Fresh and svelte Rich, fat and floral when the Zeitgeist is for svelte and fresh wines, Northern Rhone whites are suffering an image problem. Grown in the shadow of the world’s finest Syrah, and accounting for 3% of the Rhone Valley’s annual production, even the regional growers’ association’s marketing slogan - ‘Think Red, Think Cotes du Rhone’ - suggests a huge disconnect with these styles. Historically the match for cuisine bourgeois, the Viognier of Chåteau-Grillet and surrounding appellation of Condrieu, and the Marsanne-Roussanne blends of StJoseph, St Péray and Hermitage are as out of step with modern drinkers’ tastes as the dairy-rich dishes they so perfectly compliment. Yet anyone who’s eaten quenelles Lyonnais (pike quenelles) with a glass of Georges Vernay Condrieu ‘Coteau du Vernon’, probably can’t help getting a little dewy eyed at the thought of such old-school indulgence.
Today, texture has become a dirty word, eschewed in favour of ‘precision’ and ‘minerality’ - worthy qualities in themselves, but terms increasingly in jeopardy of becoming synonyms for elevated levels of acidity. Northern Rhone whites aren’t the only victims. Burgundy vineyards such as Meursault-Charmes and Båtard- Montrachet now regularly receive sneers for their richness, and it even seems to have become fashionable with some to claim to dislike the Domaine de la Romanée-Contfs historically late-harvested Montrachet.
The war on fatLifestyles and cuisines have changed, of course. The war on fat has vanquished dishes laden with butter and cream as unhealthy choices, and the wines which married so well with them have become collateral casualties. Food and wine pairing today is often more about cancellation - neutralizing the heat of a Thai curry with a sweet Riesling, for instance - than it is about synergy. The profound things that happen in the mouth when those creamy quenelles Lyonnais meet a great white Rhone are harder to explain and predict. It’s natural, too, for individual palates to vary: the glossy, glycerine-laden attack of a great Chave Hermitage Blanc simply isn’t for everyone. But whatever happened to a diversity of tastes?
Can’t we appreciate the raciness of Saar Kabinett and the buxom exuberance of great Condrieu?
Part of the problem is that texture has been debased. The confectionary sweetness and alcoholic warmth of much New World Chardonnay, ample but devoid of dimension or complexity, cloying rather than glossy, has tainted the world’s great gourmand whites by association. Not all imitation, after all, is flattery, and modern wine making and warmer climates make texture easier than ever to attain. If we’re to defend textural whites from obsolescence, we need to be able to explain what differentiates Rombauer Chardonnay from Ramonet Båtard-Montrachet, but vinous discourse simply hasn’t kept pace.
Today’s wine tasting notes attempt to analyse a bouquet’s kaleidoscopic complexity, invoking a litany of fruits and flowers, herbs and spices. But once the wine hits the palate, critics’ enthusiasm seems to ebb, their lip-service to balance, structure and persistence communicating enthusiasm or disapproval, but all too often failing to differentiate one bottle from another. After all, a Blanc de Blancs Champagne and a Chambertin may both be focused and precise - but they could hardly be more different. In fact, when it comes to texture English vocabulary is remarkably limited.
French is more succinct: wines can have muscles (muscles), gras (fat), charpente (a frame); they can be came (blocky), droit (direct), or velouté (velvety); and in reds tannins can be vert (green), sec (dry), dur (hard), or fondu (melted). Such terms can be translated, but many are inherently ambiguous and jar with the Anglophone critic’s pretensions to scientific precision. (Is that velvet medium-plus or medium-minus?)
Even across the Channel there are murmurings that texture is now neglected. “Until the 1970s, we would taste with the tastevin”, says the godfather of grower Champagne Anselme Selosse, remembering the shallow silver saucers once used for sampling in the cellar. “But then they developed the INAO glass and everything changed. In modern oenology aroma and colour take precedence over taste and texture.
T0P 10 GOURMAND WHITES● 1 1990 Chave Hermitage Blanc
● 2 2006 Chateau Rayas Blanc
● 3 2014 Georges Vernay Condrieu “Coteau de Vernon”
● 4 1999 Leflaive Bienvenues-Båtard-Montrachet
● 5 2007 André Perret Condrieu “Coteau du Chéry”
● 6 1995 Kalin Cellars Chardonnay Cuvée CH
● 7 2014 Domaine des Comtes Lafon Meursault-Charmes
● 8 2014 Domaine de la Bongran Viré-Clessé
● 9 2014 Chåteau-Grillet
● 10 2010 Chateau des Tours Cotes-du- Rhone Blanc
And of course, that’s what glasses emphasize. For me, however, terroir is in the taste, not the aromas.” This is a philosophy that Selosse shares with his friend, Jacky Rigaux, a Burgundian writer best known for his work about the late Henri Jayer. “In the era of the tastevin, direct olfaction was accorded little importance; wines were assessed in the mouth,” Rigaux says. “But that changed with the advent of ‘sensory analysis’. It was Jules Chauvet who said that olfaction is ‘20,000 times more important than taste.’” Have enologists’ priorities changed what we prioritize in the glass? Selosse and Rigaux both say they have.
Back in the Northern Rhone some 40 miles south of Chåteau- Grillet, Jean-Louis Chave contemplates the future of gourmand whites from his winery in the backstreets of Mauves.
“To like white Hermitage you need to be a gastronome because the only way to think about it is with a dish,” he says between sips of 1998 Chave Hermitage Blanc, a luxuriously textured wine if ever there was one. “But also how people talk about white wine has dramatically changed. Take the language people used to use about Burgundy. When I started making wine it was about being ‘buttery’, ‘soft’ and ‘rich’ - today it’s all about being ‘mineral’ and ‘tight’; the complete opposite. In the past the Grand Vins were rich, so why would you want to drink a skinny Grand Vin today?” Like so much about fashion it doesn’t seem to make much sense, but here in Mauves, at least, these sumptuous whites are alive and well. As tastes inevitably come full-circle and the uncool becomes cool, maybe one day the world will fall back in love with their charms.