Perhaps with the economic recovery imminent, it’s appropriate to paraphrase Charles Dickens, and refer to the past few years as the best and worst of times. This is not meant to disrespect the all-too-real financial hardship, the French Revolution and Dickens’s historical fiction all at once.
But when it comes to measuring the misery indexes recent history, the current recession has produced a few glimmers of hope. Think of all the great wines that have (re)emerged, thanks to enthusiasts who enjoy bargain hunting. And, Chicago’s fearless restaurateurs continue to transform this city into a true culinary destination – populating their wine lists with deep-rooted varietals created with forward-thinking sensibility.
Contrast this with say, 1975, the height of stagflation: Pinot Grigio was an exotic, foreign grape; Rosé was sold mostly in jugs at cut-rate liquor bars; and getting a tank of gas took hours (or longer, because back then people would let their engines idle).
Back to history and fiction, there is no denying the pain wrought by the Great Recession – a historical event. And the aforementioned silver lining has its blemishes. But there has been another nice development in the wine industry: the illumination of its myths. No longer are wines just about brands, or a select cabal of critics. Devotion to a sense of place is axiomatic, not cynical marketing-speak on the bottle’s back label.
Yes, California’s position among international wine titans is most deserved. But, the Bordeaux grapes and blends that signify Napa and its environs are often harvested with set templates of branding and imagery. For many American producers of Rhône varietals, this is not the case. Grenache might be widely planted, but it loses a popularity contest to Cabernet – even the bulk juice – every time. The jammy, high-alcohol Shiraz from Australia almost changed the entire consumer perception of this grape. And, when it comes to Mourvèdre, Counoise or Carignan, the usual response is: “Huh?”
That’s why it’s important to recognize the domestic producers of Rhône-style wines. The idea of an American meritage is often synonymous with “Bordeaux blend.” But American vintners who aren’t all about branding are quite content with how Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre behave in the sandbox – even far away from the rocky soils of southern France.
“Hats off to Bonny Doon’s founder and winemaker Randall Graham,” says Joe Alter, a Wilmette-based wine consultant, describing a trailblazer in the cultivation of Rhône varietals in California. “While there’s probably more prestige and dollars in making ultra-rare small production wines, he’s put so much effort in making fresh and interesting wines (for so many).”
This isn’t to say that all domestic wines made with Rhône grapes are absolute steals. As with most French-inspired American wine, there are high prices and poor quality. But without all the extra myth, it’s a little easier to find the gems among the clutter. Below are a few American reds, supported by the Rhône Rangers organization. Like their French counterparts, they are versatile and emulate historic plantings, without the big dose of fiction:
Beckmen Cuvée Le Bec 2010: True to its cuvée moniker, this is quite the blend from Santa Barbara County. The Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Counoise all make a great harmony. This is a nice value-priced American alternative to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with influences from the Mourvèdre and Counoise adding nice depth of flavor. This is a great wine to open the outdoor grilling season. It’s a nice beer-can-chicken wine, especially with the dark meat. $15.
Clos de Gilroy 2010: From Bonny Doon, which is now distributed by Chicago-based Cream Wine Company, this is, according to Alter, “an unfussy, Grenache-dominant blend from California’s Central Coast.” Agreed. The Grenache drives abundant juiciness. But, let it open in the glass a bit, and the bits of Cinsault and Syrah will fill in the structure. Enjoy with a classically prepared coq au vin. Certified Biodynamic. $15.
Barrel 27 Rock and a Hard Place Grenache 2009: Another beautiful Central Coast wine with a medium ruby-black color. Soft and rich, with pure red fruit, it’s also got a nice amount of spice to balance the ripeness. This pivots from poultry to well-seasoned pork chops. $16.