Breaking Down Blends: Rhone Reds
While its definition, goals, and perception have changed countless times, ‘Blending’ has likely been a key part of winemaking since its inception some 8,000 years ago. The first occasion of which could have been something as simple as a Neolithic Georgian saying, “one wine is bad, this other wine is good. I don’t want to throw away the bad wine. If I mix them together I will have a lot of OK wine.” Hopefully it was.
Today, blending provides a winemaker with a multifaceted tool for achieving quality. From ironing out vintage variation to toning down a high-tannin grape with a smoother varietal to simply making the best use of an estate that grows a multitude of varietals, some sort of blending comes into play with almost every wine on the market today. Even a wine labeled ‘Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon’ can contain as little as 75% Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, often smoothed out with some Merlot or Petit Sirah.
That being said, there are regions where ‘blending’ is not only common, but classic. Bordeaux (red and white), Port, Champagne, and Rhonish blends to name a few. Focusing in, Bordeaux and Rhone are two that standout. Across the winemaking world, wineries embrace ‘Bordeaux blends’ and ‘Rhonish blends’, going so far as to successfully market the wines as such.
This month, we drill down specifically into Rhonish Red Blends. These are blends composed (very generally) of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, and/or Carignan. While other grapes (as we will see) can make it into Rhone blends, these five are the core varieties. Whittled down more, you’ll hear ‘GSM Blend’, or, (G)renache, (S)yrah, (M)ourvedre. These three grapes are worth further attention, as they bring unique characteristics to any wine they’re part of, and two of them, G and S, are in each of our wines this month:
- Grenache - a tough, drought-resistant grape that brings high levels of alcohol and sometimes a bit of residual sugar. Rich red fruit notes are abundant, often accompanied by herbaceousness. Also rather light in the glass.
- Syrah - distinctly spicy, tobacco-y aromas dominate Syrah with dark-fruit notes hiding in the background. Syrah is also rather tannic and presents very deep and dark in the glass (a welcome addition to shy Grenache)
- Mourvedre - very susceptible to drought. Bold, smokey, and sometimes even ‘meaty’. Very high tannin, rich blackberries. A classic ‘blending’ grape that struggles on its own due to its difficulty in the vineyards and sometimes overwhelming tannin.
Our first two wines will be from the Rhone itself, starting with a classic Cotes du Rhone from Domaine Gassier followed by a fun wine from Domaine Les Aphillanthes that’s 35% Merlot. Following the French will be a California entry from ‘Rhone Ranger’ (we’ll get to that) Randall Graham’s Bonny Doon winery. Finally, from South Africa, Boekenhoutskloof’s Syrah-heavy ‘The Chocolate Block’ is an ageable beaut’ of a wine.
Domaine Gassier Côtes du Rhône
Rhone Valley, France
80% Grenache, 10% Mourvedre, 10% Syrah
Domaine Gassier is the winemaking estate of Michael and Tina Gassier. Michael, who considers himself a ‘peasant-researcher’, has been working this ancestral plot of family land in the Costieres-de-Nimes for three decades. Always exploring new methods to get the most out of their organically farmed parcels, the Gassiers make a multitude of cuvees in many styles from the wealth of varietals native to the Southern Rhone Valley. This is their classic CDR blend, fruit-forward and approachable.
Strawberry, pomegranate, chocolate with dried raspberries. Violet and blackberries on the mid-palate with the violet and other light herbaceousness lingering. Nice acid, balanced tannin, and a pleasing finish.
This being on the lighter side for the wines this month, we’ll take advantage of a lighter pairing (lots of red meat coming with the other wines): a nice fat tuna steak, sous-vide to 110, and then charred on a very very hot grill or skillet. Fresh pepper and basil on top. Plus a side salad with tomatoes and a goat cheese crumble.
Domaine les Aphillanthes ‘Bragalou’
Rhone Valley, France
45% Syrah, 35% Merlot, 20% Grenache
Fourth generation winemaker Daniel Boulle inherited his family’s 10ha farm in 1987, then a modest operation in the Southern Rhone. In the years since, he and his wife, Helene, have expanded to 30ha and converted all of the land to biodynamic and organic, an effort which started because their son was experiencing eczema and they were concerned it was from pesticides/herbicides on and around the vineyards. Now they make gorgeous, clean wines at every price point. This ‘Bragalou’ being an entry-level option. Great for any night of the week!
Ripe cherry and plum, more dark fruit than I expected. The Syrah adds tenseness and some leathery/spicy notes… mushroom maybe? A surprisingly jammy finish, likely from the merlot, is an interesting contrast to the other wines this month. Moderate acid and tannin.
Hearty mushroom stew (sage/rosemary as base spices). Option to add cubed beef.
Bonny Doon ‘Le Cigare Volant’
Central Coast, California
61% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 15%, Cinault, 4% Petite Sirah
Bonny Doon was initially an attempt to replicate Burgundy in the sunny climate of Central California. Owner Randall Graham quickly realized that replicating a more mediterranean region made far more sense, and he switched to Rhone varietals and a Chateneuf-du-Pape style of winemaking. This led him and a couple of other producers to be deemed the ‘Rhone Rangers’, leading a 1980s surge in popularity for Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, and Cinsault throughout Central California. This is one of the wines they’ve made since the beginning, and is a personal favorite of mine.
Heavily perfumed strawberry and raspberry (go-go-grenache!), eucalyptus, and maybe just a hint of red mike and ikes… fine tannins, medium acid, high alcohol and a lovely finish that retains the perfumed berries you get up front.
High-acid North Carolina-style barbeque… pulled pork specifically. Nice side of coleslaw that can be slapped on top of the bbq if you’re eating it as a sandwich.
Boekenhoutskloof ‘The Chocolate Block’
Paarl, South Africa
74% Syrah, 10% Grenache, 8% Cinsault, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, 1% Viognier
These darn Germans and their fast-and-loose use of the Latin alphabet. Boekenhoutskloof means ‘ravine of the Boekenhout’ and a ‘Boekenhout’ is a type of Beech Tree. Beech Tree Ravine would be a perfectly acceptable winery name IMO. Anyway, some Germans started a winery in 1776 in South Africa… it’s now one of the benchmark wineries in the country as well as a leader in sustainability. The Chocolate Block is their yearly Syrah-based Rhone blend that incorporates a little Cab as well as a Northern Rhone staple, Viognier.
Leads with notes of cacao/dark chocolate, leather, black currant, cocoa nibs, and pomegranate. Very rich and textured with supple, well-balanced tannins. In the finish bramble, perfume, and cured meats linger. Low acid, lush tannin, very full body. Bruiser of a wine.
We could go with a juicy cut of steak here, but that’s no fun. I’m thinking cheeseburger (sharp cheddar) with caramelized onions and mushrooms. Barbeque sauce instead of ketchup. Cheese curds on the side.