The Grape Glossary: A guide to hip varietals
For a grape variety that easily ranks among France's great whites, roussanne has kept a remarkably modest profile for most of its existence. Partly, geography is to blame. Roussanne comes from the Rhône Valley, a red sea where dark-skinned grapes dominate to such a degree that even a sommelier could almost be forgiven for drawing a blank where blancs are concerned. Partly, though, it's roussanne's fault. The vine is tough to grow, not least in the Rhône, where strong winds can snap its soft branches and where, when the otherwise helpful winds cease to blow, it is particularly vulnerable to fungal diseases. Not that it likes super-dry conditions, either. "Finicky" would be a good word.
The more I think about "roussanne," the more it seems like a good name for my cat.
Like viognier, its frequent Rhône blending partner, roussanne was as scarce 50 years ago as palatable wine in a family restaurant. According to Wine Grapes, the recent Jancis Robinson book, it accounted for just 71 hectares in the 1960s. That's roughly 150 football fields, not including the end zones. And we're talking the small fields of helmet-and-Hail-Mary-pass North American ball, not soccer. But it's been booming from that small base, if not quite as quickly as chic viognier. Today the planted area in France is closer to 1,400 hectares, double what it was just more than a decade ago.
Roussanne suddenly seems like a player, if a small one in the global scheme. Technology that's been spreading since the 1960s, such as refrigerated fermenting tanks, has helped elevate it and other noble white varieties that are native to warm, and in some cases downright hot, environments like the Rhône. That's been the case with viognier, too, and another roussanne blending buddy, marsanne.
Yet roussanne tends to come across as fresher thanks to innately high acidity, with a more lifted perfume than marsanne, classically suggesting spring blossoms and green tea, as well as a more complex profile that spans the gamut from citrus, apple and pear to succulent tropical fruit. The name likely derives from the French for russet, a reference to the skin colour often found in berries exposed to direct sunlight.
In the Rhône, roussanne is virtually always confined to blends designated by their geographical place rather than explicitly by grape mix, though occasionally a helpful back label on, say, a $13 to $25 Côtes du Rhône or, more grandly, a $40 to $80 white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, will specify the contents. If you've got the means and inclination to spend more, white Hermitage is your best example of a roussanne-marsanne mix, as in Chapoutier's Le Méal Ermitage Blanc, at $350-plus a bottle. These are white wines capable of improving with up to a decade in the cellar (some would say much longer, but I'd be cautious unless you've got a perfect cellar environment and appreciate the nutty tang of sherry).
Beyond France, roussanne's loudest cheerleaders seem to reside in California, where the variety has become a signature on the Central Coast well south of chardonnay-besotted Napa and Sonoma. Qupé is a noteworthy flagbearer, and Bonny Doon, the loud-and-proud "Rhône Ranger," makes a well-received roussanne-dominated blend called Le Cigare Blanc (roughly $35 to $40). Should you plan a trip to the region, put these other, limited-distribution central-California wineries on your list: Holus Bolus, Stolpman and Jaffurs. From Australia, there's Tahbilk, Torbreck and d'Arenberg, among others. And from British Columbia, check out the roussannes from such brave new estates as Cassini Cellars, Le Vieux Pin, Pentage, Road 13 and Terravista.