The Côtes du Rhône’s delicious white lie

When we say Côtes du Rhône you’re probably already thinking of rich, plummy red wines. And you can certainly be forgiven for making that assumption, (reds make up 89% of the region’s wine production after all). But that doesn’t mean you should be discounting white wine made there.

Despite only accounting for 4% of the wine produced, what Côtes du Rhône whites lack in quantity, they make up for in character, charm and variety.

So, white wine lovers, forget Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, even Chardonnay … and embrace the unique delights of the Côtes du Rhône.

So what’s so appealing about the Rhône’s whites?

As is the case with the region’s reds, the whites here offer a delicious and appealing range of styles. No surprise perhaps, when you consider the length of the whole valley (over 200km), the change of topography, soil and also the climate.

From the rounded peachy and apricot fruited, sometimes floral character of southern wines which gain their juicy ripeness from the area’s Mediterranean climate, to the more refined creamy, nutty and honeysuckle-scented wines of the north; the variety of the landscape and climate means there’s plenty to discover.

There is lots of encouragement from the press too: Decanter described white Rhônes as “weighty, food-friendly whites [that] are inexpensive”, while the Guardian’s Fiona Beckett praised them for offering “a broad range of full-bodied, complex whites that won’t burn a hole in your wallet.” Journalist Rose Murray-Brown MW in the Scotsman urges us,grab what you can before Rhône whites become even more fashionable and prices start to rise.”

How does the region differ?

Grenache Blanc is one of the native grapes used in top Rhône whites

In Southeastern France, the valley starts between the granite-blessed Massif Central and the Alps in the north. Steep and narrow, as it heads towards Montélimar, Orange and the Mediterranean it gradually opens out to offer hills, then gentle undulations and plains. Soils change as well – from the granite and schist of the north to the clay-lime-marl of the south’s gentle slopes.

On this path south, the climate also changes. You start with typical inland continental – hot summers and cold winters, then gradually move into the appealing, temperate warmth of the Mediterranean – warm summers and moderate winters, accompanied by the strong Mistral wind.

Three Côte du Rhône whites to try:

Taking all that into account, it’s no surprise that the grape varieties change through the landscape as well, just like they do for its red wines. Northern vineyards champion floral and exotically flavoured Viognier, often a varietal wine (ie pure Viognier) or a blend of Roussanne and Marsanne, the two found in prized white Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Château-Grillet.

Due to the labour intensity and expense of working these steep northern vineyards, most of the white wine output is cru or more expensive appellation wines. The most accessible Côtes du Rhône whites largely come from the south. There, winemakers promote white wines made from a delicious array of native varieties – Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Clairette and Bourboulenc, with small quantities of Terret Blanc and Picardin.

And what can you expect from these more southerly whites?

Broadly speaking, Côtes du Rhône Blancs are a gorgeous blend of the white grapes listed above. They have a satisfying weight and aromatic character (particularly if they include generous portions of Viognier or Clairette), with incisive, citrus-fresh minerality. These are perfect food wines, as well as being, for the most part, very appealing on their own. Largely they’ll remain fresh and unoaked, with only lees-ageing (lees are the sediment particles left after fermentation) bringing out the creamy roundness. Some will show a little oak, to lend extra toasty weight and complexity.

Côtes du Rhône whites – explore them now!

Now, more than ever, it’s a great time to discover the white wines of the Rhône – more advanced techniques have helped to produce brighter, more minerally and aromatic whites. Plus, of course, there’s an enthusiastic, new generation of winemakers taking charge, with greater knowledge and experience from all over the world. Armed with this, they bring with them new ideas and an energy to try new things.

So next time you want a wine to go with a chicken dish – chicken pie, spicy marinaded chicken with pecan rice, a creamy noodle dish or seafood, delve into the white wines of the Côtes du Rhône. You’ll find they make a perfect partner and are also appetisingly vibrant and fresh to enjoy all on their own. Cheers!

Dreaming of Bordeaux

There is so much to love about Bordeaux it’s almost impossible to know where to begin. An early evening stroll along the Quai des Chartrons in the City perhaps, before finding an outside table at somewhere like Café Gourmand and watching the world go by. A visit to one of the many wine producing villages along the Médoc, that magical, vine covered peninsula which begins on the outskirts of Bordeaux and finishes where the Gironde estuary tips into the Atlantic ocean. Or a quick stop at Saint Emilion’s cosy L’Envers du Décor wine bar for a midday glass of chilled, tangy, leafy white wine, grown on the gravel soils of the nearby Graves.

The wine route is full of many glorious destinations but my first love has always been Bordeaux. In another world, many of us involved professionally with wine would be there now, scurrying around its cellars tasting barrel samples of the new vintage during the hectic en primeur week. The 2019s can wait. As the world stops for this extremely difficult time, and we look out for friends, family and neighbours, many of whom are now isolated, we can take solace in a few moments of reflection on the beauty of this most glorious stop along the wine route.

The scenic route

The heartland of Bordeaux is the Médoc. The Left Bank of the Gironde were the deepest gravel banks are found and communes such as Margaux, St-Julien, Pauillac and St-Estèphe established themselves some two hundred years ago as some of the greatest places in the world to grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Blended together these produce age worthy red wines that have been sought after by collectors for many decades.

If you are driving from the City, there are two ways to reach the vineyards of the Médoc. One involves navigating through the rather uninspiring suburbs of Bordeaux before hitting the auto-route and driving at speed up to your first tasting in the cellars of St Julien or wherever it maybe. This is obviously the quickest route and recommended if time is short. But I like to get up an hour early, turn off the sat nav in my hire car and take the ‘scenic’ route along the more sedate D2 road. Rather like driving out of Melbourne, past the MCG cricket ground, down towards the Mornington Peninsula or leaving San Francisco and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge heading to the Silverado trail in Napa, one cannot fail to feel a pang of excitement as to what lays ahead. The pulse is quickened.

The first wine producing village of note is the commune of Margaux, where the road curves and passes straight in front of Château Palmer. Look right and fluttering above its turrets you’ll notice a Union Jack, a nod to its former proprietor – the Englishman – Colonel Charles Palmer. You are now within yards of perhaps the most famous Château in the world, the grand neo-classical Margaux, its columns standing proud at the end of a plane-tree-lined drive, surrounded by its vineyards which sit on a bed of sandy, limestone gravel. Here the wines are marked by their medium bodied texture and seductive aromatics. There is something unmistakable about the perfume of wines from the commune of Margaux, which at their best can take on notes of violets and rose petals. 

My favourite way to end the day

Will Lyons awaits a plate of oysters and a carafe of chilled white at La Cabane De L'Aiguillon
Will Lyons awaits a plate of oysters and a carafe of chilled white at La Cabane De L’Aiguillon

Time is running away with us. Soon the road will snake out of Margaux and after a straight drive through some agricultural land Saint Julien will be upon us. This is what the old British wine trade referred to as the ‘thirsty corner’ as the road takes a sharp turn past Château Beychevelle and Château Ducru Beaucaillou. Beyond lays Château Leoville Barton, flanking either side of the road. From here on in the Château come thick and fast – a roll call of some of the most magical and romantic names in wine. In Pauillac you pass Latour and Lafite before finishing high up in Saint Estephe where the vineyards stretch northwards towards the unsettled Bay of Biscay.

After a busy day of tasting, one of my favourite things to do is to continue towards the ocean to the bay of d’Arcachon where on the sea front you’ll find simple cabins serving oysters with nothing more than buttered bread and a slice of lemon. La Cabane De L’Aiguillon is my choice. Half a dozen oysters with a carafe of chilled, tangy white wine. Heavenly.

Will Lyons

Club Vice President

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