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Surprising Whites for the Rosé Season
By Michael Apstein
Jun 18, 2019
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It’s well known that the red wines from the south of France can provide great pleasure, especially for the price.  The whites, in contrast, have received far less attention, in part, because they can be a touch heavy.  That may be changing, at least judging from my experience earlier this year.  I found that the 2017 whites from disparate areas in the south of French had an engaging vibrancy that make them an easy choice for the summer.  Surprisingly, the all-too-prevalent frosts may be responsible, at least in part.

The warmth of the region that accounts for some appealing, hearty, heady reds that are found in appellations along the southern Rhône River valley (such as Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Cairanne, or Rasteau, and further west in the Languedoc-Roussillon area) can, ironically, be a problem for the whites.  As temperatures rise (climate change hasn’t helped) and grapes ripen, sugar levels increase and sour acidity, the hallmark of unripe fruit, falls.  While that pattern might be good for producing apricots, peaches, and other fruits for eating, grapes with high sugar and low acidity result in wines that are alcoholic and flabby, lacking the invigorating energy so essential for consumption with a meal.  Although certainly a potential problem for red wines, it’s even more of a problem for white wines, which need to be refreshing and lively, especially in the summer. 

I’ve always tried to embrace the whites of the south of France, especially while traveling there in the summer, because so many of the rosés, which seemingly would be an obvious choice, are insipid and flavorless.  Indeed, as the popularity of rosés soars and producers want a part of that gravy train, many of these wines have become more diluted and uninteresting.  That’s not to say that intriguing rosés don’t exist, but I estimate they represent less than ten percent of the category.  Tavel, an appellation in the southern Rhône that makes only rosé, can be excellent.  The rosés from Bandol, where the Mourvèdre grape imparts heft to the wine, can be particularly noteworthy, though in many cases I would characterize them as light red wines since they have a subtle and pleasant tannic bitterness in the finish.  Although I find that chilled lightweight reds, such as Beaujolais, light reds from Provence or from Bardolino, for example, are superb alternatives to rosés, it’s hard to find an alternative to a lively, invigorating white wine to help dissipate summer’s heat.

Megan McClune, Managing Director of the Burgundian Domaine Jessiaume in Santenay, notes that frost years seem to do something to the character of the fruit, reduced yields aside.  As was explained to me by a winemaker at Château Ragotière, a top producer in Muscadet, frost kills the primary buds, which results in a lower yield. Frequently, a secondary bud appears a week or two later, which produces a bunch of grapes.  Although these grapes mature more quickly than those from a primary bud, they still lag behind the primary grapes in their ripening cycle.  Winemakers can’t afford the luxury of separating grapes from secondary buds from those that originated from primary buds, so they all wind up being harvest at the same time.  The resulting harvest contains a small portion of less ripe grapes that are higher in acidity.  Hence, the wines from a frost year could be fresher and livelier because of their increased levels of acidity.  This less well-recognized result of a frost might explain the vibrancy I found in the 2017 whites from the south of France, where frost was a major problem. Indeed, it may seem surprising that frost should be a problem in what is viewed as the warm and sunny south of France.  Certainly, the risk of frost there is nowhere near the risk further north in Burgundy.  Still, in the Languedoc and neighboring regions, frost remains a threat through April.

In a very unscientific, random sampling of white wines while in the south of France last month, their vibrancy stood out.  It caught my attention because it was a characteristic that spanned appellations, from prestigious Châteauneuf-du-Pape to lowly IGPs (Indication Géographique Protégé).

At Château de Nalys, the property in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, recently acquired by Guigal, the star producer in the northern Rhône, their 2017 Saintes Pierres de Nalys, a white Châteauneuf-du-Pape was simply stunning in its brightness, spice, and verve. Somewhat paradoxically, the primary grape is Clairette (36%), generally described as a low-acid grape.  However, noted wine authority Jancis Robinson indicates that wines from Clairette “can hang on to their acidity quite impressively.”  Perhaps it’s the inclusion of a nearly equal amount of Bourboulenc (29%), a high acid grape that accounts for the wine’s lovely lift.  Maybe it’s just Guigal’s talents.

Just northeast of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, lies Vacqueyras, another well-known appellation for sturdy reds.  Unbeknownst to me, the appellation makes a small amount of white wine from the usual Mediterranean suspects for white wine, Viognier, Bourboulenc Roussanne and Marsanne.  The 2017 from Domaine Vallis Petra, “Ô Pré de Juliette” was a revelation, delivering an energetic bundle of stone fruit flavors.

Further north in Sablet, one of the name villages of the Côtes du Rhône, Château Cohola makes a fine trio of organic wines--including a stunning rosé--and a lively 2017 Côtes du Rhône Villages white that cleansed the palate despite the Provençal sun.

In the Les Baux de Provence appellation, near St. Remy, lies the Château Romanin, a biodynamically farmed domaine now owned by Anne-Marie and Jean-Louis Charmolue, former owners of Château Montrose.  Their 2017 white has verve that belies its southern origins and balances its suave texture.

Going west and crossing the Rhône River, Virgile Joly is a rising star in the Languedoc and a poster-boy for organic viticulture there.  His 2017 Joly Blanc, a blend of equal parts Grenache Blanc and Roussanne, delivers stone fruit nuances and a gorgeous texture amplified by a citrus zing.

An appellation whose wines don’t need frost or anything else to maintain acidity is Picpoul de Pinet.  (Curiously, the grape is spelled Picquepoul.)  With its 3,500 acres, it is the largest white wine appellation in the Languedoc.  Although late ripening, the grape has enormous inherent acidity, so the resulting wines are zesty, clean and refreshing.  The best of them have good body and are reminiscent of Muscadet because of their liveliness and affinity for seafood. An added boon--they’re inexpensive, rarely over $15 a bottle, with many under $10.

The frost doesn’t entirely explain the brightness in these wines since not all the areas were affected.  Perhaps winemakers are harvesting earlier, capturing acidity, perhaps they’re using higher acid grapes in the blend, or perhaps the organic and biodynamic practices so common in the Languedoc and southern Rhône allow the grapes to hold onto acidity.  Whatever the explanation, the verve is a welcome addition to these southern French whites.  Let’s hope it’s here to stay.

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June 19, 2019

Email me your thoughts about white wines from the south of France at Michael.Apstein1@gmail.com and follow me on Twitter @MichaelApstein