The other side of the Rhône
by Bill Zacharkiw
Every successful wine region has an identity, mostly founded on the wines that sell best, which is hopefully based on what they do best. In the Rhône, that identity is definitely red, and based on syrah in the north, and grenache in the south. While the region’s best estates definitely merit this “red-putation,” the downside is that their white wines tend to be overlooked. And that’s a shame, because many are truly world-class.
One of the problems in navigating the whites of the Rhône, and this is more directed at the south, is that there are a variety of different grapes being used, which will have an effect on the flavour and more importantly, texture profile of the wine. Most, however, will tend to be on the richer end of the texture spectrum.
So let’s start with the easier to understand region, the north, where some of the world’s greatest white wines are produced.
The duo of Marsanne and Roussanne
Two grapes which for the most part mimic one another. Both are relatively low in acidity, though roussanne is considered a touch more aromatic. For those of you with a love for richer whites like chardonnay, then these wines should be right up your taste alley.
The most reputed wines come from Hermitage. On these granitic soils, the wines, despite their intense richness, manage to show an admirable mineral quality, which is more associated with cooler climate whites.
White Hermitage is an extraordinary wine and despite low acid and being completely dry, still somehow manages to be one of the best whites for aging. The reason is due to the fact that these two grapes have a high proportion of what is called “dry extract,” what is left in a wine if you boiled off all the liquid. And as they age, they tend to get leaner and leaner as they “cannabalize” their own fat.
The downside is that they can be quite pricey. If you have the cash, then best to start at the top. Jean-louis Chave’s 2011 Hermitage is a rich and already beautifully textured wine that will live for decades. More accessibly priced is Chapoutier’s 2011 Chante-Alouette. Made with 100% marsanne, it shows all the hallmarks of white Hermitage.
You can find some exceptional whites in Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitages, especially on sites which have more granite and limestone. A great example is from Domaine Louis Belle. The 2012 is a perfect example of these two great grapes grown on granite, but at a fraction of the price of a Hermitage. I was particularly impressed by Pierre Gaillard’s 2013 Saint-Joseph. Peaches, mineral, great depth and texture. Wow.
But for a bargain, look to the appellation of Saint-Péray. Just south of Cornas, old vines grown on this hillside of granite and limestone are the source of not only superb versions of the style, perhaps a touch more mineral and fresh, but at very reasonable prices. Try the 2011 from Pic & Chapoutier.
Viognier and Condrieu
Condrieu, just south of the Rhône’s northernmost appellation Cote Rotie, is where one of wine world’s most elusive and temperamental white grapes, viognier, reaches its greatest expression. Viognier is perhaps the white version of pinot noir, attempted by many but mastered by few. Why is it so difficult? Viognier is a grape which has a relatively low acidity, and when grown in regions that are too warm, can easily become flabby. So the key is to find a climate which is warm enough to ripen the grape while not moving into over-ripeness.
Yields are always very low, which is why these wines are rare and often quite expensive. However, when you drink great Condrieu, there is nothing like it. I have called it on a number of occasions an oboe concerto for your mouth. Great Condrieu is subtle, often showing delicate florals and honeysuckle, and notes of white stone fruit like pear and peach. The texture tends to be oily as opposed to buttery, and the length is exceptional. There is a “low level”, almost saline mineral hum that continues for minutes after every sip.
Condrieu works magnificently with lobster, scallops, and richer cheeses. Look no further than François Villard’s 2011 Le Grand Vallon for an excellent example of how good these wines can be.
The mixed bag of southern whites
In the southern part of the Rhône, things are not quite as uniform with respect to grapes, and therefore wine styles. Although they represent a relatively small amount of the total production, many wine makers are particularly proud of their white wines, even though they are far less well-reputed.
Unlike in the north, wine makers have a number of grapes to choose from, including clairette, bourbelenc, viognier, marsanne, grenache blanc and roussane. Many clairette based wines tend to be quite fresh at first, but as they age, can gain a certain amount of richness.
On a more northern taste profile, try the biodynamically grown Clos Belanne. There isn’t a ton of bottles left but this was one of my favourite whites I have tasted over the past few months. A great example of a white that balances freshness with a richer texture is 2012 Mont-Redon’s Lirac. Clairette-based, but with grenache blanc, roussanne and viognier, it is a great deal for the $23 price tag.
One of my fetish wines are white Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It represents less than 5% of the total production, but these wines can be very long-lived. Grenache blanc and Clairette are the primary grapes, but many producers also use roussane and another grape called bourboulenc. Jerome Quiot, who makes a great white Châteauneuf-du-Pape describes these wines as “having two lives.” The first life”, he says is “refreshing, youthful, but still rich enough for white meats. But after 5 years, they gain a smoky, truffle quality that makes them perfect for cheeses.”
Quito’s 2011 Domaine du Vieux Lazaret is a great introduction to the style, as is the 2012 Domaine de Nalys. Both are under $40 and exemplify how these whites can show great complexity and depth, while maintaining a wonderful freshness.
At a Christmas dinner a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to drink a 1989 bottle of Château Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape vieilles vignes. This is made entirely with roussane grapes from vines that are a minimum of 75 years of age. It was rich, honeyed and just oxidized enough to have some interesting nutty notes. On a night when a lot of great wine was poured, this is the bottle that I remember.
One final note about service – these wines must be served on the warmer side of the spectrum if you want to appreciate fully their richer textures. Start them at 10C and let them warm up. I have drunk them up to 18C and they are fantastic.
“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial
Editors Note: You can find Bill’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names or bottle images above. Premium subscribers to Chacun son vin see all critic reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!