Most wine lovers have probably never heard of the winery association known as the Rhone Rangers. We can assure you that it is not a renegade vigilante group aspiring to police the wine world. The Rhone Rangers is a consortium of American wineries producing wines made from the traditional grape varieties of France’s Rhone Valley.
The Rhone’s white varieties include viognier, marsanne and roussanne. The red wines are primarily made from syrah, petite sirah, grenache and mourvedre in addition to several minor varieties used in blends.
Every year the group hosts a tasting giving the wine trade and press a chance to taste hundreds of current releases and barrel samples. This year’s tasting reinforced what we have known for some time, Rhone varietals are well suited to the climate of the west coast. The diversity of the wines was astonishingly different depending on the climate where the grapes were grown. Syrah grown in cool climates, as a general rule, offered notes of fresh dark fruit with good acidity plus hints of mineral and spice. Warm climate syrah was more about ripe berries and big fleshy wines. While different, there were dozens of great wines in each style.
Of the three white varietals, viognier is our consistent favorite. Marsanne and roussanne have typically used as blending grapes to add complexity but there are a few wineries producing great wines exclusively with each varietal. Viognier is known best for its floral aromas of orange blossoms and honeysuckle. It makes a great accompaniment to spicy dishes such as Thai and stir-fry. Viognier is a wine that should be drunk young as it often begins to lose its aroma profile within a year or two from bottling.
Try a few Rhone varieties and you don’t even need a mask.