This week, more than 100 wine producers are gathering in San Francisco to celebrate America’s take on the 22 grape varieties originally made famous in France’s Rhone Valley.
The producers — known collectively as the “Rhone Rangers” — trace their roots to the 1980s, when a small group of California vintners dedicated to these varieties began meeting informally.
One of these winemakers was Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard. Although best known for his flamboyant and irreverent marketing campaigns, Grahm was among the first American winemakers to embrace varietals like Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre. So when the Wine Spectator dubbed Grahm “The Rhone Ranger” in 1989, the moniker stuck.
As the organization began to grow, these Rhone Rangers realized that if they worked together, they’d all benefit. So in the late 1990s, they formally organized and began promoting their work. The group helped catalyze — and revive — the planting of Rhone varieties across the country.
But they still have lots of work to do.
Consider Syrah, the most popular Rhone varietal in the United States. Marked by dark fruits, black pepper, and meat, Syrah is wonderfully accessible, even in its youth. And whether it’s bottled on its own or blended with varieties like Grenache and Mourvedre, Syrah is capable of striking the perfect balance between power and finesse. So it works well with all sorts of food.
When it comes to sales, however, Syrah is only the fourth most popular red wine grape, trailing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Pinot Noir. Although many California winemakers have spent their lives hoping Syrah would become the state’s next great varietal, sales have dropped steadily over the past few years. In 2012, Syrah sales declined by nearly 16 percent. It’s no wonder why many winemakers joke that it’s easier to get rid of a case of pneumonia than a case of Syrah.
With white wines, the Rhone Rangers face an even bigger challenge. The primary four varieties — Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Grenache Blanc — barely make the radar for America’s wine consumers.
This defies logic. Viognier, which is typically bottled on its own, and Marsanne and Roussanne, which are typically bottled together, are rich, tropical, and floral. So they’re perfect substitutes for Chardonnay – and oftentimes more interesting. Grenache Blanc is bright, tart, and crisp. It’s one of my favorite varietals to pair with warm weather.
In the United States, many of the best Rhone-inspired wines come from vineyards along California’s coast — from the Santa Ynez Valley and Paso Robles along the Central Coast, to the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey, to the Russian River Valley and Dry Creek in Sonoma.
Other top wines come from the Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley in Washington and Oregon’s Rogue Valley. Idaho, Michigan, and Virginia are also beginning to make their mark with these grapes.
Most of these areas are relatively cool. Although most Rhone varieties are a farmer’s dream — reasonably easy to grow and fairly resistant to disease — these grapes shine when grown in cooler areas, resulting in complex, vibrant, more aromatic wines. When grown in warmer climates, these varieties too easily produce wines that are flabby and pruney.
The Rhone Rangers certainly have their work cut out for them. But for now, the lack of demand for Rhone varietals helps keep prices low. So check out what the Rhone Rangers have to offer. You won’t be disappointed.
David White, a wine writer, is the founder and editor of Terroirist.com. His columns are housed at Palate Press: The Online Wine Magazine.