O nce upon a time in California, mavericks were required to take on the big bosses Cabernet and Chardonnay. With henchman Merlot gobbling up more acres, the premium wine boom was looking locked up until the Rhone Rangers rode into Winetown to settle the score. A band of winemakers dedicated to promoting the 22 varietals of France's Rhone region, they formed in the 1980s, then reformed in the 1990s. That decade saw exponential growth in diverse varietals that produce approachable wines in a wide variety of California climates. This weekend, the group's 11th annual tasting event takes over San Francisco's Fort Mason Center.
Syrah is the best-known Rhone because it's the heart of many red blends, and perhaps also because of the popularity of value-priced Australian Shiraz, a Syrah by any other name that took a long detour down under. Only a few Californians can claim old-vine Syrah; much of it has been planted in the last decade-plus. The total Syrah crush increased more than 200-fold from 1990 to 2005. By contrast, Pinot Noir only increased three-fold during the same time.
Numbers, numbers. What's so great about Rhones is the sensuality of perfumed whites like Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne, and reds from robust Grenache and Mourvèdre to the obscure Counoise, Bourboulenc and Picpoul.
These days many wineries make at least one Rhone varietal, often the best of their lineup. For example, Novy Family Winery added some big, toothsome Syrahs to the scene. Novy gives daily tastings by appointment in its no-nonsense warehouse in an industrial park in Santa Rosa, and is better known, of course, as a celebrated member of the "Pinot posse" by its other moniker, Siduri.
The 2005 Page-Nord Vineyards Napa Syrah ($33) is a blackberry monster in the Aussie style, while the 2005 Christensen Vineyard Sonoma Syrah ($29) has more austere fruit and more than a few shakes of black pepper. From the wilds of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the tooth-stainingly purple 2005 Susan's Hill Vineyard Syrah ($34) has a noseful of ink pot, and is well-nigh chewable (all that meant in the best way). Watch for the 2006 Russian River Valley Syrah ($27); a barrel sample offers a bite of leather saddle, black cherries rolled in dust and beef jerky washed down with a double IPA. It's a Wild West campfire wine that, like great Rhones, will only become more complex and civilized with time.
Novy Family Winery, 980 Airway Court, Ste. C, Santa Rosa. Tasting by appointment, Monday–Saturday, 10am to 3pm. 707.578.3882. Rhone Rangers Grand Tasting, Sunday, March 16. [ http://www.rhonerangers.org/ ]www.rhonerangers.org.