What is a Rhone Blend Wine?
November 19, 2019
“Having intensively tasted and studied these wines for a number of years, it appears to me that while single varietal wines can achieve special heights, the finest offerings tend to be blends, in the case of Rhone Rangers, blends of Syrah with Grenache, Mourvèdre, and occasionally Petite Sirah … Blending gives a talented winemaker with a good palate the ability to craft something special. The same can be said for the area’s white wines. While the quality of the whites is still behind the Rhone Ranger reds, the potential for stunning blends of Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, and Grenache Blanc is undeniable” -Robert Parker, Recommended New Releases: California’s Rhone Rangers, June 2008
Tablas Creek Vineyard is a pioneer of California’s Rhone movement, so we thought we’d reach out to our good friend Jason Haas, Partner and General Manager of Tablas Creek Vineyard, to help explain what the heck a Rhone blend wine is.
What is a Rhone Blend?
Short answer: a Rhone blend is a blended wine made from the grapes whose heritage is in France’s Rhône Valley. But to understand why these sorts of wines are referred to in this way, when others are referred to by grape variety, or what a wine is likely to taste like, there’s a longer (and more interesting) story.
Vitis vinifera, the species of grape used for nearly all the world’s fine wines, evolved in the Middle East, roughly where the nation of Armenia is today. From wild ancestors, vitis was domesticated some 10,000 years ago, and proliferated around the Mediterranean, with new strains emerging by chance cross-breeding and by human selection as it moved across continents with the civilizations that prized it. Today, there are thousands of recognized, distinct wine grape varieties, and some of these varieties have come to be so closely associated with the regions where they thrived that I can name a region, and you’ll think of a wine. Burgundy. Rioja. Bordeaux. Chianti. These are all names of cities or provinces, not grapes. But in the world of wine, each is fundamentally a tradition: a combination of place, grape, and practices that together produce a distinctive wine.
Grapes and their Regions
So, what happens when you take grapes out of their traditional regions, and bring them to the New World? What do you even call them? In some cases, that’s easy. Take Burgundy, for example. There are only two grapes permitted there: Chardonnay is the only white grape allowed, and Pinot Noir is the only red. So, when you want to make a wine in the Burgundy tradition in California, you name it after the grape. It’s simple, straightforward, and relatively clear. But, imagine what you’re facing when you translate a tradition like that of Bordeaux (which allows seven grapes to be planted, two whites and five reds). Do you just focus on the main red grape (Cabernet Sauvignon) and the main white (Sauvignon Blanc)? Maybe. Lots of California producers do. And American wine labeling laws allow you to put up to 25% other grapes into a bottle with a varietal label. But doing so often feels underhanded, and what if you want to use more than 25%? You’ve eliminated your ability to incorporate grapes with their own long Bordeaux traditions, like Merlot, Semillon, and Malbec.
What is a blend-loving (or tradition-loving) winemaker to do? You’ve got a couple of options. You can make up your own word. That’s what California producers who followed Bordeaux tradition did in the late 1980s. They sponsored an international competition and picked a name out of more than 6,000 entries. The winning name: meritage. That approach has some advantages, but also some challenges, as you’re starting from scratch in getting market recognition for a new term. And Bordeaux is far from the only Old World winemaking region where blends are prevalent.
France’s Rhone Valley, home to appellations like Châteauneuf du Pape, Côtes du Rhône, Hermitage, Côte Rotie, and Gigondas, is famous for using even more grapes: somewhere between 22 and 24, depending on how you count color variants and sub-regions. Some of these are fairly well known, like Syrah, or Grenache, or Viognier. Others like Roussanne, Marsanne, Mourvèdre, and Carignan will be familiar to serious wine lovers. And then there are grapes that even the most well-traveled sommelier is unlikely to have tried on their own, like Picardan, or Terret Noir, or Vaccarèse. And with a few notable exceptions, most of the regions in the Rhone don’t focus on a single grape. They blend. And so too do many California producers who follow the Rhone traditions. Since you can’t name them after a single grape, these wines, whether red or white, are generally called Rhone blends.
Flavor in the Grapes
To understand what a Rhone blend is going to taste like, it’s worth spending some time getting to know the region’s most important grapes. Knowing these, as well as the blend the winemaker has chosen, will give you a good chance of predicting the main flavors in the wine. Let’s take the main red grapes first.
- Syrah is the best known of the Rhone reds in America. It gives a deep blue-black color and provides peppery aromatics, firm structure, and ageability to blends, with characteristic aromas of smoke, bacon fat, and mineral, flavors of blackberry and black raspberry fruit, and firm back-palate tannins.
- Grenache is the most planted red grape in the Rhône. It is a brilliant ruby red color, and provides appealing aromatics of sweet baking spices, red fruit, and licorice, flavors of milk chocolate, currant, cherry, and raisin, with bright acids and lively front-palate tannins.
- Mourvèdre is the latest-ripening Rhone red, and produces wines with a rich deep red color. Its aromatics are of dark chocolate, new leather, and red fruits, while its flavors are ripe plum and currant fruit, deepening to roasted meat and truffles as it ages. The grape’s chewy mid-palate tannins add significant aging potential to blends.
- Viognier is by far the most planted Rhone white in California. It is highly aromatic, with aromas of peach, apricot, and jasmine. It typically is lush, with flavors of stone fruits and low to moderate acidity, and is usually most expressive young.
- Roussanne is generally considered the most age-worthy of the Rhone whites. It has aromatics of yellow pear, white tea, and honeysuckle, a deep golden color, and flavors of honey, roasted nuts, and ripe pear. It provides a rich glycerin mouthfeel and moderate acidity.
- Marsanne tastes of melon and minerals and has a golden straw color. It is a flexible and adaptable grape found throughout the Rhône valley. Its quiet elegance and low alcohol provide a valuable counterpoint to more exuberant varieties like Viognier and Roussanne.
- Grenache Blanc has firm acidity, green apple and citrus flavors, and sweet aromatics of anise and baking spices. Its crisp acids complement many of the lower-acid white Rhône varietals.
If they’re all new to you, all these options might feel daunting. But for a winemaker, the ability to deploy different flavors that complement and contrast with one another is exhilarating. Think of cooking. How often do you make something out of just one ingredient? It happens, but it’s rare. Being able to put grapes together that are fruitier or earthier, higher or lower in acid, smoother or more tannic gives winemakers remarkable flexibility to craft the wines they want to make. And here in Paso Robles, in our sunny California climate so much like that of the Mediterranean, the opportunity to use these grapes that thrive in the south of France is indispensable.
It’s not just tradition and the ability to express their vision that makes so many winemakers fans of blends. There is also practicality. Different grape varieties bud and mature in different calendar periods. In 2015, for example, we had a cool, windy May, which impacted grapes that were already flowering, including Viognier, Grenache, and Syrah, all of which ended up with their production reduced by more than 50%. The later-budding Roussanne and Mourvèdre, which hadn’t bloomed yet, emerged relatively undamaged. Other early-season hazards like spring frosts, or late-season risks like harvest rain, are less likely to be catastrophic when your vineyard has a diverse collection of grape varieties that sprout, flower, and mature at different times.
Probably most important in our choices at Tablas Creek, however, is the role that blends can play in expressing terroir: that magical character that a place contributes to a wine. While each grape has distinctive flavors and aromatics that, when they make up 100% of a wine, can overwhelm the more subtle character of place, a blend can allow the more elusive signatures of soil and climate to shine. In this way, a blended wine can be more than the sum of its parts. The Rhone blending tradition developed over thousands of years because blending these varieties so often produces more complex, more elegant and more intriguing wines than any of the varieties vinified alone.
So, the next time that you see a Rhone blend, hopefully, you’ll know what to ask to help you wrap your head around it. And you’ll know, more importantly, that what you’re getting comes from a tradition that evolved over thousands of years, even if its arrival in California is relatively recent.
Bio for Jason Haas, Partner and General Manager, Tablas Creek Vineyard
Jason Haas, the second generation of Haas to oversee Tablas Creek, learned the wine business at an early age, including two summers working at Château de Beaucastel.
After obtaining a Master’s Degree in Archaeology from Cornell and spending a four-year stint managing a tech company in Washington, DC, Jason moved to California to join Tablas Creek in April of 2002, where he oversees the business, winemaking, sales and marketing.
In addition to his work at Tablas Creek, Jason is President of the Rhone Rangers board of directors, past Chairman of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance, and a board member of Free the Grapes. His writing has been published in Wine Business Monthly, Wines & Vines, Decanter, Wine Industry Network, and Zester Daily. He is the principal author of the Tablas Creek blog, a Wine Blog Awards finalist for Best Winery Blog eight times since 2008, winning in 2008 and 2011.
In recognition of his contributions to the Paso Robles wine community, he was voted by his peers 2015 Paso Robles Wine Country Wine Industry Person of the Year and 2017 San Luis Obispo County Wine Industry Person of the Year. He manages the day to day operations at Tablas Creek.