WineKnow Tasting #4: GSM – The Southern Rhone & Beyond

We hosted our fourth “WineKnow” tasting event at our house in Laguna Beach last Saturday. About 35 people joined us on a beautiful evening! (We charge $35 per person and that just covers 10 wines X 3 bottles each + some money for groceries (we make homemade pizzas and gougeres and always have lots of cheeses and cold cuts available).

While the overarching goal was to have fun, get a bit drunk and enjoy conversations with friends old and new, there were two educational goals:

1) To understand why winemakers blend different grapes, such as the “GSM” blend pioneered in France’s southern Rhone Valley, and

2) To understand the price/quality hierarchy in the southern Rhone Valley

One-third of the way through the tasting, and it’s all smiles already!

In order to understand why the “GSM” blend works, we started by tasting three, single-variety wines. A “G” (Grenache = Garnacha) from Spain; an “S” (Syrah = Shiraz) from the Northern Rhone and an “M” (Mourvedre = Monastrell = Mataro) from Spain.

The Grenache (usually 60%+ of Southern Rhone red blends) delivers plush, red fruit. The Syrah darkens the blend and adds blackberries, a certain meatiness/smokiness/pepper and tannins. The Mourvedre (usually the smallest % of the three) is extremely dark and tannic. Together, the three grapes deliver a balanced wine that tastes complex and can age extremely well. I was hoping to create my own GSM by pouring these three wines together but all the bottles were empty!

10 “Curriculum” wines + 3 “Guest” wines

Next, we learned about the Rhone wine quality pyramid. Cotes du Rhone –> Cotes du Rhone Villages –> Cotes du Rhone Crus –> Chateauneuf du Papes/Gigondas/Vacqueyras. We tasted an easy and delicious Cotes du Rhone from E. Guigal at an excellent price (US$11 at Costco!). Next, we jumped up the pyramid a few levels to an E. Guigal Chateauneuf du Papes from a not great year (2013). But it still tasted great! (A reminder that good winemakers can produce good wines even in “bad” vintages.) Finally, we tasted a Gigondas from Chateau St. Cosme.

Preaching to the Choir

We finished the evening with three GSMs from abroad: two from the Barossa Valley in Australia and one from Paso Robles in the USA. Unfortunately, I had forgotten to take these last three out of the wine fridge, so they were too cold to enjoy fully. That said, everyone was pretty lit at that stage so no one minded.

One of our first-timers to these WineKnow events told me “This is the best wine-tasting I’ve ever done! I can’t believe how much I’ve learned.” Stop it! I’m blushing.

Lovely Ladies…but wait, is that WATER?

I’ll post more of my detailed notes for this tasting later, as well as the specific list of wines we tasted. WineKnow #5 is either going to be “The Killer B’s of Italy” (Barolo + Brunello) or “The Wild Wines of Portugal.”

Be a WineKnow

I didn’t know anything about wine. How could I? My parents were teetotalers, and underage kids drank cheap beer, not snooty wine.

After college, my first job was at an investment bank in Chicago. That’s when my lack of wine knowledge (WineKnow) began to irritate me. If I went on a date, I felt hopeless when I scanned the restaurant wine list and made my selection based on price. At a client event, the sommeliers took advantage of my ignorance by steering me towards overpriced wines.

Preaching to the WineKnows at our “Summer Whites” Tasting

So I started reading. A lot. Zraly’s “Windows on the World” wine course, MacNeil’s “Wine Bible,” Decanter and Wine Spectator magazines and so much more.

I also started drinking. A lot. I found the pace of wine drinking enjoyable (not too drunk too fast, not too sober too long). I found the myriad styles of wine exciting. But most importantly, I discovered that understanding wine wasn’t that hard.

All that reading and drinking has transformed me into a “wine expert.” I’m not a Master of Wine or Certified Sommelier. I haven’t taken any tests. But I have tasted thousands of wines, toured dozens of wine regions and geeked-out like crazy.

I’m here to offer you shortcuts. To teach you a few little things that vastly expand your comfort in the wine world. My mantra is simple:

“Making better-informed and more adventurous wine buyers and drinkers.”