The Boston Phoenix
February 3 - 10, 2000


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The other Rhônes

Two unheralded grapes make their move

by David Marglin

Every big success breeds another. In the wine world, one recent success story has been that of syrah -- also called shiraz -- the star red grape of France's Rhône Valley. Syrah has been made into wonderful wines in the US and Australia; now, in its wake, come two other red grapes from the Rhône -- grenache and mourvèdre.

Historically, these grapes haven't received much attention on their own; in the Southern Rhône, they've commonly been used for blending. They've also been grown under many aliases: mourvèdre is often called "monastrell" in Spain and "mataro" in the US and Australia; grenache goes by "tinta garnacha" (or just "garnacha") in Spain.

These days, however, both mourvèdre and grenache are being made into interesting and affordable wines -- lush and fruity, with big bold flavors, especially when the vines are old and yields are kept low. The emergence of these grapes is part of a deeper trend toward bolder, spicier, fruitier New World wines -- and a trend among American wine drinkers of getting more adventurous. Combine that adventuresome attitude and passion for big fruit with the widespread desire to pay less than $25 for a bottle of wine, and voilà! You've got the right conditions for grenache, mourvèdre, and blends of the two to flourish.

And as they flourish, they keep getting better. D'Arenberg's "Custodian," for example, is a deep and complex grenache wine; the Australian family that makes it has been using grenache for several generations. The renowned Perrin family, makers of Château de Beaucastel, one of the Rhône's premier wines, recently released the inaugural wine from Tablas Creek, their new California winery. The 1997 Tablas Creek Rouge is a traditional blend of grenache, mourvèdre, and syrah; at $30, it's a little pricier than most wines made from these varieties, but it's worth it.

Grenache and mourvèdre are not yet exactly household words for most wine drinkers. Nor are these wines to everyone's taste. Many wine drinkers prefer subtlety -- and these varietals are rarely accused of that. But if you yearn for something a little different, and if you don't mind being engulfed in fruity, spicy flavors, then you'll find any of the following wines well worth the effort it might take to track it down. I've listed the regions of origin to make the wines easier to find.

1998 Navarra El Chaparral de Vega Sindoa Bodegas Nekeas (Spain, $11). What a deal! Fruit-forward, though a tad rough around the edges. Plenty of barely ripe cherries, and a nibble of sandalwood. Serve with stew or cassoulet.

1997 Grenache Yalumba Bush Vine Barossa 1997 (Australia, $15). Mambo-jambo black fruit, really ripe. Almost hot. Lots to recommend this nutty bombshell. Serve with spicy, spicy food.

1997 Domaine de L'Hortus Pic Saint Loup Languedoc (France, $15). A blend of syrah, mourvèdre, and grenache. Bright and lively, with flavors of cracked pepper and black fruit. A bit nutty, but what an earthy finish! A killer value.

1997 Zaca Mesa Cuvée Z Santa Barbara County (California, $18). A complex blend of grenache, mourvèdre, syrah, and the lesser-known counoise and cinsaut. Tastes of cranberries and cherries, some pepper, and herbal notes like sage. Somewhat tannic, but will soften with age.

1997 Ridge Mataro Bridgehead Vineyard Contra Costa County (California, $20). Ebullient and spicy, barbed black fruit and rhubarb. Sorta thorny, a touch of tar, but a compelling drinking wine. Not a delicate beauty; it wants grilled meats and barbecue sauce.

1998 Jaffurs Grenache Stoldman Vineyard Central Coast (California, $20). Light ruby color; flavors of leather, strawberry, and cranberry. A winner from this consistently reliable producer, if somewhat thinner than expected. Think pomegranates.

1997 Cline Small Berry Vineyard Mourvèdre Contra Costa County (California, $22). Cline is a master of mourvèdre. Tightly wound cassis, somewhat jumpy. Great with breaded fried fish such as sole, or fried chicken. Medium body; bold, but not too much.

1997 Cline Mourvèdre Ancient Vines Contra Costa County (California, $22). Less Sturm und Drang than the Small Berry Vineyard. More balanced and rounder. Very approachable; goes well with grilled meats. A hearty party wine.

1997 D'Arenberg "Custodian" Grenache McClaren Vale (Australia, $24). Rhubarb, above all. Then some plum and raspberries, very sweet and sensuous. Jammy. Bold, wild, and ready to roll. Try it with short ribs, pepper-crusted ahi tuna, or any nice pizza. A keeper.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

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