Across virtually all of France’s Rhône Valley, red grapes dominate the landscape. They also dominated the region’s marketing for many years: red is the predominant color on the region’s Web site and every piece of collateral, from brochures and maps to corkscrews and ballpoint pens. It all tied in to the preponderance of red grapes and the successful “Think red, think Côtes du Rhône” advertising campaign.
In this generally warm region, white varieties are planted in the coolest sites, where reds would ripen too late and where the lower temperatures help the white grapes retain vital acidity. They’re tucked into small north-facing slopes and pockets of cool clay soils, typically invisible to the casual visitor. In some vineyards, they’re even hidden in plain sight, interplanted among the red vines in tiny proportions to add fragrance and weight to the red wines of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph.
Yet at almost every winery I’ve visited during my trips to the Rhône—even those in appellations renowned primarily for their red wines—the proprietors invariably want to show their white wines as part of the visit. For many of them, it’s a point of pride as well as a point of difference. At Paul Jaboulet Aîné, the rich Le Chevalier de Sterimberg white Hermitage is deservedly offered for tasting after the famous La Chapelle red.
Below is a brief primer on the Rhône’s predominant white grape varieties. For specific wine recommendations, see our April 2010 issue for the full-length feature on Rhône whites.
Viognier is the Rhône’s most perfumed, exotically scented grape. In the appellations of Condrieu and Château Grillet, where it is the only variety permitted, it produces wines that balance flowers and ripe apricots with intense minerality. In other parts of the Rhône where it is permitted, it is mainly used in blends to add fragrance.
Marsanne is a variety whose strengths are weight and texture. It is not particularly aromatic on its own, but yields wines with richness and breadth on the palate that can age amazingly well. Twenty-year-old white Hermitages can be revelations. Compared to Roussanne and Viognier, it’s considered relatively easy to grow, so it often comprises a large proportion in appellations where blending is permitted.
Roussanne falls somewhere between Viognier and Marsanne aromatically, yet never gets as full-bodied as either of them. Roussanne has a reputation for being difficult to grow, with yields highly variable but often less than economically desirable. wines It gives aromas of ripe pineapple, often with crisp acids that provide focus to blended wines.
Clairette is found in the southern portion of the Rhône Valley, where it can be harvested early and used in a blend to help provide acidic spine, or picked later to provide alcoholic weight. In the latter case, it is prone to oxidation; wines that contain a high proportion of Clairette (many white Châteauneufs, for example) should be consumed young.
Grenache Blanc, another common variety in the south, can offer expressive scents of oranges or tangerines, but often fills out the midpalate of southern Rhône blends with roundness and vague suggestions of citrus. It’s an important component in many white Châteauneufs.
Bourboulenc ripens relatively late and preserves its acidity well, so a proportion is often used to provide freshness in southern Rhône blends. Other white varieties grown in the region include Ugni Blanc, Rolle (Vermentino), Maccabeo and Muscat.