France in California
California’s Central Coast Winemakers go for the Rhône
It is fun to jump around and write about things I see or wines I drink. But focusing on a topic gives me a deeper satisfaction. Delving into topics brings up wonderful gems. Women wine makers of Santa Barbara County, Paderewski, Douro. Wines of the Rhone Valley are, of course, too complex to get my arms – or should it be my palate? – around. But I’m trying to at least get a sense of the who-what-where of a subject.
With that in mind, I read the portion on Rhône in Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible, the definitive book on all things wine. Simply written, yet a challenge, and not only because of the many features in that area. That, if you break down the geography into its components, is surmountable. It is the names!
The French language seems to love torturing the uninitiated with the use of three vowels in a row or the almost random sequence of letters. How do you say Vieille, Vieux, or Vacqueyras? For speakers of phonetic languages, those names are spirit breaking. More frustrating, it is hard to remember names that you can’t say.
Knowing that Paso Robles on the Central Coast of California has moved passed merely dabbling with Rhône, I tried to understand the distinctiveness of Rhône wine. Rhône is its own region, after all. What makes it so? I made a list of features I should study. Latitude, climate, weather, soil, proximity to mountains or large bodies of water.
Google turned up the map that I couldn’t find in any of the books I have at home. It showed latitudes running from France to the West Coast. Talk about treasure-troves. You can look at it here.
While I’m still trying to figure out the genesis of the nonprofit titled the Rhône Rangers – maybe it began in Napa – I know where in California the main Rhône varietals are grown. None of these areas is in the same latitude as Rhone – north or south.
Rhône is at 43.5 degrees of latitude. San Luis Obispo County, within which lies Paso Robles, is almost entirely within the 35th and 36th parallels. Even Napa and Sonoma to the north are only between the 38th and 39th parallel. It isn’t simply the bare fact of the latitude; the angle of the sun’s rays is also different in different latitudes.
What is it, then, that cools these California regions to the extent that they can grow grapes like Syrah, the main red grape of the Northern Rhône, and Grenache, the mainstay of the Southern Rhône?
Among other things, the cold California current that creates a fog over the coast when warmer inland air condenses over cooler air from this current. For those of you who love wine and complain about the fog, here’s a thought that might help you: Without the fog, our California climate would be too hot for wines to have any degree of complexity.
I will write more about the wines of Rhône in California. I hope you stay with me in my journey. And write to me, if there is a particular wine or region you want me to research.