Rhone whites

If you love white wines with tex­ture, flavour and per­son­al­ity that also match count­less dishes, look to the va­ri­eties of France’s Rhone that are ex­celling around the coun­try.

Halliday - - Inside - By JANE FAULKNER

Get to know Aus­tralia’s take on the food-friendly, white wines of France’s Rhone.

How about a wine quiz? Noth­ing too tax­ing – just pick the grape va­ri­ety that part­ners bril­liantly with an ar­ray of foods. Go on, take a stab at it with these clues: it’s a wine that matches with roast chicken, but it’s not chardon­nay. It’s per­fect with chilli prawns and roast pork, but it’s not ries­ling. It’s tex­tu­ral, flavour­some and works won­ders with smoked trout and gar­licky may­on­naise. Fiano? Not even close. If served in a black tast­ing glass, the wine could pass for a medium-framed red. So what di­verse drink is this? If you’re on a French theme and think­ing rous­sanne or per­haps blended with marsanne, you’d be spot on. Viog­nier fits too. Sur­prised? Maybe it’s time to re­con­sider these de­li­cious Rhone whites.

WHEN IT COMES TO Aus­tralian-made ex­am­ples of these va­ri­eties, es­pe­cially the famed trio of viog­nier, marsanne and rous­sanne, they are at their best with food. They de­mand to be sipped along­side a meal be­cause they com­ple­ment and en­hance one an­other so well. Given all that, it’s sur­pris­ing they aren’t more ap­pre­ci­ated. When did you last or­der a viog­nier for din­ner?

“We would like viog­nier to be more main­stream,” says Louisa Rose, chief wine­maker at Yalumba, the com­pany that has done more for the va­ri­ety than any other in this coun­try. “In the 2000s, viog­nier had its own sec­tion on wine lists and now it’s lumped in with ‘other whites’. That’s hap­pened ever since pinot gri­gio and sauvi­gnon blanc came along,” she says.

How­ever, Louisa makes a more salient point. “It’s not a great aper­i­tif style and that’s why it hasn’t worked in the by-the-glass sec­tion. The thing is, a glass of viog­nier with­out food doesn’t quite work. It’s a niche wine.”

Ac­cord­ing to the 2017 Aus­tralian and New Zealand Wine In­dus­try Direc­tory, data from the 2015 vin­tage shows that viog­nier plant­ings de­clined to 765 hectares from 1194 in 2014. The same trend is show­ing with marsanne, which is down to 163 hectares from

192 hectares in ’14. No in­for­ma­tion was recorded for rous­sanne, al­though it would hover around 100 hectares.

Yalumba re­mains stead­fast in its devo­tion to viog­nier – a com­mit­ment that be­gan in the 1970s when then chief viti­cul­tur­ist Peter Wall vis­ited the French ap­pel­la­tions of Cote-Rotie and Con­drieu, the spir­i­tual home of viog­nier. What’s ex­tra­or­di­nary is the fact that this grape was so rare at the time, with about 14 hectares in ex­is­tence. When Yalumba planted 1.2 hectares in Eden Val­ley in 1980, it be­came the first sig­nif­i­cant plant­ing here. The site is the Vaughan vine­yard, which to­day still pro­vides the ba­sis for The Vir­gilius, Yalumba’s flag­ship white.

Yet it is Louisa who has cham­pi­oned viog­nier like no other. Lots of tri­als over the years have led to learn­ings such as pick­ing too early means no flavour, and that the grapes can over-ripen in a mat­ter of days. The team also re­alised this low-acid wine is cor­rected if its phe­no­lics are well han­dled be­cause they give the wine rich­ness, depth and tex­ture, plus age­ing po­ten­tial. And its tan­nins are why Louisa has al­ways de­scribed viog­nier as “a white wine for red wine drinkers”.

While Yalumba isn’t pur­su­ing marsanne, the team has been nur­tur­ing rous­sanne since the late 2000s. Louisa says the work they have done on viog­nier has helped fast-track their com­mit­ment to rous­sanne. De­spite all the tri­als with both va­ri­eties, each wine they pro­duce is ei­ther 100 per cent viog­nier or rous­sanne – a point of dif­fer­ence to many blended styles.

When Louisa prof­fers a de­scrip­tion of each, it’s easy to un­der­stand why she loves both styles. “Viog­nier is like walk­ing through a stone fruit or­chard. It has white nec­tarines and apri­cots, some white flow­ers, honey­suckle and or­ange blos­som, and a bit of gin­ger and pep­per. Whereas rous­sanne is a cot­tage gar­den full of tea roses, laven­der and chamomile, near a sand dune so there’s a sea spray char­ac­ter,” she says.

Yalumba pro­duces six viog­nier styles – four ta­ble wines, an eau de vie and a botry­tised sweet wine. Seek out Sa­muel’s Gar­den Col­lec­tion Viog­nier to ap­pre­ci­ate the essence of the va­ri­ety, while the rous­sanne un­der the same la­bel is also a beauty.

“Viog­nier is like walk­ing through a stone fruit or­chard... whereas rous­sanne is a cot­tage gar­den full of tea roses.” Louisa Rose, Yalumba.

Rous­sanne

Back in 2013, McLaren Vale’s Yan­garra wine­maker Peter Fraser made a trial rous­sanne us­ing two 675-litre ce­ramic eggs. In one, the fruit was fer­mented on skins for 120 days and the other was made with­out skin con­tact. The fi­nal wine was a 60/40 blend of the two batches, with skin con­tact mak­ing up the ma­jor­ity. Peter took a risk in his ap­proach to this wine, which is called Roux Beauté.

“It has all that phe­no­lic ma­te­rial and it’s such a tex­tu­ral white, so I won­dered what would hap­pen if you ex­tracted all the tan­nins out of the skin and made it like a red wine, but man­aged the tan­nins, and en­hanced the tex­ture and flavour. It was scary mak­ing it, but for­tu­nately it worked.”

Still us­ing ce­ramic eggs, the 2015 Roux Beauté is again a 60/40 skin-con­tact dom­i­nant wine, this time spend­ing 160 days on skins; it has mor­phed into an ex­tra­or­di­nary wine. Rous­sanne of­ten has aro­mas of her­bal tea flo­rals and poached pears, but it’s the tex­ture and com­plex­ity that sets this wine apart. The Roux Beauté is one of two rous­sannes from Yan­garra and both wines ex­press their site as much as that won­der­ful va­ri­etal pro­file.

Peter ad­mits his at­trac­tion to Rhone whites was based solely on grenache. “We be­lieve grenache to be the pin­na­cle va­ri­ety for the re­gion. It’s not re­ally sci­en­tific – we just thought if grenache does well, we should be look­ing at white va­ri­eties that grow with it [from its home­land]. So we delved into Chateauneuf-du-Pape.”

Un­der French wine law, the south­ern Rhone blend of Chateauneuf-du-Pape takes in a num­ber of reds in­clud­ing grenache and al­lows six white va­ri­eties to be used: grenache gris and blanc, pi­car­dan, pique­poul blanc and gris, plus rous­sanne.

“The ugly duck­ling emerges as a beau­ti­ful swan; a lovely, com­plex, tex­tu­ral wine with ter­rific min­er­al­ity.” Alis­ter Pur­brick, Tah­bilk.

“As rous­sanne was one of the more re­gal Chateauneuf whites, we thought we’d try that.” Ini­tially, Peter took cut­tings from nearby d’Aren­berg and grafted them over in 2003. The first wine was made four years later.

Marsanne

If Yalumba leads the dis­cus­sion on viog­nier, Tah­bilk in cen­tral Vic­to­ria holds its own when it comes to marsanne. Al­though the win­ery grows rous­sanne and viog­nier, Tah­bilk has the old­est and largest plant­ing of marsanne in the world – six hectares were planted in 1927 and they now have a to­tal of 26 hectares. Fourth-gen­er­a­tion wine­maker Alis­ter Pur­brick says they made a de­ci­sion in 1998 to har­vest some of the 1927 plant­ings separately,

pick it ear­lier to re­tain nat­u­ral acid­ity and pro­duce an aged wine. He has a rather po­etic de­scrip­tion of what age brings to the va­ri­ety. “The ugly duck­ling emerges as a beau­ti­ful swan; a lovely, com­plex, tex­tu­ral wine with ter­rific min­er­al­ity,” Alis­ter says.

The in­au­gu­ral re­lease of the 1998 was in 2006. While screw­cap helps, the fresh­ness is as­ton­ish­ing, with the wine ap­pear­ing years younger. The 2011 will be rolled out later this year.

There are other Rhone whites that haven’t made a mark in Aus­tralia, largely be­cause they haven’t been avail­able. That’s chang­ing now with re­cent plant­ings of bour­boulenc, clairette, pique­poul blanc and grenache blanc. While vines are a few years away from pro­duc­ing, Tom and Nadege Car­son in the Yarra Val­ley have planted grenache blanc at their Ser­rat vine­yard. Hen­schke too. Whereas Yan­garra has all four of these va­ri­eties planted, it’s the two hectares of grenache blanc that are ex­cit­ing Peter Fraser right now. While wait­ing for these vines to pro­duce, he is about to re­lease a clairette and pique­poul blend through their cel­lar door, al­though this will be a one-off.

“I’m work­ing on do­ing one white blend and the thought is that grenache blanc will take the lead, fol­lowed by clairette and rous­sanne with some salt and pep­per added by pique­poul and bour­boulenc,” Peter says. “While it’s im­por­tant to keep a fo­cus

[on rous­sanne as the lead va­ri­etal], it’s great to have these bits and pieces to play with. It’s go­ing to be an in­ter­est­ing jour­ney.”

“As rous­sanne was one of the more re­gal Chateauneuf whites, we thought we’d try that.” Peter Fraser, Yan­garra.

Vines at Yalumba.

Vines at Yan­garra.

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