Are You a Rhone Ranger?

Do you count Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier as some of your favorite wines?  If so, you love wines that gained fame in the Rhone Valley of France. A few decades ago, some upstarts from Paso Robles in California, calling themselves the Rhone Rangers, set up shop and started making some killer Rhone-style wines in the New World. I love the Rhone varietals wherever they are grown, and I like to think of myself as an honorary Rhone Ranger. Lately, I’ve become enamored with Rhone whites. Since I experienced my first Rhone white, a Viognier, (many, many) years ago at a Christmas dinner with turducken on the table, I think this holiday season is a fitting time to taste three solid Rhone whites.

So what should you expect from a Rhone white? The most common Rhone white, Viognier, often rides in the middle lane between Riesling and Chardonnay, in my opinion. Like Riesling, Viognier typically offers a fragrant nose, and some of my favorite Viogniers smell like springtime in a glass with plenty of floral aromas. However, it typically offers a drier (rather than sweet) experience, and like Chardonnay, Viognier can offer a full bodied and textured experience, too.

Viognier isn’t the only Rhone white though, and this summer, I was particularly impressed by the Roussannes I tasted in the Central Coast of California. At Zaca Mesa in Santa Barbara County, the server stated its Roussanne can be so big and bold like a red wine that they serve it warmer than most whites. I loved it!  Since I already know I’m a Roussanne fan, and the Marsanne varietal appears to be more readily available in the marketplace (primarily because Roussanne grapes can be very difficult to grow in the vineyard), in this tasting, I checked out Marsanne in combination with and versus Viognier.

Right now, I’m reading/referencing The Food Lover’s Guide to Wine, which is a fun coffee table book for the wine nerd in your life. I bought it a couple weeks ago and absolutely love the reference section for top producers by varietal. While I find it relatively easy to figure out which varietal should work in a particular setting, I often find it difficult to figure out which brand/winery works for each varietal. So if you find yourself in a similar predicament, put this book on your Christmas/Hanukkah list! For this tasting, I chose exclusively from this book’s list of Rhone-style producers and purchased my bottles at, which is having a wide variety of shipping specials before Christmas if you are interested.

In this tasting, I chose Tahbilk’s Marsanne ($13), Zaca Mesa’s Viognier ($18), and d’Arenberg’s Viognier/Marsanne blend ($16). This tasting was wide-open rather than blind to help me suss out the differences between these varietals and blends. Frankly though, it was too easy to find the Marsanne in the group. Not that Tahbilk made a bad bottle of wine, it was just boring in comparison to the other two Rhones. If you are looking for an alternative to Chardonnay though, give a Marsanne a try for a big, bold white. However, for example, the Zaca Mesa Viognier offers so much vibrancy on the nose that the pure Marsanne didn’t stand a chance with me. I love fruit and floral fragrances. In fact, the Zaca Mesa Viognier reminded me of Seville, Spain in the springtime with orange blossoms perfuming the air. The acidity of the Viognier was great with food, too. It would be a good pairing with your Christmas ham.

However, I’m all about smoothness, and while the Zaca Mesa Viognier lived up to its potential, the d’Arenberg Hermit Crab blend of Viognier and Marsanne showed why winemakers choose to blend certain varietals. The 28% Marsanne in this bottle, smoothed out the acid and intense nose on the Viognier. The d’Arenberg Hermit Crab was elegant but intense at the same time with a creamy finish on the end. It was my favorite of the tasting!  And at $2 less per bottle than the Zaca Mesa Viognier, it was a good value at $16 per bottle. Give it a try! And thanks to my buddy K.A. for suggesting it. You were so right, girl :)

Speaking of suggestions, do you have any wine or travel suggestions for the WWG?  If so, please email me at I’m in the process of planning my 2012 tastings and travels, and I could use your help!  What do you want to learn about in the wine world?  I’m open to a variety of options. Should I go to South America to explore Malbec and Sauvignon Blanc? Should I go to Sonoma/Napa to commune with my American wine roots?  Or should I go way back in the roots department and learn about the history of wine in Italy and France?  Or are there other spots worth considering? What do you think???

The Wandering Wine Girl

About wwg

Hello! We're all on a trip of a lifetime, and I've discovered that I'm happiest with a glass of wine in hand and a trip to plan. So follow me as I learn more about fermented grapes in a sommelier class this summer and travel to various wine destinations around the globe. Hopefully, we'll all learn, live, and love a lot in the process. xoxo, Your Wandering Wine Girl
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