Well, I got a little behind in my wine-a-week thing because narrowing Chardonnay down to a reasonable list of any kind turned out to be a long-term situation. So let’s take advantage of a natural opportunity to catch up! It’s getting into fall, and perhaps you’d like a white wine that jumps Labor Day weekend, something fall-ish. Something with a little gravity, aromatic without being about astringency, more “satisfying” than “refreshing,” something with rich flavors, waxy or unctuous texture, and the lavish aromatics of the fall harvest season. The Rhone Valley has your six, guys.
In the US, we tend to be varietal-focused folks. Wines are not named for the place they’re made, they’re named for the grape they’re made from. But there is a reason why some of the world’s most emblematic (and delicious) wines are blends. Like people, no one grape can do everything, and often, partnerships make everyone stronger.
The dominant white wines of the Rhone region are a great example. Each of them can make delicious 100% varietal wines. Each of them might not. They have complementary strengths and drawbacks…almost as if they were somehow meant to be together. So this list includes some varietal iterations of the Rhone whites, and some blends.
Marsanne: This tinted grape can over-ripen and become “flabby” if it is not kept in check. This is one reason why it’s so often combined with its more acerbic friend Roussanne. When it is handled well, it creates full-bodied wines with notes of pear, honey, hazelnut, baking spice and quince. (When young, peaches sometimes pop up.) With age it sometimes develops more concentrated nut flavors and a certain “oily” mouthfeel.
Roussanne: The name of this grape means “russet;” though a “white” wine grape, the skin of the berry is actually pronouncedly rusty (making it an excellent candidate for skin-contact “orange” or ramato wine). Roussanne is a slightly fussy grape to grow (it’s susceptible to mildew and pests) but when handled well it produces full-bodied, spicy wines with incredibly floral noses. It shares the Marsanne affinity for pears and honey. Where Marsanne has a tendency to be flabby, Roussanne has a certain predisposition to be very acidic. Happily, blending them is a balancing act with beautiful results.
Be on the lookout for any and all of these. The list is far from comprehensive. In fact, there are relatively few French wines on this list, which just goes to show you where this particular person-with-an-opinion has been tasting recently. Trust me, you could parachute into Chateuaneuf-du-Pape or anywhere in the Rhone region and never stop being amazed and surprised. This family of wines could keep you busy for years. Here are the ones that happened to have grabbed my attention lately.
13 Bottles to Try
Anaba Turbine White (Sonoma Coast, $32)
This also contains a bit of Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Picpoul (great additions for aromatics and super-snappy acidity, respectively). Layered and richly fruity with a pronounced marmalade note, as well as citrus pith and orange blossom aromatics. Rich but not heavy. Perfect for fall.
Booker White (Paso Robles, CA $50)
This is a special occasion price point for most of us, but I have to mention it because it is one of the two best white wines I was introduced to this year. If you can get it for a special occasion (holiday dinners come to mind) get it. It’s so freaking tasty. The blend changes year to year (the 2016 is mainly Roussanne and Viognier) but it’s always stellar. Wet rock characteristics underlying buttery, citrusy, herbaceous and saline notes. Amazingly balanced and a bestie for almost anything you are eating. Including “nothing.” Sipping this stuff on its own is a glorious treat. Love.
Chateau du Trignon (Cotes-du-Rhone, France $19)
Rhone wines are more often than not blended but this one is 100% Marsanne. It’s delicious. Spicy, honeysuckle-redolent nose, tropical and sub-tropical notes like grapefruit and guava on the palate, decent gravity but not ponderous. Great acidity. Flowery finish.
Domaine du Fontavin Cotes du Rhone (Cotes-du-Rhone, France $8)
Easygoing and classic. Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache: a white flower bomb (jasmine, orange blossom, gardenia) with honeycomb notes and a decent ration of citrus. The winemaker suggests this wine’s friends include shellfish, pork and bitter greens like endive. I can’t really argue.
Donkey and Goat “Stone Crusher” skin contact Roussanne (Berkeley CA $30)
This is the wine that got me hooked on “orange” wines, which I think of as sort of an inverted rosé style: Rather than minimalist pigment extraction from red grapes, white grapes with some skin tint are left on skin for hours (or days, or weeks) during which they develop heavier body, coppery or salmon colors, and quite different flavor profiles than their no-skin counterparts. Stone Crusher is an orange rind fest but that’s just the beginning. Rich and unctuous, with apricot jam and honeysuckle notes and a hint of nuttiness, it’s happy chilled or at room temperature and a killer pairing with Indian dishes.
Gard Roussanne Grande Klasse Reserve (Columbia Valley WA $22)
High on the list of Wineries Amy Cannot Say Enough Nice Things About, Gard is turning out an impressive variety of wines, all of which seem consistently awesome. The Roussanne is kind of “liquid Orange Creamsicle” except bone-dry. Spicy aromatics and a lot of apricot; basaltic finish that lets you know your palate just took a trip to Washington. Robust but light on its feet. And a likely crowd pleaser-this is a wine that will make people who don’t know Roussanne want to know more about Roussanne.
Maryhill Propritor’s Reserve Roussanne (Columbia Valley WA $20)
So, Maryhill is one of the “sample platter” wineries of the very diverse Columbia Valley. They are approachable in price, relatively easy to find, and I still haven’t figured out how one winemaker successfully handles as many varietals as they do. I suspect the Hogwarts Sorting Hat would put this winery in Slytherin, I really don’t know how else to say it. This is on the viscous end of the Roussanne spectrum (it’s dry, but it’s got a lot of substance). The common-denominator apricot note comes out here, joined by a less common honeydew melon thing, and some mango. Luscious vanilla-heavy finish. Some characteristic Columbia Valley stoniness. A great value.
Novelty Hill Stillwater Creek Roussanne (Columbia Valley, WA $23)
Mike Januik is a poet who writes in grape juice instead of ink. There, I said it. You cannot go wrong with any wine from Novelty Hill but I especially love this one. Blended with a little Viognier, this is a ripe, lush, sexy wine with peach, pear, honey, nutmeg and quince notes. It’s rounded but not overbearing, pleasantly mineral on the finish and generally food-forward. My main complaint with this wine is that it cellars terrible (because I cannot force myself to leave the cork in the bottle).
Opolo Roussanne (Paso Robles CA $26)
Drink this now. Youthful and graceful, but a bit voluptuous (it’s Roussanne, not Pinot Grigio, it’s going to have curves), this wine opens with a note that I can’t pin down; sometimes I get yuzu, other times, lemongrass. Apricot, apple and pear notes follow, with a finish that rounds back toward citrus and a light hint of baking spice.
Preston “Madame Preston” (Dry Creek, CA $24)
A Rhone blend from the heart of Zin country and highly addictive. (Also if you are within striking distance of this winery I can confirm there is no better place for a picnic.) Rounded, spicy, balanced, and a whine likely to convert people who claim they don’t like white wine. It’s honeyed and stony at the same time, with heady white florals, a mid-palate heavy on hazelnut and tangerine, a little oakiness and a wet rock finish. It’s a super gracious dinner guest that will go with everything, and it’s a pleasure as an aperitif too.
Quivira Roussanne-Viognier (Dry Creek, CA $34)
Very restrained and steely for a Roussanne from a place where daytime temps get pretty hot. Unfurling layers of spice, dry grass, tropical fruits, orchard fruits, vanilla, more spice, white flowers-not necessarily in that order, what I am saying is that within that restrained presentation there is a lot of submerged complexity. When wine nerds talk about “tension” this is what they mean. And it is a compliment. Quivira’s a treasure and they just kinda don’t make bad wine. But even in that context this one is a little special.
Simonsig Roussanne-Marsanne (Stellenbosch, South Africa $20)
Stellenbosch is best known for Chenin Blanc, but Simonsig handles the signature Rhone whites with aplomb too. It has a toasted quality, and there is a really likable marzipan note to it along with the readily recognizable rich stone fruit and apple notes. Perfumed, slightly waxy texture, serious finish. Very good acidity.
Tertulia Elevation Vineyard Marsanne (Walla Walla Valley $20)
On the list of shameless hussies that have seduced me into drinking them before 10:00 am, and not for no reason. (Also: When they say “elevation” they freaking mean it! The vineyard is nearly vertical and you need specialist training to work harvest up there.) Where varietal Roussannes tend to be rich and weighted, Marsannes trend toward light-bodied and “zippy” and this is no exception. The nose is restrained but definitely present (florals, citrus, peach). There’s a lemon rind note, a bit of green apple, some Asian pear. Training honeysuckle finish.