Article By: Sandy Block, MW
To me wine is seasonal primarily to the extent that I'm drawn to certain dishes at different points on the calendar. To complement the lighter, fresher fare that makes up a large part of my diet during the warmer months, I'll often choose wines that are lower in alcohol, un-oaked, and produced from varietals that feature prominent acidity, because of their invigorating liveliness. In cooler weather the dishes I gravitate towards seem to call for wines that are naturally richer, fuller and perhaps more potent. This does not, however, translate to white in summer and red in winter. In particular, there's a satisfying, palate-warming category of white wine that balances dishes such as hearty meat stews surprisingly well: those made from white Rhone varietals. At their best they have some of the same powerful palate impact that big red wines do, minus the tannin. In fact, the very greatest of white Rhones, Hermitage Blanc, often strikes me as a red wine masquerading in white wine clothing. At its finest it's a spicy, lush, earthy wine layered with flavors that have little in common with the primary fruit sensations you encounter in the majority of other young white wines. In other words, just the texture and flavor profile you want to complement so many of our winter dishes.
Most white wines made from Rhone varietals fall far short, however, of the top quality Hermitage Blanc standard. In fact, even many of the wines from this tiny Appellation Controlee itself promise more than they deliver. It's difficult to balance a white wine and have it taste interesting if its flavors are draped on a scaffolding of strong alcohol and low levels of acidity. Many wines made from white Rhone varietals end up sharing a tendency to lose structure to the point where they taste out of shape, even flabby. Low acid and high extract is a characteristic of most of the varietals that originate in this part of France, the notable exception being Roussanne. Lower yields in the vineyard, which help build more concentration into the finished wine, are essential to creating an interesting flavor dynamic. But they also adversely effect the price.
The following review of cold weather white wines made from varietals native to the Rhone Valley discusses only a small percentage of the examples I tasted. In general, I have found this to be a disappointing group, so choosing carefully is important. The current round of tastings was consistent with this pattern. In particular, I've found that Viognier, the most impactful wine on the American market made from white Rhone grapes, is largely forgettable at a price point of much under $25 retail per bottle. The Viogniers I have long considered standard-bearers for the varietal in California (Joseph Phelps, Arrowood, Alban) are considerably more expensive. All the wishful thinking that surrounded re-discovery of this exotically perfumed grape, backed up unfortunately by massive plantings throughout California, has yet to yield much in the way of other exciting results though. The top quality wines stand out because there are so few of them. Some are harvested too early and taste dull and one-dimensional; others are almost formless and cloying. Even the best are not noted for intriguing flavor nuances. Still, all the following wines, whether made from Viognier or not, are recommended. Because they're so far out of the mainstream, these are certainly wines to talk about and would represent an interesting discovery for many red wine fans who want to branch out by trying a white with some features that are more familiar. The wines are listed in ascending order of quality.
"Y Series" Viognier, Southeast Australia, 2OO4
Viognier de Pesquie, Vin de Pays de Portes de
Colombo, Viognier La Violette, Vin de Pays d'Oc,
Creek, Cotes de Tablas Blanc, Paso Robles, 2OO2
de la Janasse, Cotes du Rhone Blanc, 2OO4
du Vieux Lazaret, Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc,
Creek, Roussanne, Paso Robles, 2OO2