By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 2 March 2019
The Rhone is famous for its red wines - and its whites and roses so often get overlooked. Not any more – the talk in Rhone vineyards today is about planting more white grapes to keep up with the huge demand.
Interestingly, this is being helped by the changes in climate. Whilst the summer day temperatures are slowly increasing, summer nights are getting cooler – and this diurnal difference means that white grapes can retain their acidity well to ensure fresher whites.
White Rhone only makes up 6% of production - whilst rose is 10%. This will definitely increase as the whites in particular are becoming very fashionable as more people are becoming aware of their great value and rich lush flavour. Tastewise, Rhone whites make great winter whites. With their full body, high alcohol and rich generous flavours they are ideal for matching with hearty winter dishes or even Asian cuisine
This is not a new fad – in fact, originally white wines were considered to be superior to red in some Rhone appellations. Cyrus Redding writing in 1830’s believed that white Hermitage was ‘the best white wine in France…and it keeps longer than the red’.
Historically the famous Hermitage appellation, now so well known for its red, used to be mainly white wine – a rich deeply-coloured nutty white made from Roussanne and Marsanne. The small, now rare, appellation of Chateau Grillet was also once world famous for its Viognier – and down in the southern Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape has always made a small percentage of fabulously exotic white wines originally included in the appellation in 1923.
Thanks to modern winemaking techniques the whites are now fresher and fruitier – and less of an acquired taste. Some are oaked – but the modern taste is for less oak and more primary grape freshness.
The northern Rhone has three very distinct grapes. Viognier is found in Condrieu, Ch Grillet and Cote Rotie (20% Viognier is allowed in red blends here) – where it grows so well on granite and schist making rich minerally whites. Whereas the whites of St Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes Hermitage and St Peray are made from Marsanne and Roussanne – of these the latter is becoming more popular as it contributes wonderful richness, nuttiness and freshness.
White Cotes du Rhone and Cotes du Rhone Villages in the southern Rhone are multi-grape blends. Varietal wines are less common here. Blends are typically made from Roussanne, which grows better here in the warm south, Marsanne, Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Clairette. Of these Clairette is the most popular as it is a high yielder and has good resistance to rot – it must also be a minimum of one-third of the cuvee in Lirac whites.
In Chateauneuf du Pape the white wines are made from Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Roussanne, Bourboulenc,Terret Blanc and Picardan – and white grapes are also used in the red cuvee too. Its better value neighbour Vacqueyras is another appellation known for its reds, but its limey clay and marl soils are really well suited to white wines – so let’s hope we see more in the future.
The past vintages for Rhone whites have been variable. The sunny vintages of 2015 and 2016 produced full-bodied robust whites, compared to the cooler more aromatic fresher 2014s. In 2017 the problem was not just the heat, but uneven weather at flowering time meant that the quantity was very small.
So grab what you can before Rhone whites become even more fashionable and prices start to rise.
CUVEE GOURMANDISES 2017 Domaine de Montine (13%) ***STAR BUY***
£9.25 The Wine Society
Grapes: Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Bourboulenc & Grenache Blanc
This comes from the most northerly appellation in southern Rhone, Grignan-les-Adhemar, on the left bank of the river surrounded by garrigue. You can taste the herbiness in this clever five grape blend. Exotically perfumed with wild flowers and fennel notes, quite sappy, savoury, rich, but still fresh and finishing dry. Great value.
LIRAC BLANC LA FERMADE 2017 Domaine Maby (14%)
£10.95 The Wine Society
Grapes: Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Picpoul
Another crackingly good value white Rhone – typically dry and herby in style. Here the white Grenache gives generous rich flavours, Bourboulenc gives citric fruits and smoky notes, Clairette gives finesse and Picpoul high acid and freshness. This unoaked blend is so tangy, honeyed with lovely intensity and mineral depth.
COTES DU RHONE BLANC 2017 Leon Perdigal (13.5%)
£7.99 Majestic Wine
Grapes: Grenache Blanc blend
Not quite so exciting, a bit subtle in aroma and taste – but slightly spicy, full bodied on palate with rich texture and underlying stewed apple notes. A traditional unoaked five grape blend from across Vaucluse, Gard, Ardeche and Drome.
COTES DU RHONE BLANC 2017 Guigal (13%)
£10.75 Villeneuve Wines; The Drink Shop; Fareham Wine Cellar
Grapes: 60% Viognier, 15% Roussanne, 10% Marsanne, 8% Clairette, 5% Bourboulenc, 2% Grenache Blanc
Apricot and peach aromas, lush textural palate with hints of tropical richness, good balance of fruit and acid with bitter almond finish – gives a sneak preview of the famous Guigal quality.
COTES DU RHONE BLANC GUY LOUIS 2017 Domaine Tardieu-Laurent (13.5%)
£20.25 Corney & Barrow
Grapes: 35% Roussanne, 25% Marsanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 10% Viognier, 10% Clairette
Opulent 100% barrel fermented white Rhone from a blend of one third northern and two thirds southern Rhone – with declassified grapes from Hermitage. Rich apple, honey and pear flavours, glycerine notes.
ST JOSEPH BLANC SILICA 2017 Domaine Coursodon (14%)
£31.95 Berry Bros & Rudd
Grape: 100% Marsanne
A lovely rich dense unoaked white from old vines, some over 50 years old. Lush rich mouthfilling fruits, apple and melon with a distinctly honeyed waxy note from Marsanne grown on granite by the youthful vigneron Jerome Coursodon.
Love French wines? Join Rose’s Loire & Rhone wine & charcuterie tasting at The Scores Hotel, St Andrews on Friday 17 May £40 www.rosemurraybrown.com