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Published: Tuesday, 4/24/2001

The grapes that made California famous

Success stories thrive like weeds all over California's wine country, like the achievements of such first-generation Americans as Julio and Ernest Gallo, Robert Mondavi, and other leaders of the industry. What I have in mind today, however, are other successes: the grapes brought from afar that have prospered under the West Coast sun.

Far from first - the early missionaries didn't bring Cabernet sauvignon cuttings - ideal sitings for a host of popular varieties were found by happy combinations of science, trial, and economics.

Latest of these immigrants are natives (at least within the perspective of the millennium just past) of the Rhone Valley in southeastern France. Scarcely 10 years ago less than 400 tons of syrah, aka shiraz, the grape of the great Rhone reds, were turned into California wine; 400 tons are less than 1 percent of today's harvest.

Besides syrah/shiraz (but not petite syrah), another Rhone grape cultivated on the West Coast and sold under the varietal name and just beginning to make friends for itself is mourvedre (moor-VEDR), marketed by at least one major winery, Ridge, under its Spanish name, mataro (ma-ta-RO). It seems to me that I once saw grenache (gruh-NAWSH) sold as such, but like another Rhone red, carignane, it's usually identified on a back label as a blend.

Of Rhone whites, one word says it all: viognier (vee-YAWN-yeay). Though made by several California wineries, it doesn't seem to have caught on so far, at least partly, I suspect, because of the difficult name, but also because so far no domestic winemaker has caught the considerable charm of the original. Two other whites that rarely appear in starring roles are roussanne and marsanne; in France the latter, a long-time partner, is gradually replacing the former.

Varietal names do not normally appear on French wines destined for the home market. Instead, both reds and whites in the Rhone Valley are attributed to the township or commune, such as the Vacqueyras and Gigondas I noted two weeks ago, and identified by the maker's name.

Often among blends of as many as eight or nine varieties never otherwise seen, the secret of these wines - Chateauneuf du Pape is the best known - is the formula, handed down from generation to generation. So far, none of California's "Rhone Rangers" has tried to copy any more than the most basic, two-or-three wines blend; let us enjoy what we have while we await the first Chateauneuf de San Francisco.

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