The fame of the Rhône wine region has been earned almost solely through their red wines. This is true both for northern Rhône with its Syrah wines and southern Rhône with its blends of Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah etcetera. Nevertheless there are also white wines produced both in north and south, and in principle all major producers also have white wines in their range.
The Condrieu appellation in the north is possibly the only white wine appellation of Rhône that is somewhat famous, in particular because their grape variety Viognier became somewhat popular internationally some years ago. My guess is that the white wine appellation Saint-Péray (which also produces sparkling wines) is the least known appellation of northern Rhône. I would even venture a guess that the rosé wines from southern Rhône, including Tavel, are more widely known than the white wines of the region. Many who commonly drink red Rhône wines become somewhat surprised when they learn that there also exists white Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Saint-Joseph, Châteauneuf-du-Pape and so on. (No white Côte-Rôtie or Cornas though.)
Despite this, both individual growers and the big negociant companies are very proud of their white wines and always want to offer them next to their reds in tastings. I can’t recall any known Rhône producer who doesn’t have white wines as well, if they have vineyards in appellations where you’re allowed to produce white wines. It’s worth pointing out here that cultivation of white wine grapes on the Hermitage hill probably represents a small loss for the growers, at least if you think in terms of opportunity cost. Although white Hermitage can be perceived as expensive, it generally fetches less than red Hermitage, and it would be possible to cultivate Syrah on all land within the appellation.
So when Guigal’s Swedish importer Vinunic arranged a series of three Guigal Masterclasses, led by their CEO Claes Lindkvist, it was quite logical that one of the Masterclasses was devoted to the white wines.
The three white wines grapes that occur in northern Rhône are Marsanne, Roussanne och Viognier. All three have historically been used as to “soften” red wines from the region, and it is still allowed to blend up to 15% of Marsanne and Roussanne into the red wines of Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Saint-Joseph, although none seems to do so. (Cornas must be 100% Syrah.) In the wines of Côte-Rôtie up to 20% Viognier is allowed, but somewhere in the vicinity of 5% is much more common, and rather few have more than 10%. Blending Viognier into these red wines probably makes these wines softer, but it also gives these wines more flowery and perfumed aromas, which is probably the main reason why this practice still continues.
Viognier is the most known white wine grape of Rhône, and is encountered in its varietal form in Condrieu and the somewhat obscure neighbouring appellation of Château-Grillet. It is also allowed in e.g. white Côtes-du-Rhône, but not in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. (A couple of years ago, I tried to assemble a summary of which grape that is allowed where in the Wikipedia article on Rhône wines, it became rather messy for the southern Rhône appelations.) Viognier wines are usually aromatic and flowery with notes of peach, apricot and ripe pear.
Marsanne and Roussanne are both allowed in Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph, in any proportion, but most producers seem to either do a straight Marsanne (e.g. Chapoutier) or a Marsanne-dominated blend with a small proportion of Roussanne (e.g. Guigal). In difference from Marsanne and Viognier, Roussanne is allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and is something of a character grape in better whites from that appellation, with Château Beaucastel’s “Roussanne Vieilles Vignes” (100% Roussanne) as a well-known example. The reason why we don’t see more 100% Roussanne from the south is probably because the producers prefer to mix in some other grapes that contribute more acidity. In general, Marsanne produces very rich wines, while Roussanne produces wines that are more aromatic and elegant.
One thing that most of the white Rhône grapes have in common is a rather low acidity, and a tendency to produce wines of an oily texture. With respect to cellaring, the common view is that Viognier (with the exception of the slightly odd wines of Château-Grillet) produces wines that should be drunk young, while Marsanne and Roussanne produce wines that can either be drunk young or be cellared for a long time, but that tends to go trough a closed phase somewhere in-between.
And now over to the wines tasted!
Crozes-Hermitage Blanc 2010
Pale yellow colour. In the nose ripe yellow fruit, some elderflower, slightly flowery in general, some mineral. On the palate yellow fruit (pear, peach), good fruit concentration, medium acidity, fresh methol notes, slightly oily, a hint of bitterness. Minerally aftertaste with light bitterness and a hint of alcohol, but still a fresh impression. The nose and the attack are very nice, bitterness and alcohol lower the impression slightly, but still a marvelous wine in its class. Young, but doubtful if it needs any cellaring. 88 p
This wine has an uncommonly high percentage of Viognier for a southern Rhône wine, and two most flowery white Rhône grapes, Roussanne and Viognier, make up some 75% of the blend. It’s interesting to note that it doesn’t contain any Grenache Blanc at all, a variety that in some cases (probably when produced from old vines using low yields) can give interesting wines with for example mineral and herbal notes, but that very often just produces nondescript, oily low acid wines of little interest. That’s unfortunately the best way of describing quite a lot of white Côtes-du-Rhône wines, most of them dominated by Grenache Blanc, but this Guigal wine differs from that style in a very positive way.
Four vintages of Hermitage Blanc
All consist of approximately 95% Marsanne and 5% Roussanne and were vinified in used oak barrels.
Hermitage Blanc 1996
Golden yellow colour. In the nose yellow fruit, some damp straw, honey, some mineral, slight nuttiness. On the palate yellow fruit, some honey, minerality with menthol, rather low acidity, some spice, a hint of alcohol coming through. 91 p.
Classical notes of mature white Hermitage, the most elegant among the four vintages and unsurprisingly the most developed.
Hermitage Blanc 2001
Golden yellow colour with a hint of amber, darkest of the four. Nose of ripe yellow fruit, some oxidation notes with a hint of sherry, nutty. On the palate mineral, oily texture, a hint of bitterness, rather low acidity. Surprisingly developed/oxidised for its age (also reflected in the colour), almost defect. I don’t think it would be a good idea to cellar it further. 86 p?
What we had in the glass was a locally assembled “cuvée” of two bottles, where one was more oxidised than the other, but both rather similar. A bit strange when compared to the 1996. It can’t still be in the tunnel, because then it shouldn’t have been darker and shown sherry notes.
Hermitage Blanc 2003
Golden yellow colour, brightest yellow of the four. Ripe yellow fruit, some damp straw, some nuts, notably spicy, some mineral. Full-bodied on the palate, mineral with methol notes, spice, rather low acidity but actually more noticable than in the 2006. Rather closed wine but very powerful concentration on the palate, I’m sure it has potential for improvement when it emerges from the tunnel in a few years’ time. 90+ p?
I found it interesting to note that even in a hot year like 2003, this wine shows clear mineral character, something that to me usually goes together with a cool impression.
Hermitage Blanc 2006
Deep yellow colour. In the nose ripe yellow fruit, zest, mineral, spice. Full-bodied and oily on the palate, noticeably spicy, shows mineral and some menthol, low acidity, slight bitterness, a hint of nut. Rather elegant wine, surprisingly mineral, not quite closed but is probably headed that way for a couple of years. 91+ p
Apparently this wine was much more fruity and more expressive a couple of years ago, just after its release. (Unfortunately, we didn’t taste any of the most recent vintages of Hermitage Blanc.) I hadn’t been surprised if this wine had been “hiding in the tunnel”, i.e., been closed, now at 6 years of age. However, this had not quite happened yet.
A think that was striking with this flight was the mineral character of these wines, that all showed notes that reminded me of chalk dust and powdered stone, despite the fact that they are low in acidity and rather oily in texture. In many other white wines, high acidity and mineral character go together.
Four vintages of Ermitage Ex Voto Blanc
This prestige Hermitage consists of approximately 90% Marsanne and 10% Roussanne and see 30 months in new oak. Similar to many other producers, Guigal uses the alternative spelling “Ermitage” (sans h) for their prestige wine. It’s still the same appellation on the same hill, though. 2001 was the first vintage of this wine.
Ermitage Ex Voto Blanc 2001
Golden yellow colour, almost orange. Nose with ripe yellow fruit, orange peel, a hint of nut, some milk chocolate, damp straw, some mineral. Full bodied on the palate, oily, very spicy, oranges, a hint of bitterness, rather low acidity, slightly nutty, mineral and menthol. Comes across as fully developed. 93 p
There was actually a tiny bit of similarity to the regular 2001, since this wine also had come rather far in its development for its age, if you factor in that it is a prestige Hermitage with good concentration.
Ermitage Ex Voto Blanc 2006
Golden yellow colour. Nose with ripe yellow fruit, orange and orange peel, some damp straw, some mineral, and some oak. The palate is very full bodied, oily, noticeably spicy, medium acidity, baked apples, noticeable minerality with menthol. Young, but somewhat developed. 93(+) p
It is possible that this wine could enter “the tunnel”, i.e. become closed, in a couple of years. However, unlike the regular 2006, I’m less sure that this wine will go through such a phase. It could also be possible that it will simply develop without closing down for a while.
Ermitage Ex Voto Blanc 2007
Bright yellow colour. In the nose ripe yellow fruit, some honey, mineral, some oak, spicy, slightly flowery. Full bodied on the palate, oily, with mineral and noticeable mint notes, definitely concentrated, slightly closed, no developed notes yet. 93+ p
Compared to the 2009, this wine shows more mineral and less fruit. Compared to the 2006, I consider it more likely that the 2007 could be on its way into a closed phase, but I’m not really sure.
Hermitage Ex Voto Blanc 2009
Bright yellow colour. Nose with ripe yellow fruit, peach, some honey, some oak, mineral, some flowery notes. Very full bodied on the palate, oily, medium acidity, ripe yellow fruit, baked apples, spicy, enormous concentration. Very long aftertaste. Young, 94+ p
In summary, the Ex Voto wines differed from the regular white Hermitage by more flowery notes in the nose and more concentration on the palate, and had slightly higher acidity, contributing to their balance. The younger wines also show some oak notes, but in the oldest wine the oak was well integrated.
Three vintages of Condrieu
All Condrieu is 100% Viognier. The regular Guigal Condrieu is partially raised in oak (I think it is actually new oak?) and partially in steel tanks.
Golden yellow colour. Nose with some damp straw, some honey, spice, some yellow fruit, a hint of oxidation. Full bodied on the palate, spice, straw, a hint of honey, some mineral, rather low acidity, slightly nutty. 89 p?
This wine had been thrown in without knowing how it would show, just so we would have a chance to taste what an aged Condrieu is like, since these wines are not considered as suitable for cellaring. This example indicates that Condrieu’s reputation in that respect is much exaggerated, because it was quite good. That this wine showed better than a Hermitage Blanc 2001 was definitely surprising! This wine shows a lot of similarity to mature Marsanne wines, so I’d never have guessed Viognier or Condrieu in a blind tasting, but on the other hand I have never tried a Condrieu of this age before. Some pure speculation from my side: since these wines don’t primarily survive on their acidity, which is what keeps many classical cellar-worthy white wines going, it could actually be that the hot 2003 vintage paradoxically has produced a wine that is more age-worthy than usual. This by giving the wine more concentration and oiliness (phenolics) than in an average vintage.
Pale yellow colour, some green hints. Nose with pear, apricot, a hint of spice, some oak, a some mineral. Full bodied on the palate, good concentration, spicy, some alcoholic bite. 91 p
Slightly “deeper” aromas than the 2011, but rather similar. They are so close that I can’t really judge if the difference is due to vintage character or this wine being one year older.
Pale yellow colour, some green hints. Nose of pear, elderflower, a hint of oak, fruity, some mineral. Full bodied on the palate, good concentration, slightly oily, some citrus and apple, just below medium acidity, mineral and menthol. 90 p
Three vintages of Condrieu La Doriane
Guigal’s prestige Condrieu, 100% Viognier, 9 months in new oak.
Condrieu La Doriane 2008
Nose of pear, peach, a hint of oak, discrete flowery notes. Good concentration on the palate, rather full bodied, spicy, medium acidity, some menthol notes. 91 p
2008 is a weak vintage in northern Rhône, and also at this level the vintage character shows through as a lighter-bodied wine than in 2009 and 2010.
Condrieu La Doriane 2009
Nose of peach, orange, a hint of spice, some flowery aromas, a hint of oak, some mineral, very elegant. Full bodied on the palate, slightly oily, powerful concentration, spice, mineral, medium acidity, rather long aftertaste. 93 p
Condrieu La Doriane 2010
Nose of pear, peach, flowery notes, a hint of oak. Full bodied on the palate, spicy, mineral, medium acidity, menthol. Long aftertaste. Fruitier than the 2009, rather young. 92+ p
In generall, all vintages of La Doriane showed slightly more obvious oak notes than the regular Condrieu, definitely showed more spice on the palate, but were probably not more oily. I would say that the difference in style between the regular Condrieu and La Doriane was larger than between regular white Hermitage and Ex Voto, but the quality difference was about the same. Given their somewhat spicier style, I can imagine that they would be able to take a few years of cellaring, because they are less built around “youthful freshness” than most Condrieu wines. I would imagining matching La Doriane with patés, various hard cheeses and white meat, in additional to the typical combinations with fish and seafood, in particular those in creamy sauces.
Finally something rather unusual, a semi-sweet Condrieu:
100% Viognier, 35 g/l residual sugar and 15% alcohol.
Orange colour. Nose with concentrated aromas, oranges, spice, dried fruit. Off-dry/semi-sweet on the palate, very spicy, slight alcoholic bite, dried fruit, some orange, balancing acidity. 92 p
In my opinion a type of wine that should work well with foie gras, or possibly blue cheese. (Guigal strangely enough recommends it as aperitif or with fruit desserts. Choose a dry Condrieu for the former purpose and Muscat de Beaumes de Venise for the latter, if you want to stay with white Rhône wines.) Only produced in two vintages, and so far never after 2003. Apparently only in those vintages when they end up having sun-dried grapes in the vintages without really trying to produce them?
If I should try to sum up my impressions and highlight a few things that are perhaps not obvious from the individual tasting notes, I’d say that all these wines are rather “foody” and situated towards the powerful end of the white wine spectrum. In many cases they show fascinating aromas and have elegance, but they are wines which I prefer to drink with food rather than on their own. Fish, seafood or white meat, in combination med creamy sauces, are probably good combinations with all of them, and perhaps hard cheeses for the more mature Hermitage wines and the prestige Condrieu. I would probably avoid more “plain” seafood, served without sauce, because there I think that a leaner and more acid driven wine (Champagne, Chablis, torr Riesling, Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc…) would be a better match. I’m personally slightly more fond of white Hermitage than Condrieu, despite the fact that Viognier seems to be more popular than Marsanne on the wine market in general.
The Swedish version of this post can be found here.