Rhone Reds


The disconnect between what a remarkable grape Syrah is and the degree to which it remains shunned by the wine consuming community grows more glaring to me with every visit to a production zone and during nearly every Syrah tasting in which I participate.  We recently sung the praises of the Tulip Reserve from Israel, and my recent trip to Chile uncovered more stunning, completely unheralded wines made from this variety.  But what’s even more buried than Syrah is recognition of how delicious some of the other lesser known red grape varieties originating in the Rhone Valley can taste, especially Grenache, Carignan and Mourvedre.  

Perhaps it’s an identity issue.  The names aren’t easy to pronounce, and there’s no glory or glamor in being lumped together as one of the “Rhone Varieties.”  Unlike Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, which have strong and distinct personalities, the red grape varieties originating in the Rhone often taste better when blended together in mutually supporting roles.  Our obsession with single varietals may be waning somewhat, but the original reasons that labeling based on the name of an individual grape took hold (simplifying matters, reinforcing expectations and making it easier to buy with confidence), are still valid for most of us.  Blends, delicious as they may be, constitute wild cards, as in, “What will they taste like?” 

Somehow this is no problem in marketing the classic wines of Bordeaux, or Champagne, or the Rhone Valley itself, but for all of the wonderful Rhone-based reds from Spain, South America, California, South Africa and other regions, blending doesn’t inspire the same level of mass enthusiasm.  On the other hand, maybe it should.  Anything on a restaurant wine list that is difficult to sell because it’s not from a familiar, recognizable category, is often of extremely high quality.  Why else would it appear on the list?  Yes, obscurity sometimes equates to deliciousness.  At Legal Sea Foods, these Rhone-based reds are often “best buys” as well, as we’re eager to expose diners to them, so we price them as attractively as possible.

The following are some of the “Rhone Reds” you might encounter at one or more of our restaurants.  The overall style of these wines is somewhere between the softer tannin, red fruit and acid character of Pinot Noir and the fuller, more tannic intensity of Cabernet Sauvignon.  In other words, not overpowering and good matches for a majority of medium and fuller textured fish.

Undurraga “T.H.” Carignan, Maule Valley, 2012.  The “T.H.” means “terroir hunter.”  It’s a project of winemaker Rafael Urrejola, who is committed to identifying and locating “micro-terroirs” within the vast expanse of Chile’s vineyards that are especially suited to the growing requirements of particular varietals.  Carignan is not an internationally known grape; it labors in anonymity in most places where it’s grown, but in this case the old vines from Chile’s largest demarcated region produce a smoky, savory wine, expressing juicy ripe red fruit, with spicy peppery notes and great concentration.  This wine, from the dry-farmed vines of Cauquenes, has an ideal balance of relatively high acid and moderate tannins to complement a grilled salmon.

Beckmen Vineyards “LSF Cuvee” GSM, Santa Ynez Valley, 2014.  We’ve partnered with biodynamic grower Steve Beckmen up on the rocky heights of Purisima Mountain for several vintages in producing a custom Syrah, but for the 2014 version we decided to blend Grenache and Mourvedre into the mix.  This one even has a dash of the highly obscure, but justly admired, Chateauneuf-du-Pape blending grape, Counoise.  The results are compelling.  The wine is darker in color than the Carignan, with more black fruit and baking spice notes.  This is a concentrated, somewhat gamey and earthy style wine, with notes of clove and licorice, which stands up well to our Everything Tuna.

T-Vine Grenache, Napa Valley, 2013.  Napa is hardly the first place that leaps to mind when looking for bang for your buck, or for unique and obscure varietals.  T-Vine has a habit of uncovering overlooked lots though, and this Grenache, from two Napa vineyards, is a stunner: bold, rich, dark in color and velvety in texture.  Its floral, ripe cherry and cocoa flavors are rounded and smooth, with lingering cinnamon and tobacco accents.  A great quaffing wine, or a partner for grilled swordfish.

Barahonda "Barrica,” Yecla, 2012.  This Spanish red is made form 75% Monastrell (internationally known as Mourvedre), and the remainder Syrah.  From the area around Valencia in the Levante (Spain’s southeast), the high elevation vines grow here in organic conditions and are not irrigated.  This is very savory, with jammy dark berries, wild herbs, tar, and strong mineral notes.  Nicely concentrated, it’s another example of the amazing value that Spanish reds represent today.  Like the other wines recommended here, this is less than $40 per bottle on our wine list. 

We invite you to satisfy your craving for flavorful, moderately priced and food friendly red wine and to see how well it complements many of our fish preparations.  Enjoy a bottle of one of the above and you’ll more than likely discover for yourself why I remain so bullish on the Rhone Reds section of our wine lists.

Sandy Block MW