There has been lots of hand-wringing about the future of Californai Rhone-style blends recently, especially since the demise of Hospice du Rhone, the annual celebration of Rhone varietals held in Paso Robles each year, which will close up shop.
But it is hard not to read this development as the latest setback for American Syrah, the varietal that leads the Rhone category in production and vineyard acreage, and which has, in the last decade, experienced a dramatic reversal of fortune among American consumers. Rarely, if ever, has a grape capable of more than the occasional thrill met with such indifference in the market.
The formerly exotic varietals (at least to Americans) have now become mainstream but sales are flat and customers seem confused about what Syrah is supposed to be.
Moreover, as American Syrah lost its outsider appeal and waded into the mainstream, wine drinkers seemed perplexed by the category’s stylistic range: What was American Syrah supposed to taste like? Was it meant to be ethereal, exotic and wild, like many French Rhone bottlings, or lush, ripe and hedonistic, like Australian Shiraz?
All this hand-wringing about the future of Rhone varietals seems unnecessary. As the story points out, plantings of Syrah and other Rhone varietals grew astronomically during the past two decades and flooded the market as did the Australians. It is unreasonable to think that growth could continue in a global wine market where customers have so many options.
And the idea that the solution would be to find some single unique expression for the grape is ridiculous. With the vast number of microclimates in California capable of growing Syrah and the other Rhone varietals, why would there be a unique expression of this grape. In the South of France, where these grapes are at home, there is little stylistic similarity between Hermitage and Saint Joseph despite being located just across the river from each other. And Syrah appears much differently in the warmer Southern Rhone where it is usually part of a blend, or in Languedoc in which it shows some remarkable regional variation.
California is every bit as diverse.
It takes decades of tinkering to match grape with climate and soil to find its ultimate expression. That process is just beginning to reach maturity. There is plenty of innovation and vitality in Paso with producers such as Denner, Epoch, Cass, and Nelle making beautiful and interesting wines.
California Rhones will continue to be an important part of the wine scene but they will not achieve world domination. The days of any region accomplishing that are probably over.