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What's new in iJamming!...
Mon, Feb 17, 2003
iJamming! Wino/Muso:
JOHN ACQUAVIVA
"New world wines are just too techno for me."
Featured wine region 3:
SOUTHERN RHÔNE WHITES
Featured wine region 4:
SOUTHERN RHÔNE ROSÉS
This week's FEATURED WINE
Previously...
FEATURED Wines 3
FEATURED Wines 2
FEATURED Wines 1
Featured wine region 2:
CÔTES DU RHÔNE VILLAGES
The Geography
The Villages
Featured vine:
VIOGNIER:
Finally, a worthy rival to Chardonnay.

Now with updated reviews
Featured wine region 1:
CÔTES DU RHÔNE
Featured wine web site:
HONIG
WINE AND MUSIC:
What wine fans and music devotees have in common.
Featured wino: TIMO MAAS
Featured party wine:
CLINE's Cotes d'Oakley
And how Cline does it
Featured wine web site: VIGNOBLES BRUNIER
The full iJamming! Contents
the iJammming! featured wine region #3:
Southern Rhône Whites
In my previous two features on the southern Rhône, (CLICK HERE and HERE) I extolled the virtues of the region's red wines, which account for as much as 95% of the region's production. It's no surprise then that the white wines from the southern Rhône rarely receive much attention, but while it's true that they are not as consistent across the board, some of my favorite whites - and especially rosés - in the world hail from the southern Rhône. The following should help you find the best of them..
Left: the southern Rhone Valley. The shaded area is home for regular Côtes du Rhône wines. Some of the named Côtes du Rhône-Villages (especially Laudun, Vinsobres, Sablet and Cairanne) have producers who make exceedingly good white wines, as do many in Châteauneuf du Pape and a few in Lirac. Note the Côtes du Ventoux and Côtes du Luberon to the south-east; these are sources of easily accessible, highly inexpensive summer quaffers.
1) The Grapes

Apart from being produced in smaller quantities, a major reason the white wines of the southern Rhône aren't as celebrated as their red brethren is that the rules governing their grape content is less strict, making for a wider variety of styles. Whereas in the past, white Côtes du Rhônes tended to be a blend of whatever had been in the vineyard for generations, the better producers have started experimenting with varietals and percentages thereof, resulting in more distinguished and distinctive wines.

The newer, more fashionable white wine grapes in the southern Rhône are::

An (excellent) example of a Côtes du Rhône white wine clearly bottled as a 100% Viognier.
Viognier. As explained in my separate feature on this esteemed grape, producers in the southern Rhône and surrounding regions have stepped in to fulfil the market demand for pure Viognier that the grape's native Condrieu appellation in the northern Rhône struggles to meet. Because the grape is difficult, and therefore costly, to grow, those wine-makers who bottle a 100% Viognier will be sure to state as much and charge accordingly. These bottlings still fall under the generic Côtes du Rhône appellation; they just cost more. In the meantime, more and more southern Rhône producers are mixing in percentages of Viognier to give their blends some of that beautiful perfumed aroma and substantial body.

Marsanne and Roussanne.   The other two noble grapes from the northern Rhône, which reach their apotheosis in white Hermitage, are being planted in increasing quantities in the south as wine makers and drinkers alike realize their potential. Marsanne, which has come to dominate in the northern Rhône, is proving less capable in the south (though click here for a notable exception); Roussanne is more and more common in the south, adding a honeyed, floral and nutty texture to many blends.

The older, less fashionable, but still dominant white wine grapes of the region are:

Grenache Blanc. As its name suggests, the white equivalent of the region's dominant red Grenache. Most southern blends will contain a substantial amount of this grape which, like its red counterpart, gives the wines their body, high alcohol content and spicy kick.

Bourboulenc, and Clairette (Blanc) show up in most southern blends, but are, to my knowledge, never seen on their own. The former adds body and acidity, the latter contrasts with lightness and pronounced fruit. Picpoul, and, especially, Picardin are lesser used grapes gradually declining in popularity. Ugni Blanc is, believe it or not, France's most planted white wine grape but is falling from favor in this region.
2) The Wines.

Most southern Rhône whites will be a blend of some or all of these above grapes. It's fair to say that those producers willing to add some Viognier, Roussanne or Marsanne will generally make the better wines, which can be near golden in color, high in alcohol yet equally empowered with bracing acidity, full of spice, nuts, honeysuckle and peach on the nose, rich and ripe of body, and with a lengthy if occasionally sharp finish. Sadly, there are still too many poor examples of white Rhône wines out there, which can be chunky and clunky, oily and gluey due to the hot growing conditions and uninspired or unimaginative wine makers.

To avoid being saddled with one of the lesser wines, I would recommend much of the same advice I gave in the red Côtes du Rhône section: remember the names of specific importers, négociants, and estates - even if they can't deliver every time, they are usually working hard to bring you the very best wines possible. Check the labels for useful information (as opposed to a vague sales pitch). And don't buy too much in the way of odd-shaped bottles at insanely low prices. As for vintage, most producers bottle the whites nice and early to preserve their freshness; this means the 1998s, a stellar year in the southern Rhône, are mostly sold out, and the 1999s, which have proven good to excellent, are now being replaced by the 2000 vintage, yet another hot summer that promises luscious reds, has already delivered intense rosés, and is currently offering full-bodied, high alcohol whites that test the producers' ability to meld elegance with body.
3) The Négociants.

A good starting point for the region is with the premier estate from the southern Rhône's premier appellation, Châteauneuf du Pape. There, the Perrin family of Château Beaucastel have perfected the art of delivering great wines in all price ranges, which makes their least expensive ones by far their best values. Under the name La Vieille Ferme (see right), the Perrins serve as négociants for white wine grapes from the Côtes du Luberon appellation, which sits to the south east of their home estate, but is still considered part of the southern Rhône valley. A mix of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Ugni Blanc, the 1999 La Vieille Ferme blanc offers a golden color, a nutty, quite floral nose, and a surprisingly viscous and refreshing mouthful. At $5-7 a bottle, this is one of France's more reliable bargains (the red, from the neighboring Cotes du Ventoux, is no slouch either); a 1.5 liter at just over ten bucks is an ideal party wine.

With the 1998 vintage, the family introduced a new négociant business, simply entitled Perrin, to expand their production into neighboring Gigondas, Vacqueryas and generic Côtes du Rhônes. The 1999 white Côtes du Rhône Perrin Reserve, at $11, is a seriously fun wine for a relatively silly price, blending as it does the three northern Rhône upstart grapes with Bourboulenc and Grenache.) It gives off all kinds of white fruit aromas like melons, peaches and apricots, offering substantial body and a good spicy finish; given the family's ability to bottle in substantial quantities (there were 12,500 cases of the '99 blanc), this wine looks like becoming a benchmark for the whites of the region. The 2000 vintage apparently strips the components down to grenache blanc, viognier and roussanne.
Perrin's main competitor is E. Guigal, a family industry based near its northern Rhône Côte Rotie vineyards which has developed a Microsoft-like domination of the Rhône's appellations through a most un-Microsoft like quest for perfection. Following fashion, Guigal's white Côtes du Rhône (like most of its wines, a négociant bottling) increases its Viognier content each year, from 30% in '98 to 40% in '99, and now 50% with the 2000 vintage. Along with a healthy dollop of roussanne, the viognier content explains the wine's perfumed aroma and floral nose. A great wine for its ten dollar price tag, and easy to find given that there's over 30,000 cases of the stuff available.

Aside from Guigal, the most well-known northern Rhône négociants are Jaboulet, who generally steers clear of southern Rhône whites in favor of excellent roses (and, of course, reds), and Chapoutier, a proponent of bio-dynamic wine-making whose 1999 Belleruche Côtes du Rhône blanc is a heavily golden wine that seems a little heavy and oily on the palate to me. My wife, on the other hand, loves it, as does the owner of Red White and Bubbly in Park Slope, a man who sells four different white Côtes du Rhônes. So perhaps you're starting to see what I mean about the variety of styles.

The Rhône valley's newest négociants, not surprisingly, bottle the most intriguing wines. Jean-Luc Colombo, an oenologist who owns vineyards in Cornas, has a regular white blend called Côtes du Rhônes Les Abeilles, which I have not tasted though it has already gathered a reputation for reliability. He also has a Côtes du Rhône called Les Figuieres, which comes in a taller bottle akin to those from the northern Rhône's Condrieu appellation. Sure enough, Les Figuieres is around two thirds viognier, the balance being roussanne, and it has an elegance and richness that allows it a longer life in the bottle than most pure viogniers: the '98 is only just giving way to the 99. At upwards of $15 it's not a bargain, but it's a serious perfumed, full-bodied wine (which I havea feeling hails from northern Rhône vineyards) that held up wonderfully against a home-made curry this January 2002.

Two exceptions to the regular Rhône rule, delivered by two of the most adventurous new négociants: Jean-Luc Colombo's excellent Les Figuières is mainly Viognier, the balance being Roussanne. Eric Texier's white wine from the curiously placed Côtes du Rhône village of Brézème is 100% Roussanne.

Eric Texier, a former nuclear technician who now bottles wines from all over the Rhône with a distinctly non-industrial attitude, has several white wines in his repertoire. His regular Côtes du Rhône is a 100% Viognier; one of my favorite stores just sold out of the 2000 vintage before I could get my hands on it, but at $13 I'll be certain to grab it as soon as I can. Following the anomaly I pointed out among the red Côtes du Rhônes Villages, he also bottles a 100% Roussanne from the village of Brezeme in the middle of the Rhône. Call me a heretic, but I've yet to be sold on Roussanne as a single varietal; that may be because I've yet to taste it in its finest form, as a notable white Hermitage or Beaucastel's famed white Châteauneuf du Pape. Simply put though, at almost $20, I wasn't sold on the Brezeme as a good value wine.

The established négociant Vidal Fleury bottles a 100% Viognier for a risk-free $10; the upstarts Tardieu-Laurent bottle a 100% Marsanne for a more dubious $20. I've yet to taste either.

Finally, one négociant bottling I would strongly recommend comes from Gabriel Meffre, whose family is based in Gigondas and owns over 2,000 acres spread across many estates. The white Côtes du Rhône comes with the rather pretentious title La Châsse Du Pape Prestige, and the bottles are individually numbered, a bit of a con given its significant quantities. However, for its $9 price tag, this is an excellent old fashioned southern blend of 60% Grenache Blanc, 20% Clairette and 20% Bourboulenc, and what it lacks in complexity it makes up for in freshness, juicy fruit, and crisp acidity. An ideal summer quaffer, an easy introduction to the conventional blends, it's readily available and a bargain to boot.

Two easy going examples of good, solid, inexpensive white Côtes du Rhônes from the 2000 Vintage: the négociant bottling from Gabriel Meffre entitled La Châsse Du Pape Prestige, an old-fashioned blend, and Domaine de L'Enclos, a blend including Roussanne produced by Andre Brunel of Châteauneuf du Pape's Les Cailloux. Both will give real pleasure - and solid change from a ten dollar bill.

CONTINUE TO PART TWO: THE ESTATE WINES
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