Discovering the white wines of the Northern Rhône
Think of the Northern Rhône and the illustrious red wines of Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Cornas likely spring to mind. Yet the region’s white wines, from the sought-after Viogniers of Condrieu through to the lesser-known Marsanne-Roussanne blends of Saint-Péray, are equally worthy of attention.
Hailing from steeply sloping vineyards on granitic soils and representing less than 10% of production, the Northern Rhône white wines are versatile food wines that range from fragrant and refreshing to textured and mouthfilling in style. The more prolific Marsanne often dominates blends, lending colour, body and fruit flavour to the aromatics, acidity and elegance of Roussanne. Viognier brings fragrance and texture to blends, while its heady peach and honeysuckle bouquet and luscious mouthfeel come to the fore as a single-varietal wine. Here, we highlight five Northern Rhône white wines that showcase these three local heroes at their best.
Maison Les Alexandrins
Founded in 2015, this ‘micro-négociant’ stems from a long-standing friendship between Nicolas Jaboulet, the Perrin family from Château de Beaucastel, winemaker Guillaume Sorrel and viticulturalist Alexandre Caso. Each brings their individual expertise to creating wines that represent the best of their appellations across the Northern Rhône.
Maison Les Alexandrins Crozes-Hermitage Blanc 2018/2019
Crozes Hermitage is the largest appellation of the Northern Rhône, with over 1,300 hectares spread across 11 lieux-dits on the left bank of the Rhône. The fruit for this 65% Marsanne/35% Roussanne blend is sourced from the villages of Mercurol and Chanos-Curson, both renowned for Crozes Hermitage Blanc. The first site lies on the slope of Les Pends at Mercurol, where the granite soils with limestone on the surface impart finesse to the wines. The second site is further south on the stony plain at Chanos-Curson, producing fuller-bodied, more concentrated wines. Fermented at a low temperature in two and three-year-old oak barrels, the wine was aged on lees for six months (50% in old 600-litre barrels and 50% in stainless-steel tanks) to add complexity and richness to the bright apple and white flower aromas, ripe stone fruit flavours, and incredibly long finish.
Maison Les Alexandrins Condrieu 2019
When sourcing the Viognier for their Condrieu, Maison Les Alexandrins focus on the areas of Côteau de Cherry and Côteau de Rozay. Here, the combination of higher altitude, optimum exposure to the sunshine, and the decomposed granite and loess topsoil is perfectly suited to the variety and gives a vibrant freshness to the finished wine. Vinified partly in used 225-litre oak barrels to impart richness and body to the wine and partly in stainless steel tanks to preserve freshness and fruit aromas, the wine was aged for eight months on fine lees before bottling. It is beautifully balanced, with bright acidity, a myriad of candied lemon, ripe stone fruit, sweet spice and honeysuckle flavours, and a saline finish.
Domaine de Bréseyme
Located in the rediscovered area of Brézème, which sits at the southernmost edge of the Northern Rhône Valley, Domaine de Bréseyme was acquired by Nicolas Jaboulet of Maison & Domaines Les Alexandrins in 2018. Classified as Côtes-du-Rhône since 1937, Brézème has recently been taking steps to obtain ‘Cru’ status and its steep, southfacing slopes, limestone, clay and pebble soils, and grape varieties - Syrah for the reds and Roussanne, Marsanne and Viognier for the whites - are more akin to the Northern Rhône. Founded in 1999 by the Gresse family, the domaine currently cultivates four hectares split between the 'Brézème Est' and 'Brézème Ouest' lieux-dits, with a further 12 hectares still to be planted. Nicolas is very enthusiastic about his new project and believes “this forgotten terroir in the north of the Rhône Valley deserves as much attention as its illustrious neighbours”.
Domaine de Bréseyme Brézème Côtes du Rhône Blanc 2019
The Brézème Côtes-du-Rhône Blanc is a blend of 65% Viognier and 35% Marsanne sourced from the domaine’s 0.5 hectares of white varieties. The grapes are harvested early in the morning to preserve their freshness and the varieties are pressed together prior to fermentation in temperature-controlled stainless steel tanks. Aged 50% in tank and 50% in oak barrels for 12 months with regular bâtonnage, the resulting wine is a beautifully elegant expression of Viognier - richly textured with lifted acidity and an aromatic intensity that displays ripe stone fruits and a hint of ginger.
Domaine du Tunnel
Established in 1994, Domaine du Tunnel is a small family domaine based in the charming village of Saint-Péray in the Northern Rhône and run by Stéphane Robert and his wife Sandrine. In 2014, Stéphane, also the winemaker, converted a 170-metre-long disused steam train tunnel in Saint-Péray into a winery and cellar. Stéphane today owns 11 hectares of vineyard in Cornas, Saint-Péray, Condrieu and Saint-Joseph, mainly old vines grown on hillsides and terraces with granite soils.
Domaine du Tunnel Saint-Péray Roussanne 2019
Domaine du Tunnel has two hectares of Roussanne in Saint-Péray and the fruit for this wine is hand-harvested from four lieux-dits: Barras, Grand Plantier, Combe and l'Arzalier. The Barras vineyard lies at 250 metres above sea level, adding crisp acidity and aromatics to the blend. Fermented in a combination of stainless steel and four-year-old barriques using indigenous yeasts, then aged on its lees in oak for nine months, the wine displays the wonderful concentration of fruit and profoundly elegant character that are the hallmarks of Stéphane’s wines. It has aromas of apricots, white flowers and lightly toasted brioche, as well as lively acidity and a mouth-watering, saline finish.
A seventh-generation vigneron, Matthieu Barret of Domaine du Coulet in Cornas also works with trusted growers, who share his viticultural and winemaking values, to produce a range of négociant wines from the Northern and Southern Rhône. The concept is light-hearted, as reflected by the cheerful bear on the label (“a self-portrait” jokes the short and stocky Barret), with wines that are intended to be more approachable in their youth.
Matthieu Barret ‘Petit Ours’ Blanc 2020
The `Petit Ours` (`little bear`) Blanc is a blend of 90% Roussanne and 10% Viognier sourced from around the village of Autichamp in Northern Drôme. The vineyards lie at an altitude of 400 metres on limestone-clay soils and are certified organic and biodynamic. The hand-harvested grapes are vinified in stainless steel tanks to preserve their freshness through to the finished wine. It is very expressive, with notes of stone fruits and white flowers, and refreshing acidity.