The Rare Roussanne

France’s Rhône Valley is best known for its red wines – think Châteauneuf du Pape, Hermitage and Côtes du Rhône.  But about 1 bottle in 5 produced there is white wine made from grape varieties such as Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Clairette, although you could be forgiven for not recognising any of these names; in common with much of France, the wines of the Rhône are labelled by region or village, rather than by grape variety.

This lack of familiarity has meant that, away from the immediate area and the Languedoc to the south-west, few producers have planted these varieties, preferring instead something that customers can identify with more easily: Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, for example.

There are, happily, a few exceptions to this: Tahbilk, based in Victoria, Australia, have been growing Marsanne since the 1860s and are still using vines planted in 1927 in their wines today – believed to be the oldest surviving Marsanne vines in the world.  I used to be a big fan of this wine but haven’t seen it on the shelves here for quite a while.

Perhaps the highest quality Rhône white variety, Roussanne, has found its way to California (although examples of the grape from there are rare in the UK).  But, on a more positive note, South Africa’s Franschhoek-based producer Bellingham’s Roussanne is available in Sainsbury’s supermarket (on offer at £9 just before Christmas, usually £11.99).  This is a delicious, full-bodied, unoaked mouthful with attractive floral aromas followed by complex flavours of ripe pear and pineapple leading to a long, rich, savoury finish.  Principally a food wine – something in a creamy sauce would match perfectly – although I’d also be happy drinking it as a tangy aperitif.  Even at full price, this is good value and highlights how much we are missing that this lovely, distinctive variety is not more widely planted.

Just one complaint (and a familiar one): why the ridiculously heavy bottle (840 grams empty)?  It’s not necessary to safely transport the wine to the UK so, please, Bellingham, consider the environment and lighten the load a little.

Room Temperature?

We’re all familiar with the advice ‘drink white wine chilled, red wine at room temperature’, but what do we mean by ‘room temperature’?  I’ve noted before in this Blog that normal room temperature today (especially in winter) is likely to be rather higher than our pre-central heating ancestors would have been used to.  As a result, we’re probably serving our red wines quite a bit warmer than was intended when the advice first emerged.

But a brief heatwave in Bristol recently put an entirely new slant on the term; our living room reached close to 30°C (86°F) mid-afternoon and our outside terrace remained well into the 20s for much of the evening.  Not the ideal temperature for a red wine.

Ever since a trip to France’s Beaujolais region in the early 1990s, where we found restaurants always served the local wines chilled, we’ve given light-bodied reds, like Beaujolais, a half an hour in the fridge before drinking and find them more refreshing that way.  But, where we store our wines is quite cool and we usually serve anything heavier than a Beaujolais straight from the wine rack. But, during our heatwave, it was time for a re-think.  What else might benefit from chilling?

SyrahI picked Yves Cuilleron’s Syrah from France’s northern Rhône region (Grape and Grind, Bristol,  £13.25) – not as big and chunky as many Australian Shirazes, but by no means a light-bodied red.  A half an hour in an ice bucket worked beautifully, bringing out all the wine’s deep blackberry fruit and subtle spiciness without making the tannins harsh or too intrusive.  A real treat sitting out on our terrace and accompanying some delicious goat chops cooked in a tomatoey sauce (the tomatoes also grown on our terrace!) with fennel.

I’m not suggesting you chill a young claret or a robust Zinfandel – leave those for cooler weather – but for a nice medium-bodied red on a hot evening, room temperature is definitely not the way to go.

Wine with Veggie Food

Regular readers will know I’m no vegetarian but I’m happy to have meatless and fishless dishes, provided they are tasty and, even better, if they’re wine-friendly.  There are no special guidelines for pairing wine with veggie dishes – just think the same way as you would with any meal: how robust or delicate is the food (the chunkier the food flavours, the more powerful the wine can be) and what is the strongest flavour on the plate (this may not be the main ingredient).

We cooked a dish from an Antony Worrall Thompson cookbook that was a kind of spicy cauliflower cheese although it also contained spinach – a tricky ingredient that can give some red wines an unpleasant metallic taste.  But that wasn’t a problem here as the cauliflower was coated in a lovely creamy cheesy sauce that provided the dominant flavour and that just cried out for a white wine; quite a full, rich white, though, as with the cauliflower and some borlotti beans in the dish, too, this was definitely not on the delicate side.

MarsanneYves Cuilleron’s Marsanne is from the northern part of France’s Rhone Valley and is made from one of the local grape varieties.  It fitted the bill perfectly.  The label suggests some barrel ageing, but there was no overt oak flavouring, just a satisfying, mouth-filling, buttery richness to complement the lovely peach and pear aromas and flavours.  Our bottle was from the 2016 vintage which seems to be sold out now but Bristol independent wine merchant Davis, Bell, McCraith have the 2019 at £14.99.  Based on our experience, I’d recommend keeping the younger wine a couple of years or so – this is a bottle that will definitely improve a little with age.

Finally, as this is a piece talking about vegetarian food, I should remind readers that some producers use egg whites and other animal-based substances to fine (clarify) their wines and, although there is no residue left in the bottle, strict vegetarians may object and, if so, they should check either the label or the website to see if any particular wine is suitable for them.

Sotanum – a Roman wine reborn

Look at most maps of France’s vineyards and they will show a vine-free area between the southernmost tip of Beaujolais and the first of the Northern Rhône Appellations, the Côte Rôtie. Part of that gap is taken up by the town (and gastronomic paradise) of Lyon, but, still, the complete absence of vines is difficult to explain.

It wasn’t always like that. Indeed, in Roman times, contemporary writings note that the vineyards of this area, on the hills overlooking the small town of Vienne, were highly regarded. Black grapes, known as Vitis allobrogica (the ancestor of Syrah, or Pinot Noir, perhaps?) were grown here and 3 wines, Sotanum, Taburnum and Heluicum were made, each from particular vineyards.

And, although these names died out, vines continued to grow here and wine was made from them until the middle of the 19th century when disaster, in the form of a tiny vine-root eating aphid, phylloxera, wiped out these and many other vineyards across Europe and beyond.

Many vineyards were replanted in the early part of the 20th century, but these weren’t and remained abandoned and ignored – until 1996, when a group of 3 growers from a few miles further south, got together to revive winemaking in this area. About 25 acres of Syrah vines were planted. Les Vins de Vienne were born. And, to celebrate the revival, one of the ancient names, Sotanum, was used for the modern wine.

I recently had the opportunity to taste a bottle from the year 2000. This was only the second vintage made after the replanting and the vines were still very young – only 4 years old. Often vines won’t produce their best fruit until they’ve been established for 10 – 15 years, at least. But, in this case, the vines had produced a wine that was delicious and full of flavour. It had matured magnificently in the 11 years since harvest – smooth and rich, but not heavy and a perfect accompaniment to some pan-fried venison steaks.

A lovely wine and a piece of history. I look forward to tasting a more recent vintage which should show even more complexity as the vines establish themselves. Now, all we need is for the wine maps to be corrected.