The Overton BBC followed up its recent north and south Rhône tasting with a white Rhône evening. But we started with a very welcome interloper brought by one member who generously contributed a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvée Brut to start the evening off. Some rules are made to be broken! It’s not from the vineyards which are named after the great southern French river; it is white; we didn’t struggle with its identity, we just enjoyed this magnificent Champagne. Reportedly made from 10 different vintages, this showed fine persistent bubbles, beautifully refined toasty notes on the nose and then a remarkably complex palate – herbal, fruit and saline themes finely knit together, an amazing texture, a long refreshing finish, brilliant. The backstory includes fermenting much of the wine in oak and the use of Pinot Meunier as well as the usual Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in a special cuvée. But this was an occasion for doing what apparently most people do all the time: just drink and enjoy!
Our Rhône whites fell neatly into three groups:
AC Condrieu and therefore Viognier
The light in the pub we meet gives an unpleasant yellow cast to photos. Even so you can see the difference between the medium minus lemon of the young wine on the left and the darker tone of the 13-year old Viognier. Condrieu, Domaine Christophe Pichon 2009 is classic youthful Condrieu on the point of leaving that phase: peach, apricot, blossom and something herby (mint?) with a texture which manages to combine true Viognier fatness with a metallic touch. By contrast, Condrieu, Domaine du Chene, 2000 follows its orange-amber colour with marmalade and concentrated apricot cordial notes, the same rich mouthfeel and a dry, clean finish. Condrieu has a mixed reputation when it comes to ageing but this was a success.
Variations on Roussanne and Marsanne
If Viognier is the Johnny-come-lately of white Rhône which has gone on to conquer the world, Roussanne and Marsanne are the characterful varieties which are less in the spotlight but which produce some of the finest, age-worthy whites of the region – and have gone in for a bit of globe-trotting too. It certainly produces fine wines in both the northern and the southern parts of the valley. From the south, and from a famous Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer comes Ch. de Beaucastel, Vielles Vignes, Châteauneuf-du-Pape AC, 2005.
The ‘old vines’ of the label are properly vielles at 70 years and produce a wine of great concentration made from 100% Roussanne: pale peach in colour but sadly rather oxidised – a hint of varnish and rather too much orange rind for a youngish wine though the quality can still be sensed under the oxidation and on the long finish. Croze-Hermitage AC, Marc Sorrel, 2004 was in much better condition and was our 50/50 Marsanne/Roussanne blend: this really opened up in the glass with rounded melon fruit, initially quite austere but then revealed a fine floral and fruit palate and excellent acidity. The third of this trio was the (Rhône) wine of the evening: mostly Marsanne from the great E. Guigal: ‘Lieu Dit’, Saint-Joseph AC, E. Guigal, 2009: floral and surprisingly delicate to start with it then revealed a fresh taut palate of stone fruit with excellent concentration and length. For those who like old wines, there is a still a great debate to be had about intense freshness v. complexity in very good and great wines.
White Rhône blends
Presage, Domaine de la Graveirette, Julien Mas, 2011 – currently this is classified as a lowly Vin de France but once the vines have reached the age of consent it will be Châteauneuf-du-Pape, blend unknown: the most aromatic of this group of four with simple fully ripe fruit. The predominantly Grenache Blanc blend (50%) showed restrained citrus fruit and a fatness with good acidity: Domaine de Janasse, Côtes-du-Rhône, 2011. Wine three showed similar restrained lemon fruit and a leafiness and very good length: Vacqueyras, Domaine Le Clos des Cazaux, 2005 with 60% Clairette, 20% Grenache Blanc and 20% Roussanne. Finally, there was the tease: Shelleys Block, Rutherglen, 2009, a Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. There was little agreement on which was the outsider.
This was an excellent evening which showed the potential of the Rhône to produce very good white wines.