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Originally published Sunday, September 6, 2009 at 12:20 AM

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Wine Adviser

Through Tablas Creek in California, American Rhône-style wines are finally coming up

With clones from California's Tablas Creek, American Rhône-style wines are finally coming into their own, especially ones being produced in Washington state.

Special to the Seattle Times

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THE RHÔNE RANGERS (a California-based winery association) were recently in town. Forty-one wineries, including a dozen from Washington, poured a dazzling array of wines based on grapes and wines from the Rhône region of France. There were syrahs and viogniers a'plenty, but that was just the start.

Carignan, counoise, grenache blanc (and rosé and rouge), marsanne, mourvèdre and roussanne all made an appearance. These and numerous proprietary blends — West Coast versions of Cotes-du-Rhône whites and reds — nicely showcased a delicious, sturdy, distinctive group of wines deserving of your attention.

Compared with such nonstarters as the Cal-Ital wines, you'd think that these wide-ranging Rhôners would have secured themselves a place in the hearts and cellars of consumers. But it's been a struggle, more than one winemaker confided. As fascinated as geeks like me might be with oddball varietal wines, they inevitably add confusion to the eternal quest for the right bottle at the right price. And even syrah is a relative newcomer in the marketplace.

Washington vintners think their wines are closer in style to those from France. And I would agree. Washington wines have more of the French herb, truffle and cured meat character, while California's emphasize sweet fruit and high alcohol.

The obvious reasons are differences in climate, but there's more to the story. Last winter, I visited Tablas Creek, a partnership between the Haas family and the owners of Château de Beaucastel. Set high in the mountains west of Paso Robles, Tablas Creek was founded 20 years ago with the goal of producing authentic, Rhône-style wines here in America. The vineyard location took years to find, but it has calcareous rock of a type unusual in California. Next came the search for the right vines.

"We knew the vines we wanted to grow," recalls Jason Haas — "grenache blanc, grenache, syrah, counoise, marsanne, mourvèdre, viognier and roussanne." But as for what was available at California nurseries — not so much. "Counoise and grenache blanc didn't exist. Mourvèdre and grenache had a really lousy reputation; suitable for jug wines only," says Haas. "And roussanne was very suspect; it later turned out that California roussanne was actually viognier. So the only way to go was to bite the bullet and bring in new cuttings."

Vines must be quarantined, tested and certified virus-free before they may legally be planted. The cuttings imported in 1989 were not certified until 1992, propagated for another two years, planted in 1994, and finally began bearing in 1997. Then test wines were made, and comparisons done with similar wines from American clones. A full decade had elapsed before the results came in.

Good news! "They were really dramatically different," says Haas. "The wines from the French clones were darker, richer, more intense."

The Haas family generously made their clones available for purchase. "We felt that bad clones were holding back the category," says Haas. "We thought if we could improve the clones available, everybody would benefit." Washington vintners were among the beneficiaries and have been planting small blocks of these fascinating grapes ever since.

So when you see a Washington counoise or mourvèdre or picpoul — or anything besides syrah or viognier — it's probably from a Tablas Creek clone. And still very early in the going. "In France," notes Haas, "they don't even pay attention until the vines are at least 10 to 15 years old."

For a taste of Tablas Creek, try the Côtes de Tablas Blanc, Esprit Blanc or Côtes de Tablas Rouge — all around $20, distributed by Noble.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Washington Wines & Wineries." Find him at www.paulgregutt.com or write to paulgwine@me.com.

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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About Wine Adviser

My column is all about sharing the joy of exploring all the world of wine. I want to guide people to make inspired choices, and encourage them to try as many different styles of wine as they can. I will always seek out the best wines at the best prices. Wine Adviser runs on Sunday in Pacific Northwest Magazine.
paulgwine@me.com

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