I fell in love with the wines of the Rhone Valley, the Southern Rhone’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape1 specifically, very early on in my wine life. And as much as I love the Southern Rhone, my feelings about the Northern Rhone generally sit at the opposite end of the spectrum. Of Northern Rhone reds, ‘Dusty Pickle Juice’ is my standard reply when asked about them. Because that’s what the wines taste like to me. Of course, I’ve barely scratched the surface of all that is the Northern Rhone but what I’ve had always reminds me of a cross between dust and pickle juice. What can I say? And if you’ve read past articles,2 you know that I don’t have a natural love for Syrah which is the only permitted red grape in the Northern Rhone. Depending on the particular region, the wines can either be 100% Syrah or have a bit of the white grapes Viognier, Marsanne, or Roussanne blended in. Southern Rhone wines on the other hand are typically blended with a number of varieties and often times have Grenache as the dominant variety.
So when I received a couple of Rhone wines to taste as samples, my first thought was ‘bring on the dusty pickle juice.’ But as someone interested in wine, I’m always willing to keep trying and have certainly seen my own palate evolve over the years. Not to mention that I am continuously challenged by wine producers that even though I don’t like Syrah, I will love theirs.
Ever the academic, I thought this was a great opportunity to showcase the difference in profiles between French and U.S. wines even though the same or similar grapes is used. So I ended up hosting a blind tasting with a group with just the overly simplistic summary that French wines are usually more earthy and less fruit forward while U.S. wines are usually more fruit forward. With that little tidbit, I asked the tasters to guess which was from France and which was from the U.S. I also asked them to tell me if their perceptions of the wines changed once they tasted them with food. I also tried to ensure that the price range and vintages of the wines were similar.
2015 Ferraton Pere & Fils “Samorens” Cotes du Rhone (~$14)
2014 Taken Wine Company Complicated Red Blend (~$20)
The Ferraton wine is a blend of 85% Grenache, 10% Syrah, and 5% Cinsault from a mix of estate and negociant vineyards. Ferraton’s estate vineyards, which encompasses twenty percent of its production, are certified biodynamic and its negociant fruit is sustainably farmed. A beautiful deep garnet in the glass, the wine offered up dark red cherry and blackberry along with spicy notes. Tasters also picked up subtle herbaceous notes. Great acidity made it a natural with food and every taster noted that it was the better wine with food.
The Complicated wine is a blend of 64% Grenache, 34% Syrah, and 2% Carignan. The fruit is sourced from California’s Central Coast. The California Central Coast AVA covers a large area along the Pacific Coast between San Francisco and Santa Barbara. This wine had intense red fruit and licorice flavors as well as some mocha, and though dry, exhibited a “sweetness” undoubtedly attributed to the very ripe red fruit flavors. It was fine to drink on its own but didn’t really pair well with any of the meat and cheeses we had. And it lacked the complexity of the Ferraton wine.
All except one taster generally preferred the Ferraton to the Complicated. A couple thought they preferred the Complicated until they started to eat. Like the majority of the tasters, I enjoyed the Ferraton more than the Complicated. For me, I appreciated its clean fruit flavors along with its structure. And it’s an absolute bargain.
2015 Ferraton Pere & Fils “La Matiniere” Crozes-Hermitage (~$23)
2014 Fess Parker Santa Barbara County Syrah (~$20)
The Ferraton wine is 100% Syrah and hails from Crozes-Hermitage. Crozes-Hermitage is the largest of the appellations that comprise the Northern Rhone. Compared to other Northern Rhone appellations, Crozes-Hermitage wines do not enjoy the same level of reputation as a great deal (but not all) of the grapes are grown in higher-yielding, flatter sites that may not have the same level of concentration, intensity, and complexity as some of the other more famous areas. In a nutshell, this often makes for a more simplistic, fruit forward and more approachable wine. And this one was certainly quite approachable and enjoyable. And yes, it was a Syrah! A beautiful deep burgundy in the glass, the wine had aromas and flavors of spice, earth/wet soil, black plum, dark cherry, meaty as well as some vegetal nuances of bell pepper and celery. Great acidity and a well integrated tannic structure made this one a natural with food. I loved this Syrah! Who knew?!
The Fess Parker Syrah is also 100% Syrah. Like the Complicated wine, the Fess Parker Syrah hails from the California Central Coast – Santa Barbara Country specifically. Santa Barbara itself contains five AVAs including the well known Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, and Santa Rita Hills AVAs and is known for its generally cool climate which results in light to medium bodied wines that are well-structured. This wine was a similar deep burgundy in the glass but exhibited riper fruit flavors of juicy red plum, red cherry, some baking spice (clove), as well as some cedar. One taster thought it started off pretty subtle but by the time it reached the finish, it was quite bold, but smooth. This one was quite enjoyable on its own and every taster noted this as well. Another tick in the Syrah column for me!
Overall, the tasters enjoyed the Fess Parker wine on its own but when it came to eating, their appreciation for the Ferraton wine increased significantly. When comparing which they just liked better overall, they liked the California wine better. Like the first duel, I actually enjoyed the French wine more. I mean, I seriously have a Northern Rhone Syrah that I like!
In this tasting, the Old World vs New World stereotypes about wine seemed to hold up. The French wines were generally regarded as much more food friendly while the American wines seemed better to sip on their own. But what is even more exciting is that I keep discovering wines that chip away at my anti-Syrah stance and I’m certainly up for the challenge. Bring it!
- The Cotes du Rhone region is comprised of the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone regions. Chateauneuf-du-Pape is the most famous village located in the Southern Rhone and permits up to 13 (or 18 depending how you count them) grapes in its wines with Grenache often being prominent.
- Washington has cracked the facade of my strong anti-Syrah position.