Hux’s Roussanne & Mourvèdre recall the pioneering spirit of Rhone Rangers
The adventurous spirit of California’s Rhône Rangers, an unofficial movement that began to spark just over 30 years ago, still lives on here and there, seemingly everywhere you look: particularly at Hux Vineyards, one of Lodi’s little-wineries-that-could.
The 3.5-acre Hux Vineyards, established just south of the town of Lodi by Dave and Barbara Huecksteadt some 15 years ago, consists of only a couple rows each of a surprising variety of grapes, primarily of Mediterranean origin: Roussanne and Grenache Blanc among the white wine grapes; and among the reds, Mourvèdre, Souzão, Tempranillo, Teroldego, a little bit of Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, and the extremely rare, virtually unheard-of Marzemino (see past blogpost, Many wines other than Zinfandel at 2012 ZinFest).
Although Dave Huecksteadt sadly passed away a couple of years ago, Barbara Huecksteadt has continued to grow and produce wines from this eclectic collection of grapes. Production amounts to only 12 barrels a year (about 300 cases); and grapes not going into Hux wines are sold to home winemakers as well as a few of Lodi’s more respected wineries (including Macchia, Heritage Oak and Jeremy Wine Company).
Ms. Huecksteadt is particularly proud of her Roussanne: a white wine grape that originated in France’s Rhône Valley, where it produces intensely aromatic, richly textured dry white wines in appellations such as Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. According to Huecksteadt, “I think the Roussanne is as satisfying to a red wine drinker as any complex red varietal. I pick in late August, sometimes in early September, and I try for a very cold fermentation, which gets a definite minerality, along with pear, honeysuckle, even banana qualities in the taste.
Indeed, in our own notes we find, in the recently released 2010 Hux Lodi Roussanne ($18), a multidimensional intensity of honeyed, creamy, peach and pear tatin-like aromas; its palate gripping flavors ensconced in a broad, viscous, full and fleshy body.
The black skinned Mourvèdre is one of the three major red wine grapes (along with Syrah and Grenache) associated with the Rhône Ranger movement, although most ampelographers (i.e. scientists of the vine) suspect that the grape probably originated in Spain, where it is known as Monastrell or Mataró. In fact, prior to the revival of interest in the grape in the U.S., starting in the 1980s, Mourvèdre was primarily known as Mataró in California, where documents show it has been cultivated since the 1860s.
Huecksteadt believes Mourvèdre to be one of Hux Vineyards’ biggest successes; adapting beautifully to the Mediterranean climate and porous sandy soils of Lodi’s Mokelumne River appellation. She tells us, “The Mourvèdre has fig, smoke, meaty qualities — I smell Black Forest ham — and also has something of an ‘ashtray’ character. I pick it in mid-October, and it grows in long, loose clusters.”
Our own notes on the currently released 2008 Hux Lodi Mourvèdre ($18): nose of sweet cassis (i.e. blackcurrant liqueur) and smoked dried meats (similar to Huecksteadt’s “Black Forest ham” analogy); full and zesty on the palate, with slightly chewy tannins beefing up the meaty flavors, finishing with thick, rich, juicy sensations.
The big drawback about these Hux label wines? Being a one-woman operation – while also holding down a full-time job as a Senior Agricultural Biologist for the San Joaquin Agricultural Commissioner’s Office – Huecksteadt produced only 22 cases of the 2010 Roussanne, and just 10 cases of the 2008 Mourvèdre. But if you can get your hands on some bottles, she tells us, “they definitely make great food wines.” She recommends the Mourvèdre with a good steak. She loves the Roussanne with Mexican cuisine and other mildly spiced foods; saying, “it definitely never gets lost.”
The impact of Rhône Rangers in Lodi
Exactly what is the Rhône Ranger movement, and what is its significance to Lodi?
In many ways, Dave and Barbara Huecksteadt’s eclectic taste in wine grapes was inspired by California’s Rhône Rangers, which burst out of its vinous corral in the second half of the 1980s. The entire crux of this movement was based upon a physical reality: the fact that much of the state – from Santa Barbara to Mendocino, as well as more inland regions like Lodi, Contra Costa, and the Sierra Foothills – enjoys a Mediterranean climate, not too different from that of Southern France, and much of Spain, Italy, and Greece.
That is to say: warm to hot, dry summers, coupled with relatively mild yet cool, fairly wet winters – perfect for wine grapes like Syrah, Grenache (a.k.a. Garnacha), Carignan, Mourvèdre, Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, and a dozen-plus more varieties that are commonly referred to as “Rhône” grapes (in reference to the Rhône Valley, the most famous of France’s Mediterranean winegrowing regions).
Thirty years ago, however, the California wine industry was far more obsessed with grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay (which it still is today). Which is why, at first, a handful of California vignerons began asking the logical question: if California is dominated by a Mediterranean climate, why aren’t we specializing more in wines made from grapes that dominate in Europe’s Mediterranean regions?
Joseph Phelps Vineyards in Napa Valley began growing and producing California’s first varietal Syrah in the mid-1970s; and soon after, more Syrah was planted at the original Estrella River Winery in Paso Robles, and Qupé in Santa Barbara began to come out with exotically scented red wines from the Syrah grape that would prompt legions of vintners up and down the West Coast to follow suit.
One of the leading figures of the Rhône Rangers was Bonny Doon Vineyard’s Randall Grahm, who came to epitomize the creative energy, resourcefulness, as well as the occasional follies of this somewhat quixotic (at least in the beginning) movement. Grahm, for instance, deserves full credit for restoring respect for numerous old vine plantings of varieties like Mataró, Grenache and Carignan – many dating back to the 1890s – scattered throughout California, especially in near forgotten corners like San Benito County’s Cienega Valley and between the creeping urban sprawl of Contra Costa County.
Mainstream consumer consciousness of Rhône grapes reached a high after an April 1989 Wine Spectator cover story on Mr. Grahm; for which he was photographed in a Lone Ranger outfit, complete with black mask, white hat and red bandana. More seriously, inspired by seemingly immortal red wines like the famous Domaine Tempier Bandol of France’s Provence, Grahm endeavored to produce similar Mourvèdre based wines – thick, beefy, often black as moonless nights – which were bottled as Old Telegram (in homage to the classic Châteauneuf-du-Pape growth, Vieux Télégraphe). And to this day, the Bonny Doon Le Cigare Volant (a more true-to-Châteauneuf-du-Pape inspired blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, also utilizing small percentages of Lodi grown Cinsaut) stands as the epitome of New World style “GSM” (i.e. Grenache-Syrah-Mourvèdre).
Grahm also has the more dubious distinction of bringing in “suitcase” cuttings (circumventing State of California quarantine laws) of what he believed to be Roussanne – one of the major white wine grapes of the France’s Rhône Valley – reportedly from a vineyard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He produced such beautifully aromatic white wines from these surreptitiously sourced vines that soon numerous other wineries and vineyards began to request cuttings, planting them throughout the state.
Some ten years later (in the late 1990s), another California vintner with first-hand knowledge of Rhône varieties (John Alban of Edna Valley’s Alban Vineyards) noticed that Grahm’s Roussanne vines seemed to bear stronger resemblance to plantings of Viognier he had seen in France. Subsequently, upon DNA testing, it turned out that Grahm’s “Roussanne” was, in fact, not Roussanne, but rather Viognier – which left a lot of unhappy growers having to make lemonade (or Viogner) from their lemons.
Despite such mishaps, the fact remains that much of the current American sensibility for Mediterranean wine grapes is owed to vintners like Mr. Grahm, as well as Qupe’s Bob Lindquist, John Alban, Steve Edmunds (of Edmunds St. John), and a number of other key figures associated with the original Rhône Ranger movement. Many say that the current supply of Syrah planted in the U.S. far exceeds actual demand, but that hasn’t kept the quality of Syrahs grown and produced in California, as well as in Eastern Washington and Southern Oregon, from attaining extraordinary heights — as fine and intense as any in the world (including the Rhône Valley!). If anything, interest in both blends and varietal bottlings of red wines made from grapes like Grenache, Carignan and Tannat, and white wines from grapes like Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Picpoul, has recently been on the upswing.
Furthermore, in the same way that 1960s British rock groups helped revive interest in the American blues tradition, U.S. based wine importers such as Kermit Lynch and Jorge Ordoñez have been fueling intense interest in European wines made from Mediterranean varieties: boatloads of strikingly rich, authentic, terroir driven wines sourced primarily from the vast expanse of Southern France and Spain. This, in turn, has inspired successive waves of American vignerons to endeavor to grow and produce similar wines here in the U.S.
The curiosity, logic, spirit and energy of the early Rhône Rangers are what has led to not only Lodi grower-producers like Hux, Ripken Vineyards and Acquiesce Winery (the latter two, also specializing in Rhône varieties like Viognier, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc), but also to the critical acclaim now accorded contemporary Lodi winegrowers specializing in Mediterranean grapes of more purely Spanish and Portuguese origins (most notably, Bokisch Ranches and Silvaspoons Vineyards).
None of this happened overnight. The groundwork was laid by viticultural pioneers in the nineteenth century, and later revived and expanded over the past 30-something years.
Many of Lodi’s oldest, and most revered, plantings – like the Bechthold Vineyard (first planted to Cinsaut by Joseph Spenker in 1886), and Jean Rauser’s stand of 108-year old Carignan vines on Bruella Rd. – would no longer be in the ground today if not for the interest of more adventurous winemakers, seeking to meet the still-small, but growing, consumer need for wines made from Mediterranean grapes.
Today Lodi grows more variety of grapes than any other region in the U.S. (for a good visual, see this Pinterest post on the 100 grapes of Lodi). Without a doubt, the Mediterranean lineage of Vitis vinifera – the entire European family of wine grapes (from Albariño, Barbera and Cabernet Sauvignon to Verdelho, Würzer, Zinfandel and Zweigelt) – has much to do with it: if it grows well here in Lodi, why not grow it?
Ergo, or so it seems: if you grow it, surely they will come.