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Give us Roussanne or Give Us . . . Chardonnay

Wine: California's white Rhones are rare and expensive. They aren't all great yet, but growers in the state are inspired by the exotic flavors of the fickle grapes.

February 22, 1996|MICHAEL DRESSER | Dresser is wine columnist for the Baltimore Sun

Don't worry. You are not an ignoramus if you have never heard of Marsanne Roussanne and Viognier

There are even some winemakers who have never heard of these white-grape varieties from France's Rhone Valley. It would be a surprise if even 1% of American wine drinkers had ever tasted the wines made from these grapes.

Nevertheless, if you visit any serious wine shop these days, you are likely to find one, two or even half a dozen California wines made from these grape varieties. And if you look at the price tags, you'll see that nobody's giving 'em away.

So what's happening here? The public wasn't exactly pounding on the winery gates, shouting, "Give us Marsanne! Give us Viognier!"

In fact, the entire phenomenon of white Cali-Rhone wines is driven by the fact that a few winemakers and winery owners tasted a few of the very best white Rhones and fell in love.

It is not hard to narrow down the list of possible wines. There are, in fact, fewer than a dozen truly great white Rhone wines made in the world, and those are made in tiny quantities.

There are the white Chateauneuf-du-Papes of Chateau Beaucastel and the white Hermitages of Chave and Chapoutier. There are perhaps half a dozen producers of Condrieu. And that's about it. A lot of what passes for white Rhone wine wouldn't inspire anyone to plant a geranium, much less a vineyard.

But, oh those treasured few. They are magical wines that capture exotic flavors you'll never find in Chardonnay or Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc. Taste them at your own risk. You too might feel the urge to plow up the backyard and plant white Rhone varietals.

Viognier (vee-oh-NYAY), the best-known of the three, is the grape used to produce Condrieu, one of the rarest and most compelling white wines in the world.

Condrieu itself is a rather nondescript riverside town of the northern Rhone, but the slopes above the village produce wines whose fresh, vibrant flavors of apricot, litchi, honey, spices and tropical fruits are positively dazzling. They do not age well, but while they live, Condrieus are among the most complex dry white wines produced anywhere.

But with its tiny yields and vulnerability to disease, Viognier is a massive headache for growers. If it were not for the cult following for the wines of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet, the varietal might well be extinct.

A decade ago, when Jancis Robinson wrote her classic book, "Vines, Grapes and Wines" (Knopf, 1986), she reported that the world's plantings of Viognier amounted to little more than 80 acres in the northern Rhone.

But that was beginning to change, even then. Such pioneers as Joseph Phelps and Calera's Josh Jensen had finally gotten their hands on long-sought cuttings and were planting experimental vineyards. Viognier was on the comeback trail.

A decade later, Viognier is the hot new "cult" grape of California. Dozens of producers have Viogniers on the market, and not a vintage passes without several more coming on the market.

Marsanne (MAR-sahn) and Roussanne (ROO-sahn) are even more obscure, perhaps because they are so often blended together. They are the traditional white grapes of Hermitage, though some growers have sworn off the notoriously fickle Roussanne. To taste what Roussanne can do on its own in the Rhone, you'll need to taste Chateau Beaucastel's stunning old-vines bottling of white Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

Marsanne is known for its massive body and intense honey flavors. Roussanne is known for its finesse and aromatic beauty.

All three varietals seem to be adapting well to California, considering that they are recent immigrants. Many examples are mediocre, but that's to be expected in the early years as growers struggle to understand the varietals and where they should and shouldn't be planted.

Viognier in particular is all over the board. Some producers are making appalling wines at staggering prices. A few are making wines that resemble the best of Condrieu, still at staggering prices.

One producer, R.H. Phillips, makes a moderately priced Viognier from the Dunnigan Hills that sells for about $10. The 1994 isn't bad, and it does show some Viognier varietal character, but nobody will mistake it for Condrieu. There are lots of $10 Chardonnays that are better.

California's finest producer of Viognier is Calera, except in a few vintages where the alcohol levels have gone over the top. But with prices soaring to about $40, it no longer fits into our budget.

One consistently successful producer of Viognier is Joseph Phelps Vineyards, which has been producing it as long as anybody in California. Phelps' 1993 Vin du Mistral (about $28) bottling shows off generous flavors of honey, peach, pear, orange and herbs. It's lovely, but it's also time to drink it up. Like Condrieus, California Viogniers are best before they're 3 years old.

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