The Rhone Rangers are American wineries with a passion for producing wines from traditional Rhone grape varieties. This past June, twenty three Rhone Rangers assembled in Washington, D.C., to showcase the best of their Rhone-style varietal and blended wines. Some of our favorite selections at the tasting hailed from Paso Robles, in San Luis Obispo County, California, and these included the wines of Derby Wine Estates. Derby was established in 2008 by Ray and Pam Derby, who began purchasing prime vineyard properties on California’s Central Coast in the late 1990s and worked for a decade as grape growers before producing their own wine. But while we discovered Derby through the Rhone Ranger connection, the winery does not produce only Rhone-style wines. Under the skillful stewardship of winemaker Tiffinee Vierra and Vineyard Manager Steve Vierra, Derby produces a thoughtful array of wines from Rhone, Bordeaux, Burgundian, and Iberian varieties grown in three separate vineyards located in different corners of San Luis Obispo County.
The National Wine Review’s tasting panel sampled four Derby selections of various types — including two Rhone-style blends — and found them all to be deeply expressive, finely textured, and of exceptional quality at their price points. They also are beautifully labeled, with a stylized depiction of the location of the vineyard(s), in relation to the Pacific Ocean, where the grapes are sourced. We highly recommend all four of these wines, and offer our tasting notes, below.
93 pts | “Highly Recommended”
This is Derby’s white Rhone blend, consisting of Marsanne (31%), Roussanne (26%), Grenache Blanc (22%), Viognier (11%), and Picpoul Blanc (10%), sourced from the Derbys’ namesake vineyard. The 127-acre Derby Vineyard, which the Derbys purchased in 2006, is situated in west Paso Robles in an area called the Templeton Gap. The Templeton Gap is a topographic wind tunnel, of sorts, that channels cool oceanic breezes inland from the Pacific, creating ideal conditions for growing white and red Rhone (and other) varieties. The 2011 Fifteen 10 White is a gorgeous wine, lush and creamy, with notions of peach blossom, nectarine, and honeydew melon on the nose; and on the palate, suggestions of ripe white peach, Bartlett pear, orange zest, and just a hint of almond — all layered on a solid core of minerality. It is medium-bodied with moderate acids and no overt oak; it aged for six months in all neutral French oak barrels, enhancing the wine’s texture without conveying flavor, and sat for another year in stainless steel. It is a food-friendly wine that can be paired with soft to medium-sharp cheeses, seafood (particularly richer varieties such as lobster and crab), Veal Marsala, braised pork loin, and Asian fare. (13.5% ABV | 478 cases produced)
93 pts | “Highly Recommended”
This is Derby’s red Rhone blend, consisting of Syrah (39%), Grenache (28%), Counoise (19%), and Mourvedre (14%), sourced from the Derby Vineyard. The 2010 is a prodigious red, rich and extracted, with aromas of dried blackberry, brandied dark fruit, and wood smoke followed by flavors of ripe blackberry, dried dark cherry, and smoked meat accented with notions of baking spices, caramelized sugar, and earthy minerality — all rising to a harmonious crescendo over a lingering finish. It is full-bodied with moderate acidity, friendly tannins, and spicy, well integrated oak; it aged for 32 months in French oak barrels, 21% new. It is a food-friendly wine that will complement medium to sharp cheeses, cured meats, barbecued or grilled meats, ratatouille, and other hearty fare. (14.5% ABV | 492 cases produced)
91 pts | “Highly Recommended”
Derby’s Implico blend transports us from the Rhone into Bordeaux territory. It is a blend of the classic Bordeaux varieties — Cabernet Sauvignon (46%), Merlot (27%), Petit Verdot (13%), Malbec (9%), and Cabernet Franc (5%), sourced from the Derby Vineyard as well as from the winery’s 278-acre Laura’s Vineyard in east Paso Robles. The Derbys acquired Laura’s Vineyard in 2001, and it had recently been replanted to Bordeaux varieties after a bout with phylloxera. The 2011 Implico is an elegant red, structured and balanced, offering notions of dried herbs, sweet cured tobacco, and redwood on the nose; and on the palate, suggestions of black currant, mission fig, bell pepper, and black tea leaf — all adorned with hints of nutmeg and dark chocolate-covered cocoa bean over a savory finish. It is full-bodied with moderate acidity, assertive tannins, and cedary oak; it aged for 30 months in French oak barrels, 21% new. As you might expect with a young Bordeaux-style blend, this wine would benefit from a few more years in bottle to fully express itself. Should you drink it now, we recommend decanting it for an hour or two. Serve it with medium to sharp cheeses, charcuterie, braised short ribs, grilled meats glazed with aged balsamic vinegar, and other hearty fare. (13.9% ABV | 519 cases produced)
88 pts | “Recommended”
Derby sources its Pinot Gris from yet another vineyard — Derbyshire Vineyard — situated along the dramatic Pacific coastline of San Simeon adjacent to Hearst Ranch. Derbyshire was the Derbys’ first vineyard, purchased in 1998, and here — thanks to direct proximity to the sea — it is cool enough to farm both Pinot Gris (11 acres) and Pinot Noir (52 acres). This selection is 100% Pinot Gris fermented and aged in stainless steel for eight months. It is a bountiful Pinot Gris, fresh and juicy, brimming with aromas and flavors that are fruity, floral, and honeyed. Impressions of peaches-&-cream, cherry blossom, marzipan, and citrus peel linger over a fleshy finish. It is medium-bodied with refreshing acidity and therefore immanently food-friendly. Serve it with such fare as soft buttery cheeses, shrimp scampi, Fettuccine Alfredo, roasted vegetables, lemon chicken, and fruit tarts. (13.7% ABV | 388 cases produced)
Availability: Derby wines are produced in small lots and retail distribution is limited. They may, however, be purchased at the winery or ordered for direct shipping, depending on the rules of your given state. For more information, visit Derby Wine Estates in person at 525 Riverside Ave. in Paso Robles, California, 93446; ring them at 805-238-6300; or visit them virtually at www.derbywineestates.com.