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What's Being Poured at the Rhone Rangers' Annual Wine Celebration

Seminar Tasting

The Rhone Rangers' 16th annual Weekend Celebration of American Rhone Wines takes place this Friday evening and all day Saturday, March 22nd and 23rd at Fort Mason’s Festival Pavilion.

The Rhone Rangers, originally dubbed so in the early 1980s, is comprised of only a handful of rebellious, trendsetting winemakers growing and making the likes of Syrah, Grenache and Viognier, in a Bordeaux-dominated California. Now, the organization is made up of over 150 wineries.

The festivities start Friday night with a winemaker dinner and auction with private dinners at wineries all over the west coast up for bid as well as trips to Australia and Argentina. Saturday is more wine-focused, with two seminars in the morning, "Old World Inspiration, New World Innovation" a like-by-like comparison of French wines and their California counterparts, while the second is "Mourvedre, A Rising Star in the World of American Rhones." which will be a guided tasting of the grape.

The Grand Tasting will be on Saturday afternoon with about 100 different wineries pouring over 500 different wines. To be a member, wineries have to make at least one wine from the 22 approved grapes. Most make Syrah or Viognier, but what about the other 20? Here’s a quick guide to give you a head start.

While Syrah is the most popular, it is being hotly contended as a fan favorite by the fashionable Grenache, which can be the fruitiest of the reds, lots of cherry and a fresh, tangy mouth-feel.

Mourvedre tends to be the back bone of blends. However, it’s coming into its own as a single variety wine, Larry Shaffer from Tercero Wines in Santa Barbara makes a fine example, 2009 Mourvedre Camp 4 Vineyard.

When Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre are blended together, it tends to be called a GSM blend–catchy, huh? This derives from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the most well-known of France’s Rhône region. Châteauneuf is usually Grenache dominant, with Syrah and Mourvedre closely in tow. Don’t be surprised if you’re presented with an SGM or even an MSG blend; two wineries to seek out making a combination of these blends are Two Shepherds from Santa Rosa and Terre Rouge from the Sierra Foothills.

Another red wine grape to look out for is Carignan; it can have lots of cranberry fruit, and is best described as being "crunchy." There is less than a handful in California, and two of the best examples will be on show. Amy Butler of Ranchero Cellars in Paso Robles will pour her 2010 Carignan sourced from five-foot high, 90-year-old vines grown in the wilderness of Mendocino. The well-established Ridge Vineyards in Sonoma will be pouring their 2011 Buchignani Carignan (and it's my personal favorite).

White wine wise, there is the weighty apricot flavored Viognier and not far behind will be the rich textured Roussanne with flavors of honey and pear as well as the more delicate Marsanne, with its subtle aromas of honeysuckle and almond.

However, the emerging white varietal has to be Grenache Blanc, it produces wines with green apple and marzipan flavors, with a round mouth-feel and a lemony finish. Like its red counterpart, this grape is proving to be a popular single varietal wine all over California. Tablas Creek in Paso Robles is making some great Rhone whites, but also check out Ambyth Estate, in Paso as well.

An unusual white grape to look out for would be Picpoul de Pinet–the grape is high in acid content, and it goes perfectly with oysters. You'll want to look for Halter Ranch from Paso Robles's version.

Rosé will also be in abundance at the show, but it will be dry. Classically, rosé is made with the grape Cinsault, and is most likely blended. The wine will be very light in color, with a fresh, fruity and perfumed nose.

Some of those original ‘rangers’ are still very much in the scene.  Randall Grahm founder of Bonny Doon Vineyards in Santa Cruz, who is being awarded a life-time achievement award, will be pouring on site. Bob Lindquist of Qupé in Santa Barbara County will also be there; he'll most likely be donning his usual Dodger blue cap, so don’t forget to remind him what town he’s in.

Ticket prices range from $50 for the Grand Tasting to $275 for the full weekend pass. For full details, click here.