The Rhone Rangers

Spring? This was no stinkin’ Oregon spring. We were dry, warm; no endless days of sog and rain. Even the worst climate-change-deniers had to notice, even if no idiot thought to bring a snowball (or a bucket of water) into the Legislature.

Last year, around this time, we sat in a UO lecture hall, listening to paleobotanists tell us that, due to climate change (i.e., warming), Oregon grape growers should re-plant their acres in warm-country grapes, like those of the southern Rhone Valley of France.

Oregon has made its global wine-rep with wines made from cool-climate grapes, particularly the pinot family of grapes (blanc, gris, noir), grapes that really dig our damp climate. Oregon pinot noirs, particularly, have hit the heights. Until now. Lately, Oregon pinot noirs have emerged from warm, dry vintages and have been characteristically big, juicy wines — yummy, f’sure, with the wines from 2012 and 2014 just da shizzle — still distinctly vibrant and fresh but sometimes diminished on the delicacy and finesse usually desired from pinot noir. If the warming trend continues (seems likely), we might be seeing the sunset of Oregon pinot noirs fairly soon (in wine-time).

So: Oregon syrah? Sure. Actually, growers have already started to make their run, well ahead of the academics (shocking, right?). California vintners years ago jumped the gun, spurred by some renegades calling themselves Rhone Rangers (now an established group with over 100 members). Too, wily Washington vintners have vigorously planted Rhone varietals — mainly syrah and grenache among the reds, plus viognier, marsanne and roussanne among the whites — on prime sites in their best grape-growing valleys, the Columbia of course, but also around Yakima and Walla Walla. And they’re having some success; Oregon’s better, though.

Oregon’s growers have been developing Rhone varietals for a couple decades, whites first but also big reds. Quick review: When the Romans were conquering all of Europe, they planted their wine grapes as they went. Nobody wanted to drink the water. Still don’t, for good reasons. In southern France, they planted all sorts of grapes — we’re still sorting out the genetic heritage of some varietals — but among the vines were progenitors of some superb grape families. Among the whites, we like viognier, roussanne, marsanne, several others; among the reds, syrah, grenache, mourvedre and petite sirah get the most attention, mainly because they yield really tasty juice. Oregon growers in our warm valleys — the Columbia, Rogue, Umpqua — have been cultivating strong vines of these varietals. Our local growers round up the best of the grapes they can get, vinify those, and some of the wines are simply outstanding.

Some fine whites: J. Scott Roussanne, any vintage, all excellent (about $18), floral without being flabby; same is true of J. Scott Viognier ($19). Jonathan Scott Oberlander is clearly a talented vintner with an acute palate for wines to accompany foods. 

Other notable Rhone whites from Oregon: Agate Ridge 2011 Aléash ($16.50), a blend of Rhonish whites; another fine such, Cliff Creek Cellars 2012 MRV ($22), marsanne (for body), roussanne (for bright fruit), viognier (aromatics). In the cozy, warm Applegate Valley, Rhone varietals thrive, and Herb Quady encourages them; Quady North 2013 “Pistoleta” ($19) lovingly blends marsanne, roussanne and viognier. Quady can be trusted for any wines wearing that label.

Notable Rhonish reds: Cowhorn 2010 Syrah 58 ($45), Rogue Valley, rates 94 points from the respected Wine Spectator; stiff ticket but fair value. In the Umpqua, Spangler Vineyards keeps hoarding gold medals for Spangler 2011 Petite Sirah (30), huge, dark and juicy. J. Scott Cellars 2013 Grenache ($29) packs black-berryish fruits on an elegant frame. Agate Ridge gets kudos for all their Rhone reds but especially Agate Ridge 2011 DK Reserve ($36), an effective blend of Rhone reds. Bit of a surprise: Chateau Lorane 2007 Petite Sirah ($20) reveals how this varietal can age gracefully in the bottle.

Many others — whites and reds — deserve pursuit and purchase. Track ’em down, Tonto. The future is here now. Feel the heat?