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Wine Wednesday: Rhône in California

Updated: Jun 22, 2019

By Cecily G


Wine Wednesday is here and you know we want to talk Rhône! For today’s lesson we are going to be exploring the history of Rhône varietals in California.


California’s grape growing history cannot be told without the mention of Rhône varietals. Though not as dominant as King Cabernet or the ever abundant Chardonnay, Rhône varietals play an important role is the wines of California.


Ancient vine trunks of Rauser Vineyard Carignan (planted in 1906) in Lodi, CA. Image via Lodi Wine Grape Commission.

Rhône varietals have a long history in the state, with many vineyards having been planted by immigrant families in the 1800’s. Today’s resurgence of popularity for California Rhône wines can be attributed to a time more recent, in the 70’s when Joseph Phelps, McDowell Winery, Gary Eberle, and Zaca Mesa began planting and growing Syrah. These plantings spanned the state, with Phelps and McDowell planting in the north, and Eberle and Zaca Mesa planting on the Central Coast. McDowell actually had planted a Syrah vineyard in 1919, but as this was the first year of Prohibition, true varietal wines were not produced from these vines until later.


Joseph Phelps was the first to try his hand at a true varietal Syrah in the early 1970’s in Napa Valley. Unfortunately, it took many, many years of experimentation and failures, and it wasn’t until more recently that Phelps launched a successful series of Rhône varietals. By this time, many other producers were crafting exceptional Rhône varietal wines.


Joseph Phelps Napa Valley Vineyard. Image via JosephPhelps.com

One of these producers was Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon, who, after attempting to “replicate Burgundy in California,” realized that Rhône varietals were better suited in the Central Coast than Pinot Noir. After a few experimentations, Grahm released the first vintage of Le Cigare Volant, a tribute to Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He gained national spotlight for his wines after appearing as “The Rhône Ranger” on the cover of Wine Spectator.


These first plantings were successful due heavily to the California Mediterranean climate, which suits Rhône varietals. Because it is slightly warmer than the Rhône Valley, Rhône wines coming from California tend to be more lush and a bit more approachable.


From Mendocino to San Diego County, and as far east as the Sierra Foothills, there are now nearly two dozen Rhône varieties grown. Syrah is now the 5th most widely planted grape in California, followed by Grenache coming in at 8th.


Try it at the girl & the fig!


Bonny Doon, 2018 Arroyo Seco Picpoul

“This is our seventh vintage of Picpoul from the Beeswax vineyard, and very confidently I’d suggest that it is one of our best efforts to date. Picpoul or “lip-stinger” is known, of course, for its tingling acidity, but coupled with its singular savoriness, it creates a dramatic sensation on the palate. (The ’18 is perhaps a little bit softer than vendanges d’antan.) I know that it’s impossible to smell the sensation of saltiness, but the nose of our Picpoul is maritime, coupled with a discreet suggestion of peaches, wildflowers and the (we really can’t help it, but it’s in there) ubiquitous fragrance of beeswax. The ’18 seems to possess a unique suggestion of spearmint, which is a fragrance that seems to pop up every now and then in other varieties grown at Beeswax Vineyard.”


Zaca Mesa, 2015 Z Blanc, Santa Ynez Valley

“Well integrated aromas of Meyer lemon skins, beeswax, Bosc pear, nectarine, lime blossom and crushed chalk show on the nose of this blend of 68% Grenache Blanc, 27% Roussanne and 5% Viognier. Tightly wound flavors of cantaloupe rind, key lime pith and lemon peels lead into a squeaky finish.”




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