The Central Coast of California is proving a home from home for Rhône varietals and their winemakers. Roger Voss reports

The Central Coast of California is proving a home from home for Rhône varietals and their winemakers. Roger Voss reports

Red winemaking in California’s central coast started with Cabernet Sauvignon. Pinot Noir came next as cooler areas were developed. Only recently, it’s been the turn of the Rhône varietals. The inspiration was Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon in Santa Cruz, at the northern end of California’s central coast. But where he was once the lone maverick sneaking in vines in his suitcase, Rhône varietals are now getting on to the mainstream wishlist of any serious winemaker from Santa Barbara in the south to Paso Robles two hours further north. They are making wines which have the same openness of fruit along with a fine touch of tannin as the Côtes du Rhône, but also have a richness and vibrancy that recalls Australia.Take Zaca Mesa, one of the original wineries in the Santa Ynez region. Its vineyard was planted in Foxen Canyon in 1970, at about the same time as another original in the region, Firestone.

Jim Fiolek, the general manager of Zaca Mesa, says that the original wines were Cabernet Sauvignon and Riesling: ‘It was what the market wanted, and that’s what came first.’ Today, though, it is the Rhône varietals that form the basis of the winery’s main label, Z Cuvée, a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Syrah and Counoise. The wine is full of exuberant fruit, but with a fine tannic structure to give it some shape – what Fiolek calls ‘Pinot Noir with thorns’. The winery’s Syrah is one of the stars of Zaca Mesa. Blended with a proportion of Viognier, which varies from year to year, it is smoky, brooding, with flavours of liquorice and chocolate. As it ages, it develops a leathery character that is closer to older Australian Shiraz than it is to the Rhône.

Just down the road is the showpiece winery of Foxen Canyon, Fess Parker. Showpiece, because its owner, Parker, will be familiar to middle-aged readers as the star of Davey Crockett. You can still buy beaver-fur hats in the winery’s enormous tasting room and store, as you taste wines in front of the huge stone fireplace.

There are three Rhône wines here. One is a smooth, creamy Viognier with an attractive citrus character. The wine is aged half in stainless steel and half in old barrels, for the oxidative effect rather than the taste of wood. For Fess Parker Rhône reds, there is Mélange du Rhône Rouge, which brings together Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault, another of those eclectic mixes that wouldn’t look out of place in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The blend is attractively perfumed, with some earthy flavours as well as a soft tannic structure. Finally, there is an elegant Syrah, which contains small quantities of Mourvèdre and Carignan, a balanced, smooth, chocolatey wine, with a layer of toasty wood.

Winemakers here have learned the art of blending. Tom Beckmen, owner of Beckmen Vineyards, is a devotee. ‘Personally, I’ve always been a firm fan of Rhône wines,’ he explains. ‘Creating a blend of different Rhône varietals gives a wine that is more complete, more complex.’

His winery is near Los Olivos, in the heart of the Santa Ynez Valley vineyards. When he bought the property in 1994 he made a mere 2,000 cases, now it is 20,000 and going to rise to 35,000. He has recently planted 162ha (hectares) of vines in the Purisima Hills on the west side of Santa Ynez. ‘These are real mountain vineyards,’ he says, driving his four-wheel up the steep slopes, ‘and they give just the right exposure and stony soil for Rhône varietals. In 10–15 years’ time, I predict that this will be the region for Rhône varietals. Before that, we are quite likely to have some cult Rhône wines.’

Beckmen himself is already making some of the best Rhône varietals in Santa Barbara county. From the simple, earthy, perfumed fruit of the blended Cuvée Le Bec (a blend of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah) to the hugely powerful flavours and deep colour of a Syrah from the Purisima Mountain Vineyard, these are wines that show just what potential the region has.

One of the surprises about the central coast is the climate. The assumption that it will be automatically warmer, because it is 300 miles further south than Napa or Sonoma is not true. A series of west-east gaps in the coastal mountain ranges pour coolness into valleys 20 to 40 miles from the Pacific Ocean, ensuring that parts of the whole region are true cool-climate areas.

The most famous is Monterey in the north, but in San Luis Obispo, Edna Valley has the same climatic character, as does the Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara. Originally planted with Cabernet, these coastal-influenced valleys have are better suited to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Rhône varietals perform in the sheltered valleys, such as Santa Ynez. Further north, they are at their best in the hot climate of Paso Robles and at the warmer, inland, eastern ends of those west-east valleys. In other words, central coast winemakers are discovering the value of terroir.

They are also discovering the importance of clones. That is something that has been given impetus by the arrival of the Perrin family from Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In 1989 the family created a joint venture with Robert Haas of Vineyard Brands and purchased land in the rolling hills on the west side of Paso Robles. The pH of this shallow limestone-clay soil and the local climate appeared to be very close to that of Château de Beaucastel. Initially, due to import restrictions, the Perrins had to plant existing American clones, but over a period of years they began bringing in clones from Beaucastel. Not only did they plant at their own 32-ha Tablas Creek vineyard, but they developed a nursery and began to sell vines. The result is that the influence of Tablas Creek is much greater than just its wines.

At Justin Vineyards, a small quality winery in westside Paso Robles, best known for its cult wine, Isoceles (a blend of Cabernet and Merlot), winemaker Jeff Branco also works with the Beaucastel clone of Syrah and another French import from the Chapoutier family in the northern Rhône. While the Chapoutier clone makes soft, rich, earthy wines, the Perrin clone produces wines which are more tannic and tighter, and probably more long-lasting.

At Tablas Creek itself, Robert Haas describes how the vineyard was planted. ‘We have planted 35 acres (14ha) so far, and now we are waiting to make sure we have the proportions right. We are following the Beaucastel model with equal plantings of Grenache and Mourvèdre, slightly less of Syrah and a tiny amount of Counoise which gives spice to the wine. We have certainly noticed that the grapes here are riper and with higher sugar levels than even in Châteauneuf.’ So far, the wines, made by English winemaker Neil Collins, are labelled as Tablas Creek Vineyard Rouge and Blanc – the white a blend of Marsanne, Viognier, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Rolle.

Probably the best indication of the acceptance of Rhône varietals is attention from some of the big players in California. Mondavi’s Coastal range includes a big, jammy, purple coloured Syrah. Meridian makes a complex, tarry Syrah from Paso Robles. Under the Echelon label, Chalone produces a smooth, juicy Syrah, while the Syrah from the Jade Mountain winery, also owned by Chalone, is hugely concentrated and perfumed. At Qupé, in Santa Barbara, winemaker Bob Lindquist produces Syrah, Viognier and Roussanne, as well as making a red blend under the Los Olivos label.If the Perrins are right, this is one of the best regions in California for making a style of wine the world has come to love. The question of whether the region can also make Rhône-style wines that age is, to judge by wine after wine, something worth waiting for.

Written by ROGER VOSS