There’s a Rhône white wine revolution under way

You may associate the Rhône with its full-bodied reds, but its white wines are on the rise – and are embracing a fresh, lean and less opulent style. Adam Lechmere takes a closer look at the trend and selects 11 white wines from the Rhône to try

Words by Adam Lechmere

rhone valley vineyard with white wine grapes

Graeme and Julie Bott are the classic garagistes. The pair (he’s a kiwi, she’s a local) fell in love over the fermenting vats while working for the formidable Stéphane Ogier in Ampuis, decided to set up on their own, plant a pocket-handkerchief-sized plot in their back garden in Condrieu (land in the northern Rhône isn’t cheap) and farm six hectares over the northern Rhône, from Côte-Rôtie to Crozes-Hermitage.

Close your eyes and think of the white wines of the Rhône and more often than not the rich, honeyed notes of Viognier will come to mind. Domaine G&J Bott’s Condrieu is indeed honeyed, and it has opulence, but the delicacy of its profile, and its precision, are altogether modern.

White wines like this, from Costières de Nîmes in the far south of the valley, to Côte Rôtie in the north, are becoming more and more the norm. Derek Robertson, Rhône buyer for the upmarket UK chain Lea & Sandeman (he imports Domaine G&J Bott), notes how in the north there are new young producers coming in who are trying to update the profile their parents have stuck to for decades. With Viognier, that means moving away from the bigger, textured style to produce a leaner, fresher wine.

Only seven per cent of the wine of the Rhône valley is white. There’s a revolution underway, though: InterRhône, the super-efficient governing body of the region, has just announced that it intends to double white wine production by the end of the decade. This, they say, is to keep in line with global trends: white wine consumption is increasing. In the Rhône, that bastion of red wine, almost every appellation is producing whites, and all are being incentivised to up production.

The modern style is all tingling acidity and vibrant fruit

The Rhône is still an old-fashioned region. There’s no shortage of powerful, perfumed Viognier around (Condrieu remains a stronghold of that style, though see the Botts’ First Flight below for more on how that’s changing), and labels still tend to look as if they were last re-designed in the late 1970s. But the modern style is all tingling acidity and vibrant fruit. The best examples tread that tightrope between leanness and opulence: often you’ll find a floral, honeyed nose followed by a refreshing palate that starts subdued but builds to real concentration and intensity. You won’t forget where you are.

viognier white rhone
While aromatic Viognier rules in 'old-fashioned' Rhône, winemakers are now experimenting with the huge range of white grapes grown in the region

Winemakers here have the advantage of a huge range of grapes to play with. Grenache Blanc is the dominant grape, to which are added proportions of Marsanne, Roussanne, Clairette, Viognier, the lesser-known Bourboulenc, and Vermentino. Clairette – ‘the Chardonnay of the Rhone’ as Michel Chapoutier calls it – is one of the oldest cultivated grapes in France. It brings flavours of peach and apricot and a hint of fennel, and you’ll often find a welcome bitter note at the end of the palate. This bitterness combined with the perfumed fruit is what makes so many Rhône whites so distinctive.

While there are many single-variety wines – there’s some fine Marsanne, and of course Viognier is the only permitted grape in Condrieu – white winemakers in the Rhône are consummate blenders (InterRhône has made clear the region isn’t going to hang its hat on one variety like Viognier, but on different blends and styles). So Bourboulenc is valued for its acidity, Viognier for its heady aromas, and Roussanne for structure and texture. At Domaine Les Goubert in Gigondas, for example, Florence Cartier tells me: ‘We use Roussanne to reduce the intensity of the Viognier.’

domaine les goubert
Harvest at Domaine Les Goubert, where other grape varieties are used in the blend to add structure and to help reduce the intensity of the Viognier

All winemakers have an experimental streak, and some are looking at different ways of vinifying and ageing their wines. While stainless steel is still the norm, quite a few wines are aged in amphora and concrete egg, some of them remarkably successful. When oak is used it is usually 600-litre demi-muid (oak barrels typical of the Rhône region), or two- or three-year-old barrels. An over-oaked white is rare and very noticeable.

Appellations and communes that are so different in terms of terroir are producing whites that have much in common in terms of style

Travelling from Avignon to Tain L’Hermitage – the unpretentious town that is dominated by the mighty hill of Hermitage, home to Chapoutier, Jaboulet, and Chave – what is fascinating is that appellations and communes that are so different in terms of terroir (compare the terraced slopes of the northern reaches of the great river to the wide flat expanses and hot, dry Mediterranean climate of the south) are producing whites that have much in common in terms of style.

On Domaine Vernay’s concentrated Les Chaillées d’Enfer Condrieu I noted ‘a beautiful, perfumed nose, peach and apricot palate and fine delicate acidity’; on Château Courac’s Côtes-du-Rhône Villages in Laudun, 200km to the south, I found ‘pear and ripe apricot on a palate electric with acidity’. Or compare the deceptive lightness of the Domaine Les Gouberts Blanc from Sablet, a stone’s throw from Gigondas and just upstream from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, with the fresh acidity of Domaine de Boisseyt’s Les Garipelées from Saint-Joseph. They are like cousins brought up at opposite ends of the country, but still the family traits shine through.

They don’t have price in common, of course: the wines of Condrieu and the other northern Rhône appellations can be many times the mid-range prices of their southern siblings. But that’s the joy of Rhône white wines: from intense, ageworthy Condrieu Viogniers to fresh, perfumed Laudun, there’s something for everyone.

11 revolutionary Rhône white wines

rhone white wine Domaine de la Janasse, Côtes du Rhône Villages 2020

Domaine de la Janasse, Côtes du Rhône Villages 2020

Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Viognier, Roussanne; 13.5%

Fresh and bright with tingling acidity. There’s a lively citrus feel along with more exotic flavours – lychee and peach – bolstered by a fine saline wash. Delicious, light-bodied.
£11, BBR; Enotria&Co

Domaine Mur-Mur-Ium, Le Retour Blanc, Ventoux 2019

Domaine Mur-Mur-Ium, Le Retour Blanc, Ventoux 2019

Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc; 13%

Creamy, fat nose with exotic peach. The palate has more peach (cooked) and some complex herbal flavours. It’s fresh and intense with an attractive fatness to the mid-palate, a really delicate, even subdued wine with a lovely persistent length. What an accomplished wine at less than the price of a cinema ticket.
£11.99, The General Wine Company

Château Courac, Laudun, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Blanc, 2020

Château Courac, Laudun, Côtes-du-Rhône Villages Blanc, 2020

Clairette, Grenache Blanc; 14%

Peach tea on the nose and more cooked peach, pear and ripe apricot on a palate electric with acidity and a fine wash of juice. Notes of spice add to the complexity and there’s some salinity to make a mouthwatering finish. Incredible value for money.
£10.95, Wine Society

rhone white wine bottle Domaine Les Gouberts Blanc, Sablet, 2020

Domaine Les Gouberts Blanc, Sablet, 2020

Clairette, Rousanne, Bourboulenc,Viognier, 13% 

Delicate peachy aromas on the nose followed by a deceptively light palate which develops tingling acidity, subdued exotic fruit and a fine spray of salinity. Balanced and accomplished, precise but with a very satisfying (and unexpected) weight.

Domaine Amadieu, Haut de Beauregard, Cairanne 2019

Domaine Amadieu, Haut de Beauregard, Cairanne 2019

Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Viognier; 14%

This is aged in amphora. It’s slightly oxidative on the palate with a really serious and attractive dry texture which in no way compromises the exotic quince fruit, the orange zest and the excellent acidity. This is a generous, opulent, powerful wine which will age beautifully.
£21.50, Stone Vine and Sun

Domaine Coursodon, Silice Blanc, St Joseph 2021

Domaine Coursodon, Silice Blanc, St Joseph 2021

100% Marsanne; 13%

Excellent white flower nose, then peach and apricot fruit on the palate, bolstered by very soft acidity. This is a deceptively light wine – the flavours and concentration build on the palate leading to a wonderfully satisfying finish.
£21, Vinatis

Philippe et Vincent Jaboulet Blanc, Crozes Hermitage 2020

Philippe et Vincent Jaboulet Blanc, Crozes Hermitage 2020

Marsanne, 14%

Attractive cooked pear on the nose and a floral palate with superb mineral notes – this is a very pretty wine, dense but deceptively light with a power that builds through the palate, with hints of citrus and honey. Lovely length and great balance.
£23, Vinissimus & Caviste

rhone white wine bottle Domaine de Boisseyt, 'Les Garipelées', Saint-Joseph 2019

Domaine de Boisseyt, ‘Les Garipelées’, Saint-Joseph 2019

Roussanne, Marsanne; 14%

Really fine orange flower nose leads to a palate of delicate white stone fruit with fresh acidity. It’s delicate, yet, it develops a fatness in the mid palate that gives it a serious gourmet feel. Wonderful freshness though – what great balance.
£26, Perfect Cellar

Graeme and Julie Bott, First Flight Viognier, IGP Collines Rhodaniennes 2020

Graeme and Julie Bott, First Flight Viognier, IGP Collines Rhodaniennes 2020

100% Viognier; 13%

Really lovely peach and marmalade nose. The palate is fresh, delicate with acidity that builds in the mouth, bolstering and enhancing the peach-tea fruit. Medium-bodied, fresh, exotic, it’s definitely Viognier – there’s a vestigial fatness to it that adds a complexity to the texture. Excellent – search this out.
£26.50, Lea & Sandeman

Rémi Niero, Les Ravines, Condrieu 2019

Rémi Niero, Les Ravines, Condrieu 2019

100% Viognier; 14.5%

Fine orange-oil nose. The palate is concentrated and intense from the off with the alcohol noticeable. Honeyed notes of bergamot and peach, this is an old-fashioned Viognier aged 40 months in oak; rich, powerful and muscular, and yet the acidity corrects and balances throughout, allowing a long, aromatic and juicy finish.
£42.50, Lea & Sandeman

Domaine Georges Vernay 'Les Chaillées de l'Enfer' Condrieu 2019

Domaine Georges Vernay ‘Les Chaillées de l’Enfer’ Condrieu 2019

Viognier; 14.5%

After a fine floral nose with a hint of oiliness this builds and builds on the palate to a climax of quince and other exotic fruits, fine acidity, then notes of fennel and liquorice. It’s fermented in oak and goes directly to wood vats which gives it body and texture. What a wine, with body and acidity to allow it to go on and on. I’d love to see it in 2035.
£82, Yapp

The new issue of Club Oenologique, out next week, is themed around the Rhône, from the pure, unspoilt Syrah of Cornas to the heady blend of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In the issue we explore the region’s appeal today and its legacy further afield, from South Africa to Australia, with insights from the likes of Oz Clarke, Simon Field MW, Natasha Hughes MW and John Livingstone-Learmonth.