With all these Rhone blends flying around, I thought this would be a good time to take a quick look at what each of the major varieties might bring to these blends. A fair question might be, why are these wines blended? The easy answer is that the resultant wines are more complex than any component is on its own, and history probably plays at least as big a role.
Historically, many regions relied on a variety of grapes to produce their wine. Some were early maturing, others late; some were drought-tolerant, others dealt well with excess rain. The ultimate goal was not to be able to produce some exceptional blend each year, but rather to produce something each year. In this day and age of wine as a luxury item we tend to forget how little we are removed from wine as a staple. It was food and water, calories and a bright spot to otherwise difficult lives.
Rhone image via Shutterstock
Today things have changed and winemakers have the luxury of creating wines for a luxury market. The end result is blending to achieve the best possible outcome in any given vintage, but with man’s increasing control over nature and the raw materials, the blend itself has become the dominant player in the blending decision making process, particularly in Châteauneuf, where history has seen a wide range of grapes. While all are still allowed in the blend, they are whittled to one star Grenache, and many supporting players. So let’s start by reviewing Châteauneuf.
The Grand Vin of the Southern Rhone Valley, Châteauneuf is perhaps the quintessential blended wine. With 13 varieties of grapes allowed, 15 if you include both the light and dark skinned varieties of Grenache and Picpoul, each winemaker has the ability to craft a unique and distinct interpretation of the soils and climates of the region. While few producers use all or even most of the 13 varieties, most rely on Grenache to form the heart and soul of their wines. These are rather big and distinctly warm climate wines that are rich with alcohol. The tannins of Grenache are modest, so many of these wines require little aging to be enjoyed; yet many can improve over the course of a decade. Typically one finds rich strawberry and red cherry tones in Châteauneuf with complicating notes of herbs and lavender, frequently referred to as "garrigue". There are frequently notes of game, leather and tar, typical of Syrah and Mourvedre - two other important components of many wines.
Chateauneuf has served as the model for a virtual explosion of wines the world over that are loosely grouped together under the Rhone blend moniker, and it’s worth running through some of the big picture details of these wines before proceeding to the major grapes themselves.
Rhone Blends are generally based on Grenache, though some blends may be predominantly Syrah or Mourvedre. The fact that these wines are blends gives the winemakers unusual flexibility in creating a finished wine. In the Southern Rhone Valley of France, the styles can range from light, fruity, soft Cotes du Rhone to big, bold, age-worthy Chateauneuf-du-pape. This blend is also very popular in Australia and the United States where they frequently go by the Moniker GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre) and exhibit the rich, bold fruit that both countries are famous for.
Grenache is the main grape in many Rhone blends and most Cotes du Rhone and Chateauneuf-du-pape. It's a grape that yields soft, lightly colored yet full wines, endowed with deep notes of strawberry and raspberry. While not prone to producing particularly rich or complex wines in France, Grenache is one of the world's most widely-planted grapes, producing unique expression wherever it is planted. It is particularly common in Spain as Garnacha, and in Sardinia as Canonnau.
One of the few grapes to really be a global success, Syrah combines a meaty core of ripe berry fruit with tones that range from herbal to peppery, in a package that tends to be medium-bodied with good acidity and softer tannins. With age, the wines can gain lovely leathery and black olive notes that make them a great match for savory and gamey dishes.
Though Mourvèdre is a grape with Spanish roots, where it is known as Monastrell, it is most closely associated with the South of France and the Bandol appelation in particular, where the grape produces rich, powerful wines that retain rustic tannins partnered with dark, wild berry flavors and gamey, leathery nuances. It is also commonly called Mataro in California.
Carignan is a workhorse grape of France and Spain, its ancestral home, where it goes by Cariñena. It is getting renewed interest for its intense color, acid and tannins that it can add to a blend. It has been successful as a Rosé and is occasionally bottled on its own, but it remains primarily a blending wine.
Cinsault has been widely planted throughout North Africa and the Mediterranean basin due to its affinity for a warm, dry climate. It produces wines with a soft texture, modest tannins and strong meaty, spicy and mineral aromas that accent its dark, strawberry toned fruit. It has historically been used as a blending grape.