Southern Rhone Reds
Everybody’s heard of the south of France and what a nice place it is to visit. Even the French pile into this Mediterranean region each August, when just about everybody in the country goes on vacation at the same time. That’s why experienced travelers rarely visit France in August.
The defining feature there is the Rhone River, one of the largest in the country. It actually begins in Switzerland, flowing into and out of Lake Geneva near the border. Once in France it turns south, emptying into the Mediterranean Sea near the port city of Marseille. Along its rocky banks are some of the greatest red wine vineyards in the world. 150 years ago they were considered the equal of Bordeaux’s cabernets and Burgundy’s pinot noir, but the region’s more isolated location caused it to be discovered by the rest of the world only later.
This is southeastern France, and the main grapes there are now familiar to wine lovers everywhere, particularly the syrah grape (called shiraz in Australia). Along the northern Rhone little blending is done. In the south, blending is the norm. Both areas produce deep, full-bodied red wines, just the style in demand today.
One place that is quickly becoming famous for syrah is southern Washington State. Washington wines often strike a balance between California fruit and French complexity and compatibility with food, at least in part because of the state’s northerly latitude, which passes right through southern France. It gives an average of two extra hours of daylight each day, which affects the vines. Some growers call it vine vigor. The area’s dry climate means that nighttime temperatures fall dramatically. For grapes this is a perfect counterpart to warm, sunny days.
An example of a Washington blend made in the southern Rhone style is from Ron Bunnell of The Bunnell Family Cellar. In this wine the syrah grape is blended with another Rhone variety called mourvedre. It’s very deeply colored, with flavors of black and red berries, a peppery finish, and nuances of oak. What it doesn’t have is the earthiness often found in French wines.
I brought this into Arkansas recently, as an example of the style. Retail price: $25-$30.