For the Rhône-ish at heart, the annual release of a new batch of wines from Randall Grahm — the original "Rhône Ranger” — is cause for celebration, and for reaching for a bunch of glasses and a sturdy corkscrew. Well, actually, forget that last part, because Bonny Doon Vineyards, Grahm's groundbreaking, idiosyncratic Central Coast winery, has long since gone exclusively to screwcaps, and thank goodness for that.
The latest crop, a dozen in all, is full of familiar names: Among other things, Grahm's Châteauneuf-du-Pape-inspired Le Cigare Volants, red and white, are among the most famous, and consistently pleasing, of Rhône-style California wines; his Clos de Gilroy is a particularly lovely and well-reviewed expression of the Grenache grape (with some unobtrusive syrah and mourvèdre added); and his un-trendily German-influenced The Heart Has Its Rieslings (a play on Pascal's contention that "The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing") is surely the best punningly monikered white wine on the market.
Here's what the wines smell and taste like (prices will vary from place to place):
The Heart Has its Rieslings, 2013 ($16)
A blend of San Benito and Monterey County fruit, made in the style of a German Kabinett, with low alcohol and three percent residual sugar. On the lean side, with nice fruit and plenty of acidity to offset the sweetness.
Le Cigare Blanc, "Beeswax Vineyard," 2013 ($28)
This blend of white Rhône varieties (it's 55 percent roussanne, 26 percent Grenache blanc, and 19 percent picpoul) is rich and unctuous, with aromas of citrus and beeswax, a nice edge of mineral-tinged acidity, and an opulent honeyed character on the palate.
A Proper Claret, 2013 ($16)
The name is a joke: A proper claret (as our British friends call red Bordeaux) would be made with various proportions of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, and maybe bits of petit verdot and/or malbec; this wine has the cabernet sauvignon, the merlot, and the petit verdot, but then goes off the reservation completely by adding minor percentages of tannat (the dark, tannic grape of Madiran and the Uruguayan red wine scene), a bit of syrah, and a smidgen of petite sirah. For all of the putative authority of its constituent grapes, this is a fairly gentle wine, not overly extracted or tannic, with a slightly herbaceous aroma and nice cherry and berry flavors.
Contra, 2012 ($18)
A sturdy blend of carignane (mostly) and syrah, Grenache, mourvèdre, and a smidgen of cinsault — the sort of mixture that old-school California vintners used to produce. I'd call this Languedocienne rather than Rhône-like in character, with a stalky nose and a flavor that suggests raspberries sprinkled with Pernod.
Clos de Gilroy, 2013 ($20)
An excellent Grenache (blended with 17 percent syrah and eight percent Mourvèdre), very true to varietal type, with an intense aroma, a little meaty, and a pretty, strawberry-tinged flavor (I like this slightly chilled).
Syrah, "Le Pousseur," 2012 ($26)
A ripe and chewy but not overpowering 100-percent syrah, still tight — the winery, whose tasting notes are always a hoot, suggests that it "is still in a Marlon Brando-like bit of a sullen funk” — with mushrooms and humus in the nose and a rich cherry-like flavor.
Le Cigare Volant 2010 ($45)
Spicy and herbaceous on the nose, this elegant Châteauneuf-du-Papeish red is earthy, nicely tannic, and meaty, but finishes with some finesse. (Current appellation laws permit Châteauneuf-du-Pape to contain juice from as many as 18 different red and white grapes, with Grenache usually predominating. This wine is about one-third syrah, with the rest composed of more or less equal parts of Grenache, old-vine cinsault, mourvèdre, and carignane — the last of these not a legal Châteauneuf variety.)
Grenache, "Cuvée R," 2012 ($48)
A much richer, juicier Grenache than the Clos de Gilroy (this one's all Grenache), with plenty of spice, some sturdy tannin, and a lovely, lingering strawberry finish. This wine is available only to members of the winery's DEWN (Distinctive Esoteric Wine Network) Club. There's no membership fee, but members agree to receive four shipments a year of limited-edition wines, at prices ranging from $100 to $500 per shipment, depending on the number of bottles.
Syrah, "Bien Nacido Vineyard, Block X," 2011 ($50)
Not very friendly at the moment, but with its classic syrah nose, grapey richness, and smoky, spicy flavor, this wine should develop into a serious Rhône-style monster.
Le Cigare Volant Réserve, "En Bonbonne," 2010 ($79)
A small quantity of the 2010 vintage of this classic Bonny Doon offering was aged in 25-liter glass demijohns, in darkness, with the lees stirred up every couple of weeks. This process adds complexity to the wine and slows the aging process. The wine seems more extracted than the regular bottling, with a touch of almost Burgundian barnyard earthiness and notes of leather and cigar-box cedar. It seems a shame to drink this now, as it will surely develop impressively over the next few years.
Sparkling Syrah, "Méthode Traditionelle," 2011 ($36)
Another DEWN Club exclusive, of which fewer than 400 cases were made, this is Grahm's take on a wine style popular in Australia — sparkling shiraz. The idea takes a bit of getting used to — dark, fruity red wine with bubbles — but this example, bright, forthright, intensely carbonated, with a hint of candied cherries in the flavor, is festive and very drinkable.
Vinferno 2013 ($24/375 ml)
An unusual late-harvest Grenache blanc, sweet but not sugary, with hints of honey and a rounded fruit flavor that reminds me of perry (pear cider).