Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Wine Blogging Wednesday #71: What the crap is all this "Rhône" mess?!

Do you get irritated by words with accents, umlauts, lines through the "o", "CCCP" standing for "The Soviet Union" somehow, tildes, backwards accents, the Greek alphabet as a whole, and those damn hieroglyphics? Maybe you don't. Perhaps you're more "worldly" than the rest of us jackasses. Okay, more worldly than me. Sorry I called most of you jackasses.

To me, if it's difficult to find on the keyboard; if I have to access the "character map", copy, then paste (making sure the font is consistent), well... it's irritating. Listen; I'm not language xenophobe, and I get and respect the need to accuracy. But that doesn't mean I can't bitch about it.

Compound the irritation when someone not only takes a word that requires a funky rooftop above the "o", but slings it around in his lexicon like a warm and familiar word that everyone will understand. "Here, we're pouring a classic Rhône blend. Mmm, it just smells like a Rhône blend, doesn't it? Oh, you don't know what a 'Rhône blend' is? Well, I guess I have the psychological upper-hand at this wine tasting, don't I, shit-for-brains?" (for the record, "shit-for-brains" is one of those very familiar terms I was talking about that everyone knows. )

My point- which absolutely required graphic cursing- is that wine folks all-too-often throw out obscure terms and industry-speak to the curious masses that are assumed to be commonplace. Blogs are probably the worst about this. I bet this blog is terrible about it. And sure, wine lovers are likely the ones reading wine blogs (actually, it's probably just other wine bloggers). But I think we get too comfortable speculating on what our audience already knows, without taking the time to explain what the terms mean. Coupled with the fact that many of those terms are foreign and contain weird slashes and dashes and flip-flaps only exasperates the problem.

When in doubt, a little education never hurts. Remember: it's okay to be geeky. People actively seeking wine blogs and articles are probably into that stuff. But assumptions can be very alienating. Subscribing to this proviso, I will probably lose all the super-knowledgeable folks with the rest of this post. But I'd rather hope one eager vinophile gets learned on some tight science. Some things just deserve a thorough explanation.

And such is the case with the Rhône. Ever heard the term "Rhône blend" and wondered what that meant? Much like "Bordeaux blend" or "Super Tuscan", a "Rhône blend" is something thrown around in the tasting rooms of California, Washington State, and Australia, among others. But what does it mean? First off, the Rhône basically refers to the Rhône river valley in southeastern France. It's a very famous wine region, containing some sub-regions that you may recognize: Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, and Condrieu, to name a few. The region is basically broken into two geographic sections: the Northern Rhône and the Southern Rhône... I know; it's not very creative. Maybe they should've brought in Big Ten Conference big wigs to name the regions (tongue planted firmly in cheek).

Anyway, the Northern part focuses on dry red wines made primarily from the Syrah grape, and the most-notable whites made from Viognier (and some from Roussanne). In the Southern section (sorry, I just can't say "Rhône" anymore, and I'm sick of the extra keystroke to put that hat on the "o"), Grenache [Noir] is king of the reds, but you'll see tons of different grapes, including the aforementioned Syrah, along with Mourvèdre, Cinsault, and Carignan (among others). On the white side, there's Viognier and Roussanne, but there's also Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Picpoul, Bourboulenc, and on and on. Confused yet? Me too.

So let's simplify: the phrase "Rhône style blend" is probably used by someone not in the Rhône. But when a winemaker in Santa Barbara County, California or Walla Walla, Washington says that, he/she means that it's a wine made from a blend of traditional Rhône grapes. That's it. Tasting a Syrah with a little Viognier blended in? You'll probably impress someone if you describe that as a "classic Northern Rhône" blend. Or irritate someone. Depends on the person.

In Australia, they grow a lot of Syrah, but it goes by a different name: Shiraz. Same grape, different name. Those wacky Aussies; don't let them trip you up. Down under, you'll see a lot of bottles labeled "GSM". That's short for "Grenache/Shiraz/Mourvèdre". That is a great example of a "Southern Rhône" blend. Or maybe you'll run into a white wine made from Roussanne, Marsanne, and some Grenache Blanc. Same deal.

Stateside, you'll see quite a few varietal bottlings. Blends just aren't as hip yet here. Syrah is the predominant variety I see (though sales are slipping). You'll also probably find some Grenache on its own, Viognier, Roussanne, maybe a Mourvèdre or two, and that odd Carignan. As for the 20+ other predominant grapes that grow in the Rhône... well, you shop at interesting places if you see many (or any) of them grown domestically and bottled by themselves.

Well, there you go. Pretty sure I scared 99% of folks off with all that technical mess. What a boring post. But I couldn't throw phrases out without an explanation. Hopefully, just one person was eager enough to learn something new. If that's the case, then all the "ô" typing, the hyperlinks, and the damn, damn italicizing was worth it.

This edition of "Wine Blogging Wednesday"- something I accidentally only seem to participate in once every 6 months or so- is hosted by Winecast. Wine bloggers across the world write on a common theme. This month's is "Rhônes not from the Rhône". I'm pretty sure I bastardized the topic a bit, but I guarantee you don't want to read tasting notes here. Ever. Anyway, thanks to the host. Rhône wines- either from there or made elsewhere from the traditional grapes- really are fantastic, and worth a few too many words.
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