Rhône Grapes Part 2 – White Wines

Part 1 of this blog was all about the grapes used to make the Rhône Valley’s red and rosé wines (follow this link if you missed it), so it doesn’t take a genius to work out that part 2 is all about the region’s white grapes.

It’s fair to say that the Rhône’s reds are better known than the whites – hardly surprising when red wine production dwarfs that of white wine – and that applies equally to the grapes that go into them. Most wine drinkers will know about syrah (although, for anglophones, perhaps more often under its Australian name, shiraz); some will know grenache and mourvèdre; others will know the blend of all three by its common abbreviation, “GSM”. But viognier aside, it’s likely that most people couldn’t name a single one of the white grapes.

So let’s start there:



Viognier may be the best known of all of the Rhône’s white grape varieties, but as recently as 50 years ago it was almost extinct. Only 14ha (35 acres) of vines were left in the whole world and they were all planted on the steep slopes around the village of Condrieu and neighbouring Ampuis. From that low point, the grape spread slowly at first, starting with the (very) gradual replanting of old, abandoned Condrieu vineyards, before a boom started in the 1980s when winemakers elsewhere began to discover how good viognier wine could be. It’s now grown all around the world and French plantings alone are roughly 300 times greater than they were.

Viognier’s origins have been debated for a long time, including suggestions that it was carried from the Dalmatian coast by Emperor Probus. But as with syrah, DNA testing has shown that one of viognier’s parents is mondeuse blanche, a variety now grown nowhere but the Savoie and Isère regions of France. So south east France, maybe even Condrieu itself, seems a more likely home.

Viognier is a difficult grape, being both susceptible to disease and requiring a fine balancing act on the part of the winemaker. Pick the grapes too late, sometimes by only a matter of a few days, and all-important acidity can disappear, leaving the wine feeling oily and fat. (Someone once described over-ripe viognier to me as tasting like a gin and tonic in wine form.) But pick early to preserve freshness or, even worse, allow the vines to produce an abundant crop, and the wine can end up bland. And bold flavours really should be viognier’s trump card – even at its shyest it will mix ripe pear with a whiff of spring flowers, but more often you’ll find apricots, musk, lychees, even parma violets. Despite that, almost all viognier wines are dry.

Although there are excellent examples in the southern Rhône, northern viognier is more highly regarded as the best wines have a firm core to balance the richness. None, though, are long term keepers. Even the best viognier, by which I mean the best Condrieu, loses a lot of its appeal after 4 or 5 years.

Marsanne growing at Hermitage.

Marsanne growing at Hermitage.

Marsanne is another grape variety closely associated with the northern Rhône. And apart from some plantings in Australia, most notably at the Tahbilk estate in Victoria, it has generally not travelled far from its presumed home, the village of Marsanne a few kilometres from Montélimar. It’s the most commonly planted white grape in the vineyards of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Saint Péray and Saint Joseph – all reachable within 20 minutes drive of  one of the northern Rhone’s main towns, Valence – but hardly anywhere else. In those few places, even when it’s blended with roussanne (see below), it tends to be the dominant partner.

Like viognier, marsanne is a low acid grape. However, its flavour profile is less exotic. Ripe apple and almond are frequent descriptions, with the wines turning more obviously nutty and honeyed as they age, even though they stay dry. And unlike viognier, marsanne wine can age – stored properly, a good white Hermitage can easily live for a decade or two, sometimes longer, although don’t expect a Crozes or St. Péray to last as well.

Marsanne is rarely encountered in the southern Rhône, although it is permitted in Côtes du Rhône blanc.

Roussanne has traditionally been marsanne’s blending partner in the northern Rhône, where it’s allowed in all the same appellations. It tends to be a little less “fat”, having slightly higher acidity levels and aromas that, while not as flamboyant as viognier, are both finer and more pronounced than marsanne. Spring flowers are sometimes suggested.

DNA testing strongly suggests a parent-offspring relationship with marsanne, meaning one developed from the other. In that case, it’s likely that roussanne also originated in or near the Rhône Valley.

Unlike marsanne, roussanne is on the list of permitted varieties in Châteauneuf du Pape, which at least makes it a bit more visible in the south.

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc

Grenache Blanc is a colour mutation of grenache noir, with the same DNA structure, qualities and (sometimes) failings.

Within the Rhône Valley, grenache blanc appears only in the south where it produces full-bodied whites, usually more notable for their rich texture than their pronounced flavour. The wines are low in acidity and can oxidise quickly. So to help ageing and balance, it’s normally blended with a compatible partner – some of the best white Chateauneuf du Pape show what such a blend is capable of: a rich texture, flavours that mix ripe green plum with apricot and lemon, and a surprising ability to age.

Clairette. Not to be confused with claret, the British name for red Bordeaux.

Clairette. Not to be confused with claret, the British name for red Bordeaux.

Clairette has traditionally been one of grenache’s partners, lending acidity and so a crisp edge to grenache blanc-based wine. It probably first appeared in France, although there do seem to be some genetic links to a number of Italian varieties.

Clairette appears in many of the white blends, from Côtes du Rhône upwards, but it only takes centre stage in the valley of the Drôme, the Rhône tributary that flows down from the alpine foothills to the east. There, between the towns of Crest and Luc-en-Diois, clairette is used to make the dry sparkling wines, Clairette de Die Brut and Crémant de Die.



Bourboulenc is another grape frequently encountered in southern Rhône blends, where producers value its citrus flavours and acidity. It’s found all along the French mediterranean coast, but possibly originated in the Vaucluse region: there is an old vineyard called Barbolenquiera in Aubignan, not far from Avignon.

Domaine de Durban - one of the best muscats.

Domaine de Durban ‘s Muscat de Beaumes de Venise (left)

Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains (small-berried white muscat) is grown around the village of Beaumes de Venise to make a sweet, fortified wine that smells of some or all of the following: elderflower, orange peel, honey and apricots. It goes particularly well with fruit tarts, although the locals in the southern Rhône also like it as an aperitif and with foie gras. Muscat is also the main grape (75% minimum) in the delicious, gently sweet version of sparkling Clairette de Die. (Yes, obviously it’s slightly confusing that a wine called Clairette de Die has no more than 25% clairette in the blend.)

It’s an ancient variety that has been grown around the Mediterranean basin for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, but its genetic relationship with a large number of Greek and Italian varieties suggest one of those two as its original home.

Picpoul (or Piquepoul) Blanc is a colour mutation of picpoul noir and is also likely to have originated in the Vaucluse, where most of the earliest written references appear. It’s another in the list of higher acid grapes used to balance grenache blanc. One of its few varietal appearances is as bone dry Picpoul de Pinet, a wine made near Sète, on the Med. coast. It has become increasingly sought after in the UK over the last few years, performing a very similar job to Loire Valley muscadet, which is generally cheaper but completely out of fashion.

You can find traces of other white varieties in the Rhône: ugni blanc is allowed in Côtes du Rhône blends and chardonnay is grown to make vin de pays wines, particularly in the cooler Ardèche and Drôme hills. But I can safely say that if it’s not listed here, you don’t need to know about it.



Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours, our opportunity to spread the word about, well, the Rhône Valley and wine. We try not to force the tours bit down your throat; there’s a perfectly good website for that – www.rhonewinetours.com
The website also tries its best to sell our rather fabulous wine tastings, too. Ten different wines for up to ten people from only 120€, including delicious local cheeses and charcuterie. That’s just 12€ per head! 1,20€ per wine per head!

Well, I only said we don’t try to push the tours here.

PS. All photos are ours. I don’t mind you using them if you ask first.


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