There are wine regions in the world that have a distinct voice, a thrilling history, a recognizable landscape and wines that have no choice but to speak of place. The Rhône Valley of France is certainly one of those regions, if not the model of a complicated, historic and precious wine appellation. There is archaeological evidence for production winemaking in the Rhône Valley stretching back to the Hellenic (Greek) occupation in 400 BCE, strong evidence that the Rhône produced important and celebrated wines in the Roman Empire, and then a gap in that vinous history between the fall of Classical Rome and the Dark Ages when production slacked and many vineyards were abandoned. When the Catholic Church moved their capitol from Rome to the Rhône in the 14th century, the papacy’s love of wine reinvigorated the region and many new vineyards were planted. The word ‘Pontiff’ means ‘Bridge’ (bridging God’s Will to man via Catholicism), and it can be argued that the Popes in Avignon’s ‘New House’ (Châteauneuf-du-Pape) are the bridge that connects the ancient Rhône to the modern.
Since the 13th Century, the Rhône has produced wines that deserve to be considered as the greatest in the world. The Rhône challenges wine drinkers, sommeliers, and wine professionals with a larger number of varietals, soils, communes, and wine styles. Burgundy is confounding with simply two varietals to understand (three if you include Aligoté), Bordeaux focuses on five red and two white grapes. But with nearly 30 widely planted grape varieties in the Rhône, defined by the river valley running between Vienne in the north and Nîmes in the south, a lifetime of study and tasting can still not exhaust the mystery and secrets hidden in these ancient valleys that were formed when the Massif Central and the Alps slammed into each other forty million years ago.
Rhône-styled wines in the New World are a relatively new phenomenon. Even though grapes such as Syrah, Grenache Noir, and Viognier have been transplanted into the New World for at least a century, New World Rhônes have only come into the popular imagination of wine drinkers in the last few decades. Rhônes are a no-brainer for home and small production winemakers. The main grapes for these productions, especially Syrah and Grenache Noir, are still considered overplanted in many West Coast vineyards and the grapes can be purchased in small lots, at amazing quality, for about a buck-a-pound if you have good connections.
In the hopes of guiding small-production winemakers in growing and fermenting the best Rhône-varietal wines possible, I reached out to a group of highly talented and respected Rhône Rangers (a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting American Rhône varietal wine) to pass along the hard-earned lessons that the grapes, yeast, and vines have taught them. So without further ado, let’s hear from our pro winemakers:
Larry Schaffer is owner/winemaker for Tercero wines, a small label committed to producing small lot, vineyard-driven wines using grapes solely from leading Santa Barbara County, California wineries. He has specialized in working with Rhône varieties during his 10 years of making wines for Tercero. He currently serves on the national Board of Directors of the Rhône Rangers and is the President of the Santa Barbara County Chapter as well.
Michael Larner is Winemaker and General Manager at Larner Vineyard & Winery in Santa Barbara, California. He received a MS degree from the Department of Viticulture & Enology at UC Davis in 2005 and earned a BS in Geology at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He has worked for E. Guigal in Ampuis, France (the Rhône Valley), Marchesi Antinori at the Guado al Tasso estate in Bolgheri (coastal Tuscany), and various estates in the Santa Ynez Valley (California) and Australia. His passion is Rhône-style wine.
Guy is the owner of Guy Drew Vineyards in Cortez, Colorado. He and his wife Ruth moved to Cortez and started building in 1998 and planting in 1999. They were licensed in 2000 and have continued to grow and champion grape growing in the region.
Trey Fletcher joined Bien Nacido & Solomon Hills Estates in Los Olivos, California in 2011 as Winemaker and General Manager. He studied Enology & Viticulture at California State University Fresno. He has made wine and grown grapes in Europe, New Zealand, Argentina, and California. Upon returning to the United States, he has worked several
vintages in the Napa Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Central Coast of California.
What specific harvest and winemaking decisions are required when making a Rhône-style wine?
Larry Schaffer • Tercero Wines:
Many of the challenges of winemaking start in the vineyard — not all of these varieties are as easy to grow as many believe, and some show the same heartbreak possibilities that Pinot Noir is so famous for. Many of these varieties are prone to poor set, challenged with even a little wind during flowering, and have their own set of challenges leading up to harvest itself. For instance, Grenache loves to throw a huge crop and carries with it huge “shoulders” on each cluster. Many winemakers choose to clip off these shoulders well after veraison to try to concentrate what remains. Due to its large crop and a few other factors, Grenache is prone to ripening later than other varieties. Some winemakers get antsy and choose to clip off all leaves in the fruiting zone to speed up the process. That may or may not work, but what will happen with direct sunlight is bleaching of the skins, leading to pink clusters on one side and grapes destined for rosé only.
White Rhône varieties also have their set of challenges. Viognier is prone to ripening quite quickly, causing not only sugar levels to rise precipitously, but also pH. Roussanne is prone to overgrowth in the canopy and fruiting zones, leading to much higher powdery mildew pressures than many other varieties. And Grenache Blanc has very tough, bitter skins that must be taken into account when determining press cycles and free run versus hard press juices.
Once these varieties make it into the winemaking facility, they each have other individual issues. Grenache, for instance, is known to throw an inordinate quantity of jacks (small pieces of stems), frustrating those who dislike these in with the grapes during fermentation. This variety also tends to seemingly lose color as fermentation progresses, and many choose to press it a bit early to not only hold onto this color, but to minimize picking up more tannin that the skins of this variety are known for. Syrah can get mighty reductive during fermentation, leading many winemakers to use a rack and return procedure multiple times during this period. Mourvèdre, if fermented too warm, gets quite funky — and this quality can remain with that wine for quite some time.
Michael Larner • Larner Vineyard and Winery: What truly differentiates Rhône-styled wines are the techniques employed for each variety that differ quite a bit from say Burgundian- or Bordelaise-styled winemaking. Generally speaking, Burgundian reds made from Pinot Noir can see stem-inclusion, non-oxidative wine movements, and newer oak in aging. However with Rhône wines the techniques vary per variety. For example Syrah can incorporate stem-inclusion but also likes oxygen. In fact it is more conducive to extended macerations and longer aging in newer oak, whereas Grenache can go either way on stem-inclusion, and hates oxygen. Some producers now use cement vessels or stainless steel, and age in larger neutral vessels or, once again, concrete. Compared to making wine in Bordeaux, really you have to look at more southern Rhône wines, which are also blends. In Bordeaux, green (aka vegetal) qualities are the enemy, any unripeness can increase pyrazines in an unacceptable fashion. Rhône wines that are made up of blends are not plagued as much by vegetal issues, but rather harmony concerns. Bordeaux varieties as a whole have quite a bit of similarities in flavor and aroma profiles, but Grenache, Mour-vèdre, Carignan, and Counoise are all quite different in nature. Keeping a Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre (GSM) in harmony becomes challenging since any one of those grapes will set the tone of the wine and its longevity. I remember touring Château La Nerthe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and in the winery on a wall was a plaque that showed how each variety used to make their blend went through different winemaking paths. I guess they figured it was not secret, especially since you will never see a plaque like that in Burgundy or Bordeaux.
Guy Drew • Guy Drew Vineyards: When to pick is the biggest question. I like some skin wrinkle but if we wait too long to harvest we end up at 29 °Brix. I don’t care for extended maceration either before we inoculate or after fermentation is complete.
Trey Fletcher • Bien Nacido & Solomon Hills Wines: You don’t have to worry about disease pressure as much as other varieties since the Rhône varieties are generally thicker skinned. Unlike Bordeaux varieties, however, Rhône varieties can get pretty fat and flabby if you pick too late.
Pop quiz. You receive 1,000 lbs. (455 kg) of quality Syrah fruit at 23 °Brix and 3.8 pH at noon. The fruit is 81 °F (27 °C) in the middle of the bin. With as much detail as you’d like to provide, how would you make the wine in a garage setting?
Larry Schaffer • Tercero Wines: The first thing I would try to do would be to cool down those grapes as best as possible to allow for at least a partial cold soak. At larger facilities, one would use dry ice in order to accomplish this, but many folks, including myself, do not have easy access to it. One technique I’ve seen used is putting large frozen blocks of ice in with the destemmed grapes to try to cool down the entire lot. Another approach would be to submerge the vessel holding the grapes in a cool water bath, space permitting. I would also be inclined to sprinkle a little SO2 over the grapes prior to destemming if you do not plan on getting to it as quickly as possible, and making sure that if you do process immediately, you add some SO2 to the crushed grapes. This will slow the onset of fermentation as well. All of this said, should you find fermentation kicking in early, just go for it — one thing I’ve learned over a decade of winemaking is that you need to be pragmatic, not dogmatic, in how you make your wines.
Michael Larner • Larner Vineyard and Winery: Let me preface this pop quiz with a question, outside of it being quality Syrah, where is it from? The origin will then dictate the choices I will make in my garage setting. For example if it is from a warm region, say Paso Robles, fruit expression will be prevalent so stem inclusion and lower fermentation temperatures might be used to restore some structure. If it is from Santa Rita Hills, then a warmer fermentation and avoiding stems will ensure a lack of green character. Either way there are two really big concerns I would have over the fruit already: pH 3.8 with a Brix of 23 might indicate over-cropping or virus like Syrah Decline where the vine shuts down delaying ripening. Maybe the Syrah is planted in the wrong place. Either way the Brix is not scary, but the relatively high pH at this low Brix means that microbial issues could arise both during primary and secondary fermentation. I would not hesitate to add tartaric acid to below 3.65 pH simply for long term health of the wine. How much below 3.65 pH depends on the titratable acidity. My other concern is that the core of the fruit is at 81 °F (27 °C), meaning not only is it possible fermentation has kicked off, but peak temperatures will spike above 90 °F (32 °C) easily rendering a possible stuck, sluggish, or aromatic ally destructive primary. These grapes need to cool fast, and in a garage type environment (i.e. no glycol or dry ice), the best thing to do is put food grade plastic bags filled with ice in the core, and maybe even transfer the fruit into different containers based on individual temperatures. As a rule, we usually pick our fruit at night and cold soak for three days near 40 °F (4 °C) in the winery, so that is probably not reproducible in a garage setting, but getting the temperature down initially is key so that you can have a more calm precise primary fermentation. Depending on the history of the fruit, I would most likely elect to add 35 ppm SO2 as a commercial yeast strain would be employed. So in a nutshell, without panicking, I would transfer around 10% whole cluster into my fermentation vessel, then begin de-stemming without crushing the fruit on top, periodically placing zipper-style plastic bags full of ice, furthermore adding my total acid and sulfite addition in batches as I progress. If some sort of pump is readily available a pump-over twice a day to ensure homogenization of temperature and additions, which I would continue in addition to punch downs at least twice a day when a cap begins to form. Caution — do not start punching down until you have retrieved all of your bag cooling devices, and don’t lose count every time you change them out. Inoculate with a commercial yeast strain after three days of cold soaking (I personally like BM45 or D254). I would try to keep the fermentation temperature peak in the mid 80s (~30 °C), moving the fermenter outside at night along with ice packs. Once complete, eliminate pump-overs and just do one punch down a day. I also like to inoculate for malolactic fermentation (MLF) while in extended maceration — so the entire lot gets it and also the pressing will stimulate growth, plus you get some additional SO2 blanket during this time frame. Once pressed, I would send the wine into a tank to settle overnight, then barrel down the next day choosing around 30% new oak, mostly French. Since I only have 1,000 lbs. (455 kg) or roughly 75 gallons (284 L) I might go for a new 15-gallon (57-L) barrel and put the rest in a neutral barrel. If the volume is less than that, I would put it all in a barrel that has been used once/twice before and the rest in kegs. I typically age my wines for 22 months.
Guy Drew • Guy Drew Vineyards: At 23 °Brix, resulting alcohol is not going to be a problem. At 3.8 pH there is a problem with acid, however. I highly suggest sending a sample in to a lab to know exactly what acids are left — $50 to $70 well spent. The test will not only confirm in-house numbers, but also tell you how much tartaric and malic acid you have. I like to adjust the acids in the wine to two thirds tartaric and one third malic.
Because of the high bin temperature I would process the fruit immediately. After the fruit is processed I would adjust the pH and add yeast to get things rolling. I would start punching down within 12 hours. I like to use oak chips or cubes in the fermentation to help build the long chain anthocyanins for color deepness and stability. If the temperature drops during fermentation below 80 °F (27 °C) I would use hot water bottles (sanitized soda kegs) to keep the temperature up through the end. This also allows for malolactic fermentation to start quickly and complete.
Trey Fletcher • Bien Nacido & Solomon Hills Wines: In a garage setting I would get a move on fermenting immediately due to the high temperature in the bin. I would add a small amount of SO2 to the fruit and crush it without destemming. After a gentle crushing of the fruit I would inoculate with a good Rhône red-specific yeast and get the show on the road. Due to not destemming and an already high pH I would add some tartaric acid with the yeast inoculation to get the wine down to a comfortable pH. Get it as warm as you can, and keep it there for as long as the fermentation lasts. Not hotter than 95 °F (35 °C) and not cooler than 75 °F (24 °C). Once the ferment is dry I would put the free run into barrels, and press the marc (press run) into another container. Check the pH when it’s dry and adjust to a comfortable level with tartaric acid, and let it start malolactic (ML). Sulfur once ML is completed and bottle when you feel the wine is in a great place.
Are Rhône varieties noble, or better suited for blending, and why?
Larry Schaffer • Tercero Wines:
I truly believe that most of these grape varieties are noble and can produce wonderful, stand-alone, 100% versions of themselves, which is something I proudly do. This is not to say that many of these varieties cannot also work well with others in blends. This is especially true with Grenache and Mourvèdre — both are stunning on their own but both add such wonderful characteristics to blends as well.
Michael Larner • Larner Vineyard and Winery: I am not sure blending makes a grape less noble; I think Cabernet Sauvignon may take offense to that. But the ideology that there are certain Rhône wines that are better off in blends is true for varieties like Carignan, Counoise, Piquepoul, Bourboulenc, etc. However as in the case of Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre (GSM), one can have both fantastic blends as well as wines that are iconic if made as varietals. Syrah is by far more commonly accepted as a stand alone wine, yet regions like Bandol or Vacqueyras champion 100% Mourvèdre. Even some Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas are 100% Grenache. I mean come on what is more noble than being named after the “new house of the pope”? On the white spectrum, Viognier doesn’t play well with others as much as Marsanne and Roussanne, so it may not be a question of nobility but rather avoiding an awkward rendering.
I have tasted many non-traditional blends around the world, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from Australia or Grenache and Tempranillo from Spain, and in a way a true GSM deviates a little from the traditional Châteauneuf -du-Pape blend. However, I am enthralled with wines that have “rip your face off” tannins but still seduce aromatically, so in my wildest dreams, or not-to-distant future, I plan to make a “SSAT” wine — Syrah, Sagrantino, Aglianico, and Tempranillo.
Guy Drew • Guy Drew Vineyards: Both. Rhône grape varieties make fantastic wines on their own, but it’s hard to knock a good Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I have routinely blended Cabernet and Syrah, leaning heavier on the Cabernet. Now that Colorado growers have started planting more hybrids I have found Syrah to be a great start for adding a little natural acidity to my hybrid blends. I recently blended Syrah and Baco Noir for one killer wine.
Trey Fletcher • Bien Nacido & Solomon Hills Wines: With the exception of Syrah it can be harder for Rhône varieties to stand on their own unless they come from a very special terroir. Each variety seems to play well with others and can, if not overdone, bring out each other’s best characteristics for some amazing reason. I think that Rhône reds and Muscat work well together surprisingly.
When walking the vineyards you source Rhône varieties from, what do you look for, what do you tell your farmers, or what nugget of wisdom can you share about proper growing and harvest of Rhône varieties for those interested in buying fresh Rhône varieties?
Larry Schaffer • Tercero Wines:
This is a tough question, as every winemaker is so different in terms of what they are looking for. Most winemakers are insistent on getting the smallest crop from a specific site for they feel it will make a more intense wine than a larger crop. This is not always the case, and I would beg not the case with white grapes in general, and most white Rhônes in particular. On the vineyard side, I work with wonderful vineyard managers who know the varieties, know their sites, and know what most winemakers are looking for. There is always going to be a push and pull between the vineyard owner wanting to crop heavy and a winemaker wanting to crop light. Since many of these varieties, especially the reds, tend to be late ripening and late harvested, it is imperative that vineyard managers understand crop loads so as not to have so heavy of a load that the clusters will not fully ripen. To me, that’s the biggest challenge . . . and not making vineyard managers mad when I want to pick later than others because the grapes just aren’t ready for what I’m looking for.
Guy Drew • Guy Drew Vineyards: Look for growers who: A. Control vigor but don’t stress it. B. Control mildew. C. Aren’t afraid to spread out harvest. Some of my best wines have been from vines picked over a two-week period.
Trey Fletcher • Bien Nacido & Solomon Hills Wines: Conscientious farming and timing in the vineyard are the first things to look for. Rhône varieties can be easily overcropped, and overfed. Look for vineyards where vigor is kept in check after flowering by minimal watering — healthy canopy management is almost all you have to do with Rhônes.
Michael Larner • Larner Vineyard and Winery: The bulk of my production comes from our estate, so my observations and decisions are mostly unilateral. But what I have found is the following: Syrah is a beach bum that loves the sun, so don’t be afraid to expose it (the earlier the better). But you do have to motivate it sometimes, whether dropping fruit or giving it oxygen in primary fermentation to reduce reductive characters. Pay attention to nitrogen both in vineyard and must to make sure H2S is limited and don’t be afraid to be aggressive. Do the opposite with Grenache, keep it away from the sun — it bleaches color. Thin wings and shoulders to eliminate bunching, and only pull leaves on morning sun side so airflow is permitted but harsh sun avoided. Don’t freak out over the trellis, both Grenache and Mourvèdre like to grow straight up and are very rigid.
Watch your watering; Grenache loves to over-crop. Mourvèdre is similar to Grenache in more ways than Syrah, but watch out for its ability to produce wines that border on gamey/peppercorn. It needs more heat, not necessarily sun exposure. The GSM grapes are all typically cordon trained and spur pruned, but be on the lookout for Eutypa (dead-arm) and especially with Syrah look for red leaves closer to harvest (sign of Syrah decline or Syrah Disorder) which will delay fruit ripening and phenolic evolution. Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Roussanne are good on cordon as well, and Viognier can go either way. However with all four of these grapes be wary of the “golden/reddening” on the skins, some people equate this to maturity, but it is also a sign of potential aromatic loss.
Don’t be afraid to push the crop on these whites, they all have good glycerol production, so they will always have a perceived weight in the mouth even at higher crop levels. Lastly, don’t fear unevenness like the Bordelaise or Burgundians; variety is the spice of life and after spending harvest in the Rhône valley I can advise that not every site is uniform and yet they make wines many of us aspire to reproduce.