I want to be a Rhone Ranger, drinking wines with excitement and pleasure…
Wine is fascinating, and this week my fascination has brought me to investigate Rhone-style wines. The Rhone is a river that runs through southern France, and the Rhone river valley is the home of numerous wines under a number of various Appellations, the major one being Cotes du Rhone. The area is generally divided into two sub-regions: Northern Rhone (Rhone septentrional) and Southern Rhone (Rhone meridional).
The history of the Rhone valley is long and cloudy at best. Wines have been produced here since around 600 B.C., with the chief grape being Syrah. Some say it was the Greeks who brought the grape to the Rhone valley from the Persian city of Shiraz. My relatives say the grape came from the Sicilian city of Syracuse. My own investigation leads me to believe there is truth to both stories, but that Syrah may have originated in the Rhone region itself. DNA testing and my research for my last story shows Syrah is the great-grandchild of the Pinot Noir grape. Regardless of origin, when the Romans exited the Rhone river valley, so to did the area’s interest in wine. It wouldn’t be until the 13th century when the Pope moved to Avignon that wine production again took off in the region.
In the North, Syrah is the only red wine that is permitted and is generally blended with white wines like Viognier or Marsanne. The big gun AOC in the North is the “Hermitage,” a steep hill overlooking the Rhone River. The South is home to the famous Chateauenuf-du-Pape, a blend of 13 wines (eight red, 5 white). The rules in the South allow blending of Syrah with other reds; Grenache, Mourvedre, Carignan and Cinsault. This blend is sometimes called GSM for Grenache (for fruit), Syrah (for dark color and spice) and Mourveder (tannin and body). Now, you may have heard the terms Right Bank and Left Bank in relation to Rhone wines. Well, depending on what side of the Rhone River you are standing on, there are different styles and flavor. The wines from the Left bank are more full bodied, with rich tannins. Wines from the Right bank are slightly lighter and fruitier.
Enter the Rhone Rangers. This was–and now is again–a group of American winemakers, mostly located in California, who banded together to promote wines containing at least 75% of the 22 Rhone grape varieties, especially Syrah. For those of us who love Zinfandel, we have our own organization called Zinfandel Advocates and Producers (ZAP). To get an idea of how eccentric the Rhone Rangers are, check out Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyards, or read his book “Been Doon so Long.” But for a real eye-opener, try some of his wines (Big House or Cardinal Zin).
For the rest of us, being a Rhone Ranger is more of a state of mind; we simply love the wine. For this edition I’ve selected Famille Perrin Cotes Du Rhone Reserve ($13). I picked this wine for a number of reasons. First, it was recommended by a co-worker, my very own Rhone Ranger, who we lovingly refer to as “The Sheriff.” The Perrin family had already piqued my interest, as they are in the news for adopting Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who will be producing a wine called Cotes de Provence 2012 rose which will be a joint venture with Chateau Miraval. Brangelina aside, the vineyard is also famous for its other celebrity wines. “Pink Floyd” rose is made here and the “The Wall” was recorded at Le Studio de Miraval in 2008. Other famous names who have recorded at the winery are rock star and Tuscan vintner Sting, along with Sade, the Cranberries and the Gypsy Kings.
The wine is a classic Cotes du Rhone, fruity with slight tannins and a beautiful, deep ruby color. The nose was a light by my standards, but still enjoyable while the finish was quick, soft, and very well balanced. The blend was a traditional GSM 60% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 20% Mourvedre. Vinification takes place in stainless steel and oak, and aging lasts three months. If I was the wine maker I would have cut back on the Grenache and added more Syrah for more body, but that’s why they make the big bucks and why no one asks me. This is a great everyday drinker for those who want to drink every day. This wine is a great value and a sure-fire crowd pleaser to bring to any diner that includes pork, lamb, light beef, and poultry. The Perrin paired well with my beef stew.