What is a Rhone varietal, or a Rhone-style wine? It seems to be appearing more and more in descriptions of a region's wine offerings in America, as if all wine consumers will know what it refers to. Recently, at a popular wine event in Lodi, a national chocolate brand that helps sponsor the event, gave away bricks of 60% natural cacao that stated on the box "Rhone" as a suggested wine pairing. It may be time to clarify which grapes are Rhone varietals, starting with where in the world is Rhone!
Rhone Valley is a region in France, further divided into Northern and Southern Rhone regions by the Rhone River. Each division of Rhone is distinctly different from the other - the northern region is colder, rockier, and focuses on one red grape and a handful of whites, whereas the southern region is warmer, flatter and cultivates a variety, both red and white, of wine grapes.
The Rhone region of France is home to many of the world's famous wines - Chateauneuf-du-Pape and Gigondas in the south, and Crozes-Hermitage and Condrieu from the north, to name a few. Each of these features their own signature grape and style of wine.
So how does this apply to California (and national) wine regions declaring Rhone grapes as part of their line-up? Mostly, it means Syrah. It also means Grenache and Mourvedre, Cinsaut and Carignan for reds, and Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne, and let's not forget, courtesy of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles and Acquiesce in Lodi, Picpoul, for the whites. These are the dominant grapes of the entire Rhone region, and these are the grapes most commonly referred to as Rhone varietals in America.
Recognition for the interest and growth of major Rhone varieties can be largely credited to the Rhone Rangers. This is a group of wine grape growers and wine makers with a vested interest in growing, developing, and promoting the grapes and wines made in the Rhone style. Originally formed in the 1980's and re-organized in the 1990's, their mission is educate about and promote the great American made wines produced from the classic Rhone varietals.
Rhone Ranger or not, if you want to discover more of the American take on Rhone-style wines, get a hold of Fields Family Wines Estate Syrah, Acquiesce Vineyards Picpoul Blanc, or Toasted Toads Viognier. From there, seek out more Rhone varietals in El Dorado County, Murphys in Calaveras County, and Paso Robles in California's Central Coast.