Rhône’s white wines are as worthy as its reds

THE WORKING POUR

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About 91 percent of the wine produced in the Rhône Valley, which stretches from Vienne to Avignon, is red. File photo. About 91 percent of the wine produced in the Rhône Valley, which stretches from Vienne to Avignon, is red. File photo.

Behind every good man is a good woman—and behind every good red wine is a good white one. From the precipitous slopes of Côte-Rôtie to the stone-stacked soils of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (and many of the 150 miles in between), southeastern France’s Rhône Valley produces red wines deserving of adulation. Though standing in their long-cast shadows are winsome whites (and their New World counterparts) deserving of some attention, especially in this trans-season when cicadas sing their swan song and we prepare to move from seaside to fireside.

The Rhône Valley runs from Vienne (just south of Lyon), where the Rhône River widens, to Avignon, where the river passes through before washing into the Mediterranean sea. The region’s neatly divided into Northern Rhône and Southern Rhône with the town of Valence serving as its Mason-Dixon line. About 91 percent of the wine produced in the Rhône Valley is red, the vast majority of it coming from the South. Rosé accounts for about 6 percent of the remainder (Tavel, that unusually dry and robust rosé, falls within Rhône territory), so white claims a trifling 3 percent of this region’s more than 400 million-bottle annual production.

With 22 government-approved varietals permitted for use in Rhône Valley wines, blends can get complicated and mighty difficult to recall. For simplicity’s sake, the white wines made in Northern Rhône are either a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne in St. Joseph, Hermitage, and Crozes-Hermitage, or 100 percent Viognier in Condrieu and Château-Grillet.

More on Marsanne and Roussanne later, because it’s the Viognier from these tiny (Condrieu spans 250 acres) and miniscule (Château-Grillet covers a whopping 8.6 acres) appellations that set an almost unattainable standard for anyone else growing the grape. Ravishingly voluptuous with the glycerine mouthfeel of a fresh fig, yet the acidity of perfect peach, Northern Rhône Viognier dazzles with every sip, leaving throngs of lovers in the wake of its equally voluminous $50-plus price tag.

More affordable, though admittedly less thrilling, are the blends in which the dependably fruity Marsanne sets the stage for the more aromatic Roussanne, who elegantly swoops in, leaving traces of her perfume everywhere she lands.

Down South, blends prevail with Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Picardan, Picpoul, and Ugni Blanc joining the Northern trio. These stand among the 13 allowable grapes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and this region known for its strapping reds also produces a version in white (though it’s only 5 percent of production). With a surprising purity given the area’s steadfast sunshine, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc’s a novel wine to try, but one, perhaps, less befitting of its $25-40 tariff.

You’d be better off spending $20 extra for the red, or sticking with the $15 and under Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc. A mutt of a wine (and genetically superior for it), this basic bottling, whatever its dominant grape, will humor a large crowd eating a wide range of foods. Bigger-boned than Sauvignon Blanc, but decidedly less dowdy than Chardonnay, Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc effortlessly bridges that tricky chasm that can turn a partisan partygoer poopy. Soft flavors of ripe pear, cantaloupe, and hazelnuts are laced with minerals and accented with the brightness of citrus peel, jasmine, and ginger. A nice change from Sauvignon Blanc’s one-dimensional gooseberry and Chardonnay’s apple butter on toast.

While it’s certainly worth seeking out Rhône Valley whites from their native habitat, a group of 200 American wineries, dubbed the Rhône Rangers, dedicate themselves to the promoting and producing Rhône-style wines stateside. (To qualify, a wine must contain at least 75 percent of one or more of the 22 allowable varietals.) California leads the pack with about a quarter of its acreage planted with Rhône Valley grapes. Here in Virginia, nearly half of our 200-plus wineries grow Viognier (it is, after all, our state’s official grape) and Tarara Winery has experimented with Roussanne in hot and dry years (the grape’s prone to downy mildew and botrytis). The Painted White blend from Blenheim Vineyards contains usually 10-15 percent of both Marsanne and Roussanne (with Viognier fleshing out the rest) and winemaker Kirsty Harmon hopes to make a stand-alone Roussanne this year.

Focusing on the whites of Rhône leaves the bulk of the region’s wine untasted, but its sultry reds will get their comeuppance when the weather takes its chilly turn. Until then, gently usher out summer with a glass of white that holds its own—and then some.

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