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Red Grapes

Red Rhone Rangers Grape Varieties
Click here for a printable PDF of the
principal red Rhone Rangers grapes.

Carignan (Carignane)
Chances are more gallons of Carignan are produced on the planet every year than any other wine – and virtually none of it is bottled under that name. The grape is responsible for untold millions of cases of jug wine from Southern France and California’s Central Valley. Yet under the right conditions – mature vines, restricted yields, careful winemaking – it can make perfectly respectable wine and, if used in moderation, add a useful flavor dimension (as well as color and tannin) to blends.

Cinsault (Cinsaut)
A high-yielding, early-ripening, hot-weather red grape, generally used in blends. Cinsault tends to be low in tannin, and is often added to blends to add a spicy component. Not often found as a varietal bottling. Among the grape’s claim to fame is being half the genetic cross (along with pinot noir) behind the South African Pinotage grape. Cinsault came to California in the 1860s, but total planting in 2004 was only144 acres, producing a mere 672 tons.

Counoise may be an obscure grape in the United States, but it is a key component of many Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines. It is a deep purple-red, and has a rich spicy character, with flavors of anise, strawberries and blueberries. Counoise’s moderate alcohol and tannins make it a good complement for Syrah, balancing that grape’s characteristic intense spice, strong tannins and high alcohol. It is said to have been introduced to Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Spain by a papal officer who offered it to Pope Urban V when the papacy was based in Avignon in the mid-14th century. In the vineyards of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it occupied a prominent place in the wines of the celebrated Château la Nerthe in the late 19th century, and saw a rebirth at Château de Beaucastel under Jaques Perrin. In California, Tablas Creek Vineyard imported Counoise cuttings from Château de Beaucastel in 1990, and the BATF recognized the varietal in 2000.

Probably the world’s most widely planted red grape, largely in France and Spain. Grenache’s reputation would soar if it were treated more respectfully by growers. It should be planted in more suitable locations throughout the world. Early-budding and late-ripening, Grenache has a tendency toward high sugar / alcohol levels, if not planted in the right areas or cropped back. It needs sandy, devigorated soil where it can produce exquisite, luscious wines. In California, Grenache has been around in blends of all kinds since the 1850s, with about 7,700 acres currently planted. [more about Grenache]

Mourvedre (Mataro)
Like Grenache, the Mourvedre grape is probably Spanish (where it goes by the name monastrell) in origin. Under the name mataro (or no name at all), it has been part of California “field blends” for more than a century. It produces sturdy wines with good acid and some astringency, and can develop enticing blackberry aromas and flavors – meaty, intense wines that age well. Mourvedre is notable in France as the prime ingredient in the red and rose wines of Bandol. California’s early Rhone Rangers were responsible for rescuing precious acreage of old Mourvedre plantings in the 1970s; total acreage now is around 830. [more about Mourvedre]

Muscardin is believed to be a clone the Mondeuse varietal of the Savoie region of France. It is one of the 13 permitted varietals in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but has virtually disappeared; Château de Beaucastel and Château Rayas are among the only domaines that include it in their red blends. It has a distinctive floral bouquet and is pale in color.

Syrah (Shiraz)
Syrah is the eight hundred pound gorilla of Rhone grapes. In the vineyard and the winery, Syrah is typically an easy grape to work with – healthy, early-ripening, resistant to mildew and rot, suitable for winemaking in a variety of styles. At its best, Syrah can slug it out with high-end Cabernet and Pinot Noir. This is accomplished when the vines are not allowed to over-bear. As a single varietal, Syrah is the basis for the great reds of the Northern Rhone; as an ingredient in blends, it contributes much of the character and aging potential for wines of the Southern Rhone. Shiraz (in Australian) has a distinguished history Down Under as well, being the most widely planted red grape. The variety also has a long track record in California – including a record of confusion with Petite Sirah, an unrelated grape. Syrah plantings have increased dramatically in recent years. According to California agricultural statistics, there were 21,635 tons of Syrah crushed in California in 1998 vs. 101,000 tons in 2004. [more about Syrah]

Petite Sirah (Durif)
Petite Sirah is a cross between the two grapes, Syrah and Peloursin, developed in France in 1880 by Dr. Francois Durif. Though not known to be grown anywhere in France today, it is grown in California and Australia. “Petite” hardly describes its character. The grape produces a wine dark in color (blue-red hues) with great extraction and big tannins that will reward those with the patience to cellar. Even younger wines, however, will benefit from decanting.

Picpoul Noir
The red variant of the more common Picpoul Blanc, Picpoul Noir produces wines which are almost colorless, but high in alcohol.

Terret Noir
Terret Noir is a minor varietal more commonly seen in its “Blanc” and “Gris” forms. It produces wines with bright acidity, providing a balance for some of the low-acid red varietals in the Southern Rhône.

Vaccarèse (known in the village of Chusclan as Camarèse) is a minor varietal found primarily in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it is considered a relative of Cinsault and produces floral, tannic wines.

Classic Red Blends
Red Rhone grapes were born to blend – the exception here is almost NOT to blend them. Even syrah, the leader of the pack, is as likely to be blended as bottled as a single varietal. Hundreds of years of experimentation with these grapes have produced a few standard variations on the blending theme. (And in the U.S., of course, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah often qualify as “honorary” blending grapes with the traditional Rhone varieties.)

Probably the three most common strategies with red blends are:

(1) The Chateauneuf model: Start with about half Grenache, add in a good proportion of Syrah and / or Mourvedre for oomph and aging, and round out the complexity with an amazing array of other red and even white grapes.

(2) The hot-weather model: Various proportions of Grenache, Cinsault and Carignan, designed to produce early-drinking wines.

(3) The down under model: Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon, in various proportions.