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Rhône Valley White Wines – Unknown Treasures

France’s Rhône Valley is home to a marvelous array of red wines, ranging from the everyday Côtes-du-Rhône to the well-known Châteauneuf-du-Pape to some of the world’s most renowned red wines, namely Hermitage and Côte-Rotie; these last two, also among the longest lived of all wines.

Yet, few people think much about the white wines of the Rhône Valley; given that there are so many other excellent whites from other regions in France, such as Burgundy (think Puligny-Montrachet and Corton-Charlemagne, just to name two), Alsace and the Loire Valley, that’s understandable. But skipping over Rhône whites would be a disappointment for any wine lover who is enthusiastic about some of the most distinctive wines from this lovely area of France.

Let’s look a few of the key Rhône whites, with notes on some current releases:

Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc – These are produced in southern Rhône and are a blend of several varietals, including Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc and to a lesser extent, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. These are generally medium-bodied and meant for early consumption; they are dry and are usually matured in steel tanks. These are typically the least expensive of all Rhône white wines.

Delas Frères Côtes-du-Rhone Blanc ‘Saint-Espirit’ 2020 A blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc and Viognier. Bright, medium-intense yellow; aromas of lemon zest, yellow peach and dried yellow flowers. Medium-bodied, this has impressive ripeness and texture and a round, dry finish with good acidity and harmony. At $12, this is a fine value. Enjoy with seafood over the next 1-3 years. (89)

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc – The most famous red of the southern Rhône Valley, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is one of the world’s most distinctive wines, as it can contain as many as 18 different varietals (this as of the regulations set in 2009, before that, the number of allowed varietals was 13). It is the red Châteauneuf-du-Pape that dominates production here in the Vaucluse department of France (the capital here is Avignon, where the “new chateau” or residence of the Pope was established for a brief period in the 1300s), as only one of every 16 bottles of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is white.

Clearly Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc is not often seen on wine lists or retail shelves; while understandable, it is a shame, given the quality of the best examples. For this wine, six white varieties are allowed, including Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Clairette. Most examples are oak-aged, and the finest are full-bodied whites with impressive complexity and the structure to age for more than a decade.

Saint Pierre de Nalys Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2019 – A blend of 40% Roussanne, 40% Grenache Blanc, 18% Clairette and 2% Picopoul and Piacardan. Bright, medium intense yellow; aromas of white peach, candle wax, pineapple and orange peel. Medium-full with excellent concentration. Beautifully structured with a rich mid-palate, there is impressive ripeness, excellent persistence and lively acidity. Wonderfully complex, this is a vibrant wine with outstanding typicity. Enjoyable now, but greater complexities will emerge with another 3-5 years of aging; peak in 6-8 years. (94)

Saint-Péray – This is a small appellation in northern Rhône; white wines are produced from two varietals: Roussanne and Marsanne (there are no red wines produced in Saint-Péray).

Domaine Auguste Clape Saint-Péray 2019 – A blend of 80% Marsanne and 20% Roussanne; aged in wood and concrete tanks. Medium intense yellow; aromas of Anjou pear, orange peel and notes of honey and fusel. Medium-full with very good concentration. Lively acidity, impressive persistence and a fruit-driven, dry, well-constructed finish with notes of oolong tea. Excellent complexity; enjoy over the next 5-7 years, perhaps longer. (91)

Crozes-Hermitage – Another northern Rhône wine appellation, Crozes-Hermitage Blanc can only be produced from Marsanne and Roussanne, similar to Saint-Péray.

Cave de Tain Nobles Rives Crozes-Hermitage Blanc 2021 – Brilliant medium-intense yellow: aromas of lemon peel, melon, Bosc pear and lillies. Medium-bodied, this is clean with good freshness and acidity, and a clean, nicely balanced finish. This is a lighter-styled Rhône white that is straightforward and lacks punch, but has short term appeal. Drink over the next 2-3 years. (88)

Hermitage Blanc – While Crozes-Hermitage Blanc is usually medium-full on the palate, Hermitage Blanc is richer and more full-blown, often with a smoky quality in the aromas. This is one of the most powerful white wines produced anywhere, and examples from the finest vintages often show their best after 10-12 years.

Barroul Lynch Hermitage Blanc “La Pierrelle” 2017

100% Marsanne from 80 year-old vines; no fining, filtering or racking before bottling.; Pierrelle refers to “stones” in French. Bright, intense yellow; aromas of pineapple, candle wax and a distinct smokiness. Full-bodied with excellent concentration, this is a powerful and spicy white with a very rich mid-palate, impressive concentration, evident oak notes, good acidity and a compelling finish with notes of dried pear and smoked sausage. This is not for everyone and is an acquired taste. As it would overpower lighter seafood or poultry, this needs to be paired with smoked salmon, halibut or a veal roast with a strong sauce. Give a year or two to settle down; peak in 6-8 years, perhaps longer. (92)

Condrieu – Here is the most famous and sought after white Rhône wine. Condrieu is produced solely from Viognier, and is clearly the reference point for this varietal around the world. Situated in northern Rhône, just south of the Côte-Rotie production zone (arguably Rhone’s most renowned red wine district), Condrieu is a small appellation comprised of seven communes; Condrieu is one of these and lends its name to the appellation. The brilliance of this white is that is combines exotic aromatics (orange blossom, peaches, anise, just to name a few) with beautiful texture and richness on the palate. It’s also highly distinctive and needs to be paired with specific foods; fusion cuisine is often a worthy pairing.

Delas Freres Condrieu “La Galopine” 2019

100% Viognier. Bright, medium-intense yellow; aromas of orange pith, Anjou pear and a light note of smoked almonds. Medium-full with a rich mid-palate and beautiful texture. There is excellent ripeness, very good acidity, well-integrated oak (20% is fermented in wood) and notable persistence; the finish displays notes of orange zest and pineapple. Marvelous complexity, outstanding typicity and superb complexity. The producer recommends pairing this wine with asparagus, steamed fish in a butter sauce or lemon chicken; enjoy this glorious wine over the next 5-8 years, perhaps longer. (95)

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