The Rhône runs deep

Kelly J. Hayes

Recently I stumbled across a sweet neighborhood wine shop in northwest Denver called “Corks.” Their focus (on which I will write a future column) is interesting wines under $20. I loaded up the car and two of the wines I purchased made it into my glass this past week.

The first was a Curtis 2004 Heritage Cuvee Santa Barbara County that I paid $12.64 for. In this context “Cuvee” means “blend,” and so it is, with 50 percent grenache, 19 percent syrah, 18 percent mourvedre and 13 percent cinsault. Winemaker Chuck Carlson’s blend is patterned after those of Chateauneuf-du-Pape of in the southern Rhône river region of France. Heavy grenache is the wine’s base, blended with generous portions of syrah and mourvedre and then some Cinsault to give it a little spice and to smooth out the tannins.

It was a real bargain and is a terrific wine with pizza, grilled meats and Mexican food. Any spice works with it, and I’ll buy more of it for summer fun. At 15 percent alcohol it is a touch hot, but sometimes that is the price one pays for lusty flavor.

The second wine is similar, and yet different. A 2004 d’Arenberg Shiraz-Grenache “d’Arry’s Original” McLaren Vale, Australia for which I paid $13.50. (that includes the 10 percent case discount). This wine is made by one of Australia’s great winemakers, Chester Osborn, and is named for his father, a defining Australian winemaker named Francis but whom every one knows as d’Arry.

The wine is a 50-50 split between shiraz (as the Aussies refer to syrah) and grenache, and nothing else. D’Arenberg has produced this same blend since the 1960s from grapes grown on their 19th-century vineyards in the ever-lovely McLaren Vale GI (or Geographic Indication, as the Aussies refer to their appellations). The bottle has a little graphic on the label with a circle around a wine press and the words “Foot Trod” and “Basket Pressed” wrapped around the press. And they mean it.

Again, this wine is a great, great bargain. It is lusher, fruitier and, for me, smoother in the mouth than the Curtis Cuvee. Not that there is anything wrong with the Curtis, it is just that d’Arenberg has years and years of experience with vines that were planted more than a century ago, while the Curtis wines are made by first-generation pioneers in Santa Barbara County.

What was interesting to me about these wines, however, is that the same place, the southern Rhône region of France, and the same grapes, the Rhône varietals, inspired both of these winemakers. Yet they live and make wines in places far, far away from the Rhône.

And, despite the fact that they are nearly 10,000 miles away from one another, the places these vintners grow their grapes and make their Rhône-style wines are literally mirror images of one another.

Curtis is located just outside Los Olivos, Calif., on a hillside maybe 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean and the cooling breezes it offers. It is bordered to the east by the San Rafael Mountains. The climate is considered to be Mediterranean, and the mean temperature in July, the middle of the summer, is around 65 degrees.

D’Arenberg is located just outside of McLaren Vale on a hillside that is maybe five miles from the Gulf of St. Vincent and the cooling breeze it offers. It is bordered to the west by the Sellicks Hill Range. The climate is considered to be Mediterranean, and the mean temperature in January, the middle of the summer, is around 65 degrees.

Coincidence? I don’t think so. And get this ” they are almost exactly the same distance, with a latitude of 35 degrees north and south (give or take a degree) respectively, from the equator. The similarities between the two regions are so striking that if one were looking at photographs one could easily confuse the two places.

So there it was. Old World grapes grown in New World locations in both the Southern and Northern hemispheres turned into wines that I could purchase in the Rocky Mountains for less than $15 per bottle.

That’s why I love the world of wine.