ROSE ON ROUSSANNE

By Rose Murray Brown MW   Published in The Scotsman 16 April 2016

Imagine a white wine with spring blossom and herbal tea scents, flavours of pears and lime with a rich weighty nutty dry palate. 

If this appeals, you might well enjoy the enchanting Roussanne grape.   If you think you have never heard of it before, you might well have drunk it if you have ever quaffed a glass of white Rhone wine. 

Roussanne is a bit of a shy performer amongst other Rhone grapes – its stablemates Viognier and Marsanne are much better known.  But Roussanne is very important, with a star appearance giving aroma and refinement to top white Rhone blends in Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage, St Joseph, St Peray and Chateauneuf du Pape. 

Rather aptly described by Rhone wine expert Remington Norman as a “closet grape”.   Roussanne is an awkward grape to grow, so like many trickier grapes it fell out of favour when times got tough in the 1950’s and 1960’s.  The growers favoured Marsanne and Viognier because they were easier to grow.

As a late ripener, prone to oxidation (it happily soaks up oxygen), Roussanne can be tough to grow in wet Rhone vintages.  The grapes have a russet colour (hence its name). Even when the sun shines, it can be annoyingly ‘dumb’ after fermentation, so winemakers have a frustrating wait as it emerges from its chrysalis – so they need to know exactly the time to bottle.  With bottle age, it can develop an enchanting nutty creaminess which I personally love.  Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf du Pape do a particularly fine varietal Roussanne which benefits from bottle age.

The key is to have a harmonious balance of exotic aromas, creamy, honeyed nuttiness – without too much hefty alcohol.

Roussanne grape around the worldRoussanne is currently undergoing an interesting renaissance all over the world with more and more growers experimenting with 100% Roussanne varietals & Roussanne-dominant blends (see our star buy South African example, The Motley Cru, pictured right). 

Just in France, plantings have doubled in the last decade to over 1,300 hectares.  Not just in Northern Rhone, Southern Rhone and Languedoc – but you can find it planted in hidden corners of France from the vineyards of Massif Central to Alpine slopes of Savoie.  You can also find it in the vast acres of Washington State, Oregon, Canada – now even in Texas, Tuscany, Liguria, Crete, Switzerland's Valais (pictured above) and Cape’s Swartland regions.

The ‘Rhone-loving’ Californians thought they had a quite a bit of Roussanne back in the 1990’s, but they discovered that the ‘Roussanne vine’ that had been transported from Rhone to California in the suitcase of Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon winery, was actually none other than Viognier.  Today Grahm blends true Roussanne with Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc for his famous Le Cigare Blanc – and the best Californian Roussanne varietals are from Rhone-rangers Alban and Qupe.

 


FRANCE

Languedoc blend:  La Vieille Ferme Blanc 2015 Paul Mas 
(£6.99 Co-op; Waitrose)
A gentle introduction to Roussanne, which is included in this Cotes du Luberon blend alongside four other grapes (including Bourboulenc and Vermentino).  Soft easy rounded, a light quaffer with subtle new oak notes.  13% alc


Languedoc blend: Le Marin Blanc Marsanne/Roussanne 2014
(£7.99 Majestic Wine Scotland; £8.99 Majestic Wine England)
Another Roussanne blend alongside its popular blending partners Marsanne and Viognier.  Roussanne (30%) provides elegance and finesse, while Marsanne (65%) bulks up with its plumper textures and Viognier adds a sweet sour element.  Fresh style, pineapple and lime fruits; just easy, soft and undemanding.  13.5% alc

                                    
Roussanne grape around the worldLanguedoc: Roussanne 2014 Domaine La Croix Gratiot   ***STAR VALUE BUY***
(£10.99 Fine Wine Co, Edinburgh: Exel Wines, Perth; Valhalla, Shetland)
Very popular with tasters.  Loved its limey aromas, honeydew melon flavours, creamy palate and length.  A very approachable and affordable dry style of Roussanne with hints of minerality.  Good for the price. 13.5% alc

                       
Massif Central:  Roussanne de Madonne 2014 Gilles Bonnefoy
(£13.95 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Grown on the volcanic soils in the forgotten backwater of Forez region, whose vineyards were once obliterated by phylloxera and have been slow to make a come-back.  This white, labelled IGP Urfe, imitates Rhone whites with its white blossom aromas and appley fruit flavours, but tasters found it a bit too angular and austere on the palate with a disappointing short bitter finish. 12% alc


Savoie:  Chignin-Bergeron Exception 2011 Denis & Didier Bertholier   ***STAR BUY***
(£20.40 Alpine Wines www.alpinewines.co.uk)
Our tasters loved this mature Bergeron (Roussanne’s name in the Chignin area of Savoie). This is a delightful style with just 20% oaked, delicious dried apricot and nectarine aromas, vibrant acidity and honeyed depth.  Serve with goats cheese or grilled fish.  Popular with tasters who normally like unoaked Chardonnay.  13.5% alc


Savoie:  Chignin-Bergeron St Anthelme 2010 Denis & Didier Bertholier
(£21.60 Alpine Wines www.alpinewines.co.uk)  
This Roussanne is from the Bertholier brothers’ clay and limestone vineyards, but with 6 months oak it has a broad smoky appeal.  Quite opulent with candied fruit and an interesting mellow nuttiness – but I personally do not find it as refined as Bertholier’s Exception (above).  Serve with foie gras.  13.5% alc


Roussanne grape around the worldNorthern Rhone:  St Joseph Blanc 2013 Pierre Gaillard   ***STAR BUY***
(£23.95 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)         
Very characterful intense 100% Roussanne grown on granitic soils made in a very traditional Rhone style; tastes like sucking stones sprinkled with pepper, deliciously dense, very minerally, almost waxy in texture, some tannins evident, finishes very dry with a long length.  Pricey, but very good.  Serve with smoked fish. 13.5% alc
                                                             

Northern Rhone:  St Peray Roussanne 2014 Domaine du Tunnel
(£29.99 Fine Wine Co, Edinburgh; Exel Wines, Perth)
Typical deep colour, very intense white flower aromas, pearskin flavours, piquant lively acidity, good minerally undertones with an impressive long dry finish: a big bruising white which definitely needs rich weighty white meat dish or very mature goats cheese.  Very interesting Roussanne version, but tasters thought it pricey.  13% alc

 

SOUTH AFRICA

Coastal Region: The Liberator Special Edition ‘A Motley Cru’ 2014   ***STAR VALUE BUY***
(£10.95 The Wine Society www.thewinesociety.com)
Popular with our tasters – who also loved its fun name and label.  This enchanting small production blend made predominantly from Roussanne (69%), assisted by Viognier (23%) and a touch of Grenache Blanc & Marsanne.  Surprisingly (as we are in the Cape) there is no Chenin Blanc.  Aromas are subtle, but its rounded creamy palate has a good balance of tropical fruit notes, fresh acidity and light oak notes.  A good all-rounder for serving as an aperitif or with shellfish. 13% alc


Paarl: Bellingham Bernard Series Whole Bunch Roussanne 2015
(£10 Sainsbury’s)
Suit those who like big fat whites.  Light apricot and herby aromas, starts smooth & full initially on the palate, but finishes bitter and clumsy – with quite noticeably high alcohol on the finish. The lowest scorer in the tasting. Disappointing.  14% alc

 

AUSTRALIA

Roussanne grape around the worldAlpine Valley, Victoria:  Jamsheed Beechworth Roussanne 2013  
(£24.50 Berry Bros & Rudd www.bbr.com)
Not for the faint hearted.  Very honeyed, very sweet aromas with rich yeasty leesy undertones; melting butterscotch and ripe melon flavours on the palate with a very oily unctuous texture and long dry finish.  An extraordinary wine made by Gary Mills near the old gold mining town of Beechworth in the wilds of north east Victoria. Mills builds in richness to his Roussanne by fermenting in large 500-800 litre French oak casks, followed by 8 months ‘sur lie’ in oak.  Difficult to enjoy on its own due to its unctuous richness: try with light Indian chicken curry. 14% alc


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