Weekend Wine Play: Rhône Varieties, One By One

Food & Drink

This is not how you’re supposed to enjoy Rhône style wines.

One grape variety at a time, that is, which is what I’m suggesting today as a way to “play” with wine and maybe boost your experience and exposure to less-familiar grapes at the same time. The game here is to parse out some of the major individual components of Rhône style wines and taste them one by one.

In true (and legally regulated) fashion, wines from the Côtes du Rhône region of France are typically blends comprised of some portions of grapes including Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Picpoul, Carignan, Terret Noir, Counoise, Muscardin, Vaccarese, Picardan, Cinsault, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Red Grenache.

The first three of those grapes predominate; the “GSM” blends of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre are commonly referenced outside the Rhône River Valley, and the grapes in general have been popularized in the US by a non-profit organization called the Rhône Rangers that is based in Paso Robles, California.

Today, and heading into the weekend, I’m taking inspiration from two bottles of wine in particular that I’ve tasted recently, the 2019 Seabold Cellars Mourvèdre from Rodnick Vineyard in Monterey County, California and the 2020 La Valentía Carignan from Mills County, Texas. Each of these wines were so strikingly expressive and complete as “stand alone” versions, that were presumably never intended to land in a Rhône-style blend. They sparked my curiosity and, though I recognized the two grapes as historical components of those iconic French wines, I wanted to dig a little deeper and get to know each of their individual personalities.

Which brings us to this weekend’s double-post that plays with four grape varieties that contribute to the traditional red blends from the Côtes du Rhône, in our case Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre (the familiar “GSM” designation) plus Carignan. Note that it is increasingly possible to find single-varietal bottlings of some of the other grapes, such as Picpoul and Cinsault, so you may want to keep a list handy as you shop. (This one from the Vins-Rhône organization is excellent and comprehensive.)

We’ll start with Mourvèdre and Carignan.

“Secondary” and “Underestimated” Mourvèdre

Mourvèdre has been tagged (burdened) by those two descriptors for much of its history, yet the Seabold Cellars version of it is anything but. It may be notoriously difficult to grow, at least in the “volcanique Rodnick Vineyard” in Monterey County where the grapes for this specific wine originate, but the end result struck me as very well worth it.

Rodnick Farms supplies grapes to notable winemakers and producers, including Hardy Wallace and Calera (whose wines I also covered recently), and this particular vineyard was established in the 1970s and also contains Syrah and Pinot Blanc.

The vineyard’s geological composition of limestone and granite yield what are described as “wild” wines, and it is perhaps that note of adventure and spark (without the weight of heavy tannins) that shone through and caught my eye about this Mourvèdre. More tea leaf than tobacco on the palate, more plum than cherry, and more feathery thyme and lavender than woodsy rosemary.

“Vigorous” and “Light-Bodied” Carignan

Those two descriptors of Cairgnan seem like they’d run counter to each other, but they get along just fine in this 2020 bottle by Texas winemaker Rae Wilson, whose wines I came to know through the subscription service of Woman Owned Wineries.

This particular wine is sourced from three different vineyards in Terry County in the Texas High Plains, at 3200-3400 feet elevation. Though it’s primarily made from Carignan (70 percent), it’s indicative of Rhône blends in that it also contains ten percent each of Mourvèdre, Grenache and Counoise.

To me, this wine embodies the “better together” zeitgeist of Rhône-style blends, not only with its mix of grapes from different locations but also its mix of winemaking techniques, such as aging in natural French oak for the Carignan, and direct-press and aging in stainless steel tanks for the other three grape varieties. The end result is a friendly and accommodating wine — cinnamon, strawberry and elegant were the most distinctive notes for me — that I can imagine serving in any number of situations in the kitchen and at the table.

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