4 New Wines From the Original Rhône Ranger

The latest Bonny Doon releases show quality and creativity as usual

In 1954, the producers of Châteauneuf-du-Pape in France's southern Rhône Valley, fiercely protective of the integrity of their vineyards, got a local ordinance passed banning flying saucers from the area. The French term for flying saucer is cigare volant — flying cigar (the aliens cruising French skies obviously favored a more elongated spacecraft, while those above America preferred the round kind).

Randall Grahm, who founded his Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz, on California's Central Coast, in 1983, was an early proponent of Rhône varieties in the state (among them syrah, mourvèdre, grenache, viognier, marsanne, and roussanne), and was quite possibly the winemaker to whom the punning "Rhône Ranger" name was applied. From the start, Grahm has given his wines humorous names (Cardinal Zin, Riesling to Live, Vinferno), so when he decided to produce a Châteauneuf-style red blend, he dubbed it Le Cigare Volant.

The wine has been a staple of his list for years, joined by a vin gris (a supposedly grayish rosé) and a white — Vin Gris de Cigare and Le Cigare Blanc, respectively. Recently, Grahm has been experimenting with aging the wines not in conventional 55-gallon barrels but in both smaller containers like 10- to 15-gallon carboys — also called demijohns, or, in French, bonbonnes — and larger ones, including demi-muids, with about twice the capacity of ordinary barrels, and the upright wooden tanks called foudres, which hold about 2,600 gallons.

The latest Bonny Doon releases in the Cigare line are superb, and express the kind of confident, consistent winemaking Grahm has become known for. His experiments may have noticeable results — some more vivid than others — but they don't affect wine quality at the expense of gimmickry.

2011 Le Cigare Blanc, Beeswax Vineyard ($28). A 62-38 blend of grenache blanc and roussanne from a biodynamically farmed vineyard in the Arroyo Seco region of Monterey County, this is a rich, well-rounded wine with pronounced grenache character, reminiscent of Cavaillon melon and butter mints.

2010 Le Cigare Blanc Réserve, Beeswax Vineyard ($50). Aged en bonbonne for a year and a half, this blend combines grenache blanc and roussanne in something closer to equal quantities (56-44). At least as rich as the normal bottling, it has a slightly more floral character and, though older, tastes brighter and slightly fresher. Good acidity helps define the richness.

2008 Le Cigare Volante en Demi-Muid ($45). The '08 Cigare Volants are blends of grenache noir (45 percent), syrah (30 percent), mourvèdre (13 percent), cinsault (7 percent), and carignane (5 percent), drawn from six different vineyards, one of them biodynamic and the other in transition to same. Dark in color and medium-rich in body, this is an earthy, spicy wine with plenty of oak and enough tannin to make it sit up straight.


2008 Le Cigare Volante en Foudre ($45). Slightly lighter in color than the Demi-Muid, with suggestions of mint and rosemary in the nose and a complex, surprisingly soft character on the palate, with a faintly tart, mineral-tinged finish. Tasting this blind against the Demi-Muid, I might suspect that the former was Californian, but could easily believe that this one was French.