Wednesday, June 11, 2008

WBW #46: Whites à la Mode du Rhône

Our host for this month’s edition of Wine Blogging Wednesday is Dr. Debs, the left coast blogger behind Good Wine Under $20. Her theme for this current installment is Rhône style whites. The chosen wines can originate from anywhere in the world but should be based on one or more of the multiplicity of white grape varieties native to France’s Rhône Valley. In her original announcement, Deb offered up bonus points to anyone writing up wines from more than one region. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I selected two wines for this month’s shindig, one a Northern Rhône original, the other a California knock off, albeit with French roots.

Saint-Joseph Blanc “Ro-Rée,” Domaine Chèze 2006
Domaine Chèze is a relatively young estate, founded in 1978 by Louis Chèze. Starting thirty years ago with just one hectare of vines in Saint-Joseph, Monsieur Chèze has since expanded his property to include 30 hectares in the communes of Saint-Joseph and Condrieu as well as in areas where the wines are classified as Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes. His sole Saint-Joseph Blanc produced in most recent vintages is the cuvée “Ro-Rée,” a blend of 60% Marsanne and 40% Roussanne. The Roussanne comes from a hillside plot near the town of Limony, the Marsanne from the plateau above; both are planted in heavily granitic soils.

Though Chèze farms naturally and strives for expression of terroir in all of his wines, he does not entirely shy away from some arguably modernist approaches in the winery. After pressing and débourbage – a temperature controlled holding period during which solids are allowed to settle from the wine prior to racking – Ro-Rée is racked (moved from one vessel to another) into small barrels, where it undergoes both primary and malolactic fermentations. It then spends eight to ten months in those barriques (20% new and the rest two to three years old), occasionally undergoing batonnage, a stirring of the lees meant to nourish and enrich the texture of the wine. Techniques like these are common in the wine world but can really get arguments going between the old world and new world schools of thought. From my perspective, the key is to use the techniques, new barrels for instance, honestly and for the right reasons – to support a wine’s inherent structure, not to dress it up as something it’s not. Chèze seems to have a good understanding of those principles. So, let’s taste.

The oak is immediately apparent in Ro-Rée, not just on the nose but even to the eye. Its color is a shimmering gold in the glass, richer in hue than would be typical for a young un-oaked wine. Yet the barrel influence does not subdue the natural aromas and flavors of golden apples and raisins, honey and honeysuckle, acacia and fresh pineapple, quince and fig gelée. It’s quite round in the mouth, even slightly oily in texture, yet it stays clear of overtly buttery, over-handled characteristics. Medium acidity and firm texture keep it balanced. The oak influence broods but is well integrated, supported by the sweet, nutty concentration of the wine’s fruit. On day two, my notes remained fairly consistent, though an additional nuttiness emerged – pecans I think – along with dark, stony minerality and a touch of wood tannins on the finish. This is not my everyday cup of tea but it’s definitely well made wine that would be well suited to fish and white meats with rich sauces. $35. 13% alcohol. Natural cork. Importer: Petit Pois, Moorestown, NJ.

Paso Robles Roussanne “Tablas Creek Vineyard,” Edmunds St. John 2004
Oddly enough, the wine I selected from the new world is actually much more old world and old school in style than my French selection. Just read Steve Edmunds’ epistle to his readers on the home page of his website and you’ll get a feel for his approach. No new wood, picking based on tasting rather than chemistry tests, taste of place… it all boils down to what he calls an expression of wine’s “cultural context.” And that’s a very old world view, one that I embrace wholeheartedly. It’s also a philosophy that, along with the style of Steve’s wines, has brought him into the focus of attention from writers as dichotomous as Alice Feiring and Robert Parker. You can check out Ms. Feiring’s recent article in the San Francisco Chronicle for more detailed history of the debate. As much as I’d love to jump into the fray, I’ll refrain for now as this is actually my first experience with an Edmunds St. John wine.

Style aside, there’s a real French connection to Steve’s 2004 Roussanne. It was produced with fruit sourced from Tablas Creek Vineyard, a property owned in part by the Perrin family, proprietors of Château Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The Tablas Creek property, situated in Paso Robles, was selected by the Perrins for its Mediterranean climate, similar to their home terroir. The vineyard is planted with clonal selections of vinifera vines that were imported from the Perrins’ own vineyards in the Southern Rhône.

By sheer coincidence, our host for this WBW happens to have reviewed Tablas Creek Vineyard’s own Roussanne, also from the 2004 vintage. But what about Steve’s wine?

Considerably paler in the glass than Chèze’s Saint-Joseph, this is akin to the color of dried hay. Initial aromas are rather neutral, with just a suggestion of beeswax and a saline, seashell quality. It’s texturally lean, even a little jagged, and just slightly oxidative in style. In that sense, I found it somewhat reminiscent of a Loire Valley Chenin Blanc – Savennières perhaps – when caught in its dumb phase. The wine has intense length though, with hazelnut and lanolin tones emerging in the mouth. There’s high-toned acidity and a vaguely vegetal hint (no, vegetal is not always a bad word) on the mid-palate. This is built for food and is solid, very interesting wine, at once muscular yet crisp. The only problem is its high alcohol, which doesn’t quite burn but does create disjointedness in the wine’s overall harmony. On day two, it became more aromatic, with a nose of potpourri, lime zest and peach blossoms emerging and then giving way to intense minerality. I’d like to look at this again in another couple of years. And I’m intrigued enough that I’ll definitely be seeking out more of Mr. Edmunds’ wines. $26. 14.5% alcohol. Natural cork.


Tim said...

Awesome reviews. The Edmunds St. John sounds particularly intriguing to me.

David McDuff said...

Thanks, Tim. It does to me as well ;-)

Seriously, at last look, as each bottle was emptied at the end of days two and three, I found the Edmunds St. John much more to my liking than the Cheze. The slightly disjointed alcohol remained a problem but the rest of the wine's character had more to say than the St. Joseph, where the oak and leesy richness became more domineering with airtime.

Edward said...


I wanted to open an Aussie Roussanne, but ran out of time. It will be interesting to compare notes, when I eventually get around to the bottle in question.

Are Rhone white blends common in the States?

David McDuff said...

Not quite common, Edward, though not exactly rare either. California's Central Coast, Paso Robles in particular, seems to be the hotbed for white Rhône style wines. As you've been visiting here for a while, I'm sure you've already figured out that I don't drink them very often. If you're looking to explore more, check out the members of the Rhône Rangers.

Joe said...

Hmm, forgot St-J made whites - thought it was a red appellation. Not a cheapie, that one, but it gives me an idea for a tasting...

David McDuff said...

Yup, Joe, the Euro's killing it. It wasn't long ago that this same wine was priced in the low US$20s.

If you're thinking of whites vs. reds from Saint-Joseph, don't forget to throw in another match-up between Cornas (red only) and Saint-Péray (white and/or bubbly only).

Dale Cruse said...

Sounds like you had as much fun with your Rhone-style white as I did on this Wine Blogging Wednesday!

Rose said...

Interesting comparison. I especially like the "the new world is actually much more old world and old school in style than my French selection" characterization. Context is everything, even with wine.

David McDuff said...

Thanks for stopping by, Dale. And welcome, Rose. There's something to be said for wine's content as well, don't you think?

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