When many people think of Rhône Valley wines, velvety reds made from Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Cinsault come to mind. That’s not surprising since most of the wines produced in the Rhône Valley are red. However, the region’s whites are truly shining stars among realm of heavenly reds.
White wines comprise only seven percent of the Rhône Valley’s total production. This may seem small, but it’s mighty in terms of quality.
Some of France’s most renowned white wines are produced in the Rhône Valley, including the northern appellations of Condrieu, which is made from one hundred percent Viognier, and Château-Grillet, a tiny subzone within Condrieu. The latter is one of only a handful of producers in France awarded its own appellation d’origine contrôlée designation in 1936 (others include Coulée de Serrant in the Loire Valley and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy). Saint-Péray also exclusively produces white wines from Marsanne and Roussanne grapes. Other appellations that produce impressive whites, as well as other wines, include St Joseph, Crozes Hermitage, Côtes du Rhône, Luberon and Costières de Nîmes.
Along the River: Silt and Soil, Galets and Garrigues
Soil and sun help create the soul of a wine, and the Rhône Valley’s climate and geography is as diverse as the wines produced. The region stretches two hundred and fifty kilometers from Vienne, near bustling Lyon in the north to the Camargue in the south, a sultry delta region known for pink flamingos and wild horses. To the east is Mount Ventoux and the Luberon, both UNESCO Biosphere Reserves. The geographical variance produces four different types of soil: granite, sand silica, limestone and clay.
The northern climate is continental (hot summers and cold winters), and the soils contain more clay, decomposed granite and schist. The wines tend to have more complexity and lushness on the palate with deeper floral notes. The Southern Rhône Valley has a Mediterranean climate with more than 200 days of sunshine on average. Here, gentle sea breezes crisscross with the more intense mistral winds from the north. Vineyards soils are alluvial and gravelly, strewn with pebbles called galets and a type of Mediterranean shrubland called garrigue. Southern Rhône Valley whites are more floral and citrus the herbal nuances picked up from the galets. The wines tend to be lighter and fruitier with pleasant herbal and almond accents.
Grapes That Sing of Sun & Soil
Out of twenty-seven grape varieties in the Rhône Valley, twelve are white. Like vocalists in a band, each has a unique personality that harmonizes with the other. The lead singers would be Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier. Marsanne delivers the sultry complexity; Roussanne complements with soft honeysuckle and iris notes, and Viognier is the smooth operator delivering stone fruits, wildflowers and a little spice. Grenache Blanc and Ugni Blanc (Trebbiano in Italy) serve as the backup singers, adding mellow notes and additional layers of sweet fruit. In the southern Rhône Valley, Vermentino (also called Rolle), Clairette and Bourboulenc are used to round out the bouquet with more floral notes, apple, pear and stone fruits.
I have visited the Rhône Valley a few times, usually basing myself near Avignon, which served as the papal court of France in the fourteenth century (1309-1376). Seven successive popes kept local Rhône Valley vintners busy; the wines were prized among the papal court.
My most recent trip included the southern appellations Costières de Nîmes, Ventoux AOC and Luberon. All produce lively, aromatic white wines with a palate-pleasing balance of citrus and floral. If these wines were human, they’d be your best travel companion when you visit the south of France – lighthearted and sincere with no pretense.
An Alternative to White Burgundy
To illustrate these wines as great companions for food, I reached out to Master Sommelier Laura Fiorvanti, owner of CorkBuzz Wine Studios in New York City and North Carolina. She offered this overall impression: “Rhône Valley whites are rich, complex and flavorful and I find they can be a nice alternative to Chardonnay in terms of body. You also get a lot for more your money which is attractive because this is a wine that drinks at a price point above what is sells for and is a nice alternative to white Burgundy.”
An alternative to Chardonnay that isn’t overly oaked and heavy on the palate and is loaded with terroir andis an affordable option to white Burgundy – that’s music to the ears, and palates, of many wine drinkers. I asked Fiorvanti how she’d pair the wines, based on their style.
“When it comes to pairing the wines with food, think about wines as a sauce,” shared Fiorvanti. “A lighter, herbaceous southern Rhône Valley white would pair well with a white wine coq au vin or roasted chicken with lemon and herbs. The creamy custard texture and nutty quality of Northern Rhône Valley whites pair well with richer fish like lobster and with some of the creamier based sauces that would accompany meats or pasta such as pappardelle with wild mushrooms in a light cream sauce.”
We also discussed how the floral, herbal and spice character of Rhône Valley white wines pair beautifully with mildly spiced Asian dishes such as a chickpea, lentil and kale yellow curry, Thai chicken coconut soup or seafood Pad Thai.
My father, a wine educator for more thirty-five years, told me, “When dining out and you have any doubt on a wine to choose, order a selection from the Rhône Valley. You can’t go wrong.”
If you are looking for a versatile white wine that is harmonious with food and sings to your palate – there’s no place like Rhône.
Wines to try:
Domaine Nicolas Croze Les 3 Grains Blanc (Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Clairette) $14
Domaine Chatagnier Aurelien Condrieu Blanc 2017, Condrieu AOC (100% Viognier) $58
Domaine des Amphores “Altitude 300” Blanc 2017, Saint-Joseph AOC (80% Roussanne, 20% Marsanne) $20
Domaine La Manarine Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2018, Côtes du Rhône AOC (50% Clairette, 50% Bouboulenc) $20
Éric Texier ‘Brézème’ Roussanne Côtes du Rhône 2017, Côtes du Rhône AOC (100% Roussanne) $20
Cave de Tain Crozes Hermitage Grand Classique Blanc 2015, Crozes-Hermitage AOC (100% Marsanne) $30
Clos Bellane ‘Valréas’ Côtes du Rhône Villages Blanc 2016 (65% Marsanne, 30% Viognier, 5% Roussanne) $19