The early designations for Grand Cru wines came in Bordeaux, when the top wineries created a classification system in 1855, under French law, to designate who was the best, and what vineyards shone the brightest. However, the southern French Rhone Valley, with vineyards influenced by the Rhone River, and the Atlantic Ocean, pulls at the heartstrings of wine lovers, and winemakers, around the world. Winemakers celebrate the earthy, dense, textured red varieties of the Rhone, like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, and floral, stone-fruit filled white Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Rolle, and Viognier, creating new world versions with old-world respect, across the globe.
Paso Robles is the ideal place to grow these Rhone varieties, particularly in the Adelaida District in the northwestern portion of the AVA. Though the region had plantings of missionaries dating to the 1600s, pianist, composer and prime minister of Poland, Ignacy Jan Paderewski, can be thanked for realizing the potential for the area early on. The musician and diplomat had traveled to California in the early 1900s, and quickly fell in love with the rolling hills of Paso, purchasing his Rancho San Ignacio, in the Adelaida area. Ten years later he planted his first vines, producing wine at the historic York Mountain Winery, not far from his estate.
Today, both of these prestigious properties are EPOCH Estate, led by geologists turned winemakers, Bill and Liz Armstrong. Lovers of the land, and Rhone variety reds, the duo have a keen ability to understand the soils that are key to producing their refined EPOCH wines. Unlike many vineyards in California, Paderewski Vineyard has a lean, rocky, calcareous soil profiles, ideal for Rhone varieties, of which each is planted in the perfect location, keeping slope, sunlight, exposure, etc. in mind. EPOCH Sensibility shines with a delicate elegance, showcasing 100% Paderewski Vineyard Grenache with a hint of Mourvedre to round out the luscious palate, adding a bit of texture. Generous and fresh, showcasing raspberry, ripe cherry, pepper, and crushed stone.
Falling in love with the Northern Rhone while traveling in France in the late 1980s, winemaker David Ramey delivers cool-climate California Syrah with the same grace and style he found in the region. Ramey Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah ($65) from Sonoma Mountain reveals a textured, structured wine, with sophistication, refinement, and an alluring complexity that shows the spicy elegance of well-made Syrah.
One of the prettiest Rose wines we have had recently came from an unlikely source. Highly regarded Daou Vineyards in Paso Robles is known for their elegant, elevated Cabernet Sauvignon based wines. However, the scene stealer in the lineup may be their refreshing, summer-in-a-glass Rhone blend Rose from vineyards sitting at 2000+ feet in Paso Robles. Floral, fruity, spicy, savory, and fresh, bringing everything you hope for in a great Rose into one glass. But enjoy slowly as this show-stopper should be lingered over.
Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley has the unique ability to produce so many incredible wines from a diverse group of varieties, including classic Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, as well as intense, mouth-watering old vine Zinfandel. Dutcher Crossing Proprietor’s Reserve Syrah ($33) highlights this with their estate selection, adding 13% earthy Petit Sirah to the blend to give depth to the fresh berry, wild rose, sweet pepper, and orange peel filled wine.
One of the first in the modern day Rhone wine movement in California, Tablas Creek began in 1989. The winery started as a partnership between wine importer, Robert Hass of Vineyard Brands, and the Perrin Family, owners of the prestigious Château de Beaucastel in Rhone’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape’s. In 1989, they purchased a 120-acre parcel twelve miles from the Pacific Ocean in Paso’s Adelaida District. Similar to the famous Mistral winds that sweep through vineyards in the Rhone, cooling afternoon breezes sweep through the vineyards of Tablas Creek off of the Pacific Ocean daily. The winds ensure ripeness in the fruit while maintaining freshness. The winery is known for its stellar Rhone-style red wines; however, I am a fan of their whites. Tablas Creek single-variety bottling of Marsanne ($35) shines with crushed stone, lemon-balm, white flower, and nectarine. The Tablas Creek Côtes de Tablas Blanc ($27) blends Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, and Viognier, delivering a round, textured, balanced wine shining with stone fruit, sweet spice, and earthy minerality.
From vineyards planted in 1973 in Santa Ynez Valley, Malene Old Vine Grenache Rose ($35) melds floral lilac and white flowers with soft herbal notes, similar to the great Rose wines of Provence, but 100% Californian. Juicy, textured, luscious, and refined, the vibrant wine layers golden peach, crushed stone, ripe apple, and spice.
Paying homage to the wines of Southern Rhone, like Chateauneuf-du-Pape, South Africa’s Sadie Family Wines reveals strength, concentration, and dignity in their Columella ($150), blending 11 different varieties. From Granite, slate and sandstone filled soils in South Africa’s Swartland, Columella shines with a unique blend of both bright, fresh red fruits and black fruits. Thankfully, the beautiful integration of each variety ensures the earthy, textured wine is balanced while delivering its own unique story.
From the Rhone, Chateau De Saint Cosme Little James Basket Press Red ($14) is one of the best old world, Vine de France red wines for the money. Produced from 100% Grenache the youthful wine opens with floral and woody herb notes, melding into fresh cherries, pink pepper, and wild strawberry jam.
Decidedly different, Prisoner Wine Company hits a home run with their white blend, Blindfold ($32). Blending Marsanne, Roussanne, and Muscat with a base of Chardonnay, the orchard fruit-forward wine leaps from the glass with fresh apple, honeysuckle, lychee, and peaches, with a rich, round, lingering palate.