Wednesday, January 4, 2017

3 great, affordable, winter white wines from the Rhone

White Rhône wines exist outside our expectations. There are no Rhône white grapes on the list of top-selling wine varietals. The only one most people have heard of -- Viognier -- is barely grown outside of Condrieu, which makes wines too expensive for most people to try.

One of my greatest wine regrets is that I once ate dinner alone in Condrieu but was too cheap to drink Condrieu because the only bottles on the list were over 200 Euros. I had white Saint-Joseph instead, and was too shy to ask what grapes were in it.

French people don't understand why this is a problem. But Americans relate to wine through grapes, not regions. A New York Times article about Saint-Joseph, a Rhône appellation, opens by saying people confuse the region with Bordeaux or expect its wines to be sparkling, and this article is not from America's wine-ignorant era: it's from 2013.

French white grapes have conquered the world. Every major wine country grows Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris. But while the Rhône red grape Syrah is also ubiquitous, Rhône white grapes are minor everywhere, and thus there's still some mystery about wines from one of the best-known wine regions in the world.

Recently a PR firm offered me the chance to sample some white Rhône wines with the hope that I would write a post about them. The idea is that white Rhônes are good white wines for winter, perhaps because of their tendency to taste more like pears and apples than peaches or lemons.

In the wine-blogging world, this kind of PR outreach is common. I only accept wines I'm interested in, but most of the time I still don't really have enough to write a story. I love Oregon Pinot Noir, for example, but I couldn't find anything new to say even after getting a box of them, and I still feel guilty about it.

I wouldn't be writing this either, except that of the four white Rhône wines I got, three were terrific, delicious, interesting wines I couldn't get enough of -- and the average price of these three wines was under $20. Moreover, because I tried them in December, I opened them as alternatives to trophy wines, which I drank all month, and in all three cases I ended up liking the white Rhône wine better. That's as high praise as I can give.

So here are three affordable white Rhône wines I highly recommend. My own personal ratings were 92 points for each, and maybe that wasn't generous enough.

Cave de Tain Crozes-Hermitage (Marsanne) 2015 ($23) 13.5%
Cave de Tain is a co-op of 100 winegrowers and it makes about half of all the wine bottled in the northern Rhône. Just a decade ago you wouldn't expect top quality out of a co-op. But this co-op invested 10 million Euros in a state-of-the-art winery and it used rigorous selection for this 100% Marsanne. It's peachy and chalky on the nose, while on the palate it's ripe and nectar-like with the freshness to carry it. This wine stole the show on Christmas Eve from a red wine I had been saving for the right occasion for years. 92 points Buy it here

Famille Lançon "La Solitude" Côtes du Rhône 2015 ($16) 13%
This family has been in the wine business in the Rhône since 1450. Only 15 of the 100 acres of this estate are planted with white grapes: in this wine you find Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Viognier. I opened it because a $60 Chardonnay I had planned a meal around was disappointing. That makes what this wine delivers even more delightful. It's fresh, bright and fruity, like a barely-ripe pear with hints of white pepper, and pretty floral notes in the aroma. Really a delight of a wine at a very good price. We drank the whole bottle, which doesn't happen often. 92 points. (Buy it here -- The label looks different but I believe this is the same wine)

Clos Bellane Côtes du Rhône Village Valréas 2015 ($19) 13.5%
A negociant bought this unique estate in 2010 and has taken the vineyards organic; they got certification in 2014. It's unusual because it's a high-altitude farm in the southern Rhône, where normally the climate is warmer than this. It's a blend of 65% Marsanne, 30% Viognier and 5% Roussanne. I'm going to have to run my actual tasting notes from the night we drank it because the bottle is empty and I didn't leave myself much room for rewriting: "You walk through an apple barn in the early summer. You sit on a barstool with a rustic leather seat. A woman in a cowboy hat that she needs at her other job pours you this, maybe in a carafe. It's a rush of fresh apple and a bold spiciness, and it's delicious. She smiles. 92 points." Buy it here

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  1. I really enjoyed this post. Many years ago we started a visit to France in the southern Rhone, and up to that point I had a very low opinion of southern Rhone whites. That changed after the first couple of days. Later we spent a week in the northern Rhone, and while I knew all about northern Rhone whites, I hadn't tried many. Again, they were generally outstanding. We'll be staying near Valreas this May, so I'll have to check out Bellane. Another northern Rhone white I recently had was Domaine Bonnefond 2015 IGP Cote Rhodianne [sp?] Viognier. Their Condrieu was a bit beyond my budget, but this was outstanding.

  2. Cave de Tain Crozes-Hermitage is a solid winery. I stopped through there in April of last year and picked up a Cornas I wish I'd bought a case of. Extremely well-priced and well-made. Their Saint Joseph was the only one I wasn't thrilled about, but overall, solid line.

    Grenache a Rhône grape? More well-known because of France, but let the Spaniards have at least that one. Thankfully it's gotten a great deal more interesting in its homeland in recent years.


  3. Miquel: You're right about Garnacha, of course. I edited the post.

  4. Sorry, wasn't meaning to be a smartass. Am just passionate about what Spain is producing from the grape these days and I think they've a lot more to do with it yet to come.

  5. As a recent recipient of the Master Rhone Diploma from Universite du Vin in Suze-la-Rousse and a member of the charter class of Rhone Accredited Wine Educators, I'm gratified to see you extolling the quality and value of Rhone whites. Last October I had the good fortune to dine with the export manager of Cave de Tain, David Quillin, who poured several of their wines, and I couldn't agree more with your assessment of this exceptional coop.