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Click here for a printable PDF of the
principal white Rhone Rangers grapes.
A white varietal that has been grown in southern France for centuries, and is one of the 13 permitted Châteauneuf-du-Pape varietals. It provides freshness and acidity in blends, and is particularly important in the white wines from the Minervois and Corbières.
In the Southern Rhône and the Languedoc region, Clairette provides the base in white blends. Its low acidity, high alcohol, and floral perfume make it an ideal blending grape. In the southern Rhône, it is commonly blended with Grenache Blanc and Ugni Blanc; in the central Rhône, it is blended with Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains to make the sparkling Clairette de Die. Outside of France, it is also planted in South Africa and Australia.
Grenache Blanc is the white-berried equivalent of Grenache Noir, and, like its red variant, is drought-resistant, vigorous, and easy to graft. The varietal originated in Spain and still plays a role in the wines of Rioja and Navarre. From Spain, it spread to France where it has thrived in the vineyards of the Rhône valley and Châteauneuf-du-Pape. It is the fourth most commonly planted white grape varietal in France, comprising over 37,000 acres in Roussillon alone. Its high-sugar, high-acid, straw-colored bunches produce wines that are high in alcohol, with green apple flavors and aromas. Although it can stand confidently on its own, its crispness and long finish make it a tremendous blending component. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the crisp acidity of Grenache Blanc is often used to balance the honeyed richness of Roussanne. In California, Tablas Creek Vineyard imported Grenache Blanc cuttings from Château de Beaucastel in 1992, and the BATF recognized the varietal as distinct from Grenache Noir in 2003.
The white workhorse grape of the Southern Rhone and much of Southern France, and widely planted in Australia as well. Marsanne is a sturdy, hardy grape that produces a full-bodied wine – with the heft of a good Chardonnay. Its relatively simple fruity flavors make it a natural candidate for a blending base, though interesting varietal Marsanne can also be produced. In the U.S., the total 2004 Marsanne harvest was a whopping 323 tons.
Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains
Almost certainly the oldest known wine grape varietal, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains has a noble history. It was established in Gaul by the Romans, and may even have been brought to Marseilles by the Greeks before that. From the south of France, it spread throughout the Mediterranean, as well as north into Alsace and Germany. Currently, it is grown almost everywhere in Europe, including Russia, Hungary, the Crimean Peninsula, and Greece (where it is one of the country’s principle grapes). Its berries, as the name suggests, are small and produce wines with elegantly floral aromatics. In the southern Rhône the grape is often blended with Clairette to make the sparkling Clairette de Die, and vinified alone to make the sweet Beaumes-de-Venise wines. California does not have much planted, but it can be found in the Central Valley and in Paso Robles.
Picardin is a little-known white varietal that would have disappeared but for its inclusion as one of the 13 permitted Châteauneuf-du-Pape varietals. However, there is some doubt of its existence at all. Ampelographers have not been able to find an individual variety corresponding to what growers call Picardin; samples usually turn out to be either Clairette or Bourbelenc. Despite that, it is recognized as a separate varietal in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and is typically described as fairly colorless with an agreeable light musky note.
Native to the Languedoc area, Piquepoul means “lip stinger,” an apt description of its high acidity must. Prior to the phylloxera invasion, Picquepoul was popular, and often blended with the Clairette. When vineyards were replanted in the early 1900s, however, its low yields did not gain it prominent placement in the vineyards of Southern France. It is still used in the wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and has floral aromatics and soft tannins.
Roussanne’s name comes from its russet-colored skin. The grapes are somewhat prone to rot, but high in acidity and in aromatic qualities. The same qualities that make Roussanne a racy, lively wine also give it the potential to age – setting it apart from the other Rhone whites. In the Southern Rhone, Roussanne is often the premium component of white blends. In California, the grape has been present in tiny quantities for perhaps a century, and coastal plantings stretch from Santa Barbara to the Sierra Foothills to Sonoma. The State listed a total of 166 planted acres of Roussanne in 2004.
This ubiquitous grape is perhaps better known by its Italian name of Trebbiano. In Cognac, where it comprises almost 95% of all vines planted and forms the base for brandy, it is also known as St. Emilion. Although very few people in the United States have heard of it, the varietal is France’s most planted grape [Robinson, 1996], outnumbering Chardonnay five to one in the 1980s. The varietal is so prolific that it produces more wine than any other grape (even though Grenache and Spain’s Airén may cover a larger vineyard area). It is relatively low in alcohol but high in acidity, and, when not overproduced, makes wines with delicate fruit and floral aromas. The United States appears to be one of the last wine-producing countries without measurable acreage of Ugni Blanc. In addition to France and Italy, it is widely grown in Australia, South Africa, and even Southeast Asia.
Viognier may be the world’s least widely planted premium grape – but currently one of the most prized. In the vineyard, yields and acid levels tend to be low, and susceptibility to disease and rot high. In the winery, it is temperamental. But once in the bottle or the glass, a well-made Viognier comes with a deep, yellow color and an exquisite, exotic bouquet – apricots, pears, tropical fruits. In the Northern Rhone, viognier is the basis of the wines of Condrieu and Chateau-Grillet. In the U.S., it has a short but accelerating history. In 1996, for example, there were 645 acres of viognier vines in California; by 2004, planted acres had grown to over 2000. Seems to do best in granitic, schistic, and mica-laden soils. [more about Viognier]
Rhone White Blends
The Marsanne-Roussanne combination is a Southern French staple – the former for body, the latter for aroma, finesse and aging capacity. In the Rhone, Viognier is not traditionally blended with other white grapes, but small amounts are sometimes added to reds and roses to inject an elusive note into the nose. In America, however, vintners have found Viognier to enhance many white wine blends and it is not unusual today to find it included in Rhone-style blends or even Sauvignon Blanc labeled wines.