Serious Grape: Rhône Wines and Good Times--the 2009 Hospice du Rhône

On Fridays Deb Harkness of Good Wine Under $20 joins us to talk some Serious Grape. Take it away, Deb!


Last weekend, I was a guest at the 2009 Hospice du Rhône event in Paso Robles, California. Each year, organizers draw together some of the finest winemakers in the world who all have one thing in common: They are passionate about Rhône grape varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, Roussanne, and Marsanne. These are the grapes that go into famed French red blends (like Chateauneuf du Pape and Cotes du Rhone) and coveted white blends (like Condrieu). During two days of seminars and tastings, they share their passion--and their wine--with participants.

Today, Rhône varieties are grown all around the world, making them easy to find in your local wine shop. I like to think of Rhône varieties as grapes that will appeal to people who like to "adapt" recipes, color outside the lines, and think outside the box. Anybody can drink Cabernet and Chardonnay. After the jump, discover some reasons why you should be adventurous and get to know Rhône varieties better.

Wines Made with Rhône Varieties Are Approachable

I've yet to meet someone who finds wines made with Rhône varieties intimidating. Even if you pull the cork on a fancy bottle of Crozes-Hermitage or a cult favorite such as a Saxum Syrah, you are unlikely to have anyone at your table get nervous as they would with a bottle of Bordeaux or Screaming Eagle. First impressions matter--but so, too, does taste. Happily Rhône wines deliver complex aromatics and layers of spice and fruit. A recent example that took my breath away was the 2007 Anaba Coriol White from Sonoma County. This extraordinary wine was a blend of Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc and had aromas of sea salt and fennel with flavors of apples, honey, melon, and spice. (find this wine)

Rhône Varieties Age Beautifully--Both Whites and Reds

For all their approachability, Rhône varieties have real staying power. The red grapes--including Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache, and Counoise--all benefit from some time in the bottle. I recently had a 2003 Cline Ancient Vines Mourvedre that was tucked into the back of my wine closet. It had delicious aromas of spice, earth, cherries and plums with a spicy set of flavors that included plums, black cherries, and chocolate. (find a more recent vintage of this wine)

And at the Hospice du Rhône tasting on Friday I sipped a 1998 Treana White from the Santa Lucia Highlands that tasted as fresh as if it was just bottled, with aromas and flavors of apricot and Meyer Lemon. (find a more recent vintage of this wine)

Rhône Reds Are Deliciously Spicy

The weekend's tastings challenged me to come up with new ways to describe "peppery." Sometimes Syrah can taste of white pepper, other times fresh cracked black pepper. Sometimes there's even a hint of green pepper. In general, Rhône reds have an appealing spiciness that helps to balance out their juicy fruit notes. One great example I tried was the 2006 Bonaccorsi Syrah from the Larner Vineyard. Its plummy fruit was balanced out by nice pepper notes, and there was even a bit of Asian Five-Spice in there adding to the complexity. (find this wine) Or try the 2005 Unti Cuvée Foudre with its blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre and its flavors and aromas of black tea, blackberry, white pepper, and baking spice. (find this wine)

Rhône Whites Are Fantastically Aromatic

At Saturday's Grand Tasting, I focused exclusively on white wines. Each one seemed to be more aromatic than the last, from the 2007 Tablas Creek Grenache Blanc with its floral, almond and citrus notes (find this wine) to the 2006 Anglim Cameo blend of Marsanne, Roussanne, and Viognier which smelled of honeysuckle and honeydew melon.(find this wine) It was like sipping a summer garden.

Rhône Varieties Are Exceptionally Easy to Pair with Food

There are very few food that don't go with Rhône varieties. I love roasted chicken with Grenache or Mourvedre, for instance, and Syrah is my partner of choice for lamb. I've had Rhône whites with everything from Indian food to Halibut to fresh salads--and they always seem to pair brilliantly.

Rhône Varieties Are Affordable

This is the best part. Even the most prestigious labels are excellent value and your wine dollars stretch further when you develop a taste for Rhône varieties.

Full disclosure: With the exception of the Cline Mourvedre, the other wines were tasted while I was a guest of the Hospice du Rhône.