The History of Rhône Valley White Wines

Whether Côtes du Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Saint-Joseph or Hermitage, the appellations of the Rhône Valley are best known for red wines. Yet there’s a long, illustrious history of white wine production in the region, too.

As then, white wines of the Rhône Valley are still marginal in volume, comprising less than 10% of the wines produced regionwide. Scarcity is a large part of why Rhône whites are so little-known outside of France.

However, white wines are more important today than any time in the last 20 years. The wines continue to increase in quantity and evolve in style as winemakers have become more specialized and equipped for white wine production.

Noble White Wines of the North

With its harsh, continental climate and steep, terraced vineyards, the terroir of the Northern Rhône, as well as the wines produced there, are remarkably distinct from those of the South.

Hermitage, is the region’s most famous appellation, a majestic granite hill looming over the Rhône River and producing exceptionally age-worthy red and white wines.

Marsanne and Roussanne are the two white grapes permitted for Hermitage blanc, but Hermitage was always more Marsanne.

White wines of the Rhône are diverse in grape variety and style, but they tend to share a softness of acidity that sets them apart from popular white wines around the world, like those made from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. Marsanne, in particular, produces seductive, opulent wines often described as glycerol, even oily, in texture.

Most white wines are defined by their acidity, but Marsanne plays on a noble bitterness, or tannins, for structure and aging potential. Tasted young Marsanne can be a bit austere, suggesting notes of green almond rather than exuberant fruit or flora. As it matures, Marsanne gains texture and complexity along with a unique “torrefaction”—deliciously smoky, spicy hints of roasted coffee or cacao beans.

Roussanne, by comparison, is more floral in youth and oxidizes quickly, making it better suited to wines intended for early consumption. Blends of Marsanne and Roussanne are the backbone of the vibrantly fruity, easy-drinking whites of neighboring appellations like Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Saint-Péray.

With its powerful floral perfume and exuberant peach, apricot and even banana flavors, Viognier has become a popular grape, grown throughout the United States, Australia and beyond. Until the early 1970s, however, Viognier verged on global extinction, dwindling to 34 acres mostly in Condrieu and Château-Grillet, the tiny monopole appellation devoted to Viognier.

The late winemaker Georges Vernay is credited with saving Viognier from annihilation and building the renown Condrieu enjoys today. Much of today’s Viognier plantings around the world can be traced back to cuttings that originate from Domaine Vernay, but Viognier is a different creature entirely when grown outside of Condrieu.

In Condrieu, they don’t talk about Viognier, they only talk about Condrieu. The grape variety is just the translator of the very specific terroir we have in Condrieu—granite soils that give a freshness and minerality, a salinity even, that Viognier itself doesn’t have. While freshness has always been one of Georges Vernay’s trademarks, as more producers began to produce Condrieu, the region has undergone pendulum shifts in style.

Fifteen years ago, the fashion for Condrieu was very fat, rich and high in alcohol. Now, people are focused on freshness, balance and the purity of fruit, easing away from heavy-handed maturation in new oak barrels and timing harvest times to precisely balance alcohol levels.

The Sunny Side of the South

Lavished by the Mediterranean sun and perfumed with garrigue, the white wines of the Southern Rhône offer a unique combination of muscularity and finesse.

Unlike regions such as Burgundy or the Loire that highlight single-varietal whites, the southern Rhône is a showcase for grape diversity and blending.

Côtes du Rhône, sourced primarily from the South, represents an umbrella appellation covering the largest proportion of white wines produced in the Rhône Valley. Fresh, fruity sips intended for youthful drinking abound, but the appellation also includes more complex, age-worthy wines from places like Gigondas, where white wines are not permitted to be labeled under the village appellation. In the last decade, the production of white Côtes du Rhône has nearly doubled.

White Côtes du Rhône, like most white wines from the Southern Rhône, are typically blends of four key grape varieties—Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Roussanne and Viognier— augmented by lesser amounts of grapes like Bourboulenc, Ugni Blanc and Picpoul. Permitted grapes vary by region but generally, Grenache Blanc and Clairette [are] the base and architecture of Southern whites. Grenache Blanc brings “fat and body” while Clairette lends “liveliness and tension. Roussanne brings structure while the Viognier will bring a touch of aromatics.

While the hot, dry climate of the Southern Rhône produces powerfully ripe wines, there’s freshness and finesse to be found too, aided by an abundance of high-pH limestone soils in the region. Globally speaking, limestone is quite a rare soil, but it’s one of the most interesting soils for white wine.

Veins of limestone extend throughout much of the Southern Rhône, particularly in the Vaucluse region, home to appellations like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Ventoux and the Luberon, but also the southern reaches of the Costières de Nîmes, all areas that excel in white winemaking.

In the foothills of Mont Ventoux, producers like Sébastien Vincenti of Domaine de Fondrèche have established Ventoux as one of the Southern Rhône’s most exciting white wine regions. The terroir of Ventoux is particularly conducive to fresh, elegant white wines, due to distinct sand and limestone soils and an undulating mountain terroir which means we can plant on north-facing slopes and at altitudes of between [650–1,300 feet]. Cooler temperatures, particularly at night, allow grapes to ripen without losing precious acidity.

While white wines amount to just 8% of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s total production, they are among the most historical and age-worthy of white-wine appellations in the Southern Rhône. Château La Nerthe, one of the appellation’s oldest estates with cellars dating to the 16th century, was historically best known for its white wines.

Like many Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers, the traditional blend for white wines at La Nerthe was primarily Grenache Blanc and Roussanne.

It’s really important for the winemakers to have a good proportion of Grenache Blanc in their blend because it’s the [most representative] of the style of the Rhône. It gives the most complexity to the wine, it gives fruitiness but also interesting vegetal notes, like licorice, anise or fennel, he says. Roussanne, by contrast, lends structure and density.

Yet as warming climates persist in the Southern Rhône, winemakers say key varieties, particularly Roussanne, are increasingly difficult to grow, gaining too much alcohol and richness while losing vital balance and acidity. Looking to the future, winemakers like Tardieu are increasingly relying on grapes like Clairette, Bourboulenc and Picpoul to take more prominent roles in the region’s blends.

It’s the perfect blend to get the richness of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, while bringing down the alcohol level and adding a bit more acidity and freshness to the wine.

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