Wine column no. 24: The Rhone Rangers

Don't be fooled by the stuffed shirts and haughty smiles, because the wine world is actually a pretty wild place.
Oh sure, you've got your Rothschilds, those Old World traditionalists who often command instant respect at black-tie, seven-course-meal affairs.
But there are cowboys, too, like Cameron Hughes. It's because of his entrepreneurial spirit that he's able to round up the best of wine that doesn't sell and rebrand it in the form of lots that are both inexpensive and mysteriously delicious.
And then there are the Rhone Rangers, a title that is undeniably American.You Lone Ranger fans will likely see the connection between this non-profit group's efforts to expand the public's appreciation for French Rhone varietal wine grapes grown in America and these winemakers' desire to blaze their own trail.
Formed in the mid-1980s, according to Karen MacNeil's The Wine Bible, these maverick winemakers decided to plant new Rhone varieties (like Viognier, a white wine grape) and to coax to life forgotten California plantings of other Rhone varieties (like Mourvedre and Syrah, both of which are red wine grapes.)
Syrah is the 800-pound gorilla of Rhone grapes, according to the Rhone Rangers. Described as an easy wine to work with in the vineyard and in the winery, it tends to remain healthy, is resistant to mildew and rot, ripens early and is flexible enough to be made in various styles.
Rhone Ranger member Cline Cellars makes a very affordable Syrah for under $10 that we bought at Schnucks. We had a 2007 from Sonoma County, California, that was light, slightly rough and easy to drink.
We paired it with boneless pork chops seasoned with garlic salt and lemon pepper, which we wouldn't say was its best pairing. The nose reminded us of cherries and plums. 13.5 percent alcohol. 
As for Mourvedre, this high alcohol, deeply colored, very dense red wine ages well, according to Fodor's California Wine Country, written by John Doerper. It was moderately popular in California under its Spanish name, mataro, before it began to be made in the Rhone style. Cline Cellars makes a version from Contra Costa County in California that is earthy, red berry-ish, slightly sweet and smooth. We had the 2009, which you may not be able to find around here these days, but we're sure Schnucks at least carries some more recent vintages of this varietal. True to its type, the 2009 that we got from Schnucks was a high-octane 15 percent alcohol and, at around $10, was very inexpensive.
Meanwhile, the Rhone Rangers are a somewhat unofficial group. If you're drinking a Rhone Ranger wine from California, Idaho, Washington State, Michigan, Oregon or Virginia (the states that have wineries belonging to the Rhone Ranger group), you won't find that title listed on the bottle. Instead, "this designation reflects an understanding within the organization," the website at www.rhonerangers.org says.
To qualify as a Rhone Ranger, the wine must contain at least 75 percent of the 22 Rhone Ranger grape varieties as approved in the Cotes-du-Rhone in France. And since winery membership dues are $750 per year, not all wineries that are producing Rhone-style wines may belong to the Rhone Rangers organization.
So we wanted to include one particular Viognier made by a non-Rhone Ranger we had recently that was very tasty.
First, what exactly is Viognier? Temperamental, for one thing, and relatively rare, for another. In fact, this French grape varietal almost went the way of the Dodo bird due to bugs, war, economic crises and growing industrialization. By the 1950s and 1960s, the number of acres devoted to Viognier vines in France had so drastically declined that the varietal was near extinction there. But the chances of the grape's survival in Condrieu,
the well-known appellation in France, improved by the 1980s, when abandoned hillsides were replanted with vines and low walls were rebuilt. Still, Viognier is a difficult wine to grow and is naturally low in acidity, MacNeil said. This means it takes a gifted winemaker to coax it to life, and Bonterra Vineyards has done just that with its
2007 vintage.
This Mendocino, Californian, is a smooth, silky, citrus-filled and worthwhile example of the Viognier varietal. We had it with grilled chicken breasts that I marinated in a poultry rub with canola oil for about two hours. We chilled it to about 54 degrees using a nifty wine chiller Greg's parents got us for Christmas and watched as this Viognier evolved as the temperatures rose. Citrus flavors later turned to inklings of lemon and butter as it warmed up in the glass. This is a wine that we think does best in that 55-degree temperature realm, and it would probably also go well with lobster just because of its texture. This wine made with organically grown grapes contained 13.9 percent alcohol. $20 range at Winetree.

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