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California's Exotic Rhone Wines: Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne

by Steve Pitcher

Unlike any other beverage, wine offers a constantly evolving spectrum of aromas, flavors and textures that make wine appreciation such a pleasurable and rewarding activity. People who like to cook -- or who simply enjoy someone else's cooking -- and bring wine to the table to complete the picture, have in their local wine shops and markets a valuable resource for discovering new or different varietals or blends, new approaches to winemaking and new or unfamiliar producers.

Which brings us to the white wine varietals associated with the Rhone Valley in France, mainly viognier, roussanne and marsanne. Many of the same California winemakers who became intrigued with the possibilities of syrah a few years ago are equally intrigued now by these Rhone whites. Viognier was first on the scene with its heady, exotic perfume, silky texture and delicious, dry tropical fruit and citrus flavors that proved a perfect match for a wide variety of California shellfish, particularly crab. The wineries most successful with viognier were those who learned early on that the grape doesn't respond well to the techniques used to produce blockbuster chardonnay, and thus avoided smothering it in brand new oak.

Roussanne and marsanne next arrived pretty much as a pair. California winemakers are still learning about these varietals and how they respond to the state's microclimates, and their acreage is still tiny -- certainly less than that of viognier, which stood at about 645 acres in 1996. Yet, the fact that they are the principal grape varieties used to produce white Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage in the northern Rhone Valley is reason enough to pay attention to them in California.

The duo is sort of the "Laurel and Hardy" team of the wine world -- Roussanne the lean, elegant, delicate one against big, fat Marsanne. So far in California, they have been bottled as separate varietals and blended together and with other varietals to create a wine greater than the sum of its parts. For example, Roussanne has been added to wine labeled Chardonnay by at least one winery, Zaca Mesa in Santa Barbara County, giving the resulting Chardonnay bottling a vibrant lift in acidity and brightness. Rhone specialist Bob Lindquist at Qup» Winery has produced at least a couple of vintages of a 50-50 Chardonnay-Marsanne blend called Bien Nacido cuv»e. It should also be noted that viognier has been used as a blending grape -- with sauvignon blanc by Iron Horse Vineyards and Kunde Estate Winery, and Zaca Mesa Winery blended a tiny amount of Viognier with its Syrah, a practice common in the Rhone Valley. Roussanne and Viognier were blending partners in the Sobon Estate Roussanne, one of the wines reviewed for this column, while Jade Mountain Winery produces a Marsanne (70%)-Viognier (30%) blend simply called Marsanne et Viognier, also reviewed here. The possibilities are endless.

Marsanne tends to be best when consumed young, offering pleasant, though unusual aromas some commentators characterize as reminiscent of glue or almond paste, a full body and usually generously fruity flavors with overtones of pear, peach, apricot and melon. Its lower acidity tends to adversely affect its ability to age well. Roussanne, on the other hand, can age well, and its herb-tinged, sometimes tea-like, flinty aromas and honied, mineral-tinged flavors are complex and interesting.

Recently, the Vintners Club panel evaluated 12 Viogniers and white Rhone varietals. Some were varietal bottlings, some were blends, all were interesting and different. Prices were all over the place -- from $15 for the less well known Roussannes and Marsannes to $30 for some of the trendy, flashy Viogniers. Appellations ranged from Mendocino County in the north to Temecula, an inland growing area midway between San Bernardino and San Diego, in the south.

Tasting Notes

FIRST PLACE

1996 Callaway Viognier, Temecula ($15)
A pretty salmon hue set this wine apart from most of the others in appearance. Forward, fragrant, appealing, complex scents of quince, tangerine, honeysuckle, fig and sweet watermelon become moderately grassy with airing. Viscous and smooth in the mouth with adequate acidity, the wine offers stylish, creamy flavors reminiscent of peaches and apricots accented by a noticeable grassy quality. A different and delicious wine that would pair nicely with a lemon and herb-infused scallop recipe. Great value.

SECOND PLACE

1996 Dover Canyon Marrouse, Central Coast ($18)
"Marrouse" is a contraction of marsanne and roussanne, which make up equal parts of this generously delicious blend. One of the darkest wines in color (probably due to the influence of the marsanne, which produces a deep colored wine), with a salmon hue, Marrouse offers wonderfully fragrant scents of ripe honeydew melon, grapefruit citrus, peaches and apples, which are replicated on the palate. A flavorful, complex wine with good acidity, moderate richness and viscosity and fine structure. Only about 200 cases were made, so it may be hard to find. Dover Canyon Winery in Templeton is owned and operated by Dan Panico, formerly the winemaker at Eberle Winery in Paso Robles. The telephone is (805) 434-0319.

THIRD PLACE

1996 Signorello Viognier, Napa Valley ($30)
Subdued aromas of citrus and apple fruit, honeysuckle, freshly cut hay, oak char and vanilla. On the palate, the wine is rich and round with adequate acidity, offering flavors reminiscent of ripe peaches, pears and citrus.

FOURTH PLACE

1996 Sobon Estate Roussanne, California Shenandoah Valley ($15)
Blended with 24% Viognier, this Sierra Foothills effort exhibits pleasant floral scents of honeysuckle, tropical fruit and apricots with just a hint of ripe pear and butterscotch. Moderately viscous in the mouth with good acidity, the flavors are somewhat sharp and slightly candied, with a banana-like ripeness.

FIFTH PLACE

1995 Joseph Phelps Viognier, "Vin du Mistral," Napa Valley ($27)
Very distinctly recognizable as Viognier in this blind tasting, the Phelps wine tantalizes with its scents of spicy peaches, grapefruit citrus, wildflowers and a hint of grassiness. Nicely viscous as Viognier ought to be, the flavors replicate the nose and are moderately deep and concentrated. A delicious Viognier from one the pioneers of Rhone varietals in California.

SIXTH PLACE

1996 Calera Viognier, Mount Harlan (San Benito County) ($30)
Forward, very fragrant aromas of honeysuckle, apricots, minerals and a hint of sweet oak, lead to similar flavors, which are comparatively on the lean side. This moderately complex Viognier really needs food to show its stuff, say lobster medallions in a rich sauce or crabcakes.

SEVENTH PLACE

1995 Beringer Viognier, Hudson Ranch, Napa Valley ($30)
Deeply perfumed scents of cling peaches, honeysuckle, citrus and lots a butterscotch and caramel. Plenty of oak on the palate, along with butteriness from malolactic fermentation, with flavors that replicate the nose, this Viognier will appeal to those who like oaky Chardonnays.

EIGHTH PLACE

1996 Preston Viognier, Dry Creek Valley ($20)
Orange peel, shy peaches and spicy coconut scents are offset by a touch of volatile acidity. Generous, ripe, peachy fruit on the palate is buoyed by adequate acidity, but the volatile acidity is quite evident in the flavors, which are affected by a vinegar-like sourness.

NINTH PLACE

1995 McDowell Valley Vineyards Marsanne, Mendocino County ($15)
This is the winery's premier release of Marsanne, which now joins Viognier and Syrah in its Rhone varietal program. The nose is characterized by mineral, wet pebble scents that have an element of chalkiness. Fairly austere in the mouth with crisp acidity, this Marsanne departs from the fleshy, fruity model of the varietal, and is probably best suited to pair with a vegetable ragout of tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, herbs, lemon zest and capers.

TENTH PLACE

1996 Buttonwood Farm Marsanne, Santa Ynez Valley ($15)
A much better wine than its ranking would suggest, this is a fleshy mouthful of a wine, offering fresh, fragrant scents of apricots and honey, and peach, apricot, pear, melon fruit on the palate. A dry, tasty wine with good acidity.

ELEVENTH PLACE

1995 Jade Mountain Marsanne et Viognier, Napa Valley ($16)
Some tasters detected a bit of mustiness in the nose, which accounts for its ranking. Otherwise, the aromas focus on peach fruit and slate, reminiscent of a dry Riesling. While neither deep nor particularly generous, there is moderate viscosity from the Viognier and peachy, citrus-like fruit from the Marsanne The finish is tart and dry.

TWELFTH PLACE

This last place Roussanne was obviously tainted by a bad cork and not at all representative of the winery's ability to produce excellent Rhone varietals and blends. Consequently, it would serve no purpose to identify the wine.

Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.



Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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