My mentor, Jim Sanders, who was the French Burgundy expert of Atlanta and probably the entire southeastern United States, once said that in a good vintage a White Rhone wine will be as good as any White Burgundy from the same vintage. I just filed that tidbit away for a time like now.
The wine he may have been talking about would have been a great northern Rhone like an Hermitage, Condrieu, or even Chateau Grillet, which isn't even a Rhone but is, sort of, by virtue of its Viognier grape makeup. The northern Rhone is the pedigreed region of the Rhone with the noble Viognier as its vanguard while the south is blue collar and earthy, but damn, it's good too.
Back to the north...along with Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne round out the triumvirate of exceptional wine grapes that this storied historic region has imprinted on worldwide wine culture. Viognier offers layers of powerful, yet clean peach and apricot stonefuit aromas and flavors in Condrieu and Chateau Grillet while the Marsanne and Roussanne grapes are blended to make the great White Hermitage. Roussanne is herbal while Marsanne is honeysuckle and those two were just meant to be together. In a superior vintage all of these examples should have a lively acidity and structure enabling years of improvement in the bottle. On the dinner table the wine should be seen as an alternative to Chardonnay.
In the southern Rhone whites aren't quite so cut and dried. Change is at the heart of the nature of things in the south currently where commercial success has led to experimentation with grapes to improve their product. The grapes in play in southern Rhone white wine making include: Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier, Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano), Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, and Rolle (Vermentino). All of these contribute significantly to southern Rhone blends but among the minor players, Ugni Blanc is trending downward in popularity while Rolle is on the rise.
We have already described Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne above so what about the others? Grenache Blanc is probably the most important white grape in the south. It offers high sugar (alcohol), low acidity, and citrus and herbal notes in lengthy flavors. In a typical blend, Clairette offers delicate structure and finesse along with a floral nose and lively lemony flavor. Bourboulenc offers spice and more structure. The minor players in the blend are just that.
So you begin to get the picture, don't you? This is winemaking as art and it is a work in progress replete with misunderstandings and misreadings of assumptions resulting in some disappointing efforts in recent years. When it's right though, southern Rhone whites show honey, earth, and minerality moreso than the stonefruit of the north; you just don't often know how much of each you are getting in individual examples.
Two final points...90% of Cotes du Rhones are red with rose as the second most popular type meaning the great whites of the northern Rhone are expensive and the rest of the whites from the south, in my opinion, are a ridiculous bargain. White Rhones are the alternative to Chardonnay on the dinner table, so if you have burned out on Chardonnay try one of these today.
On Friday May 11th from 5 to 7pm, David Rimmer of Artisan Vines joins us for another go round with fine examples of reds and whites from at least three continents. Please join us for that one. Hey, be a follwer of this site. It'll do you no harm.