This week guest columnist Quentin Sadler extols the virtues of whites from France’s Côtes-du-Rhône region. For publication in week of 24 September 2018.
Most people probably believe that France’s Côtes-du-Rhône is all about red wines. This is understandable because this region produces a lot of wine – about 372 million bottles a year in fact. But only 6 per cent of that total is white.
A lot of places are like that – Bordeaux and Rioja for instance – the red wines get all the glory and all the media mentions and I can understand it, but this limits people’s appreciation of the whites.
Recently I was travelling around the southern Rhône Valley where I visited some fabulous estates and tasted brilliant wines. It may have been because of the hot weather, but very often the wines that caught my imagination were the whites.
Southern Rhône whites are usually blends made from Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Picpoul Blanc and Bourboulenc though Viognier gets a look in as well. I love these grapes as they are full of character, flavour and interest. Single varietals are permitted, although most white wines there are blends of more than one variety. These grapes are also widely used in the nearby Languedoc-Roussillon region.
Grenache Blanc – it is Spanish in origin so can be called Garnacha Blanca – has become one of my favourite white grapes in recent years. It is relatively low in acidity, but handled correctly can still offer enough freshness to balance the alcohol and the aromas. Historically it was not widely respected, but modern fermentation techniques keep that freshness and bring out the lovely herbal aromas and flavours. It also has a silky texture that can be very satisfying.
Since the introduction of stainless steel fermentation vats with cooling equipment in the 1960s to 1980s, we have been able to ferment at low temperatures. This retains the natural freshness of the grape and has made white wines more lively and drinkable than they used to be.
Roussanne is another favourite of mine. It is an aromatic and herbal scented grape variety that also has a nutty character. But the wonderful thing about Roussanne is that along with loads of flavour and aroma it also has reasonably high acidity, so the wines feel fresh – even when blended with Grenache Blanc.
Marsanne is a much fleshier and lower-acid grape and can make big and flabby wines unless care is taken – which is why it is so seldom seen as a grape variety on its own (though they can be superb). Like Roussanne, which it is often blended, Marsanne also originated in the northern Rhône.
Bourboulenc is a grape variety that I have come to love in recent years. It is widely grown in southern France, being used in Bandol, Cassis, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and La Clape in the Languedoc amongst other places. It has refreshing acidity and mouthwatering citrus flavours and while almost never used on its own can really give elegance and finesse to a blend of richer grapes.
Clairette is low in acid and can be flabby unless care is taken. This is another herbal grape with fennel-like aromas and rich orange and peach flavours. In the Rhône this is a blending grape but it is used as a single varietal in Clairette du Languedoc with great success.
Viognier, of course, is by far the most popular and widely seen of these grapes. It is generally low in acid and very intense and oily in its home turf of the northern Rhône, where it makes Condrieu. Personally I do not usually like the grape unless it is a lighter and fresher example, but a little in blends can work wonders and I can sometimes be surprised by how good it can be.
These wines are very food friendly and partner all manner of dishes very well. Perfect with roast chicken, fish dishes, but also brilliant with roast lamb as long as you pile on the garlic and herbs. Garlic works very well with Roussanne and Grenache Blanc especially, as does olive oil. They are also perfect with a cheese board and what I usually serve with a selection of cheeses that includes both hard and softer types. Also try them with barbecue and spicy foods as they work really well.
Here are a few white Rhône wines I would recommend. Some are labelled as Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc, while the better wines are labelled by their Cru or village name:
Château Beauchêne Grande Réserve Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc. Made from 25 per cent Clairette, 25 per cent Grenache Blanc 25 per cent Roussanne, 20 per cent Marsanne and the balance Bourboulenc, this is a lovely, joyous wine, full of freshness that makes it feel lively and pure.
Château Beauchêne Viognier Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc. Pure Viognier, this is a delicately creamy and smoky wine with a lightness of touch that keeps it fresh and lively and very drinkable.
Château de Montfaucon Lirac Blanc Comtesse Madeleine is a more complex and textured example from an organic estate near Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Their Vin de Madame la Comtesse de Montfaucon Lirac Blanc is a concentrated and stylish wine made from a single plot of ancient Clairette vines planted in 1870 in very stony and sandy soils overlooking the Rhône river.
Domaine Montirius Vacqueyras Minéral is a lively and tangy blend of 50 per cent Bourboulenc with 25 per cent each of Grenache Blanc and Rousanne and is a fine and beautiful wine.
Domaine des Escaravailles La Galopine Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc is a wondrous blend of 40 per cent Roussane, 40 per cent Marsanne and 20 per cent Viognier, barrel fermented and aged in the same barrels for about six months. The vineyard this wine comes from is actually within the Cru of Rasteau. But only red wines and rosés can be made in Rasteau, so it has to be labelled Côtes-du-Rhône instead.
So you see, the Côtes-du-Rhône is not only red. The region offers a wealth of fine white wines from the southern Rhône and they are well worth exploring.
Quentin Sadler is a wine communicator who has spent more than 30 years in the UK wine trade and has done it all from retail, buying and selling through to marketing. Nowadays he trains members of the trade as well as interested consumers in both WSET qualifications and bespoke courses. He is a popular speaker for wine clubs as well as giving presentations to the trade and hosting wine events and entertainments. Quentin also writes about wine and is a cartographer, creating maps used to illustrate wine books and educational presentations, as well as these articles. His web site can be found here.