White wines are certainly the neglected side of the Rhône vineyards. The reputation of the whites is greatly overshadowed by that of reds like Cornas, Côte-Rôtie or Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
It might just be a question of math, mind you: according to official statistics, red wine represents 86% of total Rhône wine production. White is only 5%, a little more than half the production of rosé (9%). In Australia, Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier, all together, represent less than 2% of the total area planted in white varietals, according to government statistics (see page 17 of the publication). Same thing in California, where the 15,757 tons of viognier crushed in 2007 are the only noticeable white Rhône blip among the 1.37 million tons of white grapes produced in 2007 (see page 6 of the California Department of Agriculture grape crush report). I’m beginning to agree with James, who started a discussion on the Open Wine Consortium about the most underrated white varietals, and put roussanne as his choice of underdog.
Mind you, the varietals can be challenging. When overripe, they quickly get heavy, overly sweet and overloaded with tropical fruit. I know, some people might call that luscious and rich, but I find it all gets a little cloying. Which is why I appreciate the balance found in, say, Tahbilk’s Marsanne and D’Arenberg’s Money Spider Roussanne, two solid examples from Australia.
Recently, though, I had a couple of reminders of how great and complex and, somewhat surprisingly, long-lived Rhône whites can be. At a tasting, we had four Rhône whites, before stepping into the redder side of the Rhône. The most memorable, for me, was a 1999 Château Grillet, 100% viognier, yet remarkably tightly-wound and fresh, still, at nearly ten years of age, with the moderate alcohol level (12.5%) and bright acidity leading the way – and showing the potential advantage of limited hang time. I’d love to taste it again in ten, maybe even twenty years.
I was also surprised by a white Crozes-Hermitage called Les Gravières, by Jean-Luc Colombo. Very surprised, in fact, because I’ve had Colombo reds before and to me, they were a complete turn-off. The Cornas Terres Brûlées (Scorched Earth, litterally) felt extremely well-named, the Les Abeilles Côtes du Rhône red was overly dense: both felt overextracted and tannic, even compared to other Cornas, which have a reputation for being dark and brooding wines.
So when I found out that the white Crozes we had was from Colombo, I was stunned. Bright flavors of honey and apricots, beautiful mineral notes, balance… A little wood, but neatly integrated and discrete. Wow.
A couple of weeks later, I found a bottle of La Redonne 2005 Côtes du Rhône white, a lovely mix of viognier and roussanne that was starting to develop a touch of spice, along with the beautiful honey and peaches, all on a gorgeous pale-gold color. Lovely stuff, with good length and balance, and a lovely match for roasted chicken or grilled shrimp, for instance. All for… just a tad more than 20$ – in Quebec, at least.
All the reason to drink more white Rhône varietals, bring up demand, and make sure it becomes less of a well-kept secret. And good enough to even make me want to take a second look at Colombo’s reds.