).

  6. Larry, I wasn’t sure whether or not to include varietal wines [GB, Viognier, etc]. Quite a few good examples of those but I’m inclined to think the blends are more balanced and besides, I don’t have enough technical notes to know if (for example) a varietal “Roussanne” is 100% of could have up to 24.9 percent other varieties.

  7. Steve,

    Interesting observation. Not sure I agree about the ‘more balanced’ comment – I think there are many single variety white rhones out there that are quite balanced and beautiful on their own.

    And as far as technical notes go, that’s a good point as well. My guess is that quite a few roussannes and marsannes do see some blending of each other or other white rhones into them . . . but I’m sure there are exceptions.

    Cheers!

  8. Gotta agree w/ Larry on this one. There are plenty of mono-varietals that are wonderfully balanced. Don’t see that blends necessarily have a leg up when it comes to balance.
    One good example is BobLindquist’s Marsanne. A wine he’s been making (impeccably, I might add) since the early ’90′s. The wine, in it’s youth, was dull/boring/simple…pleasant appley/stoney Marsanne but not very interesting. But…man…did it age well, into that classic waxy/honeyed/figgy/nutty character that you see in old Marsanne. Bob has served several at 15-20 yrs of age that were magnificent.
    For the last 10 yrs or so, he’s been blending in a little Roussanne. It gives the wine much more interest and fragrant aromatics right out the gate. I see no reason the Marsanne will not age equally well as it’s 100% Marsanne older siblings. But what the heck would I know…not a winemaker.
    Tom

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