A Rhône White Lexicon

A Rhône White Lexicon

Across virtually all of France鈥檚 Rh么ne Valley, red grapes dominate the landscape. They also dominated the region鈥檚 marketing for many years: red is the predominant color on the region鈥檚 Web site and every piece of collateral, from brochures and maps聽 to corkscrews and ballpoint pens. It all tied in to the preponderance of red grapes and the successful 鈥淭hink red, think C么tes du Rh么ne鈥 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鈥檙e tucked into small north-facing slopes and pockets of cool clay soils, typically invisible to the casual visitor. In some vineyards, they鈥檙e even hidden in plain sight, interplanted among the red vines in tiny proportions to add fragrance and weight to the red wines of C么te-R么tie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph.

Yet at almost every winery I鈥檝e visited during my trips to the Rh么ne鈥攅ven those in appellations renowned primarily for their red wines鈥攖he proprietors invariably want to show their white wines as part of the visit. For many of them, it鈥檚 a point of pride as well as a point of difference. At Paul Jaboulet A卯n茅, 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 Rh么ne’s predominant white grape varieties.聽For specific wine recommendations, see our April 2010 issue for the full-length feature on聽Rh么ne whites.


Viognier is the Rh么ne鈥檚 most perfumed, exotically scented grape. In the appellations of Condrieu and Ch芒teau 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 Rh么ne 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鈥檚 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聽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 Rh么ne 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 Ch芒teauneufs, for example) should be consumed young.

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc, another common variety in the south, can offer expressive scents of oranges or tangerines, but often fills out the midpalate of southern Rh么ne blends with roundness and vague suggestions of citrus. It鈥檚 an important component in many white Ch芒teauneufs.


Bourboulenc ripens relatively late and preserves its acidity well, so a proportion is often used to provide freshness in southern Rh么ne blends. Other white聽varieties grown in the region include Ugni Blanc, Rolle (Vermentino), Maccabeo and Muscat.



Published on April 16, 2010
Topics: GrapesRhone