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.